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The Short Second Life (Chapters 4)

He frowned a little. "What's real y going on. What Riley's up to. Why he keeps bringing the most random kids to her. Why it doesn't seem to matter to Riley if it's someone like you or if it's someone like that idiot Kevin."

It sounded like he didn't know Riley any better than I did.

"What do you mean, someone like me?" I asked.

"You're the kind that Riley should be looking for – the smart ones – not just these stupid gang-bangers that Raoul keeps bringing in. I bet you weren't some junkie ho when you were human."

I shifted uneasily at the last word. Diego kept waiting for my answer, like he hadn't said anything weird. I took a deep breath and thought back.

"I was close enough," I admitted after a few seconds of his patient watching. "Not there yet, but in a few more weeks…" I shrugged. "You know, I don't remember much, but I do remember thinking there was nothing more powerful on this planet than just plain old hunger. Turns out, thirst is worst."

He laughed. "Sing it, sister."

"What about you? You weren't a troubled teen runaway like the rest of us?"

"Oh, I was troubled, al right." He stopped talking. But I could sit around and wait for the answers to inappropriate questions, too. I just stared at him. He sighed. The scent of his breath was nice. Everybody smel ed sweet, but Diego had a little something extra – some spice like cinnamon or cloves.

"I tried to stay away from al that junk. Studied hard. I was gonna get out of the ghetto, you know. Go to col ege. Make something of myself. But there was a guy – not much different than Raoul. Join or die, that was his motto. I wasn't having any, so I stayed away from his group. I was careful. Stayed alive." He stopped, closing his eyes.

I wasn't done being pushy. "And?"

"My kid brother wasn't as careful."

I was about to ask if his brother had joined or died, but the expression on his face made asking unnecessary. I looked away, not sure how to respond. I couldn't real y understand his loss, the pain it stil clearly caused him to feel. I hadn't left anything behind that I stil missed. Was that the difference? Was that why he dwel ed on memories that the rest of us shunned?

I stil didn't see how Riley came into this. Riley and the cheeseburger of pain. I wanted that part of the story, but now I felt bad for pushing him to answer.

Lucky for my curiosity, Diego kept going after a minute.

"I kind of lost it. Stole a gun from a friend and went hunting."

He chuckled darkly. "Wasn't as good at it then. But I got the guy that got my brother before they got me. The rest of his crew had me cornered in an al ey. Then, suddenly, Riley was there, between me and them. I remember thinking he was the whitest guy I'd ever seen. He didn't even look at the others when they shot him. Like the bul ets were flies. You know what he said to me? He said, ��Want a new life, kid?'"

"Hah!" I laughed. "That's way better than mine. Al I got was,

��Want a burger, kid?'"

I stil remembered how Riley'd looked that night, though the image was al blurry because my eyes'd sucked back then. He was the hottest boy I'd ever seen, tal and blond and perfect, every feature. I knew his eyes must be just as beautiful behind the dark sunglasses he never took off. And his voice was so gentle, so kind. I figured I knew what he would want in exchange for the meal, and I would have given it to him, too. Not because he was so pretty to look at, but because I hadn't eaten anything but trash for two weeks. It turned out he wanted something else, though.

Diego laughed at the burger line. "You must have been pretty hungry."

"Damn straight."

"So why were you so hungry?"

"Because I was stupid and ran away before I had a driver's license. I couldn't get a real job, and I was a bad thief."

"What were you running from?"

I hesitated. The memories were a little more clear as I focused on them, and I wasn't sure I wanted that.

"Oh, c'mon," he coaxed. "I told you mine."

"Yeah, you did. Okay. I was running from my dad. He used to knock me around a lot. Probably did the same to my mom before she took off. I was pretty little then – I didn't know much. It got worse. I figured if I waited too long I'd end up dead. He told me if I ever ran away I'd starve. He was right about that – only thing he was ever right about as far as I'm concerned. I don't think about it much."

Diego nodded in agreement. "Hard to remember that stuff, isn't it? Everything's so fuzzy and dark."

"Like trying to see with mud in your eyes."

"Good way to put it," he complimented me. He squinted at me like he was trying to see, and rubbed his eyes. We laughed together again. Weird.

"I don't think I've laughed with anybody since I met Riley," he said, echoing my thoughts. "This is nice. You're nice. Not like the others. You ever try to have a conversation with one of them?"

"Nope, I haven't."

"You're not missing anything. Which is my point. Wouldn't Riley's standard of living be a little higher if he surrounded himself with decent vampires? If we're supposed to protect her, shouldn't he be looking for the smart ones?"

"So Riley doesn't need brains," I reasoned. "He needs numbers."

Diego pursed his lips, considering. "Like chess. He's not making knights and bishops."

"We're just pawns," I realized.

We stared at each other again for a long minute.

"I don't want to think that," Diego said.

"So what do we do?" I asked, using the plural automatical y. Like we were already a team.

He thought about my question for a second, seeming uneasy, and I regretted the "we." But then he said, "What can we do when we don't know what's happening?"

So he didn't mind the team thing, which made me feel real y good in a way I didn't remember ever feeling before. "I guess we keep our eyes open, pay attention, try to figure it out."

He nodded. "We need to think about everything Riley's told us, everything he's done." He paused thoughtful y. "You know, I tried to hash some of this out with Riley once, but he couldn't have cared less. Told me to keep my mind on more important things – like thirst. Which was al I could think about then, of course. He sent me out hunting, and I stopped worrying…."

I watched him thinking about Riley, his eyes unfocused as he relived the memory, and I wondered. Diego was my first friend in this life, but I wasn't his.

Suddenly his focus snapped back to me. "So what have we learned from Riley?"

I concentrated, running through the last three months in my head. "He real y doesn't tel us much, you know. Just the vampire basics."

"We'l have to listen more careful y."

We sat in silence, pondering this. I mostly thought about how much I didn't know. And why hadn't I worried about everything I didn't know before now? It was like talking to Diego had cleared my head. For the first time in three months, blood was not the main thing in there.

The silence lasted for a while. The black hole I'd felt funneling fresh air into the cave wasn't black anymore. It was dark gray now and getting infinitesimal y lighter with each second. Diego noticed me eyeing it nervously.

"Don't worry," he said. "Some dim light gets in here on sunny days. It doesn't hurt." He shrugged.

I scooted closer to the hole in the floor, where the water was disappearing as the tide went out.

"Seriously, Bree. I've been down here before during the day. I told Riley about this cave – and how it was mostly fil ed with water, and he said it was cool when I needed to get out of the madhouse. Anyway, do I look like I got singed?"

I hesitated, thinking about how different his relationship with Riley was than mine. His eyebrows rose, waiting for an answer.

"No," I final y said. "But…"

"Look," he said impatiently. He crawled swiftly to the tunnel and stuck his arm in up to the shoulder. "Nothing."

I nodded once.

"Relax! Do you want me to see how high I can go?" As he spoke, he stuck his head into the hole and started climbing.

"Don't, Diego." He was already out of sight. "I'm relaxed, I swear."

He was laughing – it sounded like he was already several yards up the tunnel. I wanted to go after him, to grab his foot and yank him back, but I was frozen with stress. It would be stupid to risk my life to save some total stranger. But I hadn't had anything close to a friend in forever. Already it would be hard to go back to having no one to talk to, after only one night.

"No estoy quemando," he cal ed down, his tone teasing.

"Wait… is that…? Ow! "

"Diego?"

I leaped across the cave and stuck my head into the tunnel. His face was right there, inches from mine.

"Boo!"

I flinched back from his proximity – just a reflex, old habit.

"Funny," I said dryly, moving away as he slid back into the cave.

"You need to unwind, girl. I've looked into this, okay? Indirect sunlight doesn't hurt."

"So you're saying that I could just stand under a nice shady tree and be fine?"

He hesitated for a minute, as if debating whether or not to tel me something, and then said quietly, "I did once."

I stared at him, waiting for the grin. Because this was a joke. It didn't come.

"Riley said…," I started, and then my voice trailed off.

"Yeah, I know what Riley said," he agreed. "Maybe Riley doesn't know as much as he says he does."

"But Shel y and Steve. Doug and Adam. That kid with the bright red hair. Al of them. They're gone because they didn't get back in time. Riley saw the ashes."

Diego's brows pul ed together unhappily.

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