The next week was like a trip through the twilight zone. Nothing was the same without Stephen. I had to start walking home again, which was a drag, especially since it was starting to get colder—I hate winter. And doing my homework was too much to even attempt on my own; it just reminded me that he was really gone, that he wasn’t coming back.
The only ray of light in my gray world was the impending escape to New York. It served as the perfect distraction in my idle hours when my memories of Stephen began to creep into my head.
I hadn’t emailed Haley in all this time. I had even been avoiding it, I suppose. She called my cell phone once, but I had let it keep vibrating in my pocket until it stopped. I knew that she would only try to discourage me from this, and at this point in my life, I couldn’t afford any doubt. I was going to meet Nicholae, and I didn’t care what the outcome would be, not anymore. I just had to get away from all this, that was all that mattered now.
And magically, as if the universe had decided to go easy on me just this once, Nicholae had been glued to New York this whole week. Every activity on his cards had been narrowed down to his neighborhood in the city. Fate was ensuring that I would meet him. Fate…
Thursday night, I spent all my time packing my necessities into my shoulder bag: my wallet, of course; my iPod to save me from boredom on the plane; and the pièce de résistance—my outfit, which consisted of the most beautiful black lace blouse and a pair of tight faded black jeans.
After I was done packing, I tentatively turned on my computer. No new messages from Haley. But I had to send her at least one last message before I went.
Crimson_vampire616: Haley, I know you don’t want me to go, but the day has finally come. I’m going to meet him tomorrow. I can’t wait to get out of here. So many things have happened, things I haven’t told you about. Stephen is dead. This is the only thing I have left, and I’m going to grab it. I love ya, cuz. Talk to you later.
Without giving her the chance to reply, I turned off my computer. Then I put my bag on the floor and got into bed.
I could hardly sleep for all my excitement. It was finally starting to hit me. I was going to meet him! I, the average, simple girl from Tucson, Arizona, was going to be the only human ever to intentionally approach the Vampire Nicholae! Would he look like I always pictured him from the descriptions, with his long dirty blond hair and his blue eyes? How would he react when he discovered that a mere human had tracked him down? I knew Haley would be wrong, she had to be! And though I couldn’t predict what was going to happen, I was certain that this would end well, somehow.
When I woke up in the morning, I was buzzing with anticipation. It was almost audible, like the faint static hum of a TV screen. The dawn pinkness over the eastern mountains was visibly more vibrant, and the mountains seemed to sing with their own life and vigor.
I sprang out of my bed and eagerly got dressed in comfortable clothes. Then I went into the living room to greet this day that had somehow become more beautiful than the last.
Mom was already in the kitchen, making herself a bowl of cereal.
“So, today’s the big day, huh?” she said.
“Yup, we leave for the airport right after school,” I said.
“Are you excited?” she asked.
More than she could ever imagine, but I had to play this as if I didn’t have another agenda. If I was just going for the band competition, I wouldn’t be excited, so I had to act like I wasn’t.
“Eh, not really,” I lied. “Going on a plane might be fun, though. And I won’t have to go to the game tonight—that’s a plus.” That part was true. At the last football game, there was a memorial for Stephen, and it forever ruined the sport for me.
“So when should I expect you home, again?” she asked, having already forgotten what I told her a few days ago.
“We are going to get back on the plane on Sunday morning, so maybe sometime Sunday night.” Maybe…
“Are you all packed up?”
“Yes, mother,” I answered with a tone of irritation.
Catching my adolescent tone, she sat at the table and finished her cereal.
The school day was tediously slow. Every time I looked at the clock, the second hand was leisurely counting from one second to another. I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin!
At lunch, I was so nervous that I ate all my food and then started picking food off my friends’ trays.
“Hey, what gives?” Robert asked when I snatched a few fries.
“I can’t help it, I’m hungry,” I said as I chewed them.
“Well, duh, look how freakin’ skinny you are, damn!” he said. “You look like one of those kids in Africa. Anyway, what are you doing for Halloween?”
“Um, hello,” Amber said. “She’s only told us a hundred times that she has to go to that lame band thing.”
“Oh…oh yeah,” he said. “Well that blows.”
“But at least you get to go have fun around the city at night,” Amber said. “I would trade a few hours of marching for that.”
“Just be careful,” Reina said. “New York City is really dangerous at night.”
“So is Tucson,” I said.
“Yeah, but it’s different,” she insisted. “There’s muggers and thugs and drug addicts and—”
“Reina, we have all those things here, too,” Robert said.
“Whatever,” she frowned. “All I’m saying is to be careful, and don’t go anywhere by yourself.”
“Geez, you sound like my mother,” Robert muttered.
“Hey, Reina is just the responsible one in the group,” I said, steeling another fry. “She’s like the Wendy to our lost boys.”
“I think you mean lost girls,” Amber added.
“Right,” Robert agreed.
After my last two classes, I skipped merrily to the band room, which was busier and rowdier than it had ever been before; it looked like someone had unlocked all the cages at the zoo.
I pushed through the herd to get my flute, then I went back out to wait for the buses in the courtyard. Tiana came out soon and sat with me.
“Oh, this is going to be so much fun!” she said. “I can’t wait for Halloween night. We get to go trick-or-treating around New York City! Maybe we can even sneak into some nightclubs! Me and some of the clarinets were talking about that earlier. You have to come with us.”
“Actually…I have other plans,” I said.
“Better than ours?”
“Oh, can I come with you?” She was wearing such an innocent expression, the kind that made me feel like I was sneaking around like some kind of criminal.
“Sorry, but it’s kind of exclusive,” I said. “Besides, you’ll have more fun with the girls.”
She narrowed her eyes. “What are you up to?” she asked clandestinely.
“It’s a secret,” I said, smiling widely.
Soon the courtyard was overflowing with the wild zoo that had left the band room. When the buses came, Doyle ordered the percussion to load the drums and the uniforms into the back of each bus. Then she had everyone else get into their buses and put their things up into the cargo hold above the seats.
The bus ride to the airport was the quickest and easiest part of the next hour. After that, we had to get everything off the buses, into the airport and then carry them to our flight gate. Our plane was due to depart at 3:30, so we had very little time to get through security.
But I mentally checked out—I turned on my iPod and drowned myself in music to get myself away from all this insanity. By the time Tiana tapped my shoulder and forced me to take out my earphones, we were already seated on the plain.
“Are you going to listen to that thing the whole time?” she asked.
“No…I’m probably going to take a nap sometime, too,” I replied.
“Ugh! Well what am I going to do?” she asked.
“You can watch the in-flight movie. Or you can do homework.”
She made a face. “I think I’ll stick with the movie.”
The flight was so long and boring that I took a very long nap. Tiana nudged me awake when we landed, and I stumbled like a zombie off the plain and through the Manhattan airport. I was in and out of consciousness until we got to our hotel, where I all out crashed on the bed and fell asleep for good.
The next morning was crazy. We woke up early and got dressed as fast as we could, getting our hair ready and making sure our uniforms were complete.
We all but ran down the hall to the elevator, then shuffled across the lobby and into the common room where everyone else was already sitting and waiting and ready to go.
Doyle was preaching while she took attendance.
“I don’t know why we have to leave this early anyway,” Tiana whispered. “We aren’t scheduled to go on until 8:30.”
“I don’t know,” I whispered back. “Maybe she just wants to check out the competition beforehand. Do you know when they will announce the winners?”
“I think at three in the afternoon,” she replied.
“Great, so we have to sit there and watch the other bands until then. Yeah, that’s sure how I wanted to spend my Halloween.”
When Doyle had checked the attendance sheet twice and was sure that everyone was here, she hurried us out of the hotel and into the buses waiting outside.
We got to Millennium High School by seven-thirty and were ushered by various signs to our designated spot on the bleachers. There were three bands in a smaller division that played before us. We watched them play, judging them the whole time.
When it was finally our time to perform, I started to feel a little nervous. Holy crap, did I actually care about this? How did that happen?
We filed up at the back of the field, marched forward before the judges in the freezing morning air, then ran through our entire routine the best we ever had before. And I wasn’t sure if this was just wishful thinking, but we even sounded better today, like we were all in sync, all in harmony instead of trying to outshine each other with our individual playing.
When we were finished with our show, we marched off the field and went back to the buses to unload our instruments, then we came back to our spot on the bleachers and watched the rest of the bands play. Some of their shows were really cool, but I had to believe that we were better.
At noon, my phone buzzed in my pocket. It was Haley. Knowing she would only keep calling, I simply turned off my phone. She was the last thing I wanted to think about right now. Just focus on the shows, Crimson.
Finally, the last band finished their routine and the field was cleared. The announcers declared an intermission so the judges could tabulate their scores. At exactly three o’clock, the judges came back to their posts. Every student and instructor on the bleachers was leaning forward in their seat.
“We thank you all for your patience,” a judge said. “We will start with the first division, then go onto the second.”
We didn’t pay much attention to the first division prizes; the only ones we were interested in were second division.
“Alright, now, first place for second division goes to…Roosevelt High School from Silver City, New Mexico.”
One of the bands on the opposite end of the bleachers jumped up and cheered loudly. Our hopes deflated slightly as we watched the conductor go down to claim her prize.
“Second place goes to…” This pause seemed somehow the longest of all. “Sunny Mountain High School from Tucson, Arizona.”
It took us all a very long fraction of a second to realize that was our school. We flew out of our seats and into the air, roaring louder than any of the other bands before us. This was more than I had expected! I really didn’t think we’d get any prize at all, not compared to all the other bands that performed today. But we won second place!
Doyle stood up, a business-like smile on her face, and walked the walk of glory to retrieve our plaque. But even though she didn’t show it, I knew how she really felt. She was ecstatic. She got exactly what she’d hoped for, and now she had the opportunity to move upward, to move on to coaching better bands, maybe even her cherished University of Arizona band.
After the award ceremony, we left the arena and ran back to our buses, all eager to go about our Halloween mischief. I, for one, could hardly wait.
I silently snuck out of the hotel room while the girls were distracted and went to the elevator. I was so nervous that my stomach was twisting. But I had to keep myself calm. This was the biggest moment of my life and I wouldn’t let my silly fears get in the way.
When the elevator doors parted on the ground floor, I peered my head out to make sure no one I knew was around to see me. As long as I didn’t run into Doyle I was home free. I rushed quickly yet inconspicuously to the door and out into the busy street.
I went to the edge of the sidewalk and looked around to see if I could find a cab. It always looked so easy in the movies, and I hoped it worked like that in real life. I threw my hand in the air and waved at a taxi that was coming down the street.
And just like movie magic, the cab pulled over before me.
I opened the door and got in.
“So where ya going, lady?” the driver asked in a delightfully thick New York accent.
“Um, 12500 Lexington Avenue,” I said nervously.
“You got it.”
He swerved into the street and I was finally on my way. I felt like a real delinquent now. It was such a rush! I was doing something completely insane and breaking every rule set forth to me by my superiors—and I was loving it!
The sun set and the night swiftly swallowed the sky; Nicholae would be awake now. The drive seemed much too quick, even though I knew that about twenty minutes had passed. When the driver stopped the car, I was in a daze.
“Well, this is it, lady,” he said when I didn’t immediately get out of the car.
“Oh,” I said.
I paid him his money, then stepped one quivering foot onto the sidewalk and pulled myself out. The cab drove away and I was alone.
I looked up at the building in front of me, a pretty white duplex. Everything on this street looked very sophisticated, with little cherubs perched on the voluted ledges. But this building definitely stood out, perhaps only because I knew what it harbored.
My heart began to thump loudly, its drum hammering in my head, in my throat, in the center of my belly. I took my first step toward this uncertain end. Time slowed around me as if every particle in the universe was pausing its eternal flux so that it could watch me in this moment. I couldn’t feel my body, and all the sounds of this noisy city were muffled out as I became deaf to them in my own anticipation.
I stood before the door, frozen, my mind racing. This was it. This was the moment I’d been waiting for, the moment I would at long last meet Nicholae Albaric. Just ring the doorbell. Come on, it’s such a simple motion. Just raise your arm, extend your finger and press the button, that’s all. You can’t turn back now or you’ll never stop obsessing over what might have been.
My internal quandary ended there, for an anthropomorphic shadow instantaneously fell over me under the glare of the street lamp behind me. I stopped breathing and stared at the shadow of the figure that was now standing only inches behind me.
I already knew who it was, who it had to be.
What if Haley had been right? Was he going to kill me? He had found a strange mortal outside his home and was now standing behind her, waiting…waiting for what!?
More terrified than I’d ever been in my entire life, I slowly turned around to face my certain death.