Pressing my lips together, I slowly shrugged. I actually worried a lot. “I just miss him.”
“So, why’d you decide to move away from your real mom?”
Gulp. “Uh, to be with my dad.”
Emily nodded. “Do you like it here?”
After a deep breath, I looked down at the mildly busy street, then tilted my face into the warming sun as it melted the early-morning chill from my cheeks. “It’s not like home. It’s not hot and dry, and there’s no ocean in the distance, no black cockatoos on the lampposts, but—”
“But you still like it?”
“Well, good—” she nudged me with her elbow, “—because you’re starting to grow on us, Ara. Everyone was really disappointed you weren’t there last night—at Betty’s.”
“Yeah.” I smiled sheepishly and looked down at my untied shoelace, dangling, wet and muddy, from my sneaker. “I wasn’t feeling well.”
“I know. I saw the whole save me, David, save me thing—” she held her forearm to her brow, pretending to fall backward a little, then dropped her hand, smiling. “He was really worried about you, you know?”
“I know. I’m sorry. It’s just because I didn’t eat.”
“I know. He said you called last night.”
“Yeah.” She looked up then as a car pulled into Spencer’s driveway. “Oh, I gotta go. My mom’s here.”
I stood up and dusted the loose pebbles of asphalt from my shorts. “Okay, Em. I’ll see ya later.”
“Are you coming to school today?” she asked.
“Nah, Dad’ll give me the day off after what happened yesterday.”
“Okay, well, don’t be a stranger.” She walked backward toward the burgundy car.
I waved and turned toward home, then walked the rest of the street and landed, in a huffing mess, on the porch step near Vicki’s grey cat. “Hey, Skitz.”
He ducked low, growling at me.
“What?” I leaned forward, the creaky step dipping under my weight as I reached for the cat. But I drew my hand back when his growl intensified, moving deeper to the back of his throat, his tail lashing about. Then I noticed something grey and wriggly between his paws, and it wasn’t his fat belly coming to life, either. It was a field mouse.
“Hey, way to go, Skitz. Good little hunter, aren’t ya?”
He scoured the scene—probably making sure it was safe to unveil his prey—then tossed the mouse into the air and caught it in his teeth, pausing to scrutinize me.
“Gross.” Time to go inside. I stood up quickly, but my heel shattered the step under my foot—dragging my shin through before my knee smashed into the edge of the top step, sending me forward onto my hands. Without thinking, I rolled over and pulled my leg free from the wooden cage, scraping the flesh back the other way, making it sting as a mix of blood and sweat smeared into the shredded skin.
“Ow! Ow! Ow!” I hugged my knee, watching a purple line appear where it had cracked the upper step.
Not bothering to see if I was okay, Skittles bolted off with his catch of the day. “Traitor!” I yelled, blinking back tears.
“Ara? Are you okay, dear?” I jumped a little as the front door swung open, disturbing the quiet. “What happened?”
“Had a fight with the porch step—” I took a breath through my teeth, rocking back and forth. “Step won.”
Vicki tilted her head and sighed. “I told Greg to fix that weeks ago. I’ll go get the first aid kit.” She ran inside, leaving the front door open, and quickly came back to sit beside me on the remains of the once creaky bottom step. “What were you doing out here anyway, Ara? It’s very early.”
I winced as she smoothed some sterile solution down the minced skin on my shin. “I went jogging.”
She stopped for a second. “I didn’t know you were jogging again. That’s really good to hear.” She sounded pleased—with herself.
“Yeah. Guess it is.” Except, it wasn’t a sign of my recovery, but more of my isolation and desperate need to figure my own head out.
“Did you see Skittles out here, by any chance? I thought I heard his bell. He has a vet appointment this morning and I want to bathe him before we go.” She grinned.
“Yeah, well, he’ll need one now,” I said.
“Why?” She covered the cut with some gauze and tape.
“He caught himself a nice, juicy mouse,” I probed, watching her face for disgust. It licked her expression without any further prompting. Sam would definitely be bathing Skittles now. Victory move. I one-upped him and he wouldn’t even know it was me.
“Why would you let him do that, Ara? You know how I feel about that.”
“Why?” I scoffed. “Vicki, he’s a cat—they kill mice. It’s what they’re supposed to do.” And as soon as I said it, everything slowed down around me. The cat killed. I praised him for it. I all but patted his head not more than two minutes ago. But I’d never punished him. And yet, for some reason, I’d been punishing David for doing exactly the same thing, in the only way I knew how; by denying him my heart. Deep down, the real truth I didn’t want to face was not that he was a vampire, but that, like he said, if I loved him, then there must be something wrong with me. But I loved him anyway—for who he was, vampirism aside. Mouse catching aside. David wouldn’t kill if it weren’t necessary. He was a good, kind person, but also a vampire. It wasn’t the same thing.
Vicki waved her hand in front of my face. “Ara, are you all right, dear?”
Blinking, I snapped out of my trance. “Uh, yeah. I’m fine.”
“Well, come on, we’ll go inside and yell at Dad for not fixing that step.” She took my hand and helped me to stand.
“Actually, Vicki, I think I’ll just go sit on the swing for a bit.”
“Okay.” She frowned, then smiled. “Well, I’ll be inside if you need to talk.”
She nodded and walked back up the stairs. When the front door closed, my smile dropped. I stumbled clumsily over the hedge fence at the side of the house and into the backyard. Then, as I righted myself and looked up—met with the eyes of a vampire. “David?”
Perfect as always, he leaned casually against the oak tree, with one hand in his pocket and a very sexy smile across his lips. “Hello Ara,” his tone seemed to sing the words.
David looked down at his feet as he shuffled up, very human-like, from his lean against the trunk. I loved it when he looked human. “Can we talk?” He offered his hand.
“I, uh—” I looked at his long, outstretched fingers. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Oh.” He dropped his hand. “Okay…I’ll go then.”
“No. I—” I stepped forward, reaching for him. “I don’t want you to leave. It’s just—” I smiled sheepishly down at my bleeding leg.
His eyes followed mine, his brow pinching when he saw the gauze. “What happened?”
I flopped down on the ground in an exhausted heap, my legs and arms sprawled out to the sides. “Apparently I’m heavier than I used to be.”
He laughed, gently bending my sore leg at the knee as he squatted down. I tensed a little, rolling up at the waist to watch him rest a sweet kiss to the purple bruise. “You will never have to be afraid of me, Ara.”
“Yes.” He extended his hand and helped me to sit up. “And it would take a lot more than a line of blood across your skin to make me hurt you.”
“No.” He sat down across from me.
“Then, it doesn’t make you want to bi—”
“Shh.” He placed his finger to my lip and nodded toward something behind me.
“Vicki.” He looked back at me. “She’s watching us from the laundry.”
“Well…what’s she doing in there—just watching us?”
“What?” I spun around to see her struggling with something in the sink—something smudgy and dark-grey—almost slimy, with claw-ending tendrils thrashing out of the tub every few seconds. “Why is she bathing the cat?”
“I assure you, I have no idea.”
I turned back, folding my arms, probably wearing a scowl, too. “It was a rhetorical question. Sam was supposed to be doing it—as payback for…well…never mind.” I didn’t want to tell him I mucked around with my little brother like a seven-year-old. “Those deep scratches were meant to be for him.”
“If you want to get back at Sam for hitting you with a towel—”
“How do you know about that?”
David only smiled, ignoring that question. “You might try stashing dirty cups in his room for Vicki to find, then perhaps she will punish him with the dishes for the next month.”
“When it comes to little brothers, yes, I have a few tricks up my sleeve.”
“So, um…” I checked behind me, then whispered, “Can we go somewhere? Talk?”
“Would you like to change first?” David grinned, nodding toward my shorts and zip-up jacket, but stared just a little too long at the space right below my navel.
If only I knew what he was thinking then, when he looked at me that way.
His lips moved, twitching, while his smiling eyes changed shape several times. “Go get changed. I’ll meet you in the car.”
“But—” I said, stopping when my words struck an empty yard. “Damn it, David.” I stood up, dusted myself off and went to get changed.
The warm air of the fading summer skimmed across the glassy surface of the lake, filling my lungs with the scent of grass and clay. “I never thought I’d see this place again.”
“Why would you think that?” David smiled, already laid out on the picnic rug.
“Well, because, obviously, this place has no hold for me without you in it.”
“So, you weren’t planning to see me again.” He nodded to himself.
“It’s not that. I just…I thought, you know, after I broke up with you the other day that, maybe, I wouldn’t get the chance.”
“I wasn’t going to give up on you that easily.” He paused then, thoughtful. “Does it make you afraid? To be here alone with a vampire?”
“It’s no different to before, really.” I slumped on the rug, across from David, tucking my dress under my legs as I sat. “I’ve always been out here alone—with a vampire.”
I twiddled my fingers in my lap. “I was wrong to react that way, David. I’m not repulsed by you, not really. I just…I have to separate it in my mind; this boy I’m in love with from this vampire who kills.”
“Why do you separate it? Why not just accept it—accept me, for what I am?”
“I guess I accept it in my own way. It’s like, I mean, if you were lost in the wild after a plane crash and had to eat the pilot to survive, no one would think anything of it. Humans are the element of your survival, and…I don’t think that changes who you are inside.”
“Of course it does, my love. You said it yourself—you couldn’t see me being a guy who liked blood and gore. If I kill, if I enjoy killing, that has to change what you thought I was.”
After thinking about that for a second, feeling the pull of nerves in my throat, I shook my head. “No. You’re a good guy. I know you are.”
“I am now. I wasn’t before I met you.”
“Are you trying to convince me to hate you?”
“No. Only make you realise that you can’t just say you accept me for who I am. I am a vampire. I kill people. Some of them you may have met. If you accept me, you have to accept me for everything I am. Not just the lie you tell yourself.”
He nodded. “Baby steps. Fine. But we don’t have much time.”
“It’s okay. Making the decision to accept that I still love you was the hard part. I should move along from despise and repulsion quite quickly after that.”
“Extreme bliss, hilarity—the mind’s way of dealing with what it doesn’t understand.”
“But, you’re not about to come hunting with me or anything, are you?” He smirked.