8 STANDING UP
VLAD SLIPPED HIS JACKET ON, cursing the chill of the mid-November air, and flung his backpack over his shoulder, wincing as the corner of his health book caught him in the small of the back. He threw a glance at the clock, even though he didn’t need to look at it to know that he was running very, very late. Lesson #456 of high school life: Never, ever trust an alarm clock. Even after you’ve checked it to make sure the alarm was set for the right time. Twice. Especially when your best friend won’t be there because of an early dentist appointment.
He bolted out the door and across the street, whipping past houses, until finally he could see the school looming up ahead. Relaxing some, still he cursed under his breath at the absence of students outside-a sure sign that there were less than five minutes before the detention slips started flying. He hurried up to the building, determined not to miss the first bell. He hadn’t had a tardy yet this year, and didn’t plan on getting one now.
To his right, he heard a small whimper, which drew his attention. Bill and Tom were hulking over a small thin boy dressed in black from head to toe. Vlad instantly recognized him as Sprat-one of the goth kids he’d seen hanging out on the front steps of the school at night while he was up in the belfry. He paused, knowing that there was likely nothing he could do to stop their assault. If he intervened he’d not only be late to class, but he’d also likely walk away from his heroism with several bruises. The smart, safe thing to do would be to count his blessings that they’d found someone else to pick on and walk away.
But he didn’t pause for long.
He slinked along the school wall and slowly, quietly slipped his backpack from his shoulder. Flitting through the forefront of his mind was every instance Bill and Tom had ever picked on him, every horrible moment he’d ever witnessed them put one of his classmates through. It filled him with anger and a hunger for justice. As he arched his arm back, he called out, “Hey, Klingon!”
Tom looked back just as Vlad flung the bag forward, catching Tom in the face. Tom stumbled backward, cursing loudly and cupping his eye with both hands. Bill leaped toward Vlad, but he ducked away and brought his bag down on Bill’s back. Bill screeched. As Bill hit the ground face-first, Vlad positioned himself between Sprat and the bullies, fully expecting them to come out swinging. Tom bent to help Bill up off the ground, blood slowly oozing from the fresh cut above his eye. To Vlad’s immense surprise, they bolted away. Vlad smiled. Score one for the little people. He hadn’t suffered so much as a scratch.
He looked back at the small goth boy and offered a hand to help him stand. “You okay, Sprat?”
“Yeah, I guess.” He brushed dirt from his black pants, glancing toward where Tom and Bill had run. “ Thanks.”
“No problem. I’m getting really sick of those two. They’ve been giving me the same treatment for years.” Vlad shook his head and flung his backpack over his shoulder again. For some reason, this time it felt lighter. He turned and hurried back out the alley, knowing he was going to catch hell for being tardy, as the first bell had rung just about the time he was whacking Bill’s back with his book bag.
Sprat called out, “Hey, how’d you know my name?”
But Vlad kept walking. After all, he wasn’t about to mention the fact that he’d been sharing Sprat’s company a few nights a week for several years now, from about four stories overhead, up in the belfry-something that would probably freak him out at least a little, and would definitely raise too many questions about Vlad’s nighttime activities.
He rushed through the front doors and down the hall until he finally came to first period, where he slowly opened the door and tried to slip inside unnoticed. But so much for the idea that vampires had any kind of skill at stealth-Mr. Cartel looked up as Vlad opened the door and smiled. “Ah, perfect! It looks like Mr. Tod has volunteered to offer an explanation on the function of g-g-g-gonads. Thank you, Mr. Tod.”
Vlad rolled his eyes and moved to the front of the class. It was going to be a very, very long day.
By the time he finally walked out of health class and headed toward his locker, Vlad’s face felt like it was on fire. It wasn’t the subject matter that bugged him-after all, it seemed like important stuff to know. But it was the way some of the girls in class giggled, and the whispers that some guys had been exchanging, always accompanied by low laughter. He just couldn’t shake the feeling that they weren’t laughing at the mention of genitals and reproduction so much as they were laughing at him for merely existing. Sometimes Vlad wished that he were home-schooled. At least for health class.
Vlad shook his head. Strike that-the last thing he wanted was to listen to Nelly explain where babies came from. With puppets. Again.
Standing next to his locker, Henry was chatting with Chelsea Whitaker, a.k.a. Cheerleader Snob Supreme. Vlad raised an eyebrow, slowing his steps. Henry glanced over at him and said something like “See ya” to Chelsea before she disappeared into the hallway crowd.
Without a word to Henry, Vlad opened his locker door and dropped his backpack inside, retrieving a few of the books he’d need for the next part of his day. His insides were burning with questions: Since when were Henry and Chelsea pals? And what was up with his gloomy, party-skipping attitude anyway? And why did the conversation stop just as Vlad approached? He bit his bottom lip and forced the questions to remain hidden in his throat, throwing Henry a casual smile. “What’s up?”
Henry shrugged. “Not much. What about you?”
Not much? As if Henry hanging out with cheerleaders and dropping years of partygoing tradition at the last minute were things that could easily be ignored. The questions inched their way up his throat once more, but Vlad swallowed hard, forcing them back down. He parted his lips, and when he spoke, his voice came out in a near whisper. “Not much, I guess.”
Henry nodded casually.
Vlad closed his locker and looked him in the eye. It was time to find out what was going on with his best friend. “I think we should talk, Henry.”
But just then the tardy bell rang out through the halls, cutting Vlad off. Henry offered a relieved shrug, looking very much like he’d literally been saved by the bell.
Vlad hurried down the hall to geometry. He’d have to deal with Henry later.
Not that it was really any of his business why Henry had ditched the party, or why he was hanging out with Chelsea. After all, it was Henry’s life, not Vlad’s. But still… Vlad couldn’t help but wonder what was going on with his friend. And why they weren’t talking about it.
Geometry lasted just short of an eternity, and chemistry seemed twice as long. By lunchtime, Vlad was ready to head home and spend the day in front of the television with a bag of potato chips and about five hundred bags of O positive, trying to defend the fate of the Earth against whatever evildoers were currently lurking inside his PlayStation. But unbelievably, he still had half a day of school to trudge through. What was it about Mondays that made them last forever? Vlad wagered it had to do with the space-time continuum or a cruel joke played by Fate.
He slid in beside Meredith and slumped forward, resting his forehead on the table.
Meredith rubbed his shoulder gently with one hand and said, “It can’t be that bad.”
Vlad mumbled, “Is it time to go home yet?”
“ Three more hours to go.”
“Then it’s that bad.” He sat up, offering her a meek smile. “How’s your day?”
Meredith launched into a long, detailed, enthusiastic account of her day in typical girl fashion. Vlad tried to pay attention, but he was enormously distracted by Henry, who was lingering near the so-called “popular table” a bit too long for Vlad’s taste.
But then, what business was it of Vlad’s if Henry decided to hang out with the “in” crowd? It’s not like he and Henry had a signed contract of friendship that prohibited Henry from being friends with anyone else. Or that Henry was bound to him at all… Vlad sat up straight. Oh, wait. Actually, that was the case. But still, it didn’t give Vlad the right to pick and choose Henry’s friends.
Being the vampire who made Henry into a drudge, just what powers did that give Vlad? What rights? Vlad wasn’t sure. He was sure that he didn’t much care for the kinds of friends that Henry seemed to be associating with of late. But did that give him the right to change it, to stop Henry from making that choice?
Vlad chewed his bottom lip thoughtfully for a moment. Knowing that his drudge could not disobey a direct order, he called out, “Henry! Come here.”
Unable to resist, Henry furrowed his brow and crossed the cafeteria toward Vlad, tray in hand. When he got there, Henry stood for a moment, looking almost pained and absolutely angry. Vlad nodded to the empty seat across the table from him, trying hard to keep his tone light and friendly. “Have a seat. Eat your lunch.”
Henry sat with an air of indignation. Vlad was only slightly bothered by the fact that he was ordering his best friend around like some kind of human slave. Meredith had grown incredibly quiet. The three sat and ate in utter silence for several minutes.
Halfway into his peanut butter, jelly, and blood-capsule sandwich, Vlad noticed that as much as Henry and Meredith seemed to be making an effort not to look at him, somebody else was trying to catch his attention. A goth girl, whom Vlad recognized as another of the kids who sat on the front steps of Bathory High at night, nudged the thin boy named Sprat forward, muttering, “Just do it!”
Sprat stumbled toward Vlad’s table, looking more than a little uncomfortable. When Vlad smiled at him, it seemed to put him at ease. Sprat said, “I wanted to thank you.”
Vlad was about to say that if he was talking about the thing this morning with Bill and Tom, it was really no big deal, but then they were joined by the other goths: a raven-haired girl with black fingernails, a silver-haired boy who always seemed aloof, and a tall, thin boy with black eyeliner. The girl spoke. “Actually, we all wanted to thank you. It was pretty cool of you to stick up for Sprat like that.”
Vlad’s smile grew. “Hey, no problem. It was really no big deal.”
The girl said, “Well, it is to us.”
“If you ever feel like hanging out-” Sprat began, but the girl cut him off.
“Yeah, if you ever want to, we’re cool with that, okay?” The corners of her mouth lifted in a small smile as she glanced at Meredith and Henry. “We don’t bite. And contrary to popular opinion, we don’t dance around graveyards and raise the dead either.”
Her smile grew as she turned her attention back to Vlad. “I’m October, by the way. You know Sprat. The guy with the raccoon eyes is Andrew, and this silver-haired soul is Kristoff.”
Vlad nodded to each of them, and October continued. “So anyway, there’s this goth club in Stokerton called The Crypt. Maybe we could hang sometime.”
Vlad responded at first by blinking. The very idea that people he hadn’t known since kindergarten wanted to hang out with him weirded him out, but in a strangely cool way. Still… he wasn’t sure Nelly would be too keen on the idea of him spending time in anything that remotely resembled a nightclub. Vlad smiled sheepishly. “I’m not really much for clubs. But thanks anyway.”
October frowned, then flashed a fake smile to mask her disappointment. “Suit yourself.”
The goths turned collectively and were about four steps away from the table when Henry muttered, “ Thank God the trick-or-treaters left. I’m all out of candy.”
Vlad couldn’t snap his eyes to his drudge fast enough.
Henry smirked. “I mean, c’mon. Halloween’s over, guys.”
To his disgust, Meredith chuckled at Henry’s cruel quip.
Eyeing both of them, wondering exactly what made them think they were better than kids who chose to dress in black, Vlad released a tense breath and turned back to the goths, who turned around at the sound of his voice. “Hey, you guys. On second thought, I’ve been meaning to get out more, meet new people… I’d love to check out The Crypt with you guys sometime.”
October, Andrew, and Sprat met his eyes with smiles. Kristoff just kept on walking.
Henry and Meredith grew quiet. Vlad let them. Sure, maybe he was only agreeing to go with the goths to prove a point to his friends, to show them that they shouldn’t judge people based on whether or not they wear thick black eyeliner. But it was a point he needed to drive home, that different didn’t automatically equal bad.
He picked up his peanut butter, jelly, and blood-capsule sandwich and took a bite, ignoring their guilty glances.
The rest of lunch passed in tense silence.
Vlad strained against his leather bounds, but they were fastened tightly to his wrists, and there appeared to be no possibility of escaping. He strained his neck, but could barely see the room that he’d been trapped in. But he did recognize it.
The nightmare was always the same.
Above him hovered a dark figure, and out of the shadow that surrounded it appeared a silver blade. Moonlight glinted off its razor-sharp surface, and Vlad shivered with fear.
He closed his eyes tight. It was just a dream. Just a dream.
The man plunged the blade downward, ripping it through Vlad’s stomach. Pain lit up his body, and Vlad screamed.
Vlad’s screams continued until he rolled off his bed in a sweaty, tangled mess; his sheets were wrapped around his legs like boa constrictors. He scanned his dark bedroom and breathed a sigh of relief.
Just a dream.
He clutched his side and winced at the pain it caused him, then crawled back into bed.
It had to be a dream. What else could it be?
He lay awake in the dark until his legs jumped with energy. Maybe a moonlit stroll would calm his nerves.
Dressing quickly, he found his way down the stairs and past Amenti, who was curled up asleep on the corner of the couch, nestled in Nelly’s favorite sweater, shedding all over it in blissful kitty contentment.
He stepped out the door and buttoned his jacket, shivering in the cool air. He wasn’t exactly sure where he wanted to go; he only knew that he needed to move around until the nightmare had shaken completely from his mind. He headed north, content to walk the edges of Bathory until he was feeling a bit more like sleeping.
There was no sign of Eddie, something that improved Vlad’s troubled mood.
He passed houses, a small creek, and eventually found his way to Requiem Ravine, where the cops had found the body of Mr. Craig, Vlad’s English teacher. He paused, mourning the loss of such a great mentor and friend, before continuing along the town’s borders in an effort to quiet his mind. Within minutes, he’d found his way to an extremely familiar clearing.
Vlad looked around, remembering how D’Ablo had waited for him and Joss here last year. The images of that encounter, and of Joss’s betrayal, flooded his mind like dark water. He still couldn’t believe that Joss had staked him, or that one of his closest friends would purposely cause him such agonizing pain, and almost take his life. But Joss had. Worse still, he couldn’t believe how much he missed Joss’s company.
Getting staked had been a hard lesson in choosing one’s friends wisely, that was for sure.
The chill of autumn snaked its way inside Vlad’s jacket, and he shivered briskly before turning to head home. But on the ground, lying amidst dead leaves and half immersed in muddy earth, Vlad spied a coin. He plucked it from the ground and wiped the dirt away. It was bronze, and on one side had two large initials, written in calligraphy: S.S. He flipped it over and noted the symbols on the other side. A crescent moon on the left, the symbol for eternity on the right, and at its center, a wooden stake. Along the top, curving along the crest of the coin, was Slayer Society. Along the bottom it read for the good of mankind.
Vlad frowned in disgust. Joss must have dropped it that night, the night he’d tried unsuccessfully to rid the world of another vampire, the night he’d tried to murder Vlad with a sharp hunk of wood. Furious, he read the inscription again and swore under his breath. As if the Slayers’ murderous actions could be so easily disguised as being “for the good of mankind.” As if betraying your friend’s trust and putting him in the hospital could make you a humanitarian. Psychotic jerk, maybe. Humanitarian? Not so much.
Vlad almost threw the coin into the ravine, but then he squeezed it tight and placed it in his pocket. It would be a good reminder never to trust anyone so easily again.
He turned on his heel and headed home, the nightmare of Joss staking him replacing the one he’d been trying to forget.