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Secret Vampire (Chapter 2)

"Poppy!" Poppy could hear her mother's voice, but she couldn't see anything. The kitchen floor was obscured by dancing black dots.

"Poppy, are you all right?" Now Poppy felt hermother's hands grasping her upper arms, holding her anxiously. The pain was easing and her vision was coming back.

As she straightened up, she saw James in front ofher. His face was almost expressionless, but Poppy knew him well enough to recognize the worry in hiseyes. He was holding the milk carton, she realized. He must have caught it on the fly as she droppedit–amazing reflexes, Poppy thought vaguely. Really amazing.

Phillip was on his feet. "Are you okay? Whathappened?"

"I-don't know." Poppy looked around, thenshrugged, embarrassed. Now that she felt better shewished they weren't all staring at her so hard. Theway to deal with the pain was to ignore it, to notthink about it. "It's just this stupid pain-I think it's gastrowhatchmacallit. You know, something I ate."

Poppy's mother gave her daughter the barest fraction of a shake. "Poppy, this is not gastroenteritis.You were having some pain before-nearly a monthago, wasn't it? Is this the same kind of pain?"

Poppy squirmed uncomfortably. As a matter offact, the pain had never really gone away. Somehow,in the excitement of end-of-the-year activities, she'dmanaged to disregard it, and by now she was used to working around it.

"Sort of," she temporized. "But That was enough for Poppy's mother. She gavePoppy a little squeeze and headed for the kitchen telephone. "I know you don't like doctors, but I'mcalling Dr. Franklin. I want him to take a look at you.

This isn't something we can ignore."

"Oh, Mom, it's vacation…."

Her mother covered the mouthpiece of the phone."Poppy, this is nonnegotiable. Go get dressed."

Poppy groaned, but she could see it was no use.She beckoned to James, who was looking thoughtfully into a middle distance.

"Let's at least listen to the CD before I have to go."

He glanced at the CD as if he'd forgotten it, and put down the milk carton. Phillip followed them into the hallway.

"Hey, buddy, you wait out here while she gets dressed."

James barely turned. "Get a life, Phil," he said almost absently.

"Just keep your hands off my sister, you deve."

Poppy just shook her head as she went into her room. As if James cared about seeing her undressed.

If only,she thought grimly, pulling a pair of shortsout of a drawer. She stepped into them, still shaking her head. James was her best friend, her very bestfriend, and she was his. But he'd never shown even the slightest desire to get his hands on her. Sometimes she wondered if he realized she was a girl.

Someday I'm going to makehim see, she thought,and shouted out the door for him.

James came in and smiled at her. It was a smile other people rarely saw, not a taunting or ironic grin, but a nice little smile, slightly crooked.

"Sorry about the doctor thing," Poppy said.

"No. You should go." James gave her a keenglance. "Your mom's right, you know. This has been going on way too long. You've lost weight; it's keeping you up at night-"

Poppy looked at him, startled. She hadn't told anybody about how the pain was worse at night, not even James. But sometimes James just knewthings. As if he could read her mind.

"I just know you, that's all," he said, and then gaveher a mischievous sideways glance as she stared at him. He unwrapped the CD.

Poppy shrugged and flopped on her bed, staring atthe ceiling. "Anyway, I wish Mom would let me have oneday of vacation," she said. She craned her neckto look at James speculatively. "I wish I had a mom like yours. Mine's always worrying and trying to fix me."

"And mine doesn't really care if I come or go. Sowhich is worse?" James said wryly.

"Your parents let you have your own apartment. "

"In a building they own. Because it's cheaper thanhiring a manager." James shook his head, his eyeson the CD he was putting in the player. "Don't knockyour parents, kid. You're luckier than you know."

Poppy thought about that as the CD started. Sheand James both liked trance-the underground electronic sound that had come from Europe. James likedthe techno beat. Poppy loved it because it was real music, raw and unpasteurized, made by people who believed in it. People who had the passion, not people who had the money.

Besides, world music made her feel a part of otherplaces. She loved the differentness of it, the alienness. Come to think of it, maybe that was what she likedabout James, too. His differentness. She tilted her head to look at him as the strange rhythms of Burundi drumming filled the air.

She knew James better than anyone, but there wasalways something, something about him that was closed off to her. Something about him that nobody could reach.

Other people took it for arrogance, or coldness, oraloofness, but it wasn't really any of those things. It was just differentness. He was more different thanany of the exchangestudents at school. Time after time, Poppy felt she had almost put her finger on thedifference, but it always slipped away. And more than once, especially late at night when they were listening to music or watching the ocean, she'd felthe was about to tell her.

And she'd always felt that if he didtell her, itwould be something important, something as shocking and lovely as having a stray cat speak to her.

Just now she looked at James, at his dean, carvenprofile and at the brown waves of hair on his forehead, and thought, He looks sad.

"Jamie, nothing's wrong, is it? I mean, at home, oranything?" She was the only person on the planet allowed to call him Jamie. Not even Jacklyn or Michaela had ever tried that.

"What could be wrong at home?" he said, with asmile that didn't reach his eyes. Then he shook his head dismissively. "Don't worry about it, Poppy. It'snothing important-just a relative threatening to visit. An unwanted relative." Then the smile didreach his eyes, glinting there. "Or maybe I'm justworried about you," he said.

Poppy started to say, "Oh, as if, "but instead she found herself saying, oddly, "Are you really?"

Her seriousness seemed to strike some chord. Hissmile disappeared, and Poppy found that they were simply looking at each other without any insulating humor between them. Just gazing into each other's eyes. James looked uncertain, almost vulnerable.

"Poppy��

Poppy swallowed. "Yes?"

He opened his mouth-and then he got upabruptly and went to adjust her 170-watt Tall-boy speakers.

When he turned back, his gray eyes were dark and fathomless.

"Sure, if you were really sick, I'd be worried," hesaid lightly. "That's what friends are for, right?"

Poppy deflated. "Right," she said wistfully, andthen gave him a determined smile.

"But you're not sick," he said. "It's just somethingyou need to get taken care of. The doctor'll probably give you some antibiotics or something-with a bigneedle," he added wickedly.

"Oh, shut up," Poppy said. He knew she was terrified of injections. Just the thought of a needle entering her skin …

"Here comes your mom," James said, glancing atthe door, which was ajar. Poppy didn't see how he could hear anybody coming-the music was loud andthe hallway was carpeted. But an instant later her mother pushed the door open.

"All right, sweetheart," she said briskly. "Dr.Franklin says come right in. I'm sorry, James, but I'm going to have to take Poppy away."

"That's okay. I can come back this afternoon."

Poppy knew when she was defeated. She allowedher mother to tow her to the garage, ignoring James's miming of someone receiving a large injection.

An hour later she was lying on Dr. Franklin's examining table, eyes politely averted as his gentle fingers probed her abdomen. Dr. Franklin was tall, lean,and graying, with the air of a country doctor. Some body you could trust absolutely.

"The pain is here?" he said.

"Yeah-but it sort of goes into my back. Or maybe I just pulled a muscle back there or something The gentle, probing fingers moved, then stopped. Dr. Franklin's face changed. And somehow, in that moment, Poppy knew it wasn't a pulled muscle. Itwasn't an upset stomach; it wasn't anything simple; and things were about to change forever.

All Dr. Franklin said was, "You know, I'd like toarrange for a test on this."

His voice was dry and thoughtful, but panic curled through Poppy anyway. She couldn't explain what was happening inside her-some sort of dreadful premonition, like a black pit opening in the ground in front of her.

"Why?" her mother was asking the doctor.

"Well." Dr. Franklin smiled and pushed his glassesup. He tapped two fingers on the examining table."Just as part of a process of elimination, really. Poppysays she's been having pain in the upper abdomen, pain that radiates to her back, pain that's worse atnight. She's lost her appetite recently, and she's lost weight.

And her gallbladder is palpable-that meansI can feel that it's enlarged. Now, those are symptomsof a lot of things, and a sonogram will help rule out some of them."

Poppy calmed down. She couldn't remember whata gallbladder did but she was pretty sure she didn't need it.Anything involving an organ with such a silly name couldn't be serious. Dr. Franklin was goingon, talking about the pancreas and pancreatitis andpalpable livers, and Poppy's mother was nodding as if she understood. Poppy didn't understand, but thepanic was gone. It was as if a cover had been whisked neatly over the black pit, leaving no sign that it had ever been there.

"You can get the sonogram done at Children's Hospital across the street," Dr. Franklin wassaying.

"Come back here after it's finished."

Poppy's mother was nodding, calm, serious, andefficient. Like Phil. Or Cliff. Okay, we'll get this taken care of.

Poppy felt just slightly important.Nobody sheknew had been to a hospital for tests.

Her mother ruffled her hair as they walked out ofDr. Franklin's office. "Well, Poppet. What have you done to yourself now?"

Poppy smiled impishly. She was fully recoveredfrom her earlier worry. "Maybe I'll have to have an operation and I'll have an interesting scar," she said,to amuse her mother.

"Let's hope not," her mother said, unamused.

The Suzanne G. Monteforte Children's Hospitalwas a handsome gray building with sinuous curve sand giant picture windows. Poppy looked thoughtfully into the gift shop as they passed. It was clearly akid's gift shop, full of rainbow Slinkys and stuffed animals that a visiting adult could buy as a last-minute present.

A girl came out of the shop. She was a little olderthan Poppy, maybe seventeen or eighteen. She was pretty, with an expertly made-up face-and a cutebandanna which didn't quite conceal the fact that she had no hair. She looked happy, round-cheeked,with earrings dangling jauntily beneath the band anna-but Poppy felt a stab of sympathy.

Sympathy…and fear. That girl was reallysick. Which was what hospitals were for, of course-for really sick people. Suddenly Poppy wanted to get herown tests over with and get out of here.

The sonogram wasn't painful, but it was vaguelydisturbing. A technician smeared some kind of jelly over Poppy's middle, then ran a cold scanner over it,shooting sound waves into her, taking pictures of her insides. Poppy found her mind returning to the prettygirl with no hair.

To distract herself, she thought about James. And for some reason what came to mind was the first time she'd seen James, the day he came to kindergarten. He'd been a pale, slight boy with big gray eyes and something subtly weirdabout him that made thebigger boys start picking on him immediately. On the playground they ganged up on him like houndsaround a fox-until Poppy saw what was happening.

Even at five she'd had a great right hook. She'dburst into the group, slapping faces and kicking shins until the big boys went running. Then she'd turned to James.

"Wanna be friends?"

After a brief hesitation he'd nodded shyly. Therehad been something oddly sweet in his smile. But Poppy had soon found that her new friend wasstrange in small ways. When the class lizard died, he'd picked up the corpse without revulsion andasked Poppy if she wanted to hold it. The teacher had been horrified.

He knew where to find dead animals, too-he'dshown her a vacant lot where several rabbit carcasseslay in the tall brown grass. He was matter-of-factabout it.

When he got older, the big kids stopped pickingon him. He grew up to be as tall as any of them, and surprisingly strong and quick-and he developed areputation for being tough and dangerous. When he got angry, something almost frightening shone in hisgray eyes.

He never got angry with Poppy, though. They'dremained best friends all these years. When they'd reached junior high, he'd started having girlfriends all the girls at school wanted himbut he never kept any of them long. And he never confided in them;to them he was a mysterious, secretive bad boy. Only Poppy saw the other side of him, the vulnerable, caring side.

"Okay," the technician said, bringing Poppy backto the present with a jerk. "You're done; let's wipe this jelly off you."

"So what did it show?" Poppy asked, glancing upat the monitor.

"Oh, your own doctor will tell you that. The radiologist will read the results and call them over to your doctor's office." The technician's voice was absolutely neutral-so neutral that Poppy looked ather sharply. Back in Dr. Franklin's office, Poppy fidgeted whileher mother paged through out-of-date magazines.

When the nurse said "Mrs. Hilgard," they bothstood up.

"Uh-no," the nurse said, looking flustered. "Mrs.Hilgard, the doctor just wants toseeyou for a minute-alone."

Poppy and her mother looked at each other. Then,slowly, Poppy's mother put down her People magazine and followed the nurse.

Poppy stared after her.

Now, what on earth . . . Dr. Franklin had neverdone that before.

Poppy realized that her heart was beating hard. Notfast, just hard. Bang…bang… bang, in the middle of her chest, shaking her insides. Making her feelunreal and giddy.

Don't think about it. It's probably nothing. Reada magazine.

But her fingers didn't seem to work properly. When she finally got the magazine open, her eyes ran over the words without delivering them to herbrain.

What are they talking about in there? What's going on?It's been so long….

It kept getting longer. As Poppy waited, she foundherself vacillating between two modes of thought. 1) Nothing serious was wrong with her and her motherwas going to come out and laugh at her for even imagining there was, and 2) Something awful waswrong with her and she was going to have to go through some dreadful treatment to get well. The covered pit and the open pit. When the pit was covered, it seemed laughable, and she felt embarrassed for having such melodramatic thoughts. But when it was open, she felt as if all her life before this had been adream, and now she was hitting hard reality at last.

I wish I could call James, she thought.

At last the nurse said, "Poppy? Come on in."

Dr. Franklin's office was wood-paneled, with certificates and diplomas hanging on the walls. Poppy sat down in a leather chair and tried not to be tooobvious about scanning her mother's face.

Her mother looked…too calm. Calm with strainunderneath. She was smiling, but it was an odd,slightly unsteady smile.

Oh, God, Poppy thought. Something isgoing on.

"Now, there's no cause for alarm," the doctor said,and immediately Poppy became more alarmed. Her palms stuck to the leather of the chair arms.

"Something showed up in your sonogram that's alittle unusual, and I'd like to do a couple of othertests," Dr. Franklin said, his voice slow and measured, soothing. "One of the tests requires that you fast from midnight the day before you take it. But your mom says you didn't eat breakfast today."

Poppy said mechanically, "I ate one Frosted Flake."

"OneFrosted Flake? Well, I think we can countthat as fasting. We'll do the tests today, and I think it's best to admit you to the hospital for them. Now, the tests are called a CAT scan and an ERCP-that's short for something even I can't pronounce." Hesmiled. Poppy just stared at him.

"There's nothing frightening about either of thesetests," he said gently. "The CAT scan is like an X ray. The ERCP involves passing a tube down the throat, through the stomach, and into the pancreas. Then we inject into the tube a liquid that will show up onX rays ."

His mouth kept moving, but Poppy had stoppedhearing the words. She was more frightened than she could remember being in a long time.

I was just joking about the interesting scar, shethought. I don't want a real disease. I don't want to go to the hospital, and I don't want any tubes down my throat.

She looked at her mother in mute appeal. Her mother took her hand.

"It's no big deal, sweetheart. We'll just go home andpack a few things for you; then we'll come back." "I have to go into the hospital today?"

"I think that would be best," Dr. Franklin said.

Poppy's hand tightened on her mother's. Her mind was a humming blank.

When they left the office, her mother said, "Thankyou, Owen." Poppy had never heard her call Dr. Franklin by his first name before.

Poppy didn't ask why. She didn't say anything asthey walked out of the building and got in the car. As they drove home, her mother began to chat aboutordinary things in a light, calm voice, and Poppy made herself answer. Pretending that everything wasnormal, while all the time the terrible sick feeling raged inside her.

It was only when they were in her bedroom, packing mystery books and cotton pajamas into a small suitcase, that she asked almost casually, "So whatexactly does he think is wrong with me?"

Her mother didn't answer immediately. She waslooking down at the suitcase. Finally she said, "Well, he's not sure anything is wrong."

"But what does he think?He must think something. And he was talking about my pancreas-Imean, it sounds like he thinks there's somethingwrong with my pancreas. I thought he was looking at my gallbladderor whatever. I didn't even know that my pancreas was involvedin this…."

"Sweetheart." Her mother took her by the shoulders, and Poppy realized she was getting a little over wrought. She took a deep breath.

"I just want to know the truth, okay? I just wantto have some idea of what's going on. It's my body, and I've got a right to know what they're lookingfor-don't I?"

It was a brave speech, and she didn't mean any of it. What she really wanted was reassurance, a prom ise that Dr. Franklin was looking for something trivial. That the worst that could happen wouldn't be so bad. She didn't get it.

"Yes, you do have a right to know." Her motherlet a long breath out, then spoke slowly. "Poppy, Dr. Franklin was concerned about your pancreas allalong. Apparently things can happen in the pancreas that cause changes in other organs, like the gallblad der and liver. When Dr. Franklin felt those changes, he decided to check things out with a sonogram."

Poppy swallowed. "And he said the sonogramwas-unusual. How unusual?"

"Poppy, this is all preliminary…." Her mothersaw her face and sighed. She went on reluctantly." The sonogram showed that there might be something in your pancreas. Something that shouldn't bethere.

That's why Dr. Franklin wants the other tests;they'll tell us for sure. But-"

"Something that shouldn't be there? You mean … like a tumor? Like …cancer?" Strange, it was hard to say the words.

Her mother nodded once. "Yes. Like cancer."

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