Chapter TWENTY-THREE

 

I STOOD BY THE WINDOW, expecting him to turn into a bat and come flying up, but he did nothing apart from shake the cage gently to make sure Madam Octa was all right.

Then, still smiling, he turned and walked away. Within a matter of seconds he had been swallowed from sight by the night.

I shut the window and fled to the safety of my bed, where my mind turned inside out with questions. How long had he been down there? If he knew where Madam Octa was, why hadn't he taken her before this? I thought he'd be furious, but he seemed amused. Why hadn't he ripped out my throat like Steve said he would?

Sleep was impossible. I was more terrified now than I had been the night after stealing the spider. Back then I could tell myself that he didn't know who I was and therefore couldn't find me.

I thought about telling Dad. After all, a vampire knew where we lived and had reason to bear a grudge against us. Dad should know. He should be warned and given a chance to prepare a defense. But...

He wouldn't believe me. Especially not now that Madam Octa was gone. I imagined trying to convince him that vampires were real, that one had been to our house and might come back. He'd think I was insane.

I was able to snooze a little when dawn rolled around, because I knew the vampire couldn't launch an attack until sunset. It wasn't much of a sleep, but even a small amount of rest did me good and I was able to think clearly when I woke. I realized, as I thought it over, that I had no reason to be afraid. If the vampire had wanted to kill me, he could have done it last night when I was unprepared. For some reason, he didn't want me dead, at least not yet.

With that worry off my mind, I could focus on Steve and my real problem: whether to reveal the truth or not. Mom had stayed at the hospital all night, taking care of Mrs. Leonard, calling around to let friends and neighbors know of Steve's illness. If she had been home, I might have told her, but the thought of telling Dad filled me with dread.

Ours was a very quiet house that Sunday. Dad cooked eggs and sausages for breakfast, and burned them as he normally does when he cooks, but we didn't complain. I hardly even tasted the food as I gulped it down. I wasn't hungry. The only reason I ate was to pretend it was any other average Sunday.

Mom called as we were finishing. She had a long talk with Dad. He didn't say much, only nodded and grunted. Annie and I sat still, trying to hear what was being said. He came in and sat down when he was finished talking.

"How is he?" I asked.

"Not good," Dad said. "The doctors don't know what to make of it. It seems Annie was right: it is poison. But not like any they know. They've sent samples to experts in other hospitals, and hopefully one of them will know more about it. But..." He shook his head.

"Will he die?" Annie asked quietly.

"Maybe," Dad said, being honest. I was glad for that. All too often adults lie to kids about serious matters. I'd rather know the truth about death than be lied to.

Annie started to cry. Dad picked her up and perched her on his lap. "Hey, now, there's no need to cry," he said. "It's not over yet. He's still alive. He's breathing and his brain doesn't seem to have been affected. If they can figure out a way to fight the poison in his body, he should be fine."

"How long does he have?" I asked.

Dad shrugged. "The way he is, they could keep him alive for a long time with machines."

"You mean like someone in a coma?" I asked.

"Exactly."

"How long before they have to start using machines?" I asked.

"A few days, they think," Dad answered. "They can't say for sure, seeing as how they don't know what they're dealing with, but they think it will be a couple of days before his respiratory and coronary systems begin to shut down."

"His what?" Annie asked between sobs.

"His lungs and heart," Dad explained. "As long as those are working, he's alive. They have to use a drip to feed him but otherwise he's okay. It's when if he stops breathing by himself that the trouble really begins."

A couple of days. It wasn't much. The day before, he'd had a whole lifetime to look forward to. Now he had a couple of days.

"Can I go see him?" I asked.

"This afternoon, if you feel up to it," Dad said. "I'll feel up to it," I vowed.

The hospital was busier this time, packed with visitors. I'd never seen so many boxes of chocolates and flowers. Everybody seemed to be carrying one or the other. I wanted to buy something for Steve at the hospital store but had no money.

I expected Steve to be in the children's ward but he was in a room by himself, because the doctors wanted to study him, and also because they weren't sure if what he had was catching. We had to wear masks and gloves and long green gowns when we entered.

Mrs. Leonard was asleep in a chair. Mom made a sign for us to be quiet. She gave us hugs, one by one, then spoke to Dad.

"A couple of results have come in from other hospitals," she told him, her voice muffled by the mask. "All negative."

"Surely someone knows what this is," Dad said. "How many different types of poison can there be?"

"Thousands," she said. "They've sent specimens to foreign hospitals. Hopefully one of them will have a record of it, but it's going to be some time before they get back to us."

I studied Steve while they were talking. He was tucked neatly into the bed. A drip was attached to one arm, and wires and stuff to his chest. There were needle marks where doctors had taken samples of his blood. His face was white and stiff. He looked terrible!

I started crying and couldn't stop. Mom put her arms around me and hugged me tight, but that only made it worse. I tried telling her about the spider but I was crying too much for my words to be heard. Mom kept hugging and kissing and shushing me, and eventually I quit trying.

New visitors arrived, relatives of Steve's, and Mom decided to leave them alone with him and his mother. She led us out, removed my mask, and wiped the tears from my face with a tissue.

"There," she said. "That's better." She smiled and tickled me until I grinned back. "He'll be okay," she promised. "I know he looks bad, but the doctors are doing all they can. We have to trust them and hope for the best, okay?"

"Okay," I sighed.

"I thought he looked pretty good," Annie said, squeezing my hand. I smiled thankfully at her.

"Are you coming home now?" Dad asked Mom.

"I'm not sure," she said. "I think I should stick around a little longer in case..."

"Angela, you've done enough for the time being," Dad said firmly. "I bet you didn't get any sleep last night, did you?"

"Not much," Mom admitted.

"And if you stay on now, you won't get any today either. Come on, Angie, let's go." Dad calls Mom ?Angie? when he's trying to sweet-talk her into something. "There are other people who can look after Steve and his mother. Nobody expects you to do everything."

"All right," she agreed. "But I'm coming back tonight to see if they need me."

"Fair enough," he said, and led the way out to the car. It hadn't been much of a visit but I didn't complain. I was glad to get away.

I thought about Steve as we drove home, how he looked and why he looked that way. I thought about the poison in his veins and felt pretty sure the doctors would fail to cure it. I bet no doctor in the world had ever come across poison from a spider like Madam Octa before.

However bad Steve had looked, I knew he'd look a lot worse after another couple of days. I imagined him hooked up to a breathing machine, his face covered with a mask, tubes sticking into him. It was a horrible thought.

There was only one way to save Steve. Only one person who might know about the poison and how to beat it.

Mr. Crepsley.

As we pulled into the driveway back home and got out of the car, I made up my mind: I was going to track him down and make him do what he could to help Steve. As soon as it got dark, I'd sneak out and find the vampire, wherever he might be. And if I couldn't force it out of him and come back with a cure...

...I wouldn't come back at all.

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