- Pages: 416 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Razorbill
- ISBN: 9780593353219
An Excerpt From
I leaned over the counter of the Snack Shack at the El Dorado Hills Country Club and stared out at the pool. The cool, bright-blue water would feel incredible against my sweaty, greasy skin. It was an early August scorcher and the pool had been packed with screaming kids all day. The lunch rush slammed us so bad, it ran into the snack rush, and I still had milkshake in my hair. Now, at last, the sun was edging below the trees and a cool shadow was creeping across the line of deck chairs. The lifeguards were herding the kids out of the pool and back toward their nannies and au pairs and stay-at-home parents.
"Kat, if I have to make one more Caesar salad with no croutons or dressing, I will scream," Guzman said from the sink. "Like, it's literally just romaine?"
I laughed, but my eyes were fixed on the pool. In the evening, a different set of club members came out. I'd been watching them emerge all summer: swimmers doing laps in the fading sun and well-dressed women who sipped white wine from the indoor bar. For these club members, the whole world seemed to relax to give them a moment of easy peace.
I wanted to be one of them.
Guzman blasted the inside of a blender with water. "Is Shelby flirting with that cute lifeguard-what's his name, Ryan?"
I cut my eyes toward the lifeguards' office in time to see Shelby, in their red lifeguard's rash guard with their sport sunglasses pushed up, thwack a shirtless dude on the arm with a pool noodle.
"Yup, Shelbs is definitely flirting." I yanked the gallon jug of ketchup through the service window. "Do you think before summer's over, the club management would let us sit out there, after closing?"
"What, let us have a swim, order some fries, lay out in the sun?"
It was impossible. I couldn't eat fries, and the sun tended to make me queasy. But still, something in me pulsed with longing. "I just want to feel what it's like to be a country club member, you know?"
"Uh-huh, I do know, I'm pretty sure my whole family knows, including everyone we left back in El Salvador. And no, I absolutely do not think they'll let us take an afternoon off to pretend like we belong. We wear the uniforms around here."
I turned back toward the dim kitchen, my vision throbbing after the brilliant light of the pool scene. "We'll have to become millionaires first. We could be members ourselves."
Guzman was rooting through the fridge. "I love the long-term vision, but as an immediate act of resistance, I'm making a quesadilla. This institution robbed us of our lunch break. You want half?"
The truth was, I hadn't skipped lunch because we were busy. I'd skipped it because Guzman had been there. Summer break meant I could work enough to have some savings left over for the school year. Guzman was planning to do the same, and we'd both applied to the Snack Shack. With Shelby lifeguarding, it had seemed like the perfect setup for a perfect summer-even if Guz and I would be spending it in a tiny, overheated kitchen.
There was only one problem: I'd forgotten to factor Hema into the plan. Having Guzman around all day meant that the human blood substitute I drank at breakfast would have to hold me until my shift ended. The first few days, I'd gotten so hungry by closing I'd caught myself looking a little too long at the bare wrists and exposed necks of the club members. I considered sneaking some Hema into the kitchen, so I could grab a sip when Guzman wasn't looking. But having to explain why there was a bottle of blood next to the burger patties was far worse than going hungry.
I pressed my hand to my forehead, slightly dizzy. Most days, I could manage. I was no stranger to self-control. But my mom and I often had only enough Hema to get by, and this morning we'd come up short. When we'd split the last bottle, both of us knew we'd be ravenous come dinner. Neither of us said anything about it. I'd have to pick some up tonight.
"I'm good," I told Guzman.
He slapped a tortilla on the flattop grill. "If I find out that you're on one of these clean-eating diets where you can't have any gluten or cheese or fun or happiness, I'm going to be so mad."
I turned off the fryer and tossed the last cold, salt-crusted fries into the trash. "My stomach has been acting up lately."
Guzman gasped dramatically. "Sorry, I totally forgot."
"Guzman, if I catch you being mean to Kat, I'm gonna write you up for violating pool rules." Shelby's blond head poked in the service window. They had a deep summer tan that made their teeth brilliant white when they smiled.
"It's nothing," I said. "Stomach stuff."
I pretended not to notice the glance Shelby gave Guzman.
At the start of sophomore year, I began to lose the ability to digest food-at least the kind my friends ate. It had been a hard, sad year, not knowing if I was tasting my last ice cream cone or ripe strawberry or slice of pizza. My mom put together paperwork from her clinic diagnosing me with a digestive disorder. By the time school got out, I was subsisting entirely on Hema, which meant to everyone else's eyes, I didn't eat anything. Ever. It was hard for people to accept, even if they knew my condition was medical. That didn't stop the school guidance counselor from passing me pamphlets about well-rounded nutrition-or my friends from shooting each other concerned looks that they thought I didn't catch.
I wasn't ungrateful for Hema. I was incredibly lucky that I've never had to sink my fangs into someone's neck, especially not now that one wrong bite could kill you. But the lying was exhausting already. I didn't know how I'd survive the two more years of high school, stealing sips from a thermos of lukewarm blood substitute crammed into my locker, right next to my gym clothes.
Not just two years. Not just the rest of high school. Forever.
Or however long vampires were supposed to live.
Shelby hopped up on the counter. "Gimmie half. I'm starving."
Guzman, brandishing a knife in one hand and an avocado in the other, looked at Shelby over his shoulder. "I bet you are, after a long day of shameless flirting-ow, shit!"
Shelby clicked their tongue. "Karma's a swift mistress."
I turned to Guzman. He was saying something like can you believe this, and holding his hand out to me. From a gash in his thumb, a crimson rivulet ran into his palm.
Hunger shot from a dull dizziness to a head rush. My vision narrowed to that precious, dark red pool gathering in his hand.
"I'm gonna grab a first aid kit," Shelby said. "Kat, can you get him a paper towel?"
But I couldn't.
My mouth was watering, and before I could stop them, my fangs were pressing into the inside of my lip. Panic careened through me as I snatched my hands to my mouth. This never happened, I never lost control and let my fangs slip free. If anyone saw, my life here would be over. But even under that terror there was a pounding in my head-hunger-and a little voice whimpering that maybe just one little taste wouldn't hurt-
No. My palm still pressed to my lips, I backed away from him, until I was up against the counter, the farthest I could get from him in the tiny kitchen. What was I thinking? That I would drink Guzman's blood? That was horrible-it was wrong-and I would never do it. Even if I would, I couldn't. You never knew who was carrying the infection. A drop of the wrong blood, and just like that, immortality meant nothing.
"Earth to Kat?" Guzman yanked a paper towel from the roll, then wrapped it around his hand. With the blood out of sight, I took a fragile breath-steadying enough that I was able to draw my fangs away. A second later, Shelby was back, pulling a dozen different antiseptics and bandages from a first aid kit.
Shelby eyed me. "You good?"
My skin was clammy, my nerves jangly and raw. I ran my tongue over my incisors, checking them once, then again. "I've got, um, one of those blood phobias? I just see a drop of blood and I get nauseous," I mumbled. "Guzman, why don't you get out of here? You can't close if you're bleeding everywhere."
What I really wanted was to get myself out of there, but if I did, it would cost me an hour's wages. I couldn't afford that, not with how Hema prices had been recently.
"But we were gonna hang out," Shelby protested.
"I have to pick my mom up from work." I forced myself into a fang-free smile. "I'm sure you guys can manage to have fun without me."
Guzman drew his freshly bandaged hand back from Shelby, threw his apron in a corner, and squeezed me into a quick, french fry-scented hug. "You are officially my least fun friend, and thank you."
"Text if you can meet up later, okay?" Shelby said.
"For sure." I knew I wouldn't. The knot in my stomach didn't begin to loosen until they both were gone, the aborted quesadilla was in the trash, and I'd sprayed a thick mist of cleaner over the entire area-until the only trace of blood that remained was the slow, persistent throb of my own hunger.
I pulled into the parking lot beside the Sacramento Shared Services Clinic and texted Mom. Fifteen minutes later, I gave up waiting and went inside. Mom was born in 1900 and turning 122 this year. Even though her vampiric body still looked like she was in her late thirties, she was always forgetting that texting was a thing.
As I pushed open the doors of clinic, that distinctive stomach-turning scent closed around me: disinfecting chemicals; the cloying synthetic odors meant to cover their smell; and beneath it all, the ever-present tinge of blood.
The waiting room had an abysmal energy. The walls were hung with prints of watercolor swooshes, as if mail-order art could elevate the atmosphere. The patients waiting in the duct tape-patched seats had that distant look that I recognized as a sign of severe CFaD, even if it wasn't a symptom. Their minds were elsewhere, trying to manage their pain or their bank accounts. In the corner, an exhausted woman and her toddler slid wooden beads along wire tracks-the world's most depressing toy, found exclusively in depressing settings like this one.
This clinic served patients with clotting factor dysfunction-CFaD, for short. Since the virus was discovered in the 1970s, more than half the human population had been infected by the CFaD virus. Most of them got no sicker than they would from a regular cold. The patients who wound up in my mom's clinic were the unlucky ones whose condition was chronic. CFaD sent their circulatory system haywire. Their blood clotted too fast or too slowly or not at all, in the wrong places and at the wrong times, and they could die without treatment. CFaD was mostly harmless-until it harmed you.
Vampires had always understood that perfectly, long before the first severe cases. Any vampire who fed on a human carrying CFaD-symptoms or not-was dead within minutes. Vampires called it the Peril: as CFaD exploded in the human population, we'd nearly gone extinct.
Hema was the only thing that saved us from extinction.
Even if it hadn't been enough to save my dad.
"Hi, Kat," the clinic receptionist said. "Angela should be done soon. We were shorthanded today."
"Like every day, right?" I said.
The clinic never had enough of anything it needed. No CFaD clinic ever did. Even with insurance, a lot of my mom's patients cleaned out their savings to afford treatment, hoping to hang on until a cure was discovered. The Black Foundation for a Cure-the biggest name in CFaD research-had been working on it for something like forty-five years. If CFaD was curable, the Black Foundation would cure it. It was, after all, run by vampires. Vampires didn't often find common cause with humans, but they'd make an exception where disease-free blood was concerned.
The other exception, of course, being my mother, who lived her life like she wanted to forget she was a vampire altogether.
As I settled into a seat to wait for my mom, I texted Donovan, our Hema dealer, with an order to pick up later, reacted to a video from Shelby, and then, more out of habit than anything, I swiped to the last screen on my phone, opened a folder of games I never played, and found the icon for an email app hidden there.
I should have deleted the account already. I'd promised myself I'd do it when school got out for the summer. Mom would be furious if she found out that I'd set up an email account in her name. But the end of school had come and gone, and the account was still there. In all of the several thousand times I'd checked it, the inbox had always been empty. Now it was practically the start of junior year and I had submitted the application in January. It was way beyond too late to hear-but how could I give up hope when I hadn't gotten any reply at all?
I peeked down the hallway, to make sure my mom wasn't coming, and opened the account.
Email account: AngelaFinn1900
Admissions@TheHarcoteSchool.edu-Admissions Decision for Katherine Finn
I went still, staring at the screen.
This is it.
I tapped to open the message.
Throttled by the clinic's crappy Wi-Fi, it loaded slowly. First, the header image, with the bat-and-castle crest that I would have known anywhere. Beneath it, curled Latin script reading Optimis optimus, which I knew translated to "The Best of the Best." I was barely breathing by the time the text finally appeared.
Dear Ms. Finn,
It is our pleasure to extend an offer of admissions to the Harcote School for the coming year to Katherine Finn.
I apologize that I was unable to send word of her acceptance earlier in the spring, as is our custom, but we have assembled a special financial aid package, which caused the delay. An anonymous donor will be supporting Katherine's enrollment. This generous offer is detailed on the following page.
The academic year begins in just over two weeks. We are ready to provide all assistance to ensure that Katherine is prepared. Please sign and return the attached document as soon as possible.