I ACTED SURPRISED WHEN MOM GOT off the phone that Monday morning and told me Steve had recovered. She was excited and did a little dance with me and Annie in the kitchen.
"He snapped out of it by himself?" Dad asked.
"Yes," she said. "The doctors can't understand it, but nobody's complaining!"
"Incredible," Dad muttered.
"Maybe it's a miracle," Annie said, and I had to turn my head aside to hide my smile. Some miracle!
While Mom went off to see Mrs. Leonard, I started out for school. I was half-afraid the sunlight would burn me when I left the house, but of course it didn't. Mr. Crepsley had told me I would be able to move around during the day.
I wondered, from time to time, if it had been a bad dream. It seemed crazy, looking back. Deep down I knew it was real, but I tried believing otherwise, and sometimes almost did.
The part I hated most was the thought of being stuck in this body for so long. How would I explain it to Mom and Dad and everybody else? I'd look silly after a couple of years, especially at school, stuck in a class with people who looked older than me.
I went to visit Steve on Tuesday. He was sitting up, watching TV, eating a box of chocolates. He was delighted to see me and told me about his stay in the hospital, the food, the games nurses brought him to play with, the presents that were piling up.
"I'll have to get bitten by poisonous spiders more often," he joked.
"I wouldn't make a habit of it if I were you," I told him. "You might not get well next time."
He studied me thoughtfully. "You know, the doctors are baffled," he said. "They don't know what made me sick and they don't know how I recovered."
"You didn't tell them about Madam Octa?" I asked.
"No," he said. "There didn't seem much point. It would have meant trouble for you."
"What happened to her?" he asked. "What did you do with her after she bit me?"
"I killed her," I lied. "I got mad and stomped her to death."
"Really? "he asked.
He nodded slowly, never taking his eyes off me. "When I first woke up," he said, I thought I saw you. I must have been mistaken, because it was the middle of the night. But it was a lifelike dream. I even thought I saw someone with you, tall and ugly, dressed in red, with orange hair and a long scar down the left side of his face."
I didn't say anything. I couldn't. I looked down at the floor and squeezed my hands together.
"Another funny thing," he said. "The nurse who discovered me awake swore there were two people in the room, a man and a boy. The doctors think it was her mind playing tricks and said it doesn't matter. Strange, though, isn't it?"
"Very strange," I agreed, unable to look him in the eye.
I began noticing changes in myself over the next couple of days. I found it hard getting to sleep when I went to bed, and kept waking in the middle of the night. My hearing improved and I was able to hear people talking from far away. In school, I could listen to voices from the next two rooms, almost as if there were no walls between my class and theirs.
I began to get in better shape. I was able to run around the yard during break and lunch without working up a sweat. Nobody could keep up with me. I was also more aware of my body and was able to control it. I could make a soccer ball do pretty much what I wanted, dribbling around opponents at will. I scored sixteen goals on Thursday.
I grew stronger, too. I was able to do push-ups and pull-ups now, as many as I liked. I didn't have new muscles none that I could see but there was a strength flowing through me that hadn't been there before. I had yet to test it properly but I believed it might be immense.
I tried hiding my new talents but it was difficult. I explained away the running and soccer skills by saying I was exercising and practicing a lot more, but other things were trickier.
Like when the bell rang on Thursday at the end of lunch. The ball had just been kicked into the air by the goalie who I'd put sixteen goals past. It was coming toward me, so I stuck up my right hand to catch it. I did, but as I squeezed, my nails sunk in and burst it!
And when I was eating dinner at home that night, I wasn't concentrating. I could hear our next-door neighbors having a fight and I was listening to their argument. I was eating french fries and hot dogs, and after a while I noticed the food was tougher than it should have been. I glanced down and realized I'd bitten the head off the fork and was chewing it to pieces! Luckily, no one saw, and I was able to slip it into the wastebasket as I was washing up.
Steve called that night. He'd been let out of the hospital. He was supposed to take things easy for a few days and not come to school until after the weekend, but he said he was going crazy with boredom and had persuaded his mother to let him come tomorrow.
"You mean you want to come to school?" I asked, shocked.
"Sounds weird, doesn't it?" He laughed. "Normally I'm looking for an excuse to stay home. Yet now, when I have one, I want to go! But you don't know how dull it is being stuck indoors alone all the time. It was fun for a couple of days, but a whole week of it...brrr!"
I thought of telling Steve the truth but wasn't sure how he'd take it. He had wanted to become a vampire. I didn't think he'd like knowing Mr. Crepsley had picked me instead of him.
And telling Annie was out of the question. She hadn't mentioned Madam Octa since Steve recovered but I often found her watching me. I don't know what was going through her head, but my guess is it was something like: "Steve got better, but it wasn't because of you. You had the chance to save him and you didn't. You told a lie and risked his life, just so you wouldn't get into trouble. Would you have done the same if it had been me?"
Steve was the center of attention that Friday. The whole class crowded around and begged for his story. They wanted to know what had poisoned him, how he'd survived, what the hospital had been like, if they'd operated on him, if he had any scars, and so on.
"I don't know what bit me," he said. "I was at Darren's house. I was sitting by the window. I heard a noise but before I could look to see what it was, I got bitten and passed out." This was the story we had agreed upon when I went to visit him at the hospital.
I felt stranger than ever that Friday. I spent the morning gazing around the classroom, feeling out of place. It seemed so pointless. "I shouldn't be here," I kept thinking. "I'm not a normal kid anymore. I should be out earning my living as a vampire's assistant. What good will English, history, and geography do me now? This isn't my scene."
Tommy and Alan told Steve about my skill on the soccer field. "He's running like the wind these days," Alan said.
"And playing like Pele," Tommy added.
"Really?" Steve asked, looking at me oddly. "What's brought on the big change, Darren?"
"There isn't any change," I lied. "I'm just on a roll. I'm lucky."
"Listen to Mr. Modest!" Tommy laughed. "Mr. Dalton has said he might put him at forward for the under-seventeen soccer team. Imagine one of us playing for the under-seventeens! Nobody our age has ever made that team."
"No," Steve mused. "They haven't."
"Aw, it's just Dalton talking," I said, trying to brush it aside.
"Maybe," Steve said. "Maybe?
I played badly that lunchtime, on purpose. I could tell Steve was suspicious. I don't think he knew what was going on, but he sensed something was different about me. I ran slowly and missed chances I normally would have put away even without the special powers.
My ploy worked. By the end of the game he'd stopped studying my every move and was beginning to joke with me again. But then something happened that ruined everything.
Alan and me were running for the same ball. He shouldn't have been going for it, because I was closest. But Alan was a little younger than the rest of us and sometimes acted stupidly. I thought about pulling back but I was sick of playing badly. Lunch was almost over and I wanted to score at least one goal. So I decided, "The hell with Alan Morris. That's my ball and if he gets in my way, tough!"
We clashed with each other just before reaching the ball. Alan gave a yell and went flying. I laughed, trapped the ball under my foot, and turned toward goal.
The sight of blood stopped me in my tracks.
Alan had landed awkwardly and cut his left knee. It was a bad gash and blood was welling up. He had started to cry and was making no move to cover it with a tissue or scrap of cloth.
Somebody kicked the ball away from beneath my foot and ran off with it. I took no notice. My eyes were focused on Alan. More specifically, on Alan's knee. More specifically still, on Alan's blood.
I took a step toward him. Then another. I was standing over him now, blocking the light. He gazed up and must have seen something odd in my face, because he stopped crying and stared at me uneasily.
I dropped to my knees and, before I knew what I was doing, I had covered the cut on his leg with my mouth and was sucking out his blood and gulping it down!
This went on for a few seconds. My eyes were closed and the blood filled my mouth. It tasted amazing. I'm not sure how much I would have drank or how much harm I would have done to Alan. Luckily, I didn't get the chance to find out.
I became aware of people around me and opened my eyes. Nearly everyone had stopped playing and was staring at me in horror. I removed my lips from Alan's knee and looked around at my friends, wondering how to explain this.
Then the solution hit me and I jumped up and spread my arms. "I am the vampire lord!" I yelled. "I am the king of the undead! I will suck the blood from all of you!"
They stared at me in shock, then laughed. They thought it was a joke! They thought I was only pretending to be a vampire.
"You're a nut, Shan," somebody said.
"That's gross!" a girl squealed as fresh blood dripped down my chin. "You should be locked away!"
The bell rang and it was time to return to class. I was feeling pleased with myself. I thought I'd fooled everybody. But then I noticed someone near the back of the crowd and my joy faded. It was Steve, and his dark face told me he knew exactly what had happened. He hadn't been fooled at all. He knew.