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Marked (House of Night, Book 1): A House of Night Novel, Page 3

P. C. Cast

  I shook my head. I expected this. I really expected this, and still it was a shock. The entire world knew that there was nothing anyone could do to bring on the Change. The whole “if you get bit by a vampyre you’ll die and become one” thing is strictly fiction. Scientists have been trying to figure out what causes the sequence of physical events that lead to vampyrism for years, hoping that if they figure it out they could cure it, or at the very least invent a vaccine to fight against it. So far, no such luck. But now John Heffer, my step-loser, had suddenly discovered that bad teenage behavior—specifically my bad behavior, which mostly consisted of an occasional lie, some pissed off thoughts and smartass comments directed primarily against my parents, and maybe some semi-harmless lust for Ashton Kutcher (sad to say he likes older women)—actually brought about this physical reaction in my body. Well, hell! Who knew?

  “This wasn’t something I caused,” I finally managed to say. “This wasn’t done because of me. It was done to me. Every scientist on the planet agrees with that.”

  “Scientists are not all-knowing. They are not men of God.”

  I just stared at him. He was an Elder of the People of Faith, a position he was oh, so proud of. It was one of the reasons Mom had been attracted to him, and on a strictly logical level I could understand why. Being an Elder meant that a man was successful. He had the right job. A nice house. The perfect family. He was supposed to do the right things and believe the right way. On paper he should have been a great choice for her new husband and our father. Too bad the paper wouldn’t have shown the full story. And now, predictably, he was going to play the Elder card and throw God in my face. I would bet my cool new Steve Madden flats that it irritated God as much as it annoyed me.

  I tried again. “We studied this in AP biology. It’s a physiological reaction that takes place in some teenagers’ bodies as their hormone levels rise.” I paused, thinking really hard and totally proud of myself for remembering something I learned last semester. “In certain people the hormones trigger something-or-other in a . . . a . . .” I thought harder and remembered: “a Junk DNA strand, which starts the whole Change.” I smiled, not really at John, but because I was thrilled by my ability to recall stuff from a unit we’d been done with for months. I knew the smile was a mistake when I saw the familiar clenching of his jaw.

  “God’s knowledge surpasses science, and it’s blasphemous for you to say otherwise, young lady.”

  “I never said scientists are smarter than God!” I threw my hands up and tried to stifle a cough. “I’m just trying to explain this thing to you.”

  “I don’t need to have anything explained to me by a sixteen-year-old.”

  Well, he was wearing those really bad pants and that awful shirt. Clearly he did need some things explained to him by a teenager, but I didn’t think it was the right time to mention his unfortunate and obvious fashion impairment.

  “But John, honey, what are we going to do about her? What will the neighbors say?” Her face paled even more and she stifled a little sob. “What will people say at Meeting on Sunday?”

  He narrowed his eyes when I opened my mouth to answer, and interrupted before I could speak.

  “We are going to do what any good family should do. We are going to give this to God.”

  They were sending me to a convent? Unfortunately, I had to deal with another round of coughing, so he kept right on talking.

  “We are also going to call Dr. Asher. He’ll know what to do to calm this situation.”

  Wonderful. Fabulous. He’s calling in our family shrink, the Incredibly Expressionless Man. Perfect.

  “Linda, call Dr. Asher’s emergency number, and then I think it would be wise to activate the prayer phone tree. Make sure the other Elders know that they are to gather here.”

  My mom nodded and started to get up, but the words that burst from my mouth made her flop back down on the couch.

  “What! Your answer is to call a shrink who is totally clueless about teenagers and get all those uptight Elders over here? Like they would even begin to try and understand? No! Don’t you get it? I have to leave. Tonight.” I coughed, a really gut-wrenching sound that hurt my chest. “See! This will just get worse if I don’t get around the . . .” I hesitated. Why was it so hard to say “vampyres”? Because it sounded so foreign—so final—and, part of me admitted, so fantastic. “I have to get to the House of Night.”

  Mom jumped up, and for a second I thought she was actually going to save me. Then John put his arm around her shoulder possessively. She looked up at him and when she looked back at me her eyes seemed almost sorry, but her words, typically, reflected only what John would want her to say.

  “Zoey, surely it wouldn’t hurt anything if you spent just tonight at home?”

  “Of course it wouldn’t,” John said to her. “I’m sure Dr. Asher will see the need for a house visit. With him here she’ll be perfectly fine.” He patted her shoulder, pretended to be caring, but instead of sweet he sounded slimy.

  I looked from him to my mom. They weren’t going to let me leave. Not tonight, and maybe not ever, or at least not until I had to be hauled out by the paramedics. I suddenly understood that it wasn’t just about this Mark and the fact that my life had been totally changed. It was about control. If they let me go, somehow they lose. In Mom’s case, I liked to think that she was afraid of losing me. I knew what John didn’t want to lose. He didn’t want to lose his precious authority and the illusion that we were the perfect little family. As Mom had already said, What would the neighbors think—what will people think at Meeting on Sunday? John had to preserve the illusion, and if that meant allowing me to get really, really sick, well then, that was a price he was willing to pay.

  I wasn’t willing to pay it, though.

  I guess it was time I took things into my own hands (after all, they are well manicured).

  “Fine,” I said. “Call Dr. Asher. Start the prayer phone tree. But do you mind if I go lay down until everyone gets here?” I coughed again for good measure.

  “Of course not, honey,” Mom said, looking obviously relieved. “A little rest will probably make you feel better.” Then she moved away from John’s possessive arm. She smiled and then hugged me. “Would you like me to get you some NyQuil?”

  “No, I’ll be fine,” I said, clinging to her for just a second, wishing so damn hard that it was three years ago and she was still mine—still on my side. Then I took a deep breath and stepped back. “I’ll be fine,” I repeated.

  She looked at me and nodded, telling me she was sorry the only way she could, with her eyes.

  I turned away from her and started to retreat to my bedroom. To my back the step-loser said, “And why don’t you do us all a favor and see if you can find some powder or something to cover up that thing on your forehead?”

  I didn’t even pause. I just kept walking. And I wouldn’t cry.

  I’m going to remember this, I told myself sternly. I’m going to remember how awful they made me feel today. So when I’m scared and alone and whatever else is going to happen to me starts to happen, I’m going to remember that nothing could be as bad as being stuck here. Nothing.


  So I sat on my bed and coughed while I listened to my mom making a frantic call to our shrink’s emergency line, followed quickly by another equally hysterical call that would activate the dreaded People of Faith prayer tree. Within thirty minutes our house would begin to fill up with fat women and their beady-eyed pedophile husbands. They’d call me out to the family room. My Mark would be considered a Really Big and Embarrassing Problem, so they’d probably anoint me with some crap that was sure to clog my pores and give me a Cyclops-sized zit before laying their hands on me and praying. They’d ask God to help me stop being such an awful teenager and a problem to my parents. Oh, and the little matter of my Mark needed to be cleared up, too.

  If only it were that simple. I’d gladly make a deal with God to be a good kid versus changing school a
nd species. I’d even take the geometry test. Well, okay. Maybe not the geometry test—but, still, it’s not like I’d asked to become a freak. This whole thing meant that I was going to have to leave. To start my life over somewhere I’d be the new kid. Somewhere I didn’t have any friends. I blinked hard, forcing myself not to cry. School was the only place I really felt at home anymore; my friends were my only family. I balled up my fists and squidged my face up to keep from crying. One step at a time—I’d just take this one step at a time.

  No way was I going deal with clones of the step-loser on top of everything else. And, as if the People of Faith weren’t bad enough, the horrid prayer session would be followed by an equally annoying session with Dr. Asher. He’d ask me a lot of questions about how this and that made me feel. Then he’d babble on and on about teenage anger and angst being normal but that only I could choose how it would have an impact on my life . . . blah . . . blah . . . and since this was an “emergency” he’d probably want me to draw something that represented my inner child or whatever.

  I definitely had to get out of there.

  Good thing I’ve always been “the bad kid” and was well prepared for a situation like this. Okay, I wasn’t exactly thinking about escaping from my house so I could run off and join the vampyres when I put a spare key to my car under the flowerpot outside my window. I was just considering that I might want to sneak out and go to Kayla’s house. Or, if I really wanted to be bad I might meet Heath at the park and make out. But then Heath started drinking and I started to change into a vampyre. Sometimes life doesn’t make any sense.

  I grabbed my backpack, opened my window, and with an ease that said more about my sinful nature than the step-loser’s boring lectures, I popped out my window screen. I put on my sunglasses and peeked out. It was only four thirty or so, and not dark yet, so I was really glad that our privacy fence hid me from our totally noisy neighbors. On this side of the house the only other windows were to my sister’s room, and she should still be at cheerleading practice. (Hell must truly be freezing over because for once I was sincerely glad my sister’s world revolved around what she called “the sport of cheer.”) I dropped my backpack out first and then slowly followed it out the window, being careful not to make even a small oof noise when I landed on the grass. I paused there for way too many minutes, burying my face in my arms to muffle my horrible cough. Then I bent over and lifted up the edge of the pot that held the lavender plant Grandma Redbird had given me, and let my fingers find the hard metal of the key where it nestled against the smushed grass.

  The gate didn’t even squeak when I cracked it open and inched out like one of Charlie’s Angels. My cute Bug was sitting there where she always sat—right in front of the third door to our three car garage. The step-loser wouldn’t let me park her inside because he said the lawnmower was more important. (More important than a vintage VW? How? That didn’t even make sense. Jeesh, I just sounded like a guy. Since when did I care about the vintage-ness of my Bug? I must really be Changing.) I looked both ways. Nothing. I sprinted for my Bug, jumped in, put it in neutral, and was truly thankful that our driveway was ridiculously steep when my wonderful car rolled smoothly and silently into the street. From there it was easy to start it and zip out of the neighborhood of Big Expensive Houses.

  I didn’t even glance in the rearview mirror.

  I did reach over and turn off my cell phone. I didn’t want to talk to anyone.

  No, that wasn’t exactly true. There was one person I really wanted to talk to. She was the one person in the world who I was positive wouldn’t look at my Mark and think I was a monster or a freak or a really awful person.

  Like my Bug could read my mind it seemed to turn all by itself onto the highway that led to the Muskogee Turnpike and, eventually, to the most wonderful place in this world—my Grandma Redbird’s lavender farm.

  Unlike the drive from school to home, the hour-and-a-half trip to Grandma Redbird’s farm seemed to take forever. By the time I pulled off the two-lane highway onto the hard-packed dirt road that led to Grandma’s place, my body ached even worse than it did that time they hired that crazy new gym teacher who thought we should do insane weight circuits while she cracked her whip at us and cackled. Okay, so maybe she didn’t have a whip, but still. My muscles hurt like hell. It was almost six o’clock and the sun was finally starting to set, but my eyes still stung. Actually, even the fading sunlight made my skin feel tingly and weird. It made me glad that it was the end of October and it had finally turned cool enough for me to wear my Borg Invasion 4D hoodie (sure, it is a Star Trek: The Next Generation ride in Vegas and, sadly, I am on occasion a total Star Trek nerd) which, thankfully, covered most of my skin. Before I got out of my Bug I dug around in the backseat until I found my old OSU trucker’s hat and pulled it down on my head so that my face was out of the sun.

  My grandma’s house sat between two lavender fields and was shaded by huge old oaks. It was built in 1942 of raw Oklahoma stone, with a comfortable porch and unusually big windows. I loved this house. Just climbing the little wooden stairs that led to the porch made me feel better . . . safe. Then I saw the note taped on the outside of the door. It was easy to recognize Grandma Redbird’s pretty handwriting: I’m on the bluffs collecting wildflowers.

  I touched the soft lavender-scented paper. She always knew when I was coming for a visit. When I was a kid I used to think it was weird, but as I got older I appreciated the extra sense she had. All my life I’ve known that, no matter what, I could count on Grandma Redbird. During those awful first months after Mom married John I think I would have shriveled up and died if I hadn’t been able to escape every weekend to Grandma’s house.

  For a second I considered going inside (Grandma never locked her doors) and waiting for her, but I needed to see her, to have her hug me and tell me what I had wanted Mom to say. Don’t be scared . . . it’ll be okay . . . we’ll make it be okay. So instead of going inside I found the little deer path at the edge of the northern-most lavender field that would lead to the bluffs and I followed it, letting my fingertips trail over the top of the closest plants so that as I walked they released their sweet, silvery scent into the air around me like they were welcoming me home.

  It felt like years since I’d been here, even though I knew it had been only four weeks. John didn’t like Grandma. He thought she was weird. I’d even overheard him tell Mom that Grandma was “a witch and going to hell.” He’s such an ass.

  Then an amazing thought hit me and I came to a complete stop. My parents no longer controlled what I did. I wasn’t going to live with them ever again. John couldn’t tell me what to do anymore.

  Whoa! How awesome!

  So awesome that it sent me into a spasm of coughing that made me wrap my arms around myself, like I was trying to hold my chest together. I needed to find Grandma Redbird, and I needed to find her now.


  The path up the side of the bluffs had always been steep, but I’d climbed it about a gazillion times, with and without my grandma, and I’d never felt like this. It wasn’t just the coughing anymore. And it wasn’t just the sore muscles. I was dizzy and my stomach had started to gurgle so badly that I was reminding myself of Meg Ryan in the movie French Kiss after she ate all that cheese and had a lactose-intolerance fit. (Kevin Kline is really cute in that movie—well, for an old guy.)

  And I was snotting. I don’t mean just sniffling a little. I mean I was wiping my nose on the sleeve of my hoodie (gross). I couldn’t breathe without opening my mouth, which made me cough more, and I couldn’t believe how badly my chest hurt! I tried to remember what it was that officially killed the kids who didn’t complete the Change into vampyres. Did they have heart attacks? Or was it possible that they coughed and snotted themselves to death?

  Stop thinking about it!

  I needed to find Grandma Redbird. If Grandma didn’t have the answers, she’d figure them out. Grandma Redbird understood people. She said it was because she hadn’t
lost touch with her Cherokee heritage and the tribal knowledge of the ancestral Wise Women she carried in her blood. Even now it made me smile to think about the frown that came over Grandma’s face whenever the subject of the step-loser came up (she’s the only adult who knows I call him that). Grandma Redbird said that it was obvious that the Redbird Wise Woman blood had skipped over her daughter, but that was only because it had been saving up to give an extra dose of ancient Cherokee magic to me.

  As a little girl I’d climbed this path holding Grandma’s hand more times than I could count. In the meadow of tall grasses and wildflowers we’d lay out a brightly colored blanket and eat a picnic lunch while Grandma told me stories of the Cherokee people and taught me the mysterious-sounding words of their language. As I struggled up the winding path those ancient stories seemed to swirl around and around inside my head, like smoke from a ceremonial fire . . . including the sad story of how the stars were formed when a dog was discovered stealing cornmeal and the tribe whipped him. As the dog ran howling to his home in the north, the meal scattered across the sky and the magic in it made the Milky Way. Or how the Great Buzzard made the mountains and valleys with his wings. And my favorite, the story about young woman sun who lived in the east, and her brother, the moon, who lived in the west, and the Redbird who was the daughter of the sun.

  “Isn’t that weird? I’m a Redbird and the daughter of the sun, but I’m turning into a monster of the night.” I heard myself talking out loud and was surprised that my voice sounded so weak, especially when my words seemed to echo around me, as if I were talking into a vibrating drum.

  Drum . . .

  Thinking the word reminded me of powwows Grandma had taken me to when I was a little girl, and then, my thoughts somehow breathing life into the memory, I actually heard the rhythmic beating of ceremonial drums. I looked around, squinting against even the weak light of the dying day. My eyes stung and my vision was all screwed up. There was no wind, but the shadows of the rocks and trees seemed to be moving . . . stretching . . . reaching out toward me.