The Short Second Life (Chapters 7)
Diego went in first, and I tried to move behind him like he was Kevin or Raoul. Hesitant, protecting my space. He found the stairs and charged down with a confident tread.
"Trying to lose me, losers?" he asked.
"Oh, hey, Diego's alive," I heard Kevin answer with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.
"No thanks to you," Diego said as I slipped into the dark basement. The only light came from the various TV screens, but it was way more than any of us needed. I hurried back to where Fred had a whole couch to himself, glad that it was right for me to look anxious because there was no way to hide it. I swal owed hard as the revulsion hit, and curled up in my usual spot on the floor behind the couch. Once I was down, Fred's repel ent power seemed to ease up. Or maybe I was just getting used to it.
The basement was more than half empty since it was the middle of the night. Al the kids in here had eyes the same as mine – bright, recently fed red.
"Took me a while to clean up your stupid mess," Diego told Kevin. "It was almost dawn by the time I got to what was left of the house. Had to sit in a cave fil ed with water al day."
"Go tattle to Riley. Whatever."
"I see the little girl made it, too," said a new voice, and I shuddered because it was Raoul. I felt a little bit of relief that he didn't know my name, but mostly I just felt horrified that he'd noticed me at al .
"Yeah, she fol owed me." I couldn't see Diego, but I knew he was shrugging.
"Aren't you the savior of the hour?" Raoul said snidely.
"We don't get extra points for being morons."
I wished Diego wouldn't taunt Raoul. I hoped Riley would come back soon. Only Riley could curb Raoul even the littlest bit.
But Riley was probably out hunting dregs kids to bring to her. Or doing whatever else he did while he was away.
"Interesting attitude you got, Diego. You think that Riley likes you so much he's gonna care if I kil you. I think you're wrong. But either way, for tonight, he already thinks you're dead."
I could hear the others moving. Some probably to back Raoul up, others just getting out of the way. I hesitated in my hiding spot, knowing I wasn't going to let Diego fight them alone, but worried about blowing our cover if it didn't come to that. I hoped Diego had survived this long because he had some crazy combat skil s. I wasn't going to have much to offer in that department. There were three members of Raoul's gang here, and some others that might help out just to get on his good side. Would Riley get home before they had time to burn us?
Diego's voice was calm when he answered. "You're real y that afraid to take me on alone? Typical."
Raoul snorted. "Does that ever work? I mean, besides in movies. Why should I take you on alone? I don't care about beating you. I just want to end you."
I rol ed into a crouch, tensed to spring.
Raoul kept talking. He liked the sound of his own voice a lot.
"But it's not gonna take al of us to deal with you. These two wil take care of the other evidence of your unfortunate survival. Little what's-her-name."
My body felt icy, frozen solid. I tried to shake it off so I could fight my best. Not that it would have made a difference. And then I felt something else, something total y unexpected – a wave of revulsion so overpowering that I couldn't hold my crouch. I crumpled to the floor, gasping with horror. I was not the only one to react. I heard disgusted snarls and retching sounds from every corner of the basement. A few people retreated to the edges of the room, where I could see them. They strained against the wal, stretching their necks away as if they could escape the horrible feeling. At least one of these was a member of Raoul's gang.
I heard Raoul's distinctive growl, and then heard it fade as he took off up the stairs. He wasn't the only one to make a break for it. About half of the vampires in the basement cleared out.
I didn't have that choice. I could barely move. And then I realized this had to be because I was so close to Freaky Fred. He was responsible for what was happening. And as horrible as I felt, I was stil able to realize that he'd probably just saved my life.
The sensation of disgust faded slowly. As soon as I could, I crept to the edge of the couch and took in the aftermath. Al of Raoul's gang was gone, but Diego was stil there, on the far end of the big room by the TVs. The vampires who remained were slowly relaxing, though everybody looked a little shaken. Most of them were shooting cautious glances in Fred's direction. I peeked at the back of his head, too, though I couldn't see anything. I looked away quickly. Looking at Fred brought back some of the nausea.
"Keep it down."
The deep voice came from Fred. I'd never heard him speak before. Everyone stared and then looked away immediately as the revulsion returned.
So Fred just wanted his peace and quiet. Wel, whatever. I was alive because of it. Most likely Raoul would get distracted by some other irritant before dawn and take out his anger on somebody close by. And Riley always came back at the end of the night. He would hear that Diego had been in his cave rather than outside and destroyed by the sun, and Raoul wouldn't have an excuse to attack him or me.
At least, that was the best-case scenario. In the meantime, maybe Diego and I could come up with some plan to steer clear of Raoul.
Again, I had a fleeting sense that I was missing an obvious solution. Before I could figure it out, my thoughts were interrupted.
The deep, almost silent mutter could only have come from Fred. It looked like I was the only one close enough to real y hear. Was he talking to me?
I looked at him again and felt nothing. I couldn't see his face – he had his back to me stil . He had thick, wavy blond hair. I'd never noticed that before, not with al the days I'd sat hiding in his shadow. Riley wasn't kidding when he'd said that Fred was special. Gross, but real y special. Did Riley have any idea that Fred was so… so powerful? He was able to overwhelm a whole room of us in a second.
Though I couldn't see his expression, I had the sense that Fred was waiting for an answer.
"Um, don't apologize," I breathed almost silently. "Thank you.
And then I found I couldn't look at him anymore. The hours passed slower than usual as I waited for Raoul to come back. From time to time I tried to look at Fred again – to see past the protection he'd created for himself – but I always found myself repel ed. If I tried too hard, I ended up gagging. Thinking about Fred was a good distraction from thinking about Diego. I tried to pretend I didn't care where he was in the room. I didn't look at him but focused on the sound of his breathing – his distinct rhythm – to keep tabs. He sat on the other side of the room from me, listening to his CDs on a laptop. Or maybe pretending to listen, the way I was pretending to read the books from the damp backpack on my shoulders. I flipped pages at my usual rate, but I didn't take anything in. I was waiting for Raoul.
Luckily, Riley came first. Raoul and his cohorts were right behind him, but not as loud and obnoxious as usual. Maybe Fred had taught them a little respect.
Probably not, though. More likely Fred had just angered them. I real y hoped Fred never let his guard slip. Riley went to Diego right away; I listened with my back to them, eyes on my book. In my peripheral vision, I saw some of Raoul's idiots wandering, looking for their favorite games or whatever they'd been doing before Fred had driven them out. Kevin was one of them, but he seemed to be looking for something more specific than entertainment. Several times his eyes tried to focus on where I was sitting, but Fred's aura kept him at bay. He gave up after a few minutes, looking a little sick.
"I heard you made it back," Riley said, sounding genuinely pleased. "I can always count on you, Diego."
"No problem," Diego said in a relaxed voice. "Unless you count holding my breath al day as a negative."
Riley laughed. "Don't cut it so close next time. Set a better example for the babies."
Diego just laughed with him. From the corner of my eye, it seemed like Kevin relaxed some. Was he real y that worried about Diego getting him in trouble? Maybe Riley listened to Diego more than I realized. I wondered whether that was why Raoul had gotten crazy before.
Was it a good thing if Diego was that in with Riley after al ?
Maybe Riley was okay. That relationship didn't compromise what we had, did it?
Time didn't pass any faster after the sun was up. It was crowded and unstable in the basement, like every day. If vampires could get hoarse, Riley would have lost his voice entirely from the yel ing. A couple of kids temporarily lost limbs, but nobody got torched. The music warred with the game tracks, and I was glad I didn't get headaches. I tried reading my books, but I ended up just flipping through one after the other, not caring enough to make my eyes focus on the words. I left them in a neat stack by the end of the couch for Fred. I always left my books for him, though I never could tel whether he read them. Couldn't look at him closely enough to see what, exactly, he did with his time.
At least Raoul never looked my way. Neither did Kevin or any of the others. My hiding place was as effective as ever. I couldn't see if Diego was smart enough to ignore me, because I was ignoring him so thoroughly. No one could suspect that we were a team, except maybe Fred. Had Fred been paying attention as I prepared to fight alongside Diego? Even if he had, I didn't worry too much about it. If Fred felt any particular il wil toward me, he could have let me die last night. Would have been easy.
It got louder as the sun started to go down. We couldn't see the light fading here underground, with al of the windows upstairs covered just in case. But waiting through so many long days gave you a good sense for when one was almost over. Kids started getting antsy, bugging Riley about whether they could go out.
"Kristie, you were out last night," Riley said, and you could hear the patience wearing thin in his voice. "Heather, Jim, Logan – go ahead. Warren, your eyes are dark, go along with them. Hey, Sara, I'm not blind – get back here."
The kids he shut down sulked in the corners, some of them waiting for Riley to leave so they could sneak out in spite of his rules.
"Um, Fred, must be about your turn," Riley said, not looking in our direction. I heard Fred sigh as he got to his feet. Everyone cringed as he moved through the center of the room, even Riley. But unlike the others, Riley smiled a little to himself. He liked his vampire with skil s.
I felt naked with Fred gone. Anyone could focus on me now. I held perfectly stil, head down, doing everything in my power not to cal attention to myself.
Lucky for me, Riley was in a hurry tonight. He barely paused to glare at the people who were clearly edging for the door, let alone threaten them, as he headed out himself. Normal y he'd give us some variant on the usual speech about keeping a low profile, but not tonight. He seemed preoccupied, anxious. I'd have bet he was going to see her. That made me less excited about catching up with him at dawn.
I waited for Kristie and three of her usual companions to head out, and I slipped out in their wake, trying to look like part of the entourage without irritating them. I didn't look at Raoul, I didn't look at Diego. I concentrated on seeming inconsequential – no one to notice. Just some random vampire chick. Once we were out of the house, I split off from Kristie immediately and beat it into the woods. I hoped only Diego would care enough to fol ow my scent. Halfway up the side of the nearest mountain, I made my perch in the top branches of a big spruce that cleared its neighbors by several meters. I had a pretty good view of anyone who might try to track me. Turns out I was being overcautious. Maybe I'd been too cautious al day. Diego was the only one to come looking. I saw him from a distance and backtracked to meet him.
"Long day," he said, giving me a hug. "Your plan is hard."
I hugged him back, marveling at how comfortable this was.
"Maybe I'm just being paranoid."
"Sorry about Raoul. That was close."
I nodded. "Good thing Fred is so disgusting."
"I wonder if Riley knows how potent that kid is."
"Doubt it. I've never seen him do that before, and I spend a lot of time around him."
"Wel, that's Freaky Fred's business. We have our own secret to tel Riley."
I shuddered. "Stil not sure that's a good idea."
"We won't know until we see how Riley reacts."
"I don't real y like not knowing, as a general rule."
Diego's eyes narrowed speculatively. "How do you feel about adventure?"
"Wel, I was thinking about club priorities. You know, about finding out as much as we can."