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The Short Second Life (Chapters 3)

I frowned. "How is that a good thing?"

"Keeps him alive, doesn't it? Guess it keeps you alive, too."

I nodded. "Guess so. Did he say anything about anyone else?" I tried to think of anything strange I'd seen or felt, but Fred was one of a kind. The clowns in the al ey tonight pretending to be superheroes hadn't been doing anything the rest of us couldn't do.

"He talked about Raoul," Diego said, the corner of his mouth twisting down.

"What skil does Raoul have? Super-stupidity?"

Diego snorted. "Definitely that. But Riley thinks he's got some kind of magnetism – people are drawn to him, they fol ow him."

"Only the mental y chal enged."

"Yeah, Riley mentioned that. Didn't seem to be effective on the" – he broke out a decent impression of Riley's voice – "

�� tamer kids.'"

"Tame?"

"I inferred that he meant people like us, who are able to think occasional y."

I didn't like being cal ed tame. It didn't sound like a good thing when you put it that way. Diego's way sounded better.

"It was like there was a reason Riley needed Raoul to lead – something's coming, I think."

A weird tingle spasmed along my spine when he said that, and I sat up straighter. "Like what?"

"Do you ever think about why Riley is always after us to keep a low profile?"

I hesitated for half a second before answering. This wasn't the line of inquiry I would have expected from Riley's right-hand man. Almost like he was questioning what Riley had told us. Unless Diego was asking this for Riley, like a spy. Finding out what the "kids" thought of him. But it didn't feel like that. Diego's dark red eyes were open and confiding. And why would Riley care? Maybe the way the others talked about Diego wasn't based on anything real. Just gossip.

I answered him truthful y. "Yeah, actual y I was just thinking about that."

"We aren't the only vampires in the world," Diego said solemnly.

"I know. Riley says stuff sometimes. But there can't be too many. I mean, wouldn't we have noticed, before?"

Diego nodded. "That's what I think, too. Which is why it's pretty weird that she keeps making more of us, don't you think?

"

I frowned. "Huh. Because it's not like Riley actual y likes us or anything…." I paused again, waiting to see if he would contradict me. He didn't. He just waited, nodding slightly in agreement, so I continued. "And she hasn't even introduced herself. You're right. I hadn't looked at it that way. Wel, I hadn't real y thought about it at al . But then, what do they want us for?"

Diego raised one eyebrow. "Wanna hear what I think?"

I nodded warily. But my anxiety had nothing to do with him now.

"Like I said, something is coming. I think she wants protection, and she put Riley in charge of creating the front line."

I thought this through, my spine prickling again. "Why wouldn't they tel us? Shouldn't we be, like, on the lookout or something?"

"That would make sense," he agreed.

We looked at each other in silence for a few long-seeming seconds. I had nothing more, and it didn't look like he did, either.

Final y I grimaced and said, "I don't know if I buy it – the part about Raoul being good for anything, that is."

Diego laughed. "Hard to argue that one." Then he glanced out the windows at the dark early morning. "Out of time. Better head back before we turn into crispies."

"Ashes, ashes, we al fal down," I sang under my breath as I got to my feet and col ected my pile.

Diego chuckled.

We made one more quick stop on our way – hit the empty Target next door for big ziplocks and two backpacks. I doublebagged al my books. Water-damaged pages annoyed me. Then we mostly roof-topped it back to the water. The sky was just faintly starting to gray up in the east. We slipped into the sound right under the noses of two oblivious night watchmen by the big ferry – good thing for them I was ful or they would have been too close for my self-control – and then raced through the murky water back toward Riley's place. At first I didn't know it was a race. I was just swimming fast because the sky was getting lighter. I didn't usual y push the time like this. If I were being honest with myself, I'd pretty much turned into a huge vampire nerd. I fol owed the rules, I didn't cause trouble, I hung out with the most unpopular kid in the group, and I always got home early.

But then Diego real y kicked it into gear. He got a few lengths ahead of me, turned back with a smile that said, what, can't you keep up? and then started booking it again. Wel, I wasn't taking that. I couldn't real y remember if I'd been the competitive type before – it al seemed so far away and unimportant – but maybe I was, because I responded right away to the chal enge. Diego was a good swimmer, but I was way stronger, especial y after just feeding.

See ya, I mouthed as I passed him, but I wasn't sure he saw.

I lost him back in the dark water, and I didn't waste time looking to see by how much I was winning. I just jetted through the sound til I hit the edge of the island where the most recent of our homes was located. The last one had been a big cabin in the middle of Snowvil e-Nowhere on the side of some mountain in the Cascades. Like the last one, this house was remote, had a big basement, and had recently deceased owners. I raced up onto the shal ow stony beach and then dug my fingers into the sandstone bluff and flew up. I heard Diego come out of the water just as I gripped the trunk of an overhanging pine and flipped myself over the cliff edge.

Two things caught my attention as I landed gently on the bal s of my feet. One: it was real y light out. Two: the house was gone.

Wel, not entirely gone. Some of it was stil visible, but the space the house had once occupied was empty. The roof had col apsed into ragged, angular wooden lace, charred black, sagging lower than the front door had been.

The sun was rising fast. The black pine trees were showing hints of evergreen. Soon the paler tips would stand out against the dark, and at about that point I would be dead. Or really dead, or whatever. This second thirsty, superhero life would go up in a sudden burst of flames. And I could only imagine that the burst would be very, very painful. This wasn't the first time I'd seen our house destroyed – with al the fights and fires in the basements, most of them lasted only a few weeks – but it was the first time I'd come across the scene of destruction with the first faint rays of sunlight threatening.

I sucked in a gasp of shock as Diego landed beside me.

"Maybe burrow under the roof?" I whispered. "Would that be safe enough or – ?"

"Don't freak out, Bree," Diego said, sounding too calm. "I know a place. C'mon."

He did a very graceful backflip off the bluff edge. I didn't think the water would be enough of a filter to block the sun. But maybe we couldn't burn if we were submerged? It seemed like a real y poor plan to me.

However, instead of tunneling under the burned-out hul of the wrecked house, I dove off the cliff behind him. I wasn't sure of my reasoning, which was a strange feeling. Usual y I did what I always did – fol owed the routine, did what made sense. I caught up to Diego in the water. He was racing again, but with no nonsense this time. Racing the sun.

He whipped around a point on the little island and then dove deep. I was surprised he didn't hit the rocky floor of the sound, and more surprised when I could feel the blast of warmer current flowing from what I had thought was no more than an outcropping of rock.

Smart of Diego to have a place like this. Sure, it wasn't going to be fun to sit in an underwater cavern al day – not breathing started to irritate after a few hours – but it was better than exploding into ashes. I should have been thinking like Diego was. Thinking about something other than blood, that is. I should have been prepared for the unexpected.

Diego kept going through a narrow crevice in the rocks. It was black as ink in here. Safe. I couldn't swim anymore – the space was too tight – so I scrambled through like Diego, climbing through the twisting space. I kept waiting for him to stop, but he didn't. Suddenly I realized that we real y were going up. And then I heard Diego hit the surface.

I was out a half second after he was.

The cave was no more than a smal hole, a burrow about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, though not as tal as that. A second crawl space led out the back, and I could taste the fresh air coming from that direction. I could see the shape of Diego's fingers repeated again and again in the texture of the limestone wal s.

"Nice place," I said.

Diego smiled. "Better than Freaky Fred's backside."

"I can't argue with that. Um. Thanks."

"You're welcome."

We looked at each other in the dark for a minute. His face was smooth and calm. With anyone else, Kevin or Kristie or any of the others, this would have been terrifying – the constricted space, the forced closeness. The way I could smel his scent on every side of me. That could have meant a quick and painful death at any second. But Diego was so composed. Not like anyone else.

"How old are you?" he asked abruptly.

"Three months. I told you that."

"That's not what I meant. Um, how old were you? I guess that's the right way to ask."

I leaned away, uncomfortable, when I realized he was talking about human stuff. Nobody talked about that. Nobody wanted to think about it. But I didn't want to end the conversation, either. Just having a conversation at al was something new and different. I hesitated, and he waited with a curious expression.

"I was, um, I guess fifteen. Almost sixteen. I can't remember the day… was I past my birthday?" I tried to think about it, but those last hungry weeks were a big blur, and it hurt my head in a weird way to try to clear them up. I shook my head, let it go.

"How about you?"

"I was just past my eighteenth," Diego said. "So close."

"Close to what?"

"Getting out," he said, but he didn't continue. There was an awkward silence for a minute, and then he changed the subject.

"You've done real y wel since you got here," he said, his eyes sweeping across my crossed arms, my folded legs.

"You've survived – avoided the wrong kind of attention, kept intact."

I shrugged and then yanked my left t-shirt sleeve up to my shoulder so he could see the thin, ragged line that circled my arm.

"Got this ripped off once," I admitted. "Got it back before Jen could toast it. Riley showed me how to put it back on."

Diego smiled wryly and touched his right knee with one finger. His dark jeans covered the scar that must have been there. "It happens to everybody."

"Ouch," I said.

He nodded. "Seriously. But like I was saying before, you're a pretty decent vampire."

"Am I supposed to say thanks?"

"I'm just thinking out loud, trying to make sense of things."

"What things?"

true

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