From this day on my life would never be the same. And for a moment—just an instant—I forgot about the horror of not belonging and felt a shocking burst of pleasure, while deep inside of me the blood of my grandmother’s people rejoiced.
When I figured that enough time had passed for everyone to have left school, I flopped my hair back over my forehead and left the bathroom, hurrying to the doors that led to the student parking lot. Everything seemed all clear—there was just some random kid wearing those seriously unattractive gang wanna-be baggy pants cutting across the far end of the lot. Keeping his pants from falling down as he walked was taking all his concentration; he wouldn’t even notice me. I gritted my teeth against the throbbing pain in my head and bolted out the door, heading straight for my little Bug.
The moment I stepped outside the sun began to batter me. I mean, it wasn’t a particularly sunny day; there were plenty of those big, puffy clouds that looked so pretty in pictures floating around the sky, semi-blocking the sun. But that didn’t matter. I had to squint my eyes painfully and hold my hand up as a make-believe sun block against even that intermittent light. I guess it was because I was focusing so hard on the pain the ordinary sunlight was causing me that I didn’t notice the truck until it squealed to a stop in front of me.
“Hey Zo! Didn’t you get my message?”
Oh crap crap crap! It was Heath. I glanced up, looking at him from between my fingers like I was watching one of those stupid slasher movies. He was sitting on the open tailgate of his friend Dustin’s pickup truck. Over his shoulder I could see into the cab of the truck where Dustin and his brother, Drew, were doing what they were usually doing—wrestling around and arguing over God only knows what stupid boy thing. Thankfully, they were ignoring me. I glanced back at Heath and sighed. He had a beer in his hand and a goofy grin on his face. Momentarily forgetting that I’d just been Marked and was destined to become an outcast blood-sucking monster, I scowled at Heath.
“You’re drinking at school! Are you crazy?”
His little boy grin got bigger. “Yes I am crazy, ’bout you, baby!”
I shook my head while I turned my back to him, opening the creaky door to my Bug and shoving my books and backpack into the passenger’s seat.
“Why aren’t you guys at football practice?” I said, still keeping my face angled away from him.
“Didn’t you hear? We got the day off ’cause of the ass-kicking we gave Union on Friday!”
Dustin and Drew, who must have been kinda paying attention to Heath and me after all, did a couple of very Okie “Whoo-hoo!” and “Yeah!” yells from inside the truck.
“Oh. Uh. No. I musta missed the announcement. I’ve been busy today. You know, big geometry test tomorrow.” I tried to sound normal and nonchalant. Then I coughed and added, “Plus, I’m getting a crappy cold.”
“Zo, really. Are you pissed or somethin’? Like, did Kayla say some shit about the party? You know I didn’t really cheat on you.”
Huh? Kayla had not said one solitary word about Heath cheating on me. Like a moron, I forgot (okay, temporarily) about my new Mark. My head snapped around so I could glare at him.
“What did you do, Heath?”
“Zo, me? You know I wouldn’t . . .” but his innocent act and his excuses faded into an unattractive open-mouthed look of shock when he caught sight of my Mark. “What the—” he started to say, but I cut him off.
“Shh!” I jerked my head in the direction of the still clueless Dustin and Drew, who were now singing at the top of their totally tonedeaf lungs to the latest Toby Keith CD.
Heath’s eyes were still wide and shocked, but he lowered his voice. “Is that some kinda makeup thing you’re doing for drama class?”
“No,” I whispered. “It’s not.”
“But you can’t be Marked. We’re going out.”
“We are not going out!” And just like that my semi-reprieve from coughing ended. I practically doubled over, hacking a seriously nasty, phlegmy cough.
“Hey, Zo!” Dustin called from the cab. “You gotta lay off those cigarettes.”
“Yeah, you sound like you’re gonna cough up a lung or somethin’,” Drew said.
“Dude! Leave her alone. You know she don’t smoke. She’s a vampyre.”
Great. Wonderful. Heath, with his usual total and complete lack of anything resembling good sense, thought he was actually standing up for me as he yelled at his friends, who instantly stuck their heads out of the open windows and gawked at me like I was a science experiment.
“Well, shit. Zoey’s a fucking freak!” Drew said.
Drew’s insensitive words made the anger that had been simmering somewhere inside my chest ever since Kayla had cringed from me bubble up and boil over. Ignoring the pain the sun caused me, I stared straight at Drew, meeting his eyes.
“Shut the hell up! I’ve had a really bad day and I do not need this crap from you.” I paused to look from the now wide-eyed and silent Drew to Dustin and added, “Or you.” And as I kept eye contact with Dustin I realized something—something that shocked and weirdly excited me: Dustin looked scared. Really scared. I glared back at Drew. He looked scared, too. Then I felt it. A tingling sensation that crawled over my skin and made my new Mark burn.
Power. I felt power.
“Zo? What the fuck?” Heath’s voice broke my attention and pulled my gaze from the brothers.
“We’re outta here!” Dustin said, throwing the truck into gear and stepping on the gas. The pickup lurched forward, causing Heath to lose his balance and slide, with a windmill of arms and flying beer, onto the blacktop of the parking lot.
Automatically, I rushed forward. “Are you okay?” Heath was on his hands and knees, and I bent down to help pull him to his feet.
Then I smelled it. Something smelled amazing—hot and sweet and delicious.
Was Heath wearing new cologne? One of those weird pheromone things that are supposed to attract women like a big genetically engineered bug zapper? I didn’t realize how close I was to him until he stood up straight and our bodies were almost pressed together. He looked down at me, a question in his eyes.
I didn’t back away from him. I should have. I would have before . . . but not now. Not today.
“Zo?” he said softly, his voice deep and husky.
“You smell really good,” I couldn’t stop myself from saying. My heart was pounding so loud that I could hear its echo in my throbbing temples.
“Zoey, I’ve really missed you. We need to get back together. You know I really love you.” He reached up to touch my face and both of us noticed the blood that smeared the palm of his hand. “Ah, shit. I guess I—” his voice closed off when he glanced at my face. I could only imagine what I must look like, with my face all white, my new Mark blazingly outlined in sapphire blue, and my eyes staring at the blood on his hand. I couldn’t move; I couldn’t look away.
“I want . . .” I whispered. “I want . . .” What did I want? I couldn’t put it into words. No, that wasn’t it. I wouldn’t put it into words. Wouldn’t say aloud the overwhelming surge of white-hot desire that was trying to drown me. And it wasn’t because Heath was standing so near. He’d been close to me before. Hell, we’d been making out for a year, but he’d never made me feel like this—nothing ever like this. I bit my lip and moaned.
The pickup truck squealed to a halt, fishtailing beside us. Drew jumped out and grabbed Heath around the waist, and jerked him backward into the cab of the truck.
“Knock it off! I’m talking to Zoey!”
Heath tried to struggle against Drew, but the kid was Broken Arrow’s senior linebacker, and truly ginormous. Dustin reached around them and slammed the door to the truck.
“Leave him alone, you freak!” Drew yelled at me as Dustin floored the truck and this time they really did speed off.
I got into my Bug. My hands were shaking so hard I had to try three times before I got the engine started.
et home. Just get home.” I said the words over and over between wrenching coughs as I drove. I wouldn’t think about what had just happened. I couldn’t think about what had just happened.
The drive home took fifteen minutes, but it seemed to pass in the blink of an eye. Too soon I was sitting in the driveway, trying to get ready for the scene I knew, sure as lightning follows thunder, was waiting inside for me.
Why had I been so eager to get here? I suppose I hadn’t technically been all that eager. I suppose I’d just been escaping from what had happened in the parking lot with Heath.
No! I wasn’t going to think about that now. And, anyway, there was probably some kind of rational explanation for everything, a rational and simple explanation. Dustin and Drew were retards—totally immature beer-brains. I hadn’t used a creepy new power to intimidate them. They’d just been freaked that I’d been Marked. That was it. I mean, people were scared of vampyres.
“But I’m not a vampyre!” I said. Then I coughed while I remember how hypnotically beautiful Heath’s blood had been, and the rush of desire I’d felt for it. Not Heath, but Heath’s blood.
No! No! No! Blood was not beautiful or desirable. I must be in shock. That’s it. That had to be it. I was in shock and not thinking clearly. Okay . . . okay . . . absently, I touched my forehead. It had stopped burning, but it still felt different. I coughed for the zillionth time. Fine. I wouldn’t think about Heath, but I couldn’t deny it any more. I felt different. My skin was ultrasensitive. My chest hurt, and even though I had my cool Maui Jim sunglasses on, my eyes kept tearing up painfully.
“I’m dying . . .” I moaned, and then promptly clamped my lips shut. I might actually be dying. I glanced up at the big brick house that, after three years, still didn’t seem like home. “Get it over with. Just get it over with.” At least my sister wouldn’t be home yet—cheerleading practice. Hopefully, the troll would be totally hypnotized by his new Delta Force: Black Hawk Down video game (um . . . ew). I might have Mom to myself. Maybe she would understand . . . maybe she would know what to do. . . .
Ah, hell! I was sixteen years old, but I suddenly realized that I wanted nothing as much as I wanted my mom.
“Please let her understand,” I whispered a simple prayer to whatever god or goddess might be listening to me.
As usual, I went in through the garage. I walked down the hall to my room and dumped my geometry book, purse, and backpack on my bed. Then I took a deep breath and headed, a little shakily, to find my mom.
She was in the family room, curled up on the edge of the couch, sipping a cup of coffee and reading Chicken Soup for a Woman’s Soul. She looked so normal, so much like she used to look. Except that she used to read exotic romances and actually wear makeup. Both were things her new husband didn’t allow (what a turd).
“Hum?” She didn’t look up at me.
I swallowed hard. “Mama.” I used the name I used to call her, back in the days before she married John. “I need your help.”
I don’t know whether it was the unexpected use of “Mama” or if something in my voice touched an old piece of mom-intuition she still had somewhere inside her, but the eyes she lifted immediately from the book were soft and filled with concern.
“What is it, baby—” she began, and then her words seemed to freeze on her lips as her eyes found the Mark on my forehead.
“Oh, God! What have you done now?”
My heart started to hurt again. “Mom, I didn’t do anything. This is something that happened to me, not because of me. It’s not my fault.”
“Oh, please, no!” she wailed as if I hadn’t said a word. “What is your father going to say?”
I wanted to scream how the hell would any of us know what my father was going to say, we haven’t seen or heard from him for fourteen years! But I knew it wouldn’t do any good, and it always just made her mad when I reminded her that John was not my “real” father. So I tried a different tactic—one I’d given up on three years ago.
“Mama, please. Can’t you just not tell him? At least for a day or two? Just keep it between the two of us until we . . . I don’t know . . . get used to it or something.” I held my breath.
“But what would I say? You can’t even cover that thing up with makeup.” Her lips curled weirdly as she gave the crescent moon a nervous glance.
“Mom, I didn’t mean that I’d stay here while we got used to it. I have to go; you know that.” I had to pause while a huge cough made my shoulders shake. “The Tracker Marked me. I have to move to the House of Night or I’m just going to get sicker and sicker.” And then die, I tried to tell her with my eyes. I couldn’t actually say the words. “I just want a couple of days before I have to deal with . . .” I broke off so I didn’t have to say his name, this time purposefully making myself cough, which wasn’t hard.
“What would I tell your father?”
I felt a rush of fear at the panic in her voice. Wasn’t she the mom? Wasn’t she supposed to have the answers instead of the questions?
“Just . . . just tell him that I’m spending the next couple days at Kayla’s house because we have a big biology project due.”
I watched my mom’s eyes change. The concern faded from them and was replaced by a hardness that I recognized all too well.
“So what you’re saying is that you want me to lie to him.”
“I wasn’t aware that I had stopped being your mom,” she said coldly.
She made me feel even more tired than Kayla had. I sighed. “I think that’s the problem, Mom. You don’t care enough to be aware of it. You haven’t cared about anything but John since you married him.”
Her eyes narrowed at me. “I don’t know how you can be so selfish. Don’t you realize all that he’s done for us? Because of him I quit that awful job at Dillards. Because of him we don’t have to worry about money and we have this big, beautiful house. Because of him we have security and a bright future.”
I’d heard these words so often I could have recited them with her. It was at this point in our non-conversations that I usually apologized and went back to my room. But today I couldn’t apologize. Today I was different. Everything was different.
“No, Mother. The truth is that because of him you haven’t paid any attention to your kids for three years. Did you know that your oldest daughter has turned into a sneaky, spoiled slut who’s screwed half of the football team? Do you know what nasty, bloody video games Kevin keeps hidden from you? No, of course you don’t! The two of them act happy and pretend to like John and the whole damn make-believe family thing, so you smile at them and pray for them and let them do whatever. And me? You think I’m the bad one because I don’t pretend—because I’m honest. You know what? I’m so sick of my life that I’m glad the Tracker Marked me! They call that vampyre school the House of Night, but it can’t be any darker than this perfect home!” Before I could cry or scream I whirled around and stalked back to my bedroom, slamming the door behind me.
I hope they all drown.
Through the too thin walls I could hear her making a hysterical call to John. There was no doubt that he’d rush home to deal with me. The Problem. Instead of sitting on the bed and crying like I was tempted to, I emptied the school crap out of my backpack. Like I’d need it where I was going? They probably don’t even have normal classes. They probably have classes like Ripping Peoples Throats Out 101 and . . . and . . . Intro to How to See in the Dark. Whatever.
No matter what my mom did or didn’t do, I couldn’t stay here. I had to leave.
So what did I need to take with me?
My two favorite pairs of jeans, besides what I had on. A couple of black T-s
hirts. I mean, what else do vampyres wear? Plus, they are slimming. I almost passed on my cute aqua-colored sparkly cami, but all that black was bound to make me more depressed . . . so I included it. Then I stuffed tons of bras and thongs and hair and makeup things into the side pouch. I almost left my stuffed animal, Otis the Shish (couldn’t say fish when I was two), on my pillow, but . . . well . . . vampyre or not I didn’t think I could sleep very well without him. So I tucked him gently into the damn backpack.
Then I heard the knock on my door, and its voice called me out of my room.
“What?” I yelled, and then I convulsed in a bout of nasty coughing.
“Zoey. Your mother and I need to speak with you.”
Great. Clearly they didn’t drown.
I patted Otis the Shish. “Otis, this sucks.” I squared my shoulders, coughed again, and went out to face the enemy.
At first glance my step-loser, John Heffer, appears to be an okay guy, even normal. (Yes, that’s really his last name—and, sadly, it is also now my mom’s last name. She’s Mrs. Heffer. Can you believe it?) When he and my mom started dating I actually overheard some of my mom’s friends calling him “handsome” and “charming.” At first. Of course now Mom has a whole new group of friends, ones Mr. Handsome and Charming thinks are more appropriate than the group of fun single women she used to hang with.
I never liked him. Really. I’m not just saying that because I can’t stand him now. From the first day I met him I saw only one thing—a fake. He fakes being a nice guy. He fakes being a good husband. He even fakes being a good father.
He looks like every other dad-age guy. He has dark hair, skinny chicken legs, and is getting a gut. His eyes are like his soul, a washed-out, cold, brownish color.
I walked into the family room to find him standing by the couch. My mother was crumpled near the end of it, clutching his hand. Her eyes were already red and watery. Great. She was going to play Hurt Hysterical Mother. It’s an act she does well.
John had begun to attempt to skewer me with his eyes, but my Mark distracted him. His face twisted in disgust.