THIS WASN'T THE FIRST TIME I'd been pulled out of bed for a crucial mission. It was, however, the first time I'd been subjected to such a personal line of questioning.
"Are you a virgin?"
"Huh?" I rubbed my sleepy eyes, just in case this was all some sort of bizarre dream that would disappear. An urgent phone call had dragged me out of bed five minutes ago, and I was having a little trouble adjusting.
My history teacher, Ms. Terwilliger, leaned closer and repeated the question in a stage whisper: "I said, are you a virgin?"
"Um, yes. . ."
I was fully awake now and glanced uneasily around my dorm's lobby, making sure no one was around to witness this crazy exchange. I didn't have to worry. Aside from a bored-looking desk attendant on the far side of the room, the lobby was empty, probably because no sane person would be up at this time of night. When Ms. Terwilliger's call had woken me, she'd demanded I meet her here for a "life-or-death" matter. Getting interrogated about my personal life wasn't quite what I'd expected.
She stepped back and sighed in relief. "Yes, of course. Of course you're a virgin."
I narrowed my eyes, unsure if I should be offended or not. "Of course? What's that supposed to mean? What's going on?"
She immediately snapped back to attention and pushed her wire-rimmed glasses up the bridge of her nose. They were always slipping down. "No time to explain. We have to go." She grabbed hold of my arm, but I resisted and stayed where I was.
"Ma'am, it's three in the morning!" And then, just so she'd understand the severity of the situation: "On a school night."
"Never mind that." She turned in the direction of the desk attendant and called across the room, "I'm taking Sydney Melrose with me. Mrs. Weathers can argue with me about the curfew tomorrow."
The attendant looked startled, but she was just some college student who'd been hired to sit there overnight. She was no match for the formidable Ms. Terwilliger, with her tall, gangly stature and birdlike face. The real authority keeping girls in my dorm was the security guard outside, but he simply nodded in a friendly way when Ms. Terwilliger dragged me past. It made me wonder just how many girls she'd abducted in the middle of the night.
"I'm in my pajamas," I told her. It was the last protest I could offer as we reached her car, which was parked in a fire lane. She drove a red Volkswagen Beetle with flowers painted on the sides. Somehow, this didn't surprise me in the least.
"You'll be fine," she said, fishing car keys out of her massive velvet purse.
Around us, the desert night was cool and silent. Tall palm trees created dark, spiderlike shapes against the sky. Beyond them, a full moon and smattering of stars glittered. I wrapped my arms around myself, touching the soft fabric of my microfleece robe. Underneath it, I had on full-length striped pajamas paired with fluffy beige slippers. The ensemble worked well in my cozy dorm room but wasn't exactly practical for a Palm Springs night. But then, going out in pajamas wasn't really practical in any place.
She unlocked the car, and I stepped gingerly inside, having to dodge empty paper coffee cups and old issues of Utne Reader. My neat sensibilities cringed at that kind of mess, but it was the least of my worries right now.
"Ms. Terwilliger," I said, once we were driving through the suburban streets. "What's going on?" Now that we were out of the dorm, I hoped she'd start talking sense. I hadn't forgotten her "life-or-death" comment and was beginning to grow nervous.
Her eyes were on the road ahead of us, and lines of worry marked her angular face. "I need you to cast a spell."
I froze as I tried to process her words. Not long ago, this proclamation would've sent me into protests and fits of revulsion. Not that I was comfortable with it now. Magic still freaked me out. Ms. Terwilliger taught at my private high school, Amberwood Prep, by day and was a witch at night. She said I, too, possessed a natural affinity for magic and had managed to teach me some spells, despite my best efforts to resist. I actually had a few good reasons for wanting to avoid anything arcane. Aside from inborn beliefs about magic being wrong, I simply didn't want to get caught up in any more supernatural affairs than I had to. I already spent my days as part of a secret society that kept vampires secret from the human world. That and my schoolwork were enough to keep anyone busy.
Nonetheless, her magical training had gotten me out of some dangerous situations recently, and I was no longer so quick to dismiss it. So, her suggesting I perform magic wasn't the weirdest thing going on here.
"Why would you need me for that?" I asked. There were few cars out, but occasionally, passing headlights would cast a ghostly light over us. "You're a million times more powerful. I can't cast a fraction of the things you can."
"Power is one thing," she admitted. "But there are other limitations and factors at work here. I can't cast this particular spell."
I crossed my arms and slouched back in the seat. If I kept focusing on the practical aspects, I could ignore how worried I was growing. "And it couldn't have waited until morning?"
"No," she said gravely. "It could not."
Something about the tone of her voice sent chills down my spine, and I fell silent as we continued our drive. We were headed outside of the city and suburbs, into the wilds of the true desert. The farther we drove from civilization, the darker it became. Once we were off the freeway, there were no streetlights or houses in sight. Spiky desert shrubs created dark shapes along the side of the road that put me in mind of crouching animals, ready to pounce. There's no one out here, I thought. And no one back at Amberwood knows you're here either.
I shifted uneasily as I recalled her virgin question. Was I going to be a sacrifice in some unholy ritual? I wished that I'd thought to bring my cell phone - not that I could have told my organization, the Alchemists, that I was spending so much time with a magic user. And not just any magic user - one who was teaching me to become one too. Better to risk being sacrificed than face the Alchemists' wrath.
Twenty minutes later, Ms. Terwilliger finally pulled to a stop along the side of a dusty one-lane road that seemed to be a direct route to nowhere. She got out of the car and motioned for me to do the same. It was colder here than it had been back at Amberwood. Looking up into the night sky, I caught my breath. Free of the city lights, the stars were now out in full force. I could see the Milky Way and a dozen constellations usually hidden to the na**d eye.
"Stargaze later," she said curtly. "We need to hurry, before the moon progresses much further."