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The Short Second Life (Chapters 5)

"Everyone knows that old-timey vampires had to stay in coffins during the day," I went on. "To keep out of the sun. That's common knowledge, Diego."

"You're right. Al the stories do say that."

"And what would Riley gain by locking us up in a lightproof basement – one big group coffin – al day, anyway? We just demolish the place, and he has to deal with al the fighting, and it's constant turmoil. You can't tel me he enjoys it."

Something I'd said surprised him. He sat with his mouth open for a second, then closed it.

"What?"

"Common knowledge," he repeated. "What do vampires do in coffins al day?"

"Er – oh yeah, they're supposed to sleep, right? But I guess they're probably just lying there bored, 'cause we don't… Okay, so that part's wrong."

"Yeah. In the stories they're not just asleep, though. They're total y unconscious. They can't wake up. A human can walk right up and stake them, no problem. And that's another thing – stakes. You real y think someone could shove a piece of wood through you?"

I shrugged. "I haven't real y thought about it. I mean, not a normal piece of wood, obviously. Maybe sharpened wood has some kind of… I don't know. Magical properties or something."

Diego snorted. "Please."

"Wel, I don't know. I wouldn't just hold stil while some human ran at me with a filed broom handle, anyway."

Diego – stil with a sort of disgusted look on his face, as if magic were real y such a reach when you're a vampire – rol ed to his knees and started clawing into the limestone above his head. Tiny stone shards fil ed his hair, but he ignored them.

"What are you doing?"

"Experimenting."

He dug with both hands until he could stand upright, and then kept going.

"Diego, you get to the surface, you explode. Stop it."

"I'm not trying to – ah, here we go."

There was a loud crack, and then another crack, but no light. He ducked back down to where I could see his face, with a piece of tree root in his hand, white, dead, and dry under the clumps of dirt. The edge where he'd broken it was a sharp, uneven point. He tossed it to me.

"Stake me."

I tossed it back. "Whatever."

"Seriously. You know it can't hurt me." He lobbed the wood to me; instead of catching it, I batted it back. He snagged it out of the air and groaned. "You are so…

superstitious!"

"I am a vampire. If that doesn't prove that superstitious people are right, I don't know what does."

"Fine, I'l do it."

He held the branch away from himself dramatical y, arm extended, like it was a sword and he was about to impale himself.

"C'mon," I said uneasily. "This is sil y."

"That's my point. Here goes nothing."

He crushed the wood into his chest, right where his heart used to beat, with enough force to punch through a granite slab. I was total y frozen with panic until he laughed.

"You should see your face, Bree."

He sifted the splinters of broken wood through his fingers; the shattered root fel to the floor in mangled pieces. Diego brushed at his shirt, though it was too trashed from al the swimming and digging for the attempt to do any good. We'd both have to steal more clothes the next time we got a chance.

"Maybe it's different when a human does it."

"Because you felt so magical when you were human?"

"I don't know, Diego," I said, exasperated. "I didn't make up al those stories."

He nodded, suddenly more serious. "What if the stories are exactly that? Made up."

I sighed. "What difference does it make?"

"Not sure. But if we're going to be smart about why we're here – why Riley brought us to her, why she's making more of us – then we have to understand as much as we possibly can."

He frowned, every trace of laughter total y gone from his face now.

I just stared back at him. I didn't have any answers. His face softened just a little. "This helps a lot, you know. Talking about it. Helps me focus."

"Me, too," I said. "I don't know why I never thought about any of this before. It seems so obvious. But working on it together…

I don't know. I can stay on track better."

"Exactly." Diego smiled at me. "I'm real y glad you came out tonight."

"Don't get al gooey on me now."

"What? You don't want to be" – he widened his eyes and his voice went up an octave – "BFFs?" He laughed at the goofy expression.

I rol ed my eyes, not total y sure if he was making fun of the expression or of me.

"C'mon, Bree. Be my bestest bud forever. Please?" Stil teasing, but his wide smile was natural and… hopeful. He held out his hand.

This time I went for a real high five, not realizing until he caught my hand and held it that he'd intended anything else. It was shockingly weird to touch another person after a whole life – because the last three months were my whole life – of avoiding any kind of contact. Like touching a sparking downed power line, only to find out that it felt nice. The smile on my face felt a little lopsided. "Count me in."

"Excel ent. Our own private club."

"Very exclusive," I agreed.

He stil had my hand. Not shaking it, but not exactly holding it, either. "We need a secret handshake."

"You can be in charge of that one."

"So the super-secret best friends club is cal ed to order, al present, secret handshake to be devised at a later date," he said. "First order of business: Riley. Clueless? Misinformed? Or lying?"

His eyes were on mine as he spoke, wide and sincere. There was no change as he said Riley's name. In that instant, I was sure there was nothing to the stories about Diego and Riley. Diego had just been around more than the others, nothing more. I could trust him.

"Add this to the list," I said. "Agenda. As in, what is his?"

"Bul 's-eye. That's exactly what we've got to find out. But first, another experiment."

"That word makes me nervous."

"Trust is an essential part of the whole secret club gig."

He stood up into the extra ceiling space he'd just carved out and started digging again. In a second, his feet were dangling while he held himself up with one hand and excavated with the other.

"You better be digging for garlic," I warned him, and backed up toward the tunnel that led to the sea.

"The stories aren't real, Bree," he cal ed to me. He pul ed himself higher into the hole he was making, and the dirt continued to rain down. He was going to fil in his hidey-hole at this rate. Or flood it with light, which would make it even more useless.

I slid most of the way into the escape channel, just my fingertips and eyes above the edge. The water only came up to my hips. It would take me just the smal est fraction of a second to disappear into the darkness below. I could spend a day not breathing.

I'd never been a fan of fire. This might have been because of some buried childhood memory, or maybe it was more recent. Becoming a vampire was enough fire to last me. Diego had to be close to the surface. Once again, I struggled with the idea of losing my new and only friend.

"Please stop, Diego," I whispered, knowing he would probably laugh, knowing he wouldn't listen.

"Trust, Bree."

I waited, unmoving.

"Almost…," he muttered. "Okay."

I tensed for the light, or the spark, or the explosion, but Diego dropped back down while it was stil dark. In his hand he had a longer root, a thick snaky thing that was almost as tal as me. He gave me an I-told-you-so kind of look.

"I'm not a completely reckless person," he said. He gestured to the root with his free hand. "See – precautions."

With that, he stabbed the root upward into his new hole. There was a final avalanche of pebbles and sand as Diego dropped back onto his knees, getting out of the way. And then a beam of bril iant light – a ray about the thickness of one of Diego's arms – pierced the darkness of the cave. The light made a pil ar from the ceiling to the floor, shimmering as the drifting dirt sifted through it. I was icy-stil, gripping the ledge, ready to drop.

Diego didn't jerk away or cry out in pain. There was no smel of smoke. The cave was a hundred times lighter than it had been, but it didn't seem to affect him. So maybe his story about shade trees was true. I watched him careful y as he knelt beside the pil ar of sunlight, motionless, staring. He seemed fine, but there was a slight change to his skin. A kind of movement, maybe from the settling dust, that reflected the gleam. It looked almost like he was glowing a little. Maybe it wasn't the dust, maybe it was the burning. Maybe it didn't hurt, and he'd realize it too late….

Seconds passed as we stared at the daylight, motionless. Then, in a move that seemed both absolutely expected and also completely unthinkable, he held out his hand, palm up, and stretched his arm toward the beam.

I moved faster than I could think, which was pretty dang fast. Faster than I'd ever moved before.

I tackled Diego into the back wal of the dirt-fil ed little cave before he could reach that one last inch to put his skin in the light.

true

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