Authors: Kate Thompson
A new determination entered Tess's heart. She was part of the light and the dark and their struggle, but they were a part of her, too. She would not be vampire and she would not be phoenix. Later, if and when life made sense again, she would worry about her fifteenth birthday. But for the moment she could only deal with the present. She took a deep breath and, with a mighty effort, she gathered all her forces together and broke free of the grips on her hands. âI just want to be human!' she yelled.
Jeff Maloney heard that extraordinary shout as he plunged into the copse where he was sure he had seen his precious bird descending. What he saw was totally unexpected. There were three teenagers in there on the grass: two boys and a girl, all of them strewn around the glade as though they had just been dropped from a height. For a moment Jeff was so surprised by the sight that he forgot what he was looking for.
âHello?' he said, shining his torch on them, one after another. The girl looked exhausted, as though she had just survived some horrendous ordeal, and Jeff might have suspected the boys of some savagery towards her if they had not looked as dazed as she did. One of them, a mousy-looking fellow, was looking around him as though he was seeing the planet for the first time. The other, red-headed, was as white as a sheet, like someone who has just been in an accident.
âWhat's going on?'
Tess screwed up her eyes against the flashlight. âWho's there? she said. Beside her, Kevin was shielding his eyes with his arm and looking over at Martin, who had buried his face in his hands. They looked odd, all three of them, but Jeff could see that they were all right, and his mind went back to his search. He turned his flashlight off and looked up into the trees.
âAnyone seen a bird come to land here? A golden one?'
The girl and one of the boys shook their heads solemnly. The other boy seemed not to hear, but let out a sudden shout. âDad! I'm sorry, Dad. I didn't mean it!'
Tess struggled to her feet and went over to Martin. He was crying now, his whole body shuddering.
âI didn't mean it,' he gasped between sobs. âI was going to go for help but I couldn't. The cow was in the road, heaving about the place. The stupid cow!'
Tess rested a hand on Martin's shoulder, frustrated by her helplessness in the face of his pain.
âI didn't mean to kill him, Tess.'
âYou didn't kill him. It was an accident.'
âI did. I did kill him. I wished he was dead and he died. I killed him.'
He broke down again and Tess fell silent, knowing that words were useless.
Jeff Maloney was glued to the spot, torn between concern for the boy's distress and the urgent desire to search for his bird.
âHas there been some sort of an accident?' he said to Tess, quietly. She shook her head.
As Jeff lingered, still unsure what to do, two of his colleagues from the zoo ran up. They had been following the light of his torch for some time. Their arrival solved his dilemma.
âThe bird is around here somewhere,' he said. âI saw it come down. Will you keep on searching?' He nodded towards Martin and Tess. âI'm not sure what's going on here, but I want to get this lot home.'
The others agreed and Jeff approached the huddled figures on the ground. His voice was friendly and reassuring.
âYou're all right now. Tell me where you live and I'll drive you home. My car's parked on the road just back there.'
As Jeff spoke, Martin became silent and tense beneath Tess's hand. It was one thing to reveal his pain to her, but quite another to be caught, vulnerable, in front of a stranger. Before Tess knew what was happening he was on his feet.
âLeave me alone,' he yelled at Jeff. Then he raced away between the trees.
Tess set off in pursuit. There was barely light to see by, but she could just make out Martin's slight figure weaving through the tree trunks. He was fast, but as Tess ran after him she knew that she was, too. It was as though the resolution of that dreadful conflict had made energy available to her that she hadn't known she possessed. And every ounce of it had to be used in making sure she didn't lose her friend in the darkness. Because he was a friend, now. She had held her own ground, pulled the opposing forces together instead of allowing them to pull her apart, and in doing so she had not only made herself whole, but the others as well. Kevin, she knew, could look after himself, but she wasn't so sure about Martin; not now that his defences were down and he was exposed to all that old pain. He had closed off his feelings when his father was killed, safe within the vampire's cold shell. But now he would have to experience all that shock and fear and sorrow as though the accident had just happened. He was in danger, not only from the stress itself but from the possibility of reverting to the familiar protection of the vampire existence. It was vital that Tess should stay with him.
Ahead of her, he dodged left and right around a tree stump, heading for open ground. With renewed confidence, Tess made straight for the stump, certain that she could jump it and gain ground. She timed her run perfectly and jumped well clear of the decaying wood, but as she landed, her feet went from under her and she came down hard, flat on her back.
The wind was knocked right out of her and for a few moments she found herself gazing at the blank face of the starless sky, wondering if her end had come. Then, just as it seemed she could hold on no longer, her chest relaxed and she pulled in a long, cool breath.
âAre you all right?' It was Kevin, leaning over her, his face filled with concern. He must have been right behind her. She tried to smile but there were more urgent priorities and for another minute she had to gasp for air, until her breath caught up with itself.
Kevin looked out across the park, but it was already too late. By the time Tess recovered sufficiently to sit up, Martin was long gone into the darkness.
âI landed on something,' said Tess, still panting. âIt slid along the ground and I skidded.'
Kevin kicked around in the grass, then bent and picked something up: a flat disc the size of a dinner plate. Tess reached out and took it from him.
âMy frisbee!' she said. âMy useless, flaming frisbee.'
T WAS TEN PAST
eleven, according to Tess's wristwatch, and the first rain was just starting to dampen the breeze. Kevin reached out a hand and helped Tess to her feet. It was the first chance she'd had to get a good look at him and she found herself grinning with delight.
âYou haven't changed a bit,' she said, tugging at the lapel of his faded khaki jacket.
âNot on the outside, maybe,' he said, tossing back his long, wispy fringe with a familiar shake of the head. âBut I've changed an awful lot on the inside.'
He looked around him and, from the expression of wonderment on his face, he might have been standing at the foot of the Himalayas. âI never thought it could happen. I wanted it to ... you've no idea ... but I never dreamt it could.'
âIt probably wouldn't if it hadn't been for Martin.'
âI suppose so. There had to be an opposite. But if it hadn't been for you ...'
Tess shuddered, remembering more than she wanted to about the battle that had been waged inside her mind. Whatever else might happen to her in life, she didn't want to go through that again.
âWe shouldn't stand around, though,' she said. âIt mightn't be over yet.'
âWhat do you mean?'
âIt's Martin's fifteenth birthday tomorrow. There's no guaranteeing that he'll stay the way he is now. It might all be too much for him; he might decide to become a vampire in spite of everything that's happened. And if he does ...'
âIf he does, what?'
âCome on. I'll tell you as we go.'
Tess looked around to get her bearings, then they set off, walking as fast as they could in the direction of Phibsboro. Here and there, torches flashed among the trees and desolate voices drifted on the wind as the zoo staff continued to hunt for the phoenix.
âTough on them,' said Tess, but Kevin just laughed until he choked. By the time he had recovered his composure they had reached the city streets and, as they walked along, Tess told the whole story and explained about the vampire's method of spreading its influence.
âSo you see,' she concluded, âif he does become a vampire, then I will, too, when I'm dead.'
âYou could still opt for the phoenix.'
âI might, if it came with recommendations. But you don't seem to have any regrets about being human again.'
âNo, I don't,' said Kevin. âThe phoenix was glorious. I don't have to tell youâyou know how it feels. But it was too ... I don't know how to describe it. Too perfect, or too high and mighty or something. Too lonely.'
There was an awkward silence as they both became aware of the personal meaning in his words. Kevin coloured with embarrassment, but made no attempt to retract what he had said. They had missed each other more than either of them cared to admit, yet neither was prepared to reveal their fondness. In the end, Kevin changed the subject.
âSo, if he does go vampire, we'll only have one option, won't we?'
That word âwe' was one of the finest sounds that Tess had ever heard. She realised how lonely she, too, had been over the past months.
âWhat's that?' she said.
âWell. You know where he'll be sleeping during the day, don't you? We'll just have to dig our way in there and do the old stake through the heart job.'
He spoke as if it were an everyday occurrence, like swatting a wasp with a newspaper. But the prospect filled Tess with horror.
âI hope we find him first,' she said. âI prefer diplomatic solutions on the whole.'
It was nearly midnight when they reached Martin's house in Phibsboro. There were no lights on, but Tess took a chance and knocked on the door. As they waited, the rain worsened and blew against them, soaking into their hair and dripping down their necks. Tess wriggled with discomfort but Kevin didn't seem to notice, partly because he was still overawed at being human again. He gazed round at the dull houses as though he was in Disneyland. Tess sighed and knocked again.
âIt's no good,' she said. âIf he's in, he's not answering. Wait here, will you?'
She was on the point of Switching into a rat when she remembered the compelling power that the vampire still held over all the rats' minds in the city. On impulse she tried a mouse instead, and found immediate entry into the house by way of a missing chip of concrete underneath the front door.
The hall was vast to her tiny eyes, stretching upwards and outwards into a dark oblivion. It was full of smells, alive with them; some appealing, others threatening. Mouse life was about weighing up the balance of the scents in the air all around. If danger weighed too heavily, then a change of plan was required. If it didn't, a chance was worth taking. But at that moment, it was all too much for Tess's already exhausted mind, so she Switched into a cat instead and padded swiftly and silently up the carpeted staircase. Outside Martin's room she Switched back to human shape again and, with her heart in her mouth, pushed open the door.
Inside it was too dark to see anything. The video clock, still mindlessly flashing, distracted her attention and left dizzying green patches on her retinas. She held out a hand to block it from view.
If he had got home, he couldn't have been there for long; certainly not long enough to get to sleep. She listened carefully, but there was no sound of breathing. Her skin crawled as she suddenly imagined the vampire there beside her, leaning across in the darkness ...
With a hand that trembled slightly, she felt around behind the door frame until she found the light switch and flicked it down. The bare bulb blinded her for a moment, but even as she squinted and blinked she could see that the room was empty. The bedclothes were crumpled and the floor beside the bed was cluttered with the familiar collection of socks and tea cups and video cases. Everything was as usual, except for Martin. Tess swore to herself in a whisper. Because if he wasn't there, where was he?
She turned out the light, became a cat again, and was just about to go back down the stairs when her sharp eyes noticed another door along the landing which stood ajar. The black hair along her spine stood up as she remembered Martin's anaemic mother. If he was taking a late-night snack she would rather not know about it. But she had to. If there was any chance at all of getting to him before dawn, she had to take it.
Martin's mother was alone in the room, sleeping on her back in a battered old double bed that she must once have shared with her husband. Her face was deathly white in the dim light which entered from the street and for a moment Tess feared the worst. But as she slipped across the floor, her paws making no sound on the nylon carpet, Tess's sensitive ears picked up the faint rise and fall of shallow breath. She was alive, but undoubtedly weak. The implications were obvious. If Martin remained human, she would recover; her anaemia passing away as mysteriously as it had come. But if he chose to live out his existence as a vampire, then one more feed could finish her off and she would become like him: the first of many.
Would she take that other stone coffin, the one that Martin had reserved for Tess? Would Tess and Kevin have to bring two stakes down into the crypt with them, to be sure of finishing the job?
The black cat turned and bounded down the stairs, becoming a mouse between the bottom step and the floor and tumbling along the ground a few times as it slowed down. It flowed like toothpaste under the door and disappeared beneath the foot of a girl who hadn't been there a moment before. Luckily there was no one there to see the first part, and the only person who saw the girl appear was not surprised at all.
âWell?' he said.