Shakily, I wiped the back of my hand across my mouth and then stumbled away from the puke spot (I refused to even consider what I puked up and how it must have looked) until I came to a giant oak that had grown so close to the wall that half of its branches hung over the other side of it. I leaned against the tree, concentrating on not getting sick again.
What had I done? What was happening to me?
Then, from somewhere in the limbs of the oak I heard a meow. Okay, it wasn't really your normal, average, catlike meow. It was more like a grumpy, "me-eeh-uf- me-eef-uf-snort."
I looked up. Perched on a limb that was resting against the wall was a small orange cat. She was staring at me with huge eyes and she definitely looked disgruntled.
"How did you get up there?"
"Me-uf," she said, sneezed, and inched her way along the branch, clearly trying to get closer to me.
"Well, come on kitty-kitty-kitty," I coaxed.
"Me-eeh-of-ow," she said, creeping forward about half one of her little paw lengths.
"That's it, come on, baby girl. Move your little tiny paddies this way." Yes, I was displacing my freak-out and channeling it into saving the cat, but the truth was that I couldn't think about what had just happened. Not now. It was too soon. Too fresh. So the cat was an excellent distraction. Plus, she looked familiar. "Come on baby girl, come on..." I kept up a conversation with her as I hooked the toe of my flats into the rough brick of the wall and managed to pull myself up far enough so I could grab onto the lowest part of the branch the cat was on. Then I was able to use the branch as a kind of rope to climb farther up the wall, the whole time talking to the cat, while she kept complaining at me.
Finally I got within touching range of her. We stared at each other for a long time, and I started to wonder if she knew about me. Could she tell that I'd just tasted (and liked) blood? Did I have blood puke breath? Did I look different? Had I grown fangs? (Okay, that last question was ridiculous. Adult vamps don't have fangs, but still.)
She "me-eeh-uf-owed" at me again, and moved a little closer. I reached out and scratched the top of her head so that her ears went down and she closed her eyes, purring.
"You look like a little lioness," I told her. "See how much nicer you are when you're not complaining?" Then I blinked in surprise, realizing why she seemed so familiar. "You were in my dream." And a little happiness pushed through the wall of sickness and fear inside me. "You're my cat!"
The cat opened her eyes, yawned, and sneezed again, as if to comment on why it had taken me so long to figure it out. With a grunt of effort I scrambled up so that I was sitting on the wide top of the wall beside the branch where the cat was perched. With a kitty sigh, she jumped delicately off the branch, onto the top of the wall, and walked on tiny white paws over to me to crawl into my lap. There didn't seem to be anything for me to do except to scratch her on the head some more. She closed her eyes and purred loudly. I petted the cat and tried to still the tumult in my mind. The air smelled like it might rain, but the night was unusually warm for the end of October, and I put my head back, breathing deeply and letting the silver moonlight that peeked through the clouds calm me.
I looked at the cat. "Well, Neferet said that we should sit in the moonlight. I glanced up at the night sky again. "It would be better if the stupid clouds would blow away, but still..."
I had only just spoken the words and a gust of wind whistled around me, suddenly blowing away the wispy clouds.
"Well, thanks." I called aloud to nothing in particular. "That was a very convenient wind." The cat muttered, reminding me that I'd had the nerve to quit scratching her ears. "I think I'll call you Nala because you are a little lioness." I told her, resuming my scratching. "You know, baby girl, I'm so glad I found you today; I really needed something good to happen to me after the night I've had. You would not believe--"
A weird smell drifted up to me. It was so odd that I broke off what I was saying. What was that? I sniffed and wrinkled my nose. It was a dry, old smell. Like a house that had been closed up for too long, or somebody's scary old basement. It wasn't a good smell, but it also wasn't so gross that it made me want to gag. It was just wrong. Like it didn't belong out here in the open at night.
Then something caught at the corner of my eyesight. I looked down the long, winding brick wall. Standing there, half turned away from me like she wasn't sure which way she wanted to go, was a girl. The light from the moon, and my new and improved fledgling ability to see well at night, let me see her even though there were no outside lights near this part of the wall. I felt myself tense. Had one of those hateful Dark Daughters followed me? No way did I feel like dealing with any more of their crap tonight.
I must have actually voiced the frustrated groan I thought I had made in my mind, because the girl looked up toward where I was sitting on top of the wall.
I gasped in shock and felt fear skitter through me.
It was Elizabeth! The Elizabeth No Last Name kid who was supposed to be dead. When she saw me her eyes, which were a weird, glowing red, widened and then she made an odd shrieking sound before whirling around and disappearing with inhuman speed into the night.
At the same instant, Nala arched her back and hissed with such ferocity that her little body shook. "It's okay! It's okay!" I said over and over, trying to calm the cat and me. Both of us were shaking and Nala was still growling low in her throat. "It couldn't have been a ghost. It couldn't have been. It was just...just...a weird kid. I probably scared her and she--"
"Zoey! Zoey! Is that you?"
I jumped and almost fell off the wall. It was too much for Nala. She gave another tremendous hiss and leaped neatly from my lap to the ground. Completely and utterly freaked out, I grabbed the branch for balance and squinted out into the night.
"Who--who is it?" I called over the pounding of my heart. Then I was blinded by the beams of two flashlights aimed directly at me.
"Of course it's her! Like I couldn't recognize my own best friend's voice? Jeesh, she hasn't been gone that long!"
"Kayla?" I said, trying to shield my eyes from the glare of the flashlights with my hand, which was shaking like crazy.
"Well, I told you we'd find her," a guy's voice said. "You always want to give up too soon."
"Heath?" Maybe I was dreaming.
"Yep! Whoo-hoo! We found ya, baby!" Heath yelled, and even in the awful flashlight glare I could see him hurl himself at the wall and then start to scramble up like a tall, blond, football-playing monkey.
Incredibly relieved it was him and not a boogie monster, I called down to him, "Heath! Be careful. If you fall you're going to break something." Well, unless he landed on his head--then he'd probably be okay.
"Not me!" he said, pulling himself up and over so that he was sitting beside me, straddling the wall. "Hey, Zoey, check it out--look at me; I'm king of the world!" He yelled, throwing out his arms, grinning like a total fool, and breathing alcohol- scented air all over me.
No wonder I'd refused to go out with him.
"Okay, there's no need to forever make fun of my unfortunate ex-infatuation with Leonardo!' I glared at him, feeling more like myself than I had in hours. "Actually, it's kinda like my unfortunate ex-infatuation with you. Only it didn't last as long, and you didn't make a bunch of cheesy but cool movies."
"Hey, you're not still mad about Dustin and Drew are you? Forget them! They're retards." Heath said, giving me his puppy- dog look, which used to be really cute when he was in eighth grade. Too bad the cuteness had stopped working for him about two years ago. "And, anyway, we came all the way over here to bust you out."
"What?" I shook my head and squinted at him. "Wait. Turn those flashlights off. They're killing my eyes."
"If we turn them off we can't see," Heath said.
"Fine. Then turn them away. Uh, point them out there or something," I gestured out away from the school (and me). Heath turned the beam of the one he'd been clutching out into the night, and so did Kayla. I was able to drop my hand, which I was pleased to see had quit shaking, and stop squinting. Heath's eyes widened when he saw my Mark.
"Check it out! It's colored in now. Wow! It's like...like...on TV or something."
Well, it was nice to see that some things never change. Heath was still Heath--cute, but not the brightest Crayola in the pack.
"Hey! What about me? I'm here too, ya know!" Kayla called. "Someone help me get up there, but be careful. Let me put my new purse down. Oh, and I better take off these shoes. Zoey, you would not believe the sale you missed yesterday at Bakers. All of their summer shoes totally on closeout. I mean, serious closeout. Seventy percent off. I got five pairs for...."
"Help her up," I told Heath. "Now. It's the only way she'll stop talking."
Yep. Some things just didn't change.
Heath scooted around till he was on his belly, and then leaned down to offer his hands to Kayla. Giggling, she grabbed them and let him haul her up on top of the wall with us. And it was while she was giggling and he was hauling that I saw it--the unmistakable way Kayla grinned and giggled and blushed at Heath. I knew it as well as I knew I would never be a mathematician. Kayla liked Heath. Okay, not liked. She liked Heath.
Suddenly Heath's guilty comment about messing around on me at the party I'd missed made perfect sense.
"So how's Jared?" I asked abruptly, totally stopping K-babble's giggles.
"Okay, I guess," she said without meeting my eyes.
She moved her shoulders and I saw that under her very cute leather jacket she was wearing the tiny little cream lace cami we used to call the Boob Shirt, because not only did it show a lot of cleavage, but it was the color of skin, so it looked like it was showing even more than it actually was.
"I dunno. We haven't really talked much the past couple days or so."
She still wouldn't look at me, but she did glance at Heath, who looked clueless--but that was really his only look. So my best friend was going after my boyfriend. Now that pissed me off, and for a second I wished it wasn't such a nice warm night. I wished it was cold and Kayla would freeze her over-developed boobies right off.
From the north the wind whipped around us suddenly, viciously, bringing an almost frightening chill.
Trying not to look obvious, Kayla pulled her jacket closed and giggled again, this time nervously instead of flirtatiously, and I got another big whiff of beer, and something else. Something that had been so recently imprinted into my senses that I was surprised I hadn't smelled it right away.
"Kayla you've been drinking and smoking?"
She shivered and blinked at me like a very slow rabbit. "Just a couple. Beers, I mean. And, well, um, Heath had one little bitty joint and I was really, really scared to come here, so I just had a couple tiny hits off it."
"She needed some fortification," Heath said, but he's never been good with words over two syllables, so it sounded like fort-fi-ka-shun.
"Since when have you started smoking pot?" I asked Heath.
He grinned. "It's no big deal, Zo. I just have a joint once in a while. They're safer than cigarettes."
I really hated it when he called me Zo.
"Heath," I tried to sound patient. "They are not safer than cigarettes, and even if they are that's not saying much. Cigarettes are disgusting and they kill you. And, seriously, the biggest losers at school smoke pot. Besides the fact that you really can not afford to kill any more brain cells." I almost added "or sperms," but I didn't want to go there. Heath would definitely get the wrong idea if I made a reference to his man parts.
"Nu uh," Kayla said.
She was still clutching her jacket against the chill. Her eyes had changed from pitiful rabbit to sly, tail-twitchy cat. I recognized the change. She did it constantly with people she didn't consider part of her girlfriend group. It used to drive me crazy and I would yell at her and tell her she shouldn't be so mean. Now she was turning that crap on me?
"I said nu uh because not just losers smoke--at least not just once in a while. You know those two really hot running backs who play for Union, Chris Ford and Brad Higeons? I saw them at Katie's party the other night. They smoke."
"Hey, they're not that hot," Heath said.
Kayla ignored him and kept talking. "And Morgan smokes sometimes."
"Morgan, as in Morgie who's a Tigette?" Yes, I was pissed at K, but good gossip is good gossip.
"Yeah. She also just got her tongue and her"--K broke off and mouthed the word "clit"--"pierced. Can you imagine how much that must have hurt?"
"What? What did she get pierced?" Heath said.
"Nothing," K and I said together, for a moment sounding eerily like the best friends we used to be.
"Kayla, you're not staying on subject. Again. The Union football players have always been drug-happy. Hello! Please recall their steroid use, which is why it took sixteen years for us to beat them."
"Go, Tigers! Yeah, we kicked Union's ass!" Heath said. I rolled my eyes at him.
"And Morgan has clearly begun losing her mind, which is why she's piercing her..." I glanced at Heath and reconsidered. "Her body and smoking. Tell me someone normal who's smoking." K thought for a second. "Me!"
I sighed. "Look, I just don't think it's smart."
"Well, you don't always know everything." The hateful glint was back in her eyes.
I looked from her to Heath, and then back to her again. "Clearly, you're right. I don't know everything."
Her mean look turned startled and then flattened out to mean again, and I suddenly couldn't help comparing her to Stevie Rae, who, even though I'd only known for a couple days, I was absolutely, totally sure would not ever go after my boyfriend, whether he was an almost-ex or not. I also didn't think she would run away from me and treat me like I was a monster when I needed her the most.
"I think you should leave," I said to Kayla.
"Fine," she said.
"It's probably not a good idea for you to come back again, either."
She shrugged one shoulder so that her jacket fell open and I could see the thin strap of the cami slip down her shoulder, making it clear she wasn't wearing a bra.
"Whatever," she said.
"Help her get down, Heath."
Heath was generally pretty good at following simple directions, so he hoisted Kayla down. She grabbed the flashlight and looked back up at us.
"Hurry up, Heath. I'm getting really cold." Then she spun around and started marching off toward the road.
"Well...," Heath said a little awkwardly. "It did get cold all of a sudden."
"Yeah, it can quit now," I said absently, and didn't pay much attention when the wind suddenly stopped.
"Hey, uh, Zo. I really did come to bust you out."
"Huh?" Heath said.
"Heath, look at my forehead." "Yeah, you have that half moon thing. And it's colored in, which is weird because it wasn't colored in before."
"Well, it is now. Okay, Heath, focus. I've been Marked. That means that my body is going through the Change to become a vampyre."
Heath's eyes went from my Mark and traveled down my body. I saw them hesitate at my boobs and then my legs, which made me realize that they were showing all naked almost up to my crotch because my skirt had hiked up when I climbed on top of the wall.
"Zo, whatever's happening to your body is cool with me. You look seriously hot. You've always been beautiful, but now you look like a real goddess." He smiled at me and touched my cheek gently, reminding me why I've liked him so much for such a long time. Despite his faults, Heath could be really sweet, and he always made me feel completely beautiful.
"Heath," I said softly. "I'm sorry, but things have changed."
"Not with me they haven't." Taking me completely by surprise he leaned forward, slid a hand up over my knee and kissed me.
I jerked back and grabbed his wrist. "Stop it Heath! I'm trying to talk to you."
"How about you talk, and I kiss?" he whispered.
I started to tell him no again.
Then I felt it.
His pulse under my fingers.
It was beating hard and fast. I swear I could hear it, too. And as he leaned into me to kiss me again I could see the vein that ran along his neck. It moved, beating strong as the blood pumped through his body. Blood...His lips touched mine and I remembered the taste of the blood in the goblet. That blood had been cold and mixed with wine, and from a weak, loser kid who was a nothing. Heath's blood would be hot and rich...sweet...sweeter than Elliott the Refrigerator....
"Ow! Damn, Zoey. You scratched me!" He jerked his wrist from my hand. "Shit, Zo, you made me bleed. If you didn't want me to kiss you, all you had to do was say so."
He lifted his bleeding wrist to his mouth and sucked at the drop of blood that was glistening there. Then he raised his eyes to meet mine, and he froze. He had blood on his lips. I could smell it--it was like the wine, only better, worlds better. The scent of it wrapped around me and made the hair on my arms rise.
I wanted to taste it. I wanted to taste it more than anything I'd ever wanted in my life.
"I want..." I heard myself whisper in a voice I didn't know. "Yes...," Heath answered like he was in a trance. "Yes... whatever you want. I'll do whatever you want."
This time I leaned into him and touched my tongue to his lip, taking the drop of blood into my mouth where it exploded-- heat, sensation, and a rush of pleasure I'd never known.
"More," I rasped.
Like he'd lost the ability to speak and could only nod, Heath lifted his wrist to me. It was barely bleeding, and when I licked the tiny scarlet line Heath moaned. The touch of my tongue seemed to do something to the scratch, because instantly it started dripping blood, faster...faster...My hands were shaking as I raised his wrist to my mouth and pressed my lips against his warm skin. I shivered and moaned in pleasure and--
"Oh my God! What are you doing to him!" Kayla's voice was a scream that pierced through the scarlet fog in my brain. I dropped Heath's wrist as though it had burned me.
"Get away from him!" Kayla was shrieking. "Leave him alone!" Heath didn't move.
"Go," I told him. "Go and don't ever come back."
"No," he said, looking and sounding oddly sober.
"Yes. Get out of here."
"Let him go!" Kayla yelled.
"Kayla, if you don't shut up I'll fly down there and suck every last bit of blood from your stupid cheating cow body!" I spit the words at her.
She squealed and took off. I turned back to Heath, who was still staring at me.
"Now you need to go, too."
"I'm not scared of you, Zo."
"Heath, I'm scared of me enough for both of us."
"But I don't mind what you did. I love you, Zoey. More now than I ever have."
"Stop it!" I didn't mean to yell, but I caused him to flinch at the power that had filled my words. I swallowed hard and calmed my voice. "Just go. Please." Then, searching for some way to make him leave I added, "Kayla's probably going to get the cops right now. Neither of us needs that."
"Okay, I'll go. But I won't stay away." He kissed me hard and quick. I felt a white-hot stab of pleasure when I tasted the blood that was still on our lips. Then he slid down the wall and disappeared into the darkness until all I could see of him was the little dot of light from his flashlight, and then, finally, not even that.
I wouldn't let myself think. Not yet. Moving methodically, like a robot, I used the branch to steady myself as I climbed down. My knees were shaking so badly that I was able to walk only the couple of feet to the tree where I sank down on the ground, pressing my back against the security of its ancient bark. Nala materialized, hopping into my lap as if she'd been my cat for years instead of minutes, and as my sobs started she crawled from my lap to my chest to press her warm face against my wet cheek.
After what seemed like a long time my sobs turned to hiccups and I wished I hadn't run out of the rec hall without my purse. I could really use a Kleenex.
"Here. You look like you need this."
Nala complained as I jumped in surprise at the voice, and blinked up through my tears to see someone handing me a tissue. "Th-thanks," I said, taking it and wiping my nose.
"No problem," Erik Night said.