Vampire Crush Page 28

Today, however, Caroline is missing. After muttering a curse under my breath, I fight against the flow of exiting students and make my way to the side wall. When I get there, Caroline's friends are busy arguing over whether or not belly rings are trashy. Amanda looks up as I approach.

"What do you want?" she asks, brushing at her designer jeans like I am emitting imaginary traitor dust.

"Have you seen Caroline?"

"No. She never showed up."

"But she was supposed to meet you here? She never said anything about going home?"

"She wanted to spend the night at my house tonight." She waits a second for it to sink in and then adds, "Because she didn't want to see you," in case I missed the insult.

"Do any of you have last period with her?"

"Hey, Marta," Jessica says. "Where's Caroline?"

"She has geometry with me. But she skipped out early, saying she felt sick. I think she wanted to go to the mall."

It's a possibility. Caroline has been known to blow a year's allowance on boy-induced shopping sprees. But usually she takes yes-women and bag carriers. "Wouldn't she have asked if you wanted to go?"

"My dad cut up my credit cards," Marta says, shaking her head.

"I dated all the salespeople at Abercrombie and Fitch. I can't show my face in there for at least another month," says Amanda. "Evelyn?"

"She didn't ask me," Evelyn says, looking up from putting on bubblegum lip gloss. "And that's weird, because we were supposed to go together the next time and buy matching pajama bottoms for next Friday's spirit day."

Marta claps excitedly. "The ones with the pink bunnies?"


"You should see mine - they are covered in broccoli and say 'Eat me.'"

"Cute! Mine have monkeys!"

"Mine have whales," I say to regain their attention, and earn three surprised looks. I will not be sidetracked by pajama pants. "Call me if you see her," I say, and then stand there stubbornly until I'm sure that they've all programmed the number I give them into their cells.

As I walk back through the hallways, I dig my phone out from the bottom of my bag. After a silent thank-you when it lights up fully charged, I dial home. Marcie picks up on the third ring, and I try to keep my voice calm and level when I ask if Caroline has come home.

"She called earlier and said that she was staying with Amanda. I asked if she wanted to pick up clothes, but she said that she would borrow something. She sounded upset," Marcie says, and I can hear the concern through the crackle of indoor reception. "What's going on?"

"Nothing. Just leftover boy stuff," I lie.

"Then why are you calling?"

One point for Marcie. "One of her friends said that she had forgotten something in her locker and I wanted to bring it to her."

Marcie seems to buy it. After claiming that I have to get to the tennis match, I hang up and head to the side hallway, planning on doing a few laps to hunt for Caroline. I'm starting to feel silly - she's probably licking her wounds somewhere safe and warm and full of attractive men. Worst-case scenario, I'll check the boys' locker room.

I'm passing the open, chemical-smelling doors in the science hall when I hear a high-pitched giggle that I'd recognize anywhere.

"Neal, stop it," Violet says, but it doesn't sound like she wants him to stop anything. I run into a physics classroom only to walk in on Neal tickling Violet with a remote-controlled robot.

"Thanks for coming to the Robotics meeting," he tells Violet, who has leaned over to tap the robot's head with a very curious expression. "I don't know where Adam is. He told me that he would be here."

"We should name him," Violet says. She picks up a pencil and taps the robot on its shoulders. "I dub thee . . . Simon."

"Simon? Did you just name my robot Simon?"

"What is wrong with Simon? It was my brother's name."

"I didn't know that you had a brother."

Violet looks down at her hands with a mournful sigh. "He is gone now."

"I'm sorry," Neal says, immediately contrite.

"It does not matter anymore. It was a long time ago." She shoots him a suggestive look from beneath her lashes. "A long, long, long, long - Sophie!" she says when she spots me in the doorway. "You are not supposed to be here."

"Neither are you."

"We got back early! And since I promised Neal that I would come to his Robotics meeting until he had more than one participant . . . What's wrong?"

"I can't find my sister or Vlad."

Neal stops twirling Simon in a circle. "I saw them talking in the middle of last period."

My stomach lurches. "You did?"

"Yeah. I forgot my graphing calculator, and her locker is by mine," he says. "You know, 'Garville'. . . 'Garrett.' It's the curse of alphabetical order."

I try to keep the panic from leaking into my voice when I ask my next question. "What were they saying?"

"I don't know. I tend to tune her out. Most of her interactions involve really loud kissing." He stops when he sees what must be my horrified expression. "Hey, it's okay. It seemed to be a friendly conversation. I mean, at first she was mad, but then he stared soulfully into her eyes and then they walked off together." Neal rolls his eyes, as if he hadn't been doing his own soulful staring at Violet these past few weeks.

"Where were they going?" I ask.

"Um. To make out?"


Neal is starting to look nervous. He fiddles with the remote control, causing Simon to twirl in a confused circle. "I don't know," he says, uncomfortable. "Where do people usually make out?"

"I don't have time for sarcasm right now, Neal."

"But I really don't know!"

I turn to Violet, unable to hide my panic.

"I will go find the others," she says. "They should be at home now."

"I'll come with you," Neal says, but Violet waves him back into his seat.

"Stay with Simon. This is a family matter." When he protests, she stares into his eyes. Neal's shoulders slump and he turns around to fiddle with a few loose screws.

"Violet!" I scold. "I've never seen you do that."

She looks at me, innocent as a cartoon bunny. "What? We need him to stay! And the magazines said that we are allowed to use our feminine wiles. I do not understand your qualm."

I doubt Seventeen would include vampire mind-control under the "feminine wiles" umbrella, but now is not the time. When she flounces away, I try not to worry that the cavalry is skipping.

I start to search for Caroline in earnest. Vlad disappeared with her in the early afternoon - too early for the direct sun not to drain him - so it would have to be somewhere in the building, somewhere removed and isolated. I check the auditorium, thinking that he could have her holed up backstage, but the heavy red curtain is open and a group of students is taking advantage of the unoccupied stage to practice choral parts for High School Musical. Next I scope out the band hallway, but it is brightly lit and filled with the sounds of tortured trombones and tubas. My search of the locker rooms - girls' and boys' - turns up nothing other than a surprised and shirtless Danny Baumann who says, "Yo, South America. You're kind of freaky, aren't you?" and pats my dazzled head before he leaves.

Think, Sophie. Think. If he disappeared with her before fourth period, he had to take her somewhere that would have been empty since approximately one o'clock. That nixes all the rooms of the front office and the teachers' lounge, and the library would have at least had the librarian and a few indentured study hallers. All that's left is the cafeteria, and when I think about it, it makes sense. Today was not a Student Council day, and so it would have been free of any desperate souls doing their best to pad their college application. The cafeteria ladies clear out mid-afternoon, and so it may be the one place in the school that would have been empty when Neal says they disappeared.

Heart pounding, I start to run, taking the corners so fast that I'm lucky the halls are deserted. I burst through the doors and into the closed-down cafeteria, my footsteps echoing across the checkerboard tile. The fluorescent lights are off, and while the safety ones hanging near the front flicker dimly, the entire back half of the cafeteria is shrouded in darkness. To the front is the alcove that contains the lunch lines and, beyond that, the swinging doors that lead to the kitchens. Is it my imagination, or is there a light on behind those nautical peepholes?

As if in answer to my question, a sound rumbles up from behind the doors. This is it, I think, and I take a deep breath. Then it occurs to me that if Vlad does have Caroline tied up next to the instant mashed potatoes, I have no intelligent plan of action.

A weapon, I can at least find a weapon. But what? The cafeteria switched to plastic utensils long ago. And anyway, should I be looking for something wooden? More and more, my question-and-answer session with James is proving to be woefully inadequate. Next time I am in a room with any vampire - one that does not harbor violent and/or marital feelings toward me, of course - perhaps I should spend less time crushing on them and more time asking them to list their weaknesses.

Ignoring the escalated bump-bumping of my heart, I spot a cart of washed dishes next to the back wall and rush to inspect it. After a moment of deliberation, I grab the wooden spoon and a knife and do my best to file it into a point. Two thousand years of folklore can't be that wrong, right? And besides, at the luau showdown, Vlad chased after Neville with a shattered piece of door. He doesn't seem much for meta jokes.

I approach the swinging doors with as much stealth as I can manage. Pressing my ear against it, I listen for furious whispers or the struggle shuffle, but only hear a steady, persistent dripping and the low buzz of a running dishwasher. I nudge it open with my toe and peek inside - it is empty except for gleaming sinks, long metal counters, and a few large pots that must be the source of the school's mystery chili. The light I saw comes from the two windows across the way. In a flash, I realize that there's something else I should be noticing. The light is pale and gray. There is no sun.

Sliding across the tile, I go to the window. Thunder rumbles in the distance, and I can hear the tinny drops of rain hitting the aluminum sill. They could be anywhere. Caroline could be anywhere. I tell myself to calm down, but my chest is constricting so fast that it is difficult to think rationally. He is using her as bait, so he will not want to kill her. He still thinks I'm his ticket to the Danae, so he won't want to kill me, either. This will be fine - I just have to keep moving.

My next step should be to see if Vlad's car is still here. Tucking the spoon down my shirt and into my waistband, I jog back to the swinging doors. In my rush, I hit them with an ungainly smack and wince. When I open my eyes, the twin forms of Devon and Ashley are standing in front of me, side by side like a double statue. The low light plays tricks with their features, giving me the eerie sensation that I am looking at one face, one body, split in two by a magic trick gone horribly wrong. They move forward in grotesque tandem.

I stumble backward through the doors until my tailbone hits the hard edge of a metal counter. It vibrates beneath my fingers, setting off a high hum that competes with the rhythmic thumping of the dishwasher, which is sounding more and more like the rush of blood now pounding in my ears. "Where is my sister?" I ask as my hand searches for the reassuring hardness of the spoon's handle.

They step into the light. First I see their square chins, then their lips, leeched of color and drawn into a flat line, and finally, their eyes. They are just as dead as usual - four shiny black buttons.

"I said, where is my sister?" I ask again.

The one on the left lifts his arm, and for the first time I notice that he is clutching a crumpled piece of paper. When I make no move to grab it, they step forward again. Realizing that they will not move until the delivery is complete, I flatten the note against the counter. A line of flowers and hearts dances across the top. There is only one person I know who has the guts to turn in decorated assignments. The paper is Caroline's. The handwriting is Vlad's. Who the dark red smudge - blood? - at the corner belongs to is anyone's guess. I feel like throwing up as I begin to read.

Sophochka,I would be most delighted if you would join me at our special place in the forest - your sister is already here and very eager to speak with you. However, please make haste. I fear I am impatient for your company, and night is coming fast.With warm regards,Vlad

I wad the note up into a ball and throw it toward the twin who carried the letter. He doesn't even flinch. It bounces harmlessly off his chest, which does nothing to make me feel better or scare away the tears that are threatening. Leaning back, they beckon toward the exit in an eerie parody of an opening door. Inching forward, I start to move past them, only to feel two strong hands clamp around my arms and lift me up.

Chapter Eighteen

"Let go of me, you twin freaks! I'll go with you," I yell as they drag me across the hallway and through the darkened gym, empty now that thunderstorms have cancelled all the practices and meets. We are moving faster now; the bleachers flash past to one side as we head to the exit that leads to the athletic fields that lay in back of the school. One second we are in the gym that smells of sweat and baby powder, and the next we are outside in the wind and stinging rain, trudging across the muddy soccer field as we approach the thick block of woods from the side. The ground squishes with each step, and a crack of thunder splits the dark sky overhead as drops soak my shoulders and back. The front of my shirt is still dry, and I pray that it will stay that way so as not to expose the spoon I've stashed. If we're being entirely honest, a wooden spoon is a sucky secret weapon, but for the moment it is all that I have.

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