But there was a spot on the cement f loor next to the mattress that was blackened and charred, and I had to know what it was. As I studied the remains of book pages, scattered among the ashes, my heart sank. All that time, all that work, and in the end my collection had been burned to keep two strangers warm.
The strange vampire chuckled. "They won't need words now," he mused. "Not to read, not to burn, not to nibble on.
Always nibbling, the rats. Creeping into dark places to get warm, spreading their filth. No more words for them. No more anything." He chuckled again, the empty sound making my skin crawl.
I resisted the urge to draw my weapon. He wasn't making any threatening moves, but I felt as if I was standing close to a coiled, venomous snake. "Who are you?" I asked, and his blank gaze switched to me. "What's your business in New Covington?"
"Just looking for something, little bird." Another of his eerie smiles, and this time his fangs showed, just the tips.
"And if you want my name, you'll have to give me yours. It's only polite, and we're a polite society, after all." I hesitated. For whatever reason, I did not want this creepy bloodsucker to know my name. Not that I was worried that he would report it to the Prince who, according to Kanin, did not instantly know the name of every vampire in the whole city, especially the Type-3 riffraff. The Prince was concerned only about those in his immediate circle; the common vampires were below his notice.
But I did not want this vampire to know me, because I knew, somehow, that he would remember, and that seemed like a very bad idea.
"No?" The vampire smiled at my silence, unsurprised. "Not going to tell me? I guess I can't blame you. I am a stranger and all. But you'll have to forgive me if I don't disclose my identity, then. Can't be too careful these days."
"I want you to leave," I told him, feigning a bravado I really didn't feel. "This is my sector, my hunting grounds. I want you out. Right now."
He gave me a long, eerie stare, as if sizing me up. He was perfectly still, but I could sense those tendons coiling beneath his pale skin, ready to unleash. And suddenly, I was terrified of this stranger. This thin, motionless vampire whose eyes were as dark and soulless as Kanin's. My hands shook, and I crossed my arms to hide them, knowing the stranger would see the smallest detail. I knew I stood in the presence of a killer.
Finally, he smiled. "Of course," he said, nodding as he stepped away, and my knees nearly buckled with relief. "Terribly sorry, love. Didn't mean to intrude. I'll be leaving now." He stepped aside, moving toward the door, but paused, giving me a thoughtful stare. "Little bird, your song is so different than his," he crooned, to my utter confusion. "Don't disappoint me."
I didn't say anything. I just held his gaze, hoping he would go away. The vampire gave me one last terrible smile, then turned and vanished through the door. I listened for his footsteps, walking away, but heard nothing.
The world seemed to breathe again. I waited several minutes, unmoving, wanting the creepy vampire to get as far away as he could, before I finally strode to the open crate, lying against the wall, and peered inside.
Two books. That was all that was left. Two books out of a lifetime of effort, and neither was the one that mattered.
I sank to my knees, feeling my throat close up, my stomach twisting. For a moment, I wished the two greedy scavengers were still alive so I could hurt them, make them feel the same pain. I had nothing left now, nothing to remind me of my past. My mom's book, the only thing I had to remember her by, was lost forever.
I didn't cry. Numbly, I pulled myself to my feet and turned away, stif ling my anger and despair, letting cold indifference settle over me. Loss was nothing new. Those two strangers only had done what anyone would to survive. Nothing lasted in this world; it was everyone for himself. Allie the Fringer knew that; Allison the vampire just needed the reminder.
I left the school without looking back. There was nothing there for me anymore, and I was already putting it from my mind, shoving it down into the deepest parts where I kept all the memories I didn't want to remember. You don't dwell on what you've lost, you just move on. The night was waning, and I had something else to do, one more piece of my past to check on, before Kanin discovered I was missing.
I made my way to the old warehouse with a growing sense of urgency. Slipping inside the building, I scanned the room and the boxes in the center of the rubble piles, looking for a familiar face. It seemed most of the gang had returned already, for there were about a half-dozen young people bunched together around the fire, talking and laughing. I looked closely at each of them, but Stick was not among them.
And then I saw him, huddled off to the side, his thin frame curled around himself. He was shivering, hunched over and miserable, and I felt a f lare of anger and disgust. Anger for these people who shunned him, who weren't taking care of their own, who would let him slowly die from starvation and cold right in front of them. But I also felt a sudden contempt toward Stick, who still hadn't learned to take care of himself, who was still relying on others to save him, when it was obvious that they didn't care.
Quietly, I made my way through the rubble, keeping to the shadows, until Stick was just a few yards away. He looked even thinner than usual, a near-skeleton of a boy with pinched skin and greasy hair and dull, dead eyes.
"Stick," I whispered, casting a quick glance toward the group by the fire. They all had their backs to me, or to Stick, more likely, and didn't notice us. "Stick! Over here! Look this way!"
He jerked and raised his head. For a few seconds, he looked confused, gazing around blearily, his eyes staring right through my hiding spot. But then I waved to him, and his eyes nearly bugged out of his head.
"Shh!" I hissed, drawing back into the shadows as some of the gang members half turned their heads, frowning. I gestured for him to follow, but he just sat there, staring at me as if I was a ghost.
In a sense, I suppose I was.
"You're alive," he whispered, but his voice lacked the excitement, the relief, I was expecting. It sounded dull, almost accusing, though he wore a confused expression. "You shouldn't be alive. The rabids...I heard..." He shuddered violently, curling into himself. "You didn't come back," he said, and now there was a definite note of accusation in his voice.
"You didn't come back for me. I thought you were dead, and you left me alone."
"I didn't have a choice," I said through gritted teeth. "Believe me, I would have come here sooner if I could, but I didn't know you were alive, either. I thought the rabids got you, like Rat and Lucas."
He shook his head. "I went back home and waited for you, but you never came. I stayed there, alone, for days. Where were you? Where have you been all this time?" He sounded like a pensive toddler, and my frustration in-creased. "Near an old hospital in Sector Two," I snapped,
"but that doesn't matter now. I came here to see if you're all right, if you're taking care of yourself."
"What do you care?" Stick muttered, fiddling with his tattered sleeve. His watery gaze eyed my coat and narrowed darkly. "You never really cared what happened to me. You always wanted me gone. You and everyone else. That's why you never came back."
I swallowed a growl, barely. "I'm here now, aren't I?"
"But you're not staying, are you?" Stick looked up at me, his eyes hooded. "You're going to leave again, leave me alone with these people. They hate me. Just like Rat and Lucas did.
You hated me, too."
"I didn't, but you're sure pushing me in that direction," I grumbled. This was crazy. I had never seen Stick like this and had no idea where the sullen rage was coming from. "God, Stick, stop being a baby. You can take care of yourself. You don't need me around to look after you, I've always told you that."
not staying." Stick's voice trembled, and his anger melted away into real panic. "Allie, please. I'm sorry!
I was just scared when you didn't come back." He scrambled forward, pleading, and I cast a nervous look at the group around the fire. "Please, don't go," Stick begged. "Stay with us. This place isn't so bad, really. Kyle won't mind another person, especially someone like you."
"Stick." I shushed him with a sharp gesture, and he fell silent, his eyes still begging me to stay. "I can't," I told him, and his expression crumpled. "I wish I could, but I can't. I'm...
different now. I can't be seen aboveground. So you'll have to survive without me."
"Why?" Stick crept forward. His chin trembled; he was near tears. "Why can't you just stay? Do you hate me that much? Am I that pathetic, that you can just leave me alone to die?"
"Stop being dramatic." I half turned, embarrassed and angry, both at myself and him. Kanin was right, I should never have come here. "You're not helpless," I said. "You've been Unregistered just as long as me. It's time you learned to fend for yourself. I can't help you anymore."
"No, that's not a reason," Stick protested. "There's something you're not telling me."
"You don't want to know."
"Why are you keeping secrets? Don't you trust me? We never kept anything from each other before."
"Stick, leave it alone."
"I thought we were friends," he insisted, leaning forward.
"No one here likes me, no one understands me like you. I thought you were dead! But now you're back, and you won't tell me what's going on."
"All right!" I turned to face him fully, narrowing my gaze.
"All right, you really want to know why?" And before he could answer, before I could ref lect on the absolute stupidity of my actions, I opened my mouth and bared my fangs.
Stick went so pale, I thought he would faint. "Don't scream," I told him urgently, retracting my fangs, knowing it had been a mistake the second I showed him. "I'm not going to hurt you. I'm still me, just...different now."
"You're a vampire," Stick whispered, as if he'd just figured it out. "A vampire. "
"Yeah." I shrugged. "I was pulled down by rabids and would've died, but a vampire happened to be in the area and Turned me instead. But the other vamps are looking for us now, that's why I can't stay. I don't want them to come after you, too."
But Stick was edging away, every muscle in his body tight with fear. "Stick," I tried again, holding out my hand. "It's still me. Come on, I'm not going to bite you or anything."
"Stay away from me!" Stick's frantic cry finally roused the others around the fire, and they looked toward us, muttering and rising to their feet. I felt my lips curl back, my fangs lengthen, even as I gave my old friend one last, desperate look.
"Stick, don't do this."
"Vampire!" he shrieked and lunged backward, sprawling in the dirt. "Vampire, over here! Get away from me! Help!
I growled and drew back as the group around the fire leaped to their feet, shouting and cursing. Stick half ran, half crawled back to the fire, shouting and pointing in my direction, and the rest of the camp exploded into terrified chaos.