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Secret Vampire (Chapter 6)

James moved fast. He picked up the plastic tumbler on the bedside table and handed it to Poppy. She understood. Feeling giddy and uncoordinated, she took a healthy swig of water and licked her lips to wash any traces of blood away.

"What are you doing?" Phillip repeated, striding into the room. His eyes were fixed on James, which was good, because Poppy was trying to position herself to hide the side of her neck that James had bitten.

"None of your business," she said, and in the same instant she knew it was a mistake. Phillip, whose middle name was Stability, was looking distinctly unstable tonight. Mom told him, Poppy thought."I mean, we aren't doing anything, " she amended.

It didn't help. Phil was clearly in a mood to see everything in the world as a threat to his sister. And Poppy couldn't really blame him-he'd walked in on the two of them in a strange embrace on a rumpled hospital bed.

"James was comforting me because I was scared," she said. She didn't even try to explain why James had been cradling her head to his arm. But she glanced at James's arm surreptitiously and saw that the wound there was already closed, the mark fading.

"Everything's all right, you know," James said, standing to fix a mesmerizing silver gaze on Phillip. But Phil hardly gave him a glance. He was staring at Poppy.

It's not working, Poppy thought. Maybe Phil's too mad to be hypnotized. Or too stubborn.

She looked a question at James, which he answered with a barely discernable shake of his head. He didn't know what the problem was, either.

They both knew what it meant. James was going to have to leave. Poppy felt cheated and frustrated. All she wanted was to talk with James, to revel in their new discovery of each other-and she couldn't. Not with Phil here.

"I drove Mom here. You know she doesn't like driving at night. And I brought this." He swung her boom box up onto the bedside table. "And these." He put a black CD case beside it. "All your favorite music."

Poppy felt her anger draining away. "That was sweet," she said. She was touched, especially since Phil hadn't said "All your favorite weird music," which was usually how he referred to it. "Thank you."

Phil shrugged, shooting a glare at James. Poor Phil, Poppy thought. Her brother actually looked disheveled. And his eyes were swollen.

"Where's Mom?" she was starting to say, when her mother walked in.

"I'm back, sweetie," her mother said, with a very creditable cheery smile. Then she looked surprised. "James-it was nice of you to come."

"Yeah, but he was just leaving," Phil said significantly. "I'll show him the way out."

James didn't waste energy on a fight he couldn't win. He turned to Poppy and said, "I'll see you tomorrow."

There was a look in his gray eyes-gray, not silver now-that was just for her. A look that had never been there before in all the years she'd known him.

"Goodbye, James," she said softly. "And-thank you." She knew he understood what she meant.

It wasn't until he was out the door, with Phillip on his heels like a bouncer after a rowdy customer, that a thought occurred to her.

James had said that she would be in danger if she didn't get enough of his blood. But they'd gotten interrupted almost immediately after that. Had Poppy gotten enough? And what would happen if she hadn't?

She herself had no idea, and there was no way to ask James. Phil stayed right behind James all the way out of the hospital. Not tonight, James thought. He just couldn't deal with Phillip North tonight.

His patience was gone, and his mind was occupied in calculating whether Poppy had taken enough of his blood to be safe. He thought she had-but the sooner she got more, the better.

"You'll 'see her tomorrow'-well, you're not going to see her tomorrow," Phil said abruptly as they walked into the garage.

"Phil, give me a break." Instead, Phillip stepped in front of him and stopped dead, forcing James to stop, too. Phillip was breathing quickly, his green eyes burning.

"Okay, bud, " he said. "I don't know what you think you're doing with Poppy-but it's all over now. From now on you stay away from her. Understand?"

Visions of breaking Phillip's neck like a new pencil danced in James's head. But Phil was Poppy's brother, and his green eyes were surprisingly like hers. "I would never hurt Poppy," he said wearily.

"Give me a break. Are you going to stand there and tell me you don't want to move in on her?"

James couldn't come up with an answer immediately. Yesterday he could have truthfully said no, he didn't want to move in on Poppy. Because it would have meant a death sentence for him and Poppy both. It was only when Poppy had received a death sentence of her own that he'd allowed himself to look at his feelings.

And now … now he'd been close to Poppy. He'd touched her mind, and had found that she was even braver and more gallant than he'd thought; even more compassionate-and more vulnerable.

He wanted to be that close to Poppy again. He cared about her in a way that made his throat ache. He belonged with Poppy. He also realized that that might not be enough. Sharing blood forged a powerful bond between two people. It would be wrong of him to take advantage of that bond-or of Poppy's gratitude to him. Until he was sure that Poppy's mind was clear and her decisions were her own, he should keep a little distance. It was the only honorable thing to do.

"The last thing I want to do is hurt her," he repeated. "Why can't you believe that?" He made a half-hearted attempt to capture Phil's gaze as he said it. It failed, just as it had in the hospital. Phillip seemed to be one of those rare humans who couldn't be influenced by mind control.

"Why can't I believe it? Because I know you. You and your-girlfriends." Phil managed to make the word sound like a curse. "You go through six or seven a year-and when you're through with them, you dump them like trash."

James was distracted briefly by amusement, because Phil was dead on. He needed six girlfriends a year. After two months the bond between them became dangerously strong.

"Poppy's not my girlfriend and I'm not going to dump her," he said, pleased at his own cleverness. He'd avoided an outright lie-Poppy wasn't his girl friend in any normal sense. They'd merged their souls, that was all-they hadn't talked about dating or anything.

"So you are telling me you're not gonna try to put the moves on her. Is that it? Because you'd better be sure." As he spoke, Phil did what was probably the most dangerous thing he'd ever done in his life. He grabbed James by the front of the shirt.

You stupid human, James thought. He briefly co sidered breaking every bone in Phil's hand. Or picking Phil up and throwing him across the garage into somebody's windshield. Or …

"You're Poppy's brother," he said through histeeth. "So I'm going to give you a chance to let go."

Phil stared into his face a moment, then let go,looking slightly shaken. But not shaken enough to keep quiet.

"You have to leave her alone," he said. "You don'tunderstand. This disease she's got it's serious. She doesn't need anything messing up her life right now.She just needs . . ." He stopped and swallowed.

Suddenly James felt very tired. He couldn't blame Phil for being upset-Phil's mind was full of crystal clear pictures of Poppy dying. Usually James got only general images about what humans were thinking, but Phillip was broadcasting so loud it nearly deafened him.

Half-truths and evasions hadn't worked. It was time for Outright Lies. Anything to satisfy Phil and get James away from this.

"I know that what Poppy has is serious," he said. "I found an article about it on the Net. That's why I was here, okay? I feel sorry for her. I'm not interested in Poppy except as a friend, but it makes her feel better if I pretend that I like her."

Phillip hesitated, looking at him hard and suspiciously. Then he shook his head slowly. "Being friends is one thing, but it's wrong to mix her up. In the end, pretending isn't going to do her any good. I don't even think it makes her feel better now-she looked pretty bad in there."

"Bad?"

"Pale and shaky. You know Poppy; you know how she gets overexcited about things. You shouldn't be fooling around with her emotions." He narrowed his eyes and said, "So maybe you'd better stay away from her for a while. Just to make sure she hasn't got the wrong idea."

"Whatever," James said. He wasn't really listening.

"Okay," Phillip said. "We have a deal. But I'm warning you, if you break it, you're in trouble."

James wasn't listening to that, either. Which wasa mistake.

In the darkened hospital room Poppy lay and listened to her mother's breathing. You're not asleep, she thought, and I'm not asleep. And you know I'm not, and I know you're not…

But they couldn't talk. Poppy wanted desperately to let her mother know that everything was going to be all right-but how? She couldn't betray James's secret. And even if she could, her mother wouldn't believe her.

I have to find a way, Poppy thought. I have to. And then a great wave of drowsiness overtook her. It had been the longest day in her life, and she was full of alien blood already working its strange magic in her. She couldn't … she just couldn't … keep her eyes open.

Several times during the night a nurse came in to take her vital signs, but Poppy never really woke up. For the first time in weeks, no pain interrupted her dreams.

She opened her eyes the next morning feeling con fused and weak. Black dots swarmed through her vision when she sat up.

"Hungry?" her mother asked. "They left this breakfast tray for you."

The smell of hospital eggs made Poppy feel nauseated. But because her mother was watching her anxiously, she played with the food on the tray before she went to wash up. In the bathroom mirror she examined the side of her neck. Amazing-there was no trace of a mark.

When she came out of the bathroom, her mother was crying. Not floods of tears, not sobbing. Just dabbing her eyes on a Kleenex. But Poppy couldn't stand it.

"Mom, if you're worried about telling me … I know."

The whole sentence was out before Poppy could even think about it. Her mother's head jerked up in horror. She stared at Poppy with more tears spilling. "Sweetheart-you know … ?"

"I know what I've got and I know how bad it is," Poppy said. If this was the wrong strategy, it was too late now. "I listened when you and Cliff were talking to the doctors."

"Oh, my Lord."

What can I say? Poppy wondered. It's okay, Mom, because I'm not going to die; I'm going to become a vampire. I hope. I can't be sure, because sometimes you don't make it through the transformation. But with any luck, I should be sucking blood in a few weeks.

Come to think of it, she hadn't asked James exactly how long it would take to change her.

Her mother was taking deep, calming breaths. "Poppy, I want you to know how much I love you. Cliff and I will do anything-anything-we can to help you. Right now he's looking into some clinical protocols-those are experimental studies where they test new ways of treating people. If we can just .. . buy time … until a cure . ' .."

Poppy couldn't stand it. She could feel her mother's pain. Literally. It carried in palpable waves that seemed to echo through her bloodstream, making her dizzy. It's that blood, she thought. It's doing something to me-changing me.

Even as she thought it, she went to her mother. She wanted to hug her, and she needed help standing up.

"Mom, I'm not scared," she said, muffled against her mother's shoulder. "I can't explain, but I'm not scared. And I don't want you to be unhappy over me." Her mother just held on fiercely, as if Death might try to snatch Poppy out of her arms that minute. She was crying.

Poppy cried, too. Real tears, because even if she wasn't going to die truly, she was going to lose so much. Her old life, her family, everything familiar. It felt good to cry over it; it was something she needed to do. But when it was done, she tried again.

"The one thing I don't want is for you to be unhappy or worry," she said, and looked up at her mother. "So could you just try not to? For my sake?"

Oh, God, I'm coming off like Beth in Little Women, she thought. Saint Poppy. And the truth is, if I were really dying, I'd go kicking and screaming all the way.

Still, she'd managed to comfort her mother, who drew back looking tearstained but quietly proud. "You're really something, Poppet," was all she said, but her lips trembled.

Saint Poppy looked away, horribly embarrassed until another wave of dizziness saved her. She allowed her mother to help her back into bed. And it was then that she finally found a way to pose the question she needed to ask.

"Mom," she said slowly, "what if there was a cure for me somewhere-like in some other country or something-and I could go there and get better, but they wouldn't ever let me come back? I mean, you'd know I was okay, but you wouldn't ever be able to see me again." She looked at her mother intently. "Would you want me to do it?"

Her mother answered instantly. "Sweetheart, I'd want you cured if you had to go to the moon. As long as you were happy." She had to pause a moment, then resumed steadily. "But, honey, there isn't such a place. I wish there were."

"I know." Poppy patted her arm gently. "I was just asking. I love you, Mom."

Later that morning Dr. Franklin and Dr. Loftus came by. Facing them wasn't as horrible as Poppy expected, but she felt like a hypocrite when they marvelled over her "wonderful attitude." They talked about quality time, and the fact that no two cases of cancer were the same, and about people they'd known who'd beaten the percentages. Saint Poppy squirmed inside, but she listened and nodded-until they began to talk about more tests.

"We'd like to do an angiogram and a laparotomy," Dr. Loftus said. "Now an angiogram is-"

Everyone looked startled. Then Dr. Loftus gave a rueful smile. "Sounds like you've been reading up on it."

"No, I just-I guess I remember it from somewhere," Poppy said. She knew where she was getting the images-from Dr. Loftus's head. And she probably should cover her tracks instead of talking any more, but she was too distressed. "And a laparotomy's an operation, right?"

Dr. Loftus and Dr. Franklin exchanged glances. "An exploratory operation, yes," Dr. Franklin said.

"But I don't need those tests, do I? I mean, you already know what I've got. And the tests hurt."

"Poppy," her mother said gently. But Dr. Loftus was answering slowly.

"Well, sometimes we need the tests to confirm a diagnosis. But in your case … no, Poppy. We don't really need them. We're already sure."

"Then I don't see why I have to have them," Poppy said simply. "I'd rather go home."

The doctors looked at each. other, then at Poppy's mother. Then, without even trying to be subtle about it, the three adults went out into the corridor to deliberate.

When they came back, Poppy knew she'd won.

"You can go home, Poppy," Dr. Franklin said quietly. "At least until you develop any further symptoms. The nurse will tell your mother what to look out for."

The first thing Poppy did was call James. He answered on the first ring and said, "How do you feel?"

"Dizzy. But pretty good," Poppy said, whispering because her mother was outside talking to a nurse. "I'm coming home."

"I'll come over this afternoon," James said. "Call me when you think you'll have an hour or so alone. And, Poppy … don't tell Phil I'm coming."

"Why not?"

"I'll explain later."

When she actually got home, it was strange. Cliff and Phil were there. Everybody was unusually nice to her, while still trying to pretend that nothing unusual was going on. (Poppy had heard the nurse tell her mother that it was good to try and maintain a normal routine.)

It's like my birthday, Poppy thought dazedly. Like some terribly important birthday and graduation rolled into one. Every few minutes the doorbell would ring as another flower arrangement arrived. Poppy's bedroom looked like a garden.

She felt badly for Phil. He looked so stricken-and so brave. She wanted to comfort him the way she'd comforted her mother-but how?

"Come here," she ordered, opting for direct action. And when he obeyed, she hugged him tightly.

"You'll beat this thing," he whispered. "I know you will. Nobody's ever had as much will to live as you do. And nobody's ever, ever been as stubborn." It was then that Poppy realized just how terribly she was going to miss him. When she let go, she felt light-headed.

"Maybe you'd better lie down," Cliff said gently. And Poppy's mother helped her

to the bedroom.

"Does Dad know?" she asked as her mother moved around the bedroom, straightening things.

"I tried to get hold of him yesterday, but the people at the station said he'd moved to somewhere in Vermont. They don't know where."

Poppy nodded. It sounded like her dad always on the move. He was a DJ-when he wasn't being an artist or a stage magician. He'd split up with her mom because he wasn't very good at being any of those things-or at least not good enough to get paid much.

Cliff was everything Poppy's father wasn't: responsible, disciplined, hardworking. He fit in perfectly with Poppy's mom and Phil. So perfectly that sometimes Poppy felt like the odd one out in her own family.

"I miss Dad," Poppy said softly.

"I know. Sometimes I do, too," her mother said, surprising her. Then she said firmly, "We'll find him, Poppy. As soon as he hears, he'll want to come." Poppy hoped so. She didn't suppose she'd get a chance to see him-after. It wasn't until an hour or so before dinnertime, when Phil and Cliff were out doing errands, and her mother was taking a nap, that Poppy got the chance to call James.

"I'll come right over," he said. "I'll let myself in." Ten minutes later he walked into Poppy's bedroom.

Poppy felt strangely shy. Things had changed between her and James. They weren't simply best friends anymore.

They didn't even say "Hi" to each other. As soon as he came in, their eyes caught and met. And then, for an endless moment, they just looked at each other. This time, when Poppy felt the quick pang in her chest that always came when she saw James, it was a throb of pure sweetness. He cared about her. She could see it in his eyes.

Wait a minute, hang on, her mind whispered. Don't jump the gun here. He cares about you, yes, but he didn't say he was in love with you. There's a difference.

Shut up, Poppy told her brain soberly. Aloud, she said, "How come you didn't want Phil to know you were here?"James threw his light windbreaker over a chair and sat down on Poppy's bed.

"Well-I just' didn't want to be interrupted," he said with a gesture of dismissal. "How's the pain?"

"It's gone," Poppy said. "Isn't that weird? It didn't wake me up at all last night. And there's something else. I think I'm starting to-well, read people's thoughts."

James smiled slightly, just one corner of his mouth up. "That's good. 1 was worried-" He broke off and went to turn Poppy's CD player on. Plaintive Bantu wailing's emerged.

"I was worried you didn't get enough blood last night," James said quietly, resuming his seat. "You'll have to take more this time-and so will I."

Poppy felt something tremble inside her. Her revulsion was gone. She was still afraid, but that was only because of the consequences of what they were going to do. It wasn't just a way to get closer or to feed James. They were doing it to change Poppy.

"The only thing I don't understand is why you never bit me before." Her tone was light, but as she spoke the words, she realized that there was a serious question behind them.

"I mean," she said slowly, "you did it with Michaela and Jacklyn, didn't you? And with other girls?"

He looked away but answered steadily. "I didn't exchange blood with them. But I fed on them, yes."

But not me." "No. How can I explain?" He looked up at her. "Poppy, taking blood can be a lot of different things-and the Elders don't want it to be anything but feeding.

They say all you should feel is the joy of the hunt. And that's all I ever have felt before." Poppy nodded, trying to feel satisfied with this. She didn't ask who the Elders were.

"Besides, it can be dangerous, " James said. "It can be done with hatred, and it can kill. Kill permanently, I mean."

Poppy was almost amused by this. "You wouldn't kill."

James stared at her. Outside, it was cloudy and the light in Poppy's bedroom was pale. It made James's face look pale, too, and his eyes silver.

"But I have," James said. His voice was flat and bleak. "I've killed without exchanging enough blood, so the person didn't come back as a vampire."

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