Darius volunteered to stay in the car and babysit Maleficent while Aphrodite and I got something to eat, which I thought was above and beyond the call of duty.
"He's way too good for you," I told Aphrodite. For as late as it was, Charlie's was really busy, and sheeplike, we jostled around with the rest of the herd animals, finally getting in line behind an obese woman who had really bad teeth and a balding guy who smelled like feet.
"Of course he's too good for me," Aphrodite said.
I blinked in surprise at her and said, "Excuse me? I couldn't have heard you right."
Aphrodite snorted. "You think I don't know I'm awful to my boyfriends? Please-- I'm selfish, not stupid. Darius will probably get sick of my crap within a couple months. I'll dump him right before he dumps me, but at least it'll be a fun ride till then."
"Did you ever think about being nice and not putting him through your usual crap?"
Aphrodite met my eyes. "Actually, I have been thinking about it and may consider changing things up with Darius." She paused and added. "She chose me."
"Well, yeah, she chose you. She's your cat. Just like Nala chose me and Darius's cat, whatever her name is . . . uh . . ."
"Nefertiti," Aphrodite said.
"Yeah, Nefertiti, she chose him. So what's the big deal? Happens all the time. Cats choose their fledglings, or sometimes their vamps. Most every vamp eventually gets one and--"
And I suddenly realized why the cat choosing her had made such an impact on Aphrodite.
"It makes me belong," she said quietly. "Somehow I'm still a part of the whole"-- she paused, talking so low, I had to lean into her to hear her--"I'm still part of the whole vamp thing. It means I'm not totally an outsider."
"You couldn't be an outsider," I whispered back. "You're part of the Dark Daughters. You're part of the school. And most important, you're part of Nyx."
"But since this happened"--she brushed her hand across her forehead where she hadn't needed any makeup to cover the Mark that no longer was there--"since this happened, I haven't really felt like I was a part of anything. But Maleficent changed that."
"Huh," I said, more than a little taken back by Aphrodite's sincerity.
Then she shook herself, shrugged, and--looking much more like the Aphrodite we all knew and couldn't stand--said, "Whatever, though. My life still sucks. And after I eat this cheap, greasy crap with you, I'll probably break out." "Hey, a little grease is good for your hair and nails. Kinda like vitamin E." I bumped her shoulder. "I'll even order for you."
"Could I have something diet?"
"Please. There's nothing diet about Charlie's."
"They have diet pop," she said.
I sneered down at her size 6 perfectness. "Not for you."
Since it really was fast food, it didn't take long to fill our order, and Aphrodite and I found a semi-clean table and started shoving greasy fried chicken and catsup-slathered fries into our faces. Now, don't get me wrong. Even though I was shoveling in the chicken and fries 'cause we needed to get back to school and it was rude to lounge around while Darius babysat Aphrodite's cat from hell, I savored every bite. I mean, after a couple months of really nutritious, excellent food from the House of Night cafeteria, my taste buds needed a dose of disgustingly delicious and utterly not-good-for-me food. Yum. Seriously.
"So," I said between bites, "Stevie Rae and I talked."
"Yeah, I thought I heard her twang out there in the other room." Aphrodite picked delicately at a drumstick and wrinkled her nose at me when I added salt to the already totally salty fries. "You're going to bloat like a dead fish."
"If I do, I'll just wear sweats until I pee it out." I grinned around a big bite of chicken.
She shuddered. "You're so gross. I cannot believe we're friends, which proves I'm in the middle of a personal crisis. Anyway--what's up with Stevie Rae and the zoo animals?"
"Well, we didn't really talk about her or the other kids very much," I said, not willing to tell Aphrodite that Stevie Rae admitted to not being herself.
"So since you didn't talk about the crazies much, my guess is Stark was who you did talk about."
"Yeah. It's not good."
"Well, no. The kid's dead. Or possibly undead. Either isn't very good. What did Stevie Rae say about the time frame for him coming back? Or do we just wait till he starts to stink and figure he's not going to wake up."
"Don't talk about him like that!"
"Sorry, I forget that you had a thing with him. What did Stevie Rae say?"
"Sadly, she couldn't give me many specifics. Her memory of everything before she Changed is pretty sketchy. Her best advice was to steal his body and see if he wakes up. And if he does wake up, he'll need to be fed right away."
"Fed? As in a burger and some fries, or fed as in opening a vein?"
"Your second guess is the right one."
"Oh, ugh. I know you've gotten all into the bloodsucking-back-and-forth stuff, but it still squees me out."
"It squees me out, too, but there's no denying the power of it," I admitted uncomfortably.
She gave me a long contemplative look. "The Sociology book says it's a lot like sex. Maybe even better."
"You're going to have to do better than that. I want details." "Okay. Yeah. It's a lot like sex."
Her eyes widened. "And it's good?"
"Yes. But what happens because of it isn't always good." I thought about Heath and decided it was definitely time to change the subject. "Anyway, I'm supposed to figure out a way to get Stark's maybe-temporarily-dead body and hide it somewhere we can, in theory, watch it to see if he wakes up. Then we feed him--"
"Uh, don't you mean you feed him? I say a big No Way about having anything to do with that kid biting me."
"Yes, I mean I have to feed him." A fact that was more than a little appealing to me, even though I definitely wasn't going to discuss that with Aphrodite. "I'm clueless about how I can steal him or hide him."
"Well, he's going to be hard to move, especially since I'm assuming Neferet is keeping her beady eyes on him."
"You assume right--at least that's what Stevie Rae says." I took a long drink of my brown pop.
"Sounds like you need a nanny cam," she said.
"You know, one of those hidden cameras rich mommies use to watch their precious babies while they're at the country club drinking martinis at eleven o'clock in the morning."
"Aphrodite, you're from a whole different world."
"Thank you," she said. "Seriously, a nanny cam would work. I could pick one up at RadioShack. Isn't that Jack kid good with electronics?"
"Yeah," I said.
"He could install it in the morgue, and you could keep the monitor in your room. Hell, I could probably even buy the kind that comes with a portable monitor, so you could carry it around with you."
"Excellent! It was freaking me more than I can say to think about putting Stark in my closet."
"Uh, puke." We chewed happily for a while, and then Aphrodite said, "So what else did the bumpkin have to say?"
"Actually, we talked about you," I said smugly.
"Me?" Aphrodite narrowed her eyes.
"Well, honestly, only a little. Mostly we talked about her stepping into the earth position during the cleansing ritual tomorrow."
"You mean like hiding behind me and trying to make it look like I'm invoking earth, but she'll really be doing it?"
"Uh, no. Not exactly. I mean like you stepping aside and letting Stevie Rae take her old place in the circle."
"In front of everybody?"
"You're kidding, right?"
"And she's going to do it?" "Yep," I said with way more confidence than I actually felt.
Aphrodite chewed quietly for a while, and then she nodded slowly. "Okay, I get it. You're counting on Shekinah saving your ass."
"Our asses, actually. Which includes you, me, Stevie Rae, the red fledglings, and Stark--if he undeads. I figure if everyone knows about them, it'll be harder for Neferet to use them for her own evil means."
"Sounds very B movie."
"It might sound cheesy like that, but it's not. I'm dead serious about it. We all better be. Neferet is scary. She tried to start a war with humans, and I don't think she's done trying. Plus," I added hesitantly, "I have a bad feeling."
"Shit. What kind of bad feeling?"
"Well, honestly, I've been trying to ignore it, but I've had a bad feeling about Neferet ever since Nyx appeared to us."
"Zoey, get serious. You've had a bad feeling about Neferet for months."
I shook my head. "Not like this. This is something different. Something worse. And Stevie Rae feels it, too." I hesitated again, and then added, "And after whatever it was jumped me yesterday, the night has been scaring me."
"The night," I repeated.
"Zoey, we are creatures of the night. How can the night scare you?"
"I don't know! All I know is that it feels like there's something out there watching me. What do you feel?"
Aphrodite sighed. "About?"
"About the night or Neferet or whatever! Just tell me if you've noticed any new negative vibes."
"I don't know. I haven't been thinking about vibes and such. I've been kinda busy with my own issues."
I kept my hands busy with the chicken and fries so that they didn't reach over and strangle her. "Well, why don't you spend some time thinking about it? I mean, it is a little important." I lowered my voice, even though everyone was too busy ingesting their own grease to pay much attention to us. "You did have those visions about me being killed. Two of those visions, and at least one of them involved Neferet."
"Yeah, and that could account for your new 'bad feeling' about her." She air- quoted around the words bad feeling. "And me telling you I saw your death can't help your creep-out factor."
"It seems like more than that to me. Lots of stuff has happened to me the past couple months, and until recently I've never felt afraid. I mean honestly, make-me-want- to-cry afraid. I--" My words broke off when a familiar laugh made me glance up at the entrance to the dining room. And all the breath seemed to rush out of my body, just like someone had punched me in the gut.
He was carrying a tray filled with his favorite combo meal (the Number 3, with extra-large fries), along with a tiny kids' meal. You know, one of those meals that girls get when they're on a date so they look like they don't eat much, and then they go home and snarf down the refrigerator when they're alone. The girl with him wasn't carrying anything, but she was sticking her hand in his front pocket (front! pocket!), playfully trying to cram a wad of bills into it. But he is majorly ticklish, which is why, even though he was unnaturally pale and had bruised-looking dark circles under his eyes, he was laughing like a total moron while she smiled up at him with a flirty little grin.
"What's wrong?" Aphrodite said.
When I just sat and stared and couldn't answer, she swiveled around in her chair to see what I was gawking at.
"Hey, isn't that what's-his-name? Your old human boyfriend?"
"Heath," I said, barely able to whisper the word.
It should have been utterly impossible. We were way across the room and there's no way he could have heard me, but the moment his name left my lips, his head jerked up and his eyes instantly found me. I saw the laughter that had been on his face die. His body shuddered--actually shuddered--as if the first sight of me had caused a jolt of pain to pass through him. The girl at his side stopped playing with his pocket. She followed the direction he was looking, saw me, and her eyes got huge. Heath looked quickly from me to her, and I saw rather than heard him say, "I need to talk to her." The girl nodded solemnly, took the tray, and went to a table that was as far away from mine as she could get. Then Heath walked slowly over to me.
"Hello, Zoey," he said in a voice so strained, he sounded like a stranger.
"Hi," I said. My lips felt frozen and my face seemed to be getting hot and cold at the same time.
"So you're okay? You're not hurt or anything like that?" he said with a quiet intensity that made him look a lot older than eighteen.
"I'm fine," I managed to say.
He blew out a big puff of air like he'd been holding his breath for days, wrenched his gaze from me, and then stared off into the distance, as if he couldn't stand to see me. Pretty soon he seemed to pull himself together and turned back to me. "Something happened the other night--," he began, but broke off and pulled his gaze from me to glance meaningfully at Aphrodite.
"Oh, uh, Heath, this is my, uh, my friend from, from the, uh, House of Night, Aphrodite," I stammered, barely able to make my voice work.
Heath looked from Aphrodite to me questioningly.
When I didn't say anything, Aphrodite sighed, and with her usual sarcastic, long- suffering tone said, "What Zoey means is yes, it's okay to talk about Imprints and stuff like that in front of me." She paused, and raised her brows at me. When I still didn't say anything else, she prompted, "He can talk in front of me. Isn't that right, Zoey?" When I still couldn't make myself speak, she shrugged and continued, "Unless you want to talk to him alone. I'm cool with that. I'll just wait in the car and--"
"No! You can stay. Heath, you can talk in front of Aphrodite." I finally managed to break through the word dam that pain had formed in the back of my throat.
Heath nodded and looked quickly away from me, but not before I saw the flash of hurt and disappointment that shadowed his soft brown eyes.
Okay, I knew he wanted to talk to me alone.
But I couldn't. I couldn't be alone with him and his hurt feelings. Not yet. Not so soon after losing Loren and Erik and Stark. I couldn't stand hearing him tell me how much he hated me now and how sorry he was that we'd ever been together. He wouldn't say all of that in front of Aphrodite. I knew Heath. Yes, he'd break up with me, but (unlike Erik) there wouldn't be any public name-calling that might cause an ugly scene. Heath's mom and dad had raised him right. He was a gentleman, through and through, and he always would be.
When he looked back at me, his expression was carefully blank again. "Okay. Like I was saying. Something happened the other night. I think the Imprint between us is broken."
I managed to nod.
"So it's gone. For real?"
"Yes. It's gone for real."
"How?" he asked.
I drew a deep breath and said, "It was broken when I Imprinted with someone else."
He'd been looking down at me with his head kinda bowed a little, and when I spoke, his face jerked up as if I'd slapped him. "You were with another human?"
His jaw clenched and unclenched before he said, "Then it's that fledgling you told me about? That Erik guy?"
"No," I said softly.
This time he didn't look away--didn't make any attempt to hide the pain in his eyes or his voice. "There's someone else? Someone besides the guy you already told me about?"
I opened my mouth to tell him that there had been someone else, but that there wasn't anymore, and that it had all been a big mistake anyway, but he didn't let me talk.
"You did it with him."
Heath didn't say it like a question, but I nodded anyway. He already knew--he had to. Our Imprint had been strong, and even if he hadn't felt what was going on with Loren and me through it, he would have guessed that something major had to have happened to break the bond we'd shared together.
"How could you, Zo? How could you do that to me? To us?"
"I'm sorry, Heath. I never meant to hurt you. I just--"
"No!" He raised his hand like he could hold off my words. "Didn't mean to hurt me is bullshit. I've loved you since I was in grade school. You being with someone else hurts me. No way it can't."
"You're with someone else tonight." Aphrodite's cool words seemed to cut the air between the three of us.
Heath's eyes flashed when he rounded on her. "I let a friend talk me into leaving the house for the first time in days. A friend," he repeated. Then he turned back to me, and I noticed again how pale and sick he looked. "It's Casey Young. Remember her? She used to be your friend, too."
I glanced over at the table where Casey was sitting by herself, looking more than a little uncomfortable. I hadn't even noticed it was her when they'd walked in. Now I recognized her thick auburn hair, pretty honey-colored eyes, and her cute, freckly complexion. Heath was right--she had been a friend of mine. Not a best friend, like Kayla, but we'd hung out. Heath had always treated her like a little sister. She'd liked him, but I'd never felt the I-wanta-steal-your-boyfriend vibe from her like I'd felt way too many times from my supposed BFF Kayla. Casey saw me looking at her, and hesitantly, she raised her hand and waved sadly at me. I managed a little wave back. "Do you know what happens to the human when an Imprint breaks?" Heath's words snapped my attention back to him. He didn't sound cool or sad anymore. His voice was sharp, as if he'd sliced each word from his soul.
"It--it causes the human pain," I said.
"Pain? Talk about an understatement. Zoey, I thought you were dead at first. And when I thought that, I wished I was dead, too. I think part of me did die then."
"Heath," I whispered his name, utterly horrified at what I'd caused. "I'm so--"
But he wasn't done. "But I knew you weren't dead because I could feel some of what was happening to you." He grimaced. "Some of what he was making you feel. Then I didn't know anything except my soul had a hole in it in the place where you had been. I still feel like there's a part of me missing. A big part of me. It hurts all the time. Every day." He closed his eyes against the pain and shook his head. "You didn't even call me."
"I wanted to," I said miserably.
"Oh, wait. You did text-message me this morning. Thanks so much for that," he said sarcastically.
"Heath, I wanted to talk to you. I just couldn't. I was . . ." I paused, trying to figure out how I could possibly explain Loren to him in just a few short public sentences. But there was no way to explain. Not like this. Not here. So instead I could only say, "I was wrong. I'm sorry."
He shook his head again. "Sorry isn't good enough, Zo. Not this time. Not about this. You know how you said that I only loved you and wanted you so much because of our Imprint?"
"Yes." I braced myself for him to tell me the truth of it--that he'd never really loved me and never really wanted me, and he was glad he was rid of me and my stupid, painful Imprint.
"I told you when you said it you were wrong. You're still wrong. I fell in love with you in third grade. I loved you then. I love you and want you now; I probably will forever." Heath's eyes were bright with unshed tears. "But I don't ever want to see you again. Loving you hurts too much, Zoey."
Heath walked slowly back to Casey. When he got to her table, she said something too soft for me to hear. He nodded, and then, without one glance back at me, Casey wound her arm through his and the two of them left their food sitting uneaten on the table and Heath walked out of my life.