THE AMBULANCE ATTENDANTS ASKED MY mother if Steve was diabetic or epileptic. She wasn't sure but didn't think so. They also asked about allergies and everything, but she explained that she wasn't his mother and didn't know.

I thought they'd take us with them in the ambulance, but they said there wasn't room. They got Steve's phone number and the name of his mom, but she wasn't home. One of the attendants asked my mother if she'd follow them to the hospital, to fill out as many of the forms as she could, so they could make a start. She agreed and bundled me and Annie into the car. Dad still wasn't home, so she called him on his cell phone to explain where we'd be. He said he'd come right over.

That was a miserable ride. I sat in the back, trying not to meet Annie's eye, knowing I should tell the truth, but too afraid to. What made it even worse was, I knew if I was the one lying in a coma, Steve would own up immediately.

"What happened in there?" Mom asked over her shoulder. She was driving as fast as she could without breaking the speed limit, so she wasn't able to look back at me. I was glad: I don't think I could have lied straight to her face.

"I'm not sure," I said. "We were chatting. Then I had to go to the bathroom. When I got back..."

"You didn't see anything?" she asked.

"No," I lied, feeling my ears reddening with shame.

"I can't understand it," she muttered. "He felt so stiff and his skin was turning blue. I thought he was dead."

"I think he was bitten," Annie said. I almost gave her a dig in the ribs, but at the last second remembered I was depending on her to keep my secret.

"Bitten?" Mom asked.

"There were a couple of marks on his neck," Annie said.

"I saw them," Mom said. "But I don't think that's it, dear."

"Why not?" Annie asked. "If a snake or a... spider got in and bit him..." She glanced over at me and blushed a little, recalling her promise.

"A spider?" Mom shook her head. "No, dear, spiders don't go around biting people and sending them into shock, not around here."

"So what was it?" Annie asked.

"I'm not sure," Mom replied. "Maybe he ate something that didn't agree with him, or had a heart attack."

"Children don't have heart attacks," Annie retorted.

"They do," Mom said. "It's rare, but it can happen. Still, the doctors will sort all that out. They know more about these things than we do."

I wasn't used to hospitals, so I spent some time looking around while Mom was filling out the forms. It was the whitest place I'd ever seen: white walls, white floors, white uniforms. It wasn't very busy but there was a buzz to the place, a sound of bed springs and coughing, machines humming, doctors speaking softly.

We didn't say much while sitting there. Mom said Steve had been admitted and was being examined but it might be a while before they discovered what was wrong. "They sounded optimistic," she said.

Annie was thirsty, so Mom sent me with her to get drinks from the machine around the corner. Annie glanced around while I was putting in the coins, to make sure nobody could overhear.

"How long are you going to wait?" she asked.

"Until I hear what they have to say," I told her. "We'll let them examine him. Hopefully they'll know what sort of poison it is and be able to cure him by themselves."

"And if they can't?" she asked.

"Then I tell them," I promised.

"What if he dies before that?" she asked softly.

"He won't," I said.

"But what if..."

"He won't!" I snapped. "Don't talk like that. Don't even think like that. We have to hope for the best. We must believe he will pull through. Mom and Dad have always told us good thoughts help make sick people better, haven't they? He needs us to believe in him."

"He needs the truth more," she grumbled, but let the matter drop. We took the drinks back to the couch and drank in silence.

Dad arrived not long after, still in his work clothes. He kissed Mom and Annie and squeezed my shoulder. His dirty hands left grease marks on my T-shirt, but that didn't bother me.

"Any news?" he asked.

"None yet," Mom said. "They're examining him. It could be hours before we hear anything."

"What happened to him, Angela?" Dad asked.

"We don't know yet," Mom said. "We'll have to wait and see."

"I hate waiting," Dad grumbled, but since he had no other choice, he had to, the same as the rest of us.

Nothing else happened for a couple of hours, until Steve's mom arrived. Her face was white like Steve's, and her lips were pinched together. She made straight for me, grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me hard. "What have you done to him?" she screeched. "Have you hurt my boy? Have you killed my Steve?"

"Hey! Stop that!" Dad gasped.

Steve's mom ignored him. "What have you done?" she screamed again, and shook me even harder. I tried to say NNothing? but my teeth were clattering. "What have you done? What have you done?" she repeated, then suddenly stopped shaking me, let go, and collapsed to the floor, where she bawled like a baby.

Mom got off the couch and crouched beside Mrs. Leonard. She stroked the back of her head and whispered soothing words to her, then helped her up and sat down with her. Mrs. Leonard was still crying, and was now moaning about what a bad mother she'd been and how much Steve hated her."

"You two go and play somewhere else," Mom said to Annie and me. We started away. "Darren," Mom called me back. "Don't pay attention to what she was saying. She doesn't blame you. She's just afraid."

I nodded miserably. What would Mom say if she knew Mrs. Leonard was right and I was to blame?

Annie and me found a couple of video games to keep us busy. I didn't think I'd be able to play but after a few minutes I forgot about Steve and the hospital and got caught up in the games. It was nice to slip away from the worries of the real world for a while, and if I hadn't run out of quarters, I might have stayed there all night.

When we returned to the waiting room, Mrs. Leonard had calmed down and was off with Mom, filling out forms, Annie and I sat and the waiting began all over again.

Annie began yawning about ten o'clock and that set me off, too. Mom took one look at us and ordered us home. I started to argue but she cut me short.

"You can't do any good here," she said. "I'll call as soon as I hear anything, even if it's the middle of the night, okay?"

I hesitated. This would be my final chance to mention the spider. I came very close to spilling the beans, but I was tired and couldn't find the words. "Okay," I said glumly, then left.

Dad drove us home. I wondered what he'd do if I told him about the spider, Mr. Crepsley, and the rest. He would have punished me, I'm sure, but that's not why I didn't tell him: I kept quiet because I knew he'd be ashamed of the way I'd lied and put my own well-being before Steve's. I was afraid he'd hate me.

Annie was asleep by the time we got home. Dad lifted her in from the backseat and took her to bed. I walked slowly up to my room and got undressed. I kept cursing myself under my breath.

Dad looked in as I was putting my clothes away. "Will you be okay?" he asked. I nodded. "Steve will recover," he said. "I'm sure of it. The doctors know their stuff. They'll bring him around."

I nodded again, not trusting myself to answer. Dad stood in the doorway a moment longer, then sighed, left, and stomped downstairs to his study.

I was hanging my pants up in the closet when I noticed Madam Octa's cage. Slowly, I pulled it out. She was lying in the middle, breathing easily, calm as ever.

I studied the colorful spider and wasn't impressed by what I saw. She was bright, yes, but ugly and hairy and nasty. I began to hate her. She was the real villain, the one who bit Steve for no good reason. I had fed her and cared for her and played with her. This was how she repaid me.

"You stupid monster!" I snarled, shaking the cage. "You ungrateful creep!"

I gave the cage another shake. Her legs gripped the bars tightly. This made me madder and I yanked the cage roughly from side to side, trying to make her lose her grip, hoping to hurt her.

I spun in a circle, whirling the cage around by the handle. I was swearing, calling her every name under the sun, wishing she was dead, wishing I'd never set eyes on her, wishing I had the guts to take her out of the cage and squeeze her to death.

Finally, as my rage reached its boiling point, I hurled the cage as far away from me as possible. I wasn't looking where I was throwing, and got a shock when I saw it sail through the open window and out into the night.

I watched it flying away, then hurried after it. I was scared it would hit the ground and break open, because I knew if the doctors weren't able to save Steve by themselves, they might be able to with the help of Madam Octa: if they studied her, they might find out how to cure him. But if she escaped...

I rushed to the window. I was too late to grab for the cage but at least I could see where it landed. I watched as it floated out and down, praying it wouldn't break. It seemed to take forever to fall.

Just before it hit the ground, a hand darted out from the shadows of the night and snatched it from the air.

A hand?!

I leaned forward quickly for a better view. It was a dark night and at first I couldn't see who was down there. But then the person stepped forward and all was revealed.

First, I saw his wrinkly hands holding the cage. Then his long red clothes. Then his cropped orange hair. Then his long ugly scar. And, finally, his sharp toothy grin.

It was Mr. Crepsley. The vampire.

And he was smiling up at me!