VLAD SUCKED THE SWEET CRIMSON LIQUID through a straw, careful not to smudge his now green face. Dressing as Frankenstein (or, technically, Frankenstein’s monster) for Matthew’s annual Halloween party turned out to be a bit more challenging than he’d thought, and he hadn’t even left the house yet. The makeup was a pain to put on, let alone keep on. And the bolts he’d attached to his neck with FX putty kept drooping. Still, it wasn’t as if the costume or the party or even D’Ablo’s visit over two months ago was stressing him out-even though, admittedly, Vlad had been watching around every corner for D’Ablo’s return. It was Henry.
“I just don’t understand what made you change your mind about going, that’s all. We always go to Matthew’s Halloween party together.” Vlad frowned at Henry, who was leaning up against the kitchen counter sans costume, his arms crossed in front of him. “Is it because Meredith is coming with me? Because it’s not like you’d be a third wheel or anything.”
“It’s not that.” Henry shook his head. “I’m just getting too old for this kinda stuff.”
Vlad gaped openly at his best friend. “Dude, we’re the same age! And anyway, who cares? It’s the funnest night of the year. Why shouldn’t we dress up and goof off?”
Henry shrugged. “I just don’t feel like going, okay?”
But Vlad knew exactly what Henry’s reasons were for not going to Matthew’s party this year. For one, Melissa Hart had already accepted a date with Mike Brennan-and these days, Henry only seemed to have eyes for Melissa. And for two, Melissa and Meredith were practically inseparable, which likely meant that the four of them were going to spend quite a bit of time together at the party… and Henry would feel left out. Vlad got it. He really did. But he also knew that he would do everything in his power not to make Henry feel like a tagalong, and he needed Henry to believe that.
Vlad sighed, dropping the empty blood bag and straw into the biohazard box under the sink. It wasn’t just that Vlad wanted Henry to come. Henry’s presence made it a whole lot easier to share the same air as the popular kids, and to ward off any nasty comments about Vlad. His best friend was an ever-present safety catch.
When he looked at Henry, it pained him. His friend seemed so stressed out lately, and there was little Vlad could do to alleviate it. “Look, I know how much you like Melissa, Henry-”
“ Then help me.”
Vlad blinked. “How?”
Henry uncrossed his arms and placed his hands back on the counter, hunching his shoulders. He held Vlad’s gaze for a moment before answering. “Find out if Melissa likes me.”
Vlad shrugged, hoping Henry wasn’t asking him to do what he thought he was asking him to do. “I guess I could ask Meredith-”
“You know that’s not what I mean.” Henry’s mouth was a thin, determined line. “Read her mind. Tell me whether or not I even have a remote chance with her.”
Vlad couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Reading the minds of hot girls at the mall was one thing. But sneaking around in Melissa’s private thoughts just to give Henry an edge-an edge Henry didn’t need at all with any other girl at Bathory High-just seemed wrong. He knew Henry only asked out of desperation, but that still didn’t make it right. He shook his head. “I can’t do that, man. Sorry.”
Henry’s face flushed. His voice shook slightly. “What good are all these vampiric powers if you can’t even help out a friend?”
“I’m not saying no to be a jerk. I just don’t feel right about traipsing around inside Melissa’s head.” He looked at Henry and sighed. “I’m sorry. I just can’t.”
“So you’re a hypocrite.”
“No, I just know right from wrong.”
Henry dropped his gaze, defeated. Several moments of awkward, tense silence passed, until finally he spoke, giving way to a drastic subject change. “Have you had any luck reaching Otis?”
Vlad watched him for a moment. Resisting the temptation to peek into his friend’s thoughts, Vlad toyed absently with the bolt on the left side of his neck. “Not yet. It’s weird, I haven’t been able to reach him since he left town.”
Henry shrugged, not looking completely invested in the conversation. “Maybe it’s a distance thing?”
“Might be. I mean, I had no problem with distance in the training room in Siberia, but outside that room… well, it’s harder to reach people sometimes.” Vlad furrowed his brow. “I hope he’s not keeping me out of his head for some reason.”
“I’m sure he’s not. Don’t worry about it.”
But Vlad was worried about it. The quiet in his mind was terribly unsettling. But he trusted Otis. And if Otis said he’d be back soon, he’d be back soon.
The doorbell rang, and Vlad gave Henry one last pleading glance before bolting for the door. Before he reached it, Henry already had his jacket on and was saying his goodbyes to Nelly.
When Vlad opened the door, Meredith smiled at him, looking even cuter this year as the bride of Frankenstein. Sure, the idea of matching costumes had given him indigestion at first, but Vlad was quickly catching on to this having a girlfriend thing. Stay your own person, have your own opinions, but if the girl you hope to kiss after the party suggests you wear dorky matching outfits, then you’d better act like Dorkapalooza is on your top-ten list of fave things to do. Vlad smiled back and said, “Nice hair.”
Her tresses were heaped in a black-and-white-streaked mound atop her head, standing a foot high at least. She giggled. “Thanks. It took my mom three hours and two cans of hairspray, but I think it’ll hold.”
He was about to make a witty comment about how she looked really beautiful, bride of a fictional monster or not, but then Henry brushed by on his way out the door. Vlad frowned. “Come on, Henry. You don’t even have to dress up, okay?”
Henry’s eyes flicked to Meredith and then to Vlad. He gave a halfhearted shrug. “I told you, man. I just don’t feel like going.”
Then Henry trudged down the front steps and across the yard. Vlad watched him with troubled eyes. Meredith tugged his sleeve. “It’ll be okay. We’ll still have fun. Don’t worry.”
Vlad dropped his gaze for a moment. Not even the promise of a happy night semi-alone with Meredith could wash away his concerns. His best friend was clearly troubled by something. Vlad just hoped that something wasn’t him.
While Nelly and Meredith exchanged pleasantries, Vlad thought about Henry and what might be on his mind. He knew Melissa was in there somewhere-after all, Henry had never had a problem getting girls to like him, and Melissa had shown absolutely zero interest in his charms so far. It had to be a bruise to his ego. But Vlad suspected that wasn’t the only thing troubling him.
Lately, whenever Vlad would hover in front of his best friend or open the Encyclopedia Vampyrica in front of him, inciting his eyes to flash iridescent purple, Henry’s mood would shift, and then he’d sulk for days. Vlad had a sneaking suspicion that maybe being Vlad’s drudge-Vlad’s human slave, all because of a single bite-was getting to Henry in the worst way. The kind of way that meant that Henry was so bothered by it that he couldn’t even bring himself to tell Vlad.
Of course, this was all speculation on Vlad’s part. And he might be completely wrong about why Henry had been acting so sullen lately. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe he really just didn’t feel like dressing up and going to Matthew’s party. It was possible. Vlad highly doubted it… but it was possible.
“ Vladimir?” Nelly’s voice broke into his thoughts, and he blinked at her. “Did you hear me?”
He shook his head. “Sorry. I was just thinking about something. What did you say?”
A brief flash of concern crossed her eyes. “No later than eleven tonight, okay?”
Vlad let out a sigh. “It’s been eleven for the past two years. Y’know, I am older now.”
Nelly nodded thoughtfully. “You’re absolutely right. Older and able to get into more trouble. Better make it ten.”
Vlad groaned and rolled his eyes as he headed for the door. “Fine. See you at eleven.”
Meredith chattered all the way to Matthew’s house. For the most part, Vlad listened and laughed at all the right spots. But tainting their precious time together was the matter of Henry, and the gnawing feeling that Vlad was somehow responsible for his cloudy mood. Not to mention his dire stress at the idea of attending a party without his best friend to protect him.
As they stepped up onto the front porch, Vlad saw the flash of a camera from the corner of his eye. Eddie.
Vlad tensed and forced himself to ignore the little twit, difficult as it was.
Meredith turned to Vlad, a small crease in her forehead. “Are you okay, Vlad? You seem… distracted.”
He hadn’t realized it was that obvious. He said, “It’s Henry. He’s been acting really weird lately.”
Meredith nodded with understanding. “I bet it’s because of what happened with Melissa.”
Vlad’s eyes probably couldn’t have gone any wider if he tried. “Something happened?”
She nodded, sighing loudly. “Henry asked her out in the middle of the student council meeting last week, right in front of everyone. She said no, of course-she’s always thought Henry was kind of a jerk, y’know? On account of how he dates all sorts of girls, but never really has a girlfriend.”
On Henry’s behalf, Vlad winced. Once a girl had listed your name in the jerk category, there was little hope of recovery.
“So anyway, Melissa told him no. But… well, she also told him that it didn’t matter if he got down on his knees and begged her, she’d never go out with him. Not in a million years.” She shrugged. “But it’s not like it matters, right? I mean, Henry can get any girl.”
“Any girl but Melissa, you mean.” Vlad chewed his bottom lip thoughtfully for a moment before meeting her eyes. “ The problem is that it really does matter to Henry.”
Meredith sighed. “I guess he’s pretty upset, huh?”
With a nod, Vlad frowned. There had to be something he could do to help Henry out, short of reading Melissa’s thoughts, anyway. And why hadn’t Henry told him about Melissa flaming him in public like that? But then, he was probably pretty embarrassed by it. Who wouldn’t be?
Meredith squeezed his hand and said, “You’re sweet, Vlad. Henry’s lucky to have you for a friend. And I’m lucky too.”
“Because I get to do this.” She leaned closed and brushed her lips against his cheek.
Vlad’s skin warmed at her touch. He smiled and gave her hand a squeeze back. Then he reached up and gently wiped the green makeup from her lips with his sleeve. “I’m the lucky one.”
After exchanging blushing glances, they headed up the steps together and immersed themselves in Matthew’s living room-turned-graveyard, complete with moss-covered tombstones and eerie fog. The room wasn’t as crowded as last year, and as they moved through it, Vlad realized that most of the guests were heading downstairs. He and Meredith made their way to the basement, which had been decorated like some kind of medieval torture room. There was even a robotic half-dead mutant strapped to the stretching rack that screamed every time somebody walked by. Vlad grinned. Now this was a party.
The music was pretty loud, mostly Top 40 stuff. Matthew’s dad manned the stereo, dressed like a Hawaiian tourist. Vlad had seen him wearing that same shirt all through last summer. It wasn’t so much a costume as an excuse to don his immensely ugly orange, teal, and yellow flowered shirt.
Matthew’s mom was dressed like Glinda from The Wizard of Oz. She was busy force-feeding cupcakes to any guest that came within a four-foot radius of the buffet, but not before asking them in a shrill voice if they were a good witch or a bad witch. Matthew, understandably, kept to the other side of the room and pretended they weren’t related.
Vlad was shaking his head at the scene in front of him when he suddenly realized he was no longer holding Meredith’s hand and that there was a girlish squeal-fest going on to his right. He looked over at Meredith, who was hugging Melissa and jumping up and down a little. Melissa was dressed as a fairy, complete with large, sparkly wings, which smacked Mike Brennan in the face as Melissa bounced in girlish glee.
Vlad couldn’t help but frown. Mike wasn’t wearing a costume. In fact, as he looked around, he saw that just a handful of guys were dressed up as anything this year. And while Vlad certainly enjoyed donning a costume and having fun, it was a lot better when everyone else did it too. He nodded at Mike, and to his satisfaction, a glint of jealousy flashed in Mike’s eyes as he pointed to Vlad’s outfit. “That is one sweet costume, Vlad. How’d you convince your aunt that you weren’t too old to dress up?”
Vlad smiled, relaxing some-so that’s why Mike wasn’t wearing a costume. “Nelly’s pretty cool about that kind of thing, actually. She was the one who found the rubber bolts for me.”
Mike groaned. “My parents are so lame. I’ve been arguing with them for weeks about whether or not dressing up for Halloween is something reserved for little kids.”
“You lost, huh?”
Mike nodded sullenly. “I wanted to come as the Crypt Keeper.”
Vlad flicked a glance at Glinda and back. “Well, if you’re interested, I’m pretty sure Matthew’s mom has a ton of old costumes lying around. I mean, every year they go all out, y’know? I bet she’d let you borrow one.”
Mike bit his lip, watching Matthew’s mom as she waved her light-up wand over a fresh batch of cookies. As she did so, she said, “There’s no place like home!”
He groaned, but the costume must have been pretty important to him, since he muttered that he’d be right back and crossed the room toward the mound of pink crinoline that was Matthew’s mom.
Meredith and Melissa stopped squealing at last, and Vlad forced a smile. “Hey, Melissa. How’s it going?”
Melissa’s smile was warm, but guarded. “I’m good, Vlad. Just you and Meredith tonight?”
Vlad’s insides twitched a little. “If you’re asking whether or not Henry is here… no. He made other plans.”
To Vlad’s dismay, she visibly relaxed. Meredith started asking her about her hair or something-Vlad wasn’t listening any longer. Instead, he crossed the room to the punch bowl. Even drinking sugary stuff that wouldn’t alleviate his thirst was better than standing around listening to Melissa bad-mouth his best friend. After all, what exactly was her problem with Henry anyway? So he made out with a lot of girls. So he’d never really had a serious girlfriend, despite tons of dates. It didn’t make him a bad person.
On the other hand, Vlad wasn’t entirely convinced that Henry’s intentions were honorable. What if the only reason Henry wanted to go out with Melissa so badly was because she didn’t want to have anything to do with him? Maybe it was a clear case of “forbidden fruit.” Or not. Vlad was pretty confused about the entire situation… and he’d never really understood that expression anyway. All he knew was that his best friend was hurting, and Melissa was the one causing him the hurt, intentionally or not.
Matthew’s mom was blissfully absent from the buffet, so Vlad poured Meredith a cup of punch and grabbed a handful of cookies for them to share. By the time he got back to his girlfriend, Melissa was nowhere to be found. He managed a smile. “Want a cookie?”
They stood there talking for a while, taking in the scenery and just enjoying the evening, until Matthew’s dad got a limbo contest going. Vlad joined in, losing to Mike-who was now dressed as a caveman-but not from lack of skill. He was laughing so hard that he fell flat on his butt just as he passed under the bar. His laughter was short-lived, of course, because at the scent of blood pumping through all those teenage veins, Vlad had to take a break to get his fangs back under control. He retired to a couch in the corner of the room, but not before assuring Meredith that she should keep playing without him.
The thing was, he wasn’t really bothered by the necessary break. Without Bill and Tom around, Vlad was having a really good time. And he wondered if at least part of the reason why was because he was now dating an immensely popular (not to mention breathtakingly beautiful) girl. Who knows? Maybe people were just starting to like him, for no apparent reason at all. Whatever it was, Vlad was pretty happy about it.
The fake ficus tree to his left shook as someone bumped it from the other side. A girl’s voice-one Vlad didn’t instantly recognize-shook with laughter. “Did you see him? I mean, talk about a loser.”
Another girl snorted with derision. “Yeah, I don’t know what she sees in him. One thing’s for sure, she’s scraping the bottom of the social barrel by even being seen in public with a guy like that.”
Vlad squirmed in his seat, overwhelmed by empathy for whoever the two girls were talking about. He ran the tip of his tongue over his fangs, which had shrunk back into his gums almost completely. He was beginning to stand when he heard one of the bodiless girls say, “I know. I mean, Vlad Tod? Seriously? Is she part of the Dork Outreach program, or what?”
Vlad sank back in his seat. He was tempted to leap up and defend himself, to say that maybe Meredith thought he was sweet (she’d told him that a number of times), that he wasn’t like other boys (couldn’t argue with that), and that he was a great kisser (something that sent Vlad nearly floating up to the ceiling after hearing). But instead he listened, wanting to know just what the other guests at the party really thought of him.
“I bet she’s just trying to make Henry McMillan jealous. It’s been obvious for years now that she likes Henry.”
“Yeah, but Henry’s not exactly a challenge.” Then the girl squealed, “Oh my gawd, I know why she’s dating him!”
Together, they voiced a single word-one that Vlad knew would haunt him for the rest of his life. “Pity!”
Vlad sank deeper into the couch cushions. Suddenly he wished he’d followed Henry’s lead and stayed home.
“Did you see him during the limbo contest? He has no idea that everyone’s laughing at him, not with him.”
“What a geek.” The girl’s voice trailed off as she said, “Hey, let’s go get some punch. I’m thirsty.”
Vlad remained on the couch for a good long time. Finally, he reached up and removed the rubber bolts from his neck and the fake scar from his forehead. He rubbed away the makeup onto his sleeve, staining it green, and stood. The room around him was very full, and people were laughing, dancing, playing all sorts of games. Maybe they were playing more games than he’d realized.
Vlad felt like he was moving in slow motion as he crossed the room and slipped up the stairs. He stepped out the back door, closing it quietly behind him.
There was no reason for him to be here. He’d never be accepted anyway. He was a loser in a sea of winners, a complete and total freak. And a pretty girlfriend and a couple of laughs would never change that.
He had crossed the yard, aiming for the sidewalk, when the back door flung open behind him. He glanced over his shoulder at a breathless Meredith and paused, but didn’t speak.
Meredith’s bottom lip trembled. “Weren’t you even going to tell me you were leaving?”
Vlad shrugged. He still felt like he was moving in slow motion. His heart ached. “I don’t think I’m very welcome in there.”
Meredith frowned and crossed the yard until she was standing in front of him, blocking his path. “What happened? I thought we were having a good time.”
He shook his head, not wanting to go into any details that would further prove what a loser he was. “It doesn’t matter. I’d just rather go home, okay?”
“But we were gonna dance.” Her lips formed an adorable pout.
Vlad’s heart raced to see it. He shook his head and ran a hand through his hair, brushing his black bangs from his eyes. “I’m sorry, Meredith. I wanted to. It’s just-”
“So let’s dance.” She smiled and placed her hands on Vlad’s shoulders.
Music drifted from inside the house. Vlad hesitated, and then put his hands on her waist. He pulled back just enough to look her in the eye. “Meredith… why are you with me?”
A small line creased her brow. “What do you mean?”
Vlad sighed. “I mean… that you’re popular, and smart, and beautiful, and I’m… not. I hardly have any friends. I’ll be lucky if I manage to pass geometry this year. And I’m not exactly a football hero.”
She was quiet for a moment, then she said, “Do you remember when we were in Ms. Moccasin’s class together in the fourth grade? Henry was relentless that year, chasing me, pulling my pigtails. Then one day he went so far as to stick gum in my hair.”
Vlad remembered. That was the year Henry decided that girls weren’t quite as icky as he’d thought. But he hadn’t quite figured out how to treat them.
Meredith’s eyes shone in memory. “But on the play-ground that day, you knocked him down and sat on his chest until he apologized. You stood up for me. You became my hero that day. You’re still my hero.”
Vlad’s vision blurred with the threat of tears. But he couldn’t think of anything to say. Sometimes, silence says it all.
They swayed slowly to the music. Cool, blue-tinted moonlight covered them, blanching their skin. Meredith closed her eyes and moved closer, laying her head on Vlad’s shoulder. Vlad slipped his arms around her, and they danced. Her hair smelled like lilac. Her skin felt like silk. And Vlad was dangerously aware of how close she was to him. His heart swelled up like a balloon until Vlad thought it might burst.
In his mind’s eye, they were dancing together on the moonlit widow’s walk of his old house, just as he’d seen his parents do countless times before. A small tear escaped his closed eyes, and Vlad squeezed Meredith closer. It wasn’t the memory of his parents that had brought on his tears. It was the realization that he loved Meredith. Really loved her. Deeply and truly. He loved her, and he would do anything in his power to make her happy and keep her safe.
The song ended, and they lingered there in quiet closeness for a while. A brisk breeze swept over them and they both shivered, parting at last. Meredith reached out and took his hand in hers. “How about I walk you home?”
Vlad smiled. “I’d like that.”
Never mind the fact that it was the polite thing for him to walk her home, or that they’d have to pass her house to get to Vlad’s. Meredith’s dad had a prime dislike of Vlad going on, so whenever possible, she kept her dad out of the mix. Besides, it would mean more time together.
They moved down the street, hand in hand, slinking past Meredith’s house. The walk was blissfully Eddie-free. Only too soon they came to stand on Nelly’s front porch. Vlad exchanged shy smiles with Meredith, the way they always did right before they kissed. Vlad could feel the moment coming, his entire body warming with sweet anticipation. Then he leaned in and pressed his lips to hers. She tasted like sugar, spice, and everything nice, with a side of strawberry lip balm. When he pulled away at last, she slipped her arms around him, hugging him close. Vlad nuzzled her neck, marveling at how sweet she smelled. So sweet, he could almost taste it…
“ Vladimir!” Nelly’s voice, high-pitched and fearful, rang out into the night. She was standing in the open doorway, her eyes wide, an afghan wrapped around her shoulders.
With a horrific shock, Vlad realized that his mouth was open, his fangs elongated, poised over the delicious-looking blue vein in Meredith’s neck. He snapped his mouth shut and stepped back.
He’d almost bitten her. He’d almost fed from Meredith. And if Nelly hadn’t intervened… he could have killed her-would have killed her. Vlad shuddered at the thought. Suddenly the cold air dropped another twenty degrees.
He’d almost killed her. He’d gotten too close.
Nelly’s voice dropped to a frightened whisper. “You should go home now, Meredith.”
Meredith looked from Nelly to Vlad and back, shaking her head, completely oblivious to what had almost transpired. “It’s not what it looks like, Nelly. We were just hugging, not making out or anything.”
Nelly spoke again, her voice firm. “Still, it’s getting late. I’m sure your parents will be worried.”
Meredith blinked, and then glanced at Vlad. As she passed him and headed down the steps, she said, “See you tomorrow, Vlad.”
But Vlad couldn’t reply. He was still horrified over what he’d almost done.
As Vlad slipped by Nelly and into the warm comfort of the house, he shook his head. “Anything you’re going to say can’t even measure up to how I’m feeling right now, Nelly. So please… don’t say anything. I need to be alone.”
To her credit, she didn’t speak.
Vlad ran up the steps to his room. He closed the door, not bothering to turn on the lights. And when he lay on his bed, he opened his mouth and lightly touched his fangs with the tip of his finger. He was a monster-Joss had been right about that. And if he’d had just a few more seconds, he might have become a killer too tonight. He might have murdered the girl who meant more to him than anything in this world. He might have stolen her away from himself, all because he couldn’t control his growing hunger.
He bit down hard, slicing his finger deep. Immediately, it began to heal, but not before a large drop of blood managed to escape. As it coursed down his finger, Vlad swallowed hard. A single tear rolled down his cheek, matching pace with his blood.
With a shuddering cry, Vlad realized that that was all the future held for him. Blood and tears.