Secret Vampire (Chapter 12)

Poppy was lying there on the white velvet lining, eyes shut. She looked very pale and strangely beautiful-but was she dead?

"Wake up," James said. He put his hand on hers.Phillip had the feeling that he was calling with hismind as well as his voice.

There was an agonizingly long minute while nothing happened. James put his other hand under Poppy's neck, lifting her just slightly. "Poppy, it's time.

Wake up. Wake up."

Poppy's eyelashes fluttered.

Something jarred violently in Phillip. He wanted togive a yell of victory and pound the grass. He alsowanted to run way. Finally he just collapsed by thegraveside, his knees giving out altogether.

"Come on, Poppy. Get up. We have to go." James

was speaking in a gentle, insistent voice, as if he weretalking to someone coming out of anesthesia.

Which was exactly how Poppy looked. As Philwatched with fascination and awe and dread, sheblinked and rolled her head a little, then opened her eyes. She shut them again almost immediately, butJames went on talking to her, and the next time she opened them they stayed open.

Then, with James urging her gently, she sat up. "Poppy, "Phil said. An involuntary outburst. His chest was swelling, burning.

Poppy looked up, then squinted and turned immediately from the beam of the flashlight. She lookedannoyed.

"Come on," James said, helping her out of theopen half of the casket. It wasn't hard; Poppy was small. With James holding her arm, she stood on theclosed half of the casket, and Phil reached into the hole and pulled her up.

Then, with somethinglike a convulsion,hehugged her.

When he pulled back, she blinked at him. A slightfrown puckered her forehead. She licked her indexfinger and drew the wet finger across his cheek.

"You're filthy," she said.

She could talk. She didn't have red eyes and achalky face. She was really alive.

Weak with relief, Phil hugged her again. "Oh, God,Poppy, you're okay. You're okay."

He barely noticed that she wasn't hugging himback.

James scrambled out of the hole. "How do you feel, Poppy?" he said. Not a politeness. A quiet, probing question.

Poppy looked at him, and then at Phillip. "I feel…fine."

"That's good," James said, still watching her as ifshe were a six-hundred-pound schizophrenic gorilla.

"I feel…hungry," Poppy said, in the same pleasant, musical voice she'd used before.

Phil blinked.

"Why don't you come over here, Phil?" James said, making a gesture behind him.

Phil was beginning to feel very uneasy. Poppy was… could she besmellinghim? Not loud, wet sniffs, but the delicate little sniffs of a cat. She was nosingaround his shoulder.

"Phil, I think you should come around over here," James said, with more emphasis. But what happenednext happened too quickly for Phil even to startmoving.

Delicate hands clenched like steel around his biceps. Poppy smiled at him with very sharp teeth, thendarted like a striking cobra for his throat.

I'm going to die, Phil thought with a curious calm.

He couldn't fight her. But her first strike missed. Thesharp teeth grazed his throat like two burning pokers.

"No, you don't," James said. He looped an arm around Poppy's waist, lifting her off Phil.

Poppy gave a disappointed wail. As Phil struggled to his feet, she watched him the way a cat watchesan interesting insect. Never taking her eyes off him,not even when James spoke to her.

"That's your brother, Phil. Your twin brother. Remember?"

Poppy just stared at Phil with hugely dilated pupils.Phil realized that she looked not only pale and beautiful but dazed and starving.

"My brother? One of our kind?" Poppy said,soundingpuzzled. Her nostrils quivered and her lipsparted. "He doesn't smell like it."

"No, he's,not one of our kind, but he's not forbiting, either. You're going to have to wait just a littlewhile to feed." To Phillip, he said, "Let's get this hole filled in, fast."

Phillip couldn't move at first. Poppywas stillwatching him in that dreamy but intense way. Shestood there in the darkness in her best white dress, supple as a lily, with her hair fallingaround her face.And she looked at him with the eyes of a jaguar.

She wasn't human anymore. She was somethingother.She'd said it herself, she and James were ofone kind and Phil was something different. She belonged to the Night World now.

Oh, God, maybe we should just have let her die,Phil thought, and picked up a shovel with loose and trembling hands. James had already gotten the lid back on the vault. Phil shoveled dirt on it withoutlooking at where it landed. His head wobbled as ifhis neck were a pipe cleaner.

"Don't be anidiot," avoice said, and hard fingersclosed on Phil's wrist briefly. Through a blur, Philsaw James.

"She's not better off dead. She's just confused rightnow. This istemporary,all right?"

The words were brusque, but Phil felt a tiny surgeof comfort. Maybe James was right. Life was good,in whatever form. And Poppy had chosen this.

Still, she'd changed, and only time would tellhow much.

One thing-Phil had made the mistake of thinkingthat vampires were like humans. He'd gotten so comfortable with James that he'd almost forgotten theirdifferences.

He wouldn't make that mistake again.

Poppy felt wonderful-in almost every way.

She felt secret and strong. She felt poetic and full of possibility. She felt as if she'd sloughed off her oldbody like a snake shedding its skin, to reveal a fresh new body underneath.

And she knew, without being quite sure how sheknew, that she didn't have cancer.

It was gone, the terrible thing that had been running wild inside her. Her new body had killed it andabsorbed it somehow. Or maybe it was just that every cell that made up Poppy North, every molecule,had changed.

However It was, she felt vibrant and healthy. Notjust better than she had before she'd gotten the cancer, but better than she could remember feeling inher life. She was strangely aware of her own body,and her muscles and joints all seemed to be workingin a way that was sweet and almost magical.

The only problem was that she was hungry. It wastaking all her willpower not to pounce on the blondguy in the hole.Phillip.Her brother.

Sheknewhe was her brother, but he was alsohuman and she could sense therichstuff, lush with life, that was coursing through his veins. The electrifying fluid she needed to survive.

So jump him, part of her mind whispered. Poppyfrowned and tried to wiggle away from the thought.She felt something in her mouth nudging her lowerlip, and she poked her thumb at it instinctively.

It was a tooth. A delicate curving tooth. Both hercanine teeth were long and pointed and verysensitive.

How weird. She rubbed at the new teeth gently,then cautiously explored them with her tongue. Shepressed them against her lip.

After a moment they shrank to normal size. If shethought about humans full of blood like berries, theygrew again.

Hey, look what I can dot

But she didn't bother the two grimy boys whowere filling in the hole. She glanced around and triedto distract herself instead.

Strange-it didn't really seem to be either day ornight.-Maybe there was an eclipse. It was too dim tobe daytime, but far too bright for nighttime. Shecould see the leaves on the maple trees and the graySpanish moss hanging from the oak trees. Tiny moths

were fluttering around the moss, and she could seetheir pale wings.

When she looked at the sky, she got a shock. There was something floating there, a giant round thing thatblazed with silvery light. Poppy thought of spaceships,of alien worlds, before she realized the truth.

It was themoon.Just an ordinary full moon. Andthe reason it looked so big and throbbing with lightwas that she had night vision. That was why shecould see the moths, too.

All her senses were keen. Delicious smells waftedby her, the smells of small burrowing animals andfluttering dainty birds. On the wind came a tantalizing hint of rabbit.

And she couldhearthings. Once she whipped herhead around as a dog barked right beside her. Then she realized that it was far away, outside the cemetery. It only sounded close.

I'll bet I can run fast, too, she thought. Her legsfelt tingly. She wanted to go running out into thelovely, gloriously-scented night, to be one with it.She waspartof it now.

James,she said. And the strange thing was that shesaid it without saying it out loud. It was somethingshe knew how to do without thinking.

James looked up from his shoveling.Hang on,hesaid the same way.We're almost done, kiddo.

Then you'll teach me to hunt?

He nodded, just slightly. His hair was falling overhis forehead and he looked adorably grubby. Poppyfelt as if she'd never really seen him before-because

now she was seeing him with new senses. Jameswasn't just silky brown hair and enigmatic gray eyesand a lithe-muscled body. He was the smell of winterrain and the sound of his predator's heartbeat andthe silvery aura of power she could feel around him. She could sense his mind, lean and tiger-tough but somehow gentle and almost wistful at the same time.

We're hunting partners now,she told him eagerly,and he smiled an acknowledgment. But underneath she felt that he was worried. He was either sad or anxious about something, something he was keeping from her.

She couldn't think about it. She didn't feel hungryanymore …she felt strange. As if she was having trouble getting enough air.

James and Phillip were shaking out the tarps, unrolling strips of fresh sod to cover the grave. Hergrave. Funny she hadn't really thought about thatbefore. She'd been lying in a grave-she ought tofeel repulsed or scared.

She didn't. She didn't remember being in there atall-didn't remember anything from the time she'dfallen asleep in her bedroom until she'd woken upwith James calling her.

Except a dream …

"Okay," James said. He was folding up a tarp. "We can go. How're you feeling?"

"Ummm. . a little weird. I can't get a deepbreath."

"Neither can I," Phil said. He was breathing hardand wiping his forehead. "I didn't know grave digging was such hard work."

James gave Poppy a searching look. "Do you thinkyou can make it back to my apartment?"

"Hmm? I guess." Poppy didn't actually know whathe was talking about. Make it how? And why shouldgoing to his apartment help her to breathe?

"I've got a couple of safe donors there in the building," James said. "I don't really want you out on thestreets, and I think you'll make it there okay."

Poppy didn't ask what he meant. She was having trouble thinking clearly.

James wanted her to hide in the backseat of hiscar. Poppy refused. She needed to sit up front and tofeel the night air on her face.

"Okay," James said at last. "But at least sort ofcover your face with your arm. I'll drive on backroads. Youcan'tbe seen, Poppy."

There didn't seem to be anyone on the streets tosee her. The air whipping her cheeks was cool andgood, but it didn't help her breathing. No matter howshe tried, she couldn't seem to get a proper breath.

I'm hyperventilating, she thought. Her heart wasracing, her lips and tongue felt parchment-dry. And still she had the feeling of being air-starved.

What'shappening to me?

Then the pain started.

Agonizing seizures in her muscles-like the crampsshe used to get when she went out for track in juniorhigh. Vaguely, through the pain, she rememberedsomething the P.E. teacher had said."Thecrampscome

when your muscles don't get enough blood. A charley horseis a clump of muscles starving to death."

Oh, ithurt.It hurt.She couldn't even call to James for help, now; all she could do was hang on to thecar door and try to breathe. She was whooping andwheezing, but it wasn't any good.

Cramps everywhere-and now she was so dizzythat she saw the world through sparkling lights.

She. was dying. Something hadgone terriblywrong. She felt as if she were underwater, tryingdesperately to claw her way to oxygen-only therewas nooxygen.

And then she saw the way.

Or smelled it, actually. Thecar was stopped at a redlight. Poppy's head and shoulders were out the windowby now-and suddenly she caught a whiff of life.

Life.What she needed. She didn't think, she simplyacted. With one motion she threw the car door open and plunged out.

She heard Phil's shout behind her and James'sshout in her head. She ignored both of them. Nothing mattered except stopping the pain.

She grabbed for the man on the sidewalk the waya drowning swimmer grabs at a rescuer. Instinctively. He was tall and strong for a human. He was wearinga dark sweatsuit and a bomber jacket. His face wasstubbly and his skin wasn't exactly clean, but thatwasn't important. She wasn't interested in the con tainer, only in the lovely sticky red stuff inside.

This time her strike was perfectly accurate. Herwonderful teeth extended like claws and stabbed intothe man's throat. Puncturing him like one of thoseold-fashioned bottle openers. He struggled a little and then went limp.

And then she was drinking, her throat drenched in copper-sweetness. Sheer animal hunger took over as she tapped his veins. The liquid filling her mouthwas wild and raw and primal and every swallow gaveher new life.

She drank and drank, and felt the pain disappear.In its place was a euphoric lightness.When she paused to breathe, she could feel her lungs swell withcool, blessed air.

She bent to drink again, to suck, lap, tipple. Theman had a clear bubbling stream inside him, and shewanted it all.

That was when James pulled her head back.

He spoke both aloud and in her mind and his voicewas collected but intense. "Poppy, I'm sorry. I'm sorry.It was my fault. I shouldn't have made you wait solong. But you've had enough now. You can stop."

Oh…confusion. Poppy was peripherally aware of Phillip, her brother Phillip, looking on in horror. James said shecouldstop, but that didn't mean she had to. She didn'twantto. The man wasn't fightingat all now. He seemed to be unconscious.

She bent down again. James pulled her back upalmost roughly.

"Listen," he said. His eyes were level, but his voicewas hard. "This is the time you can choose, Poppy.Do youreallywant to kill?"

The words shocked her back to awareness. To kill…that was the way to get power, she knew. Bloodwas power and life and energy and food and drink.If she drained this man like squeezing an orange, shewould have the power of his very essence. Whoknew what she might be able to do then?

But…he was a man, not an orange. A humanbeing. She'd been one of those once.

Slowly, reluctantly, she lifted herself off the man.James let out a long breath. He patted her shoulderand sat down on the sidewalk as if too tired to stand up right then.

Phil was slumped against the wall of the nearestbuilding.

He was appalled, and Poppy could feel it. She couldeven pick up words he was thinking-words likeghastly andamoral.A whole sentence that went something like"Is it worth it to save her life if she's lost her soul?"

James jerked around to look at him, and Poppy couldfeel the silver flare of his anger. "You just don't get it,do you?" he said savagely. "She could have attackedyou anytime, but she didn't, even though she wasdying. You don't know what the bloodlust feels like.It's not like being thirsty-it's like suffocating. Your cells start to die from oxygen starvation, because your own blood can't carry oxygen to them. It's the worst painthere is, but she didn't go after you to make it stop."

Phillip looked staggered. He stared at Poppy, thenheld out a hand uncertainly.

"I'm sorry………..

"Forget it," James said shortly. He turned his backon Phil and examined the man. Poppy could feel himextend his mind. "I'm telling him to forget this," hesaid to Poppy. "All he needs is some rest, and he might as well do that right here. See, the woundsare already healing."

Poppy saw, but she couldn't feel happy. She knewPhil still disapproved of her. Not just for somethingshe'd done, but for what shewas.

What's happened to me?she asked James, throwingherself into his arms. Have I turned into something awful?

He held her fiercely.You're just different. Not awful. Phil's a jerk.

She wanted to laugh at that. But she could feel atremor of sadness behind his protective love. It wasthe same anxious sadness she'd sensed in him earlier.James didn't like being a predator, and now he'dmade Poppy one, too. Their plan had succeeded brilliantly-and Poppy would never be the old PoppyNorth again.

And although she could hear his thoughts, itwasn't exactly like the total immersion when they'dexchanged blood. They might not ever have that togetherness again.

"There wasn't any other choice," Poppy. saidstoutly, and she said it aloud. "We did what we hadto do. Now we have to make the best of it."

You're a bravegirl.Did I ever tell you that?

No. And if you did, I don't mind hearing it again.

But they drove to James's apartment building in silence, with Phil's depression weighing heavily inthe backseat.

"Look, you can take the car back to your house,"

James said as he unloaded the equipment and Poppy's clothes into his carport. "I don't want to bringPoppy anywhere near there, and I don't want toleave her alone."

Phil glanced up at the dark two-story building asif something had just struck him. Then he cleared histhroat. Poppy knew why-James's apartment was anotorious place, and she'd never been allowed to visitit at night. Apparently Phil still had some brotherlyconcern for his vampire sister. "You, uh, can't justtake her to your parents' house?"

"How many times do I have to explain? No, I can'ttake her to my parents, because my parents don't knowshe's a vampire. Right at the moment she's an illegalvampire, a renegade, which means she's got to be kept a secret until I can straighten things out–somehow.':

"How-" Phil stopped and shook his head. "Okay.Not tonight. We'll talk about it later."

"No, 'we' won't," James said harshly. "You're nota part of this anymore. It's up to Poppy and me. All you need to do is go back and live your normal lifeand keep your mouth shut."

Phil started to say something else, then caughthimself. He took the keys from James. Then he looked at Poppy.

"I'm glad you're alive. I love you," he said.

Poppy knew that he wanted to-hug her, but something kept both of them back. There was an emptiness in Poppy's chest.

"Bye, Phil," she said, and he got in the car and left.