At first glance my step-loser, John Heifer, 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. Heifer. 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.

"Get thee behind me, Satan!" he quoted in what I like to think of as his sermon voice.

I sighed. "It's not Satan. It's just me."

"Now is not the time for sarcasm, Zoey," Mom said.

"I'll handle this, hon," the step-loser said, patting her shoulder absently before he turned his attention back to me. "I told you that your bad behavior and your attitude problem would catch up with you. I'm not even surprised it happened this soon."

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 Heifer, 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 smart- ass 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.



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