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"Happy birthday, honey!"
In the glow of the seventeen candles on Claire's birthday cake, her mother looked feverishly happy, wearing the kind of forced smile that was way too com mon around the Danvers house these days.
It was way too common all over Morganville, Texas. People smiled because they had to, or else.
Now it was Claire's turn to suck it up and fake it.
"Thanks, Mom," she said, and stretched her lips into something that didn't really feel like a smile at all. She rose from her chair at the kitchen table to blow out the candles. All seventeen of the flames guttered and went out at her first puff. I wish . . .
She didn't dare wish for anything, and that, more than anything else, made frustration and anger and grief roll over her in a hot, sticky wave. This wasn't the birthday she'd been planning for the past six months, since she'd arrived in Morganville. She'd been counting on a party at her home, with her friends. Michael would have played his guitar, and she could almost see that lost, wonderful smile he had when he was deep in the music. Eve, cheerfully and defiantly Goth, would have baked some outrageous and probably inedible cake in the shape of a bat, with licorice icing and black candles. And Shane . . .
Shane would have . . .
Claire couldn't think about Shane, because it made her breath lock up in her throat, made her eyes burn with tears. She missed him. No, that was wrong . . . missed him was too mild. She needed him. But Shane was locked up in a cage in the center of town, along with his father, the idiot vampire hunter.
She still couldn't quite get her head around the fact that Morganville - a normal, dusty Texas town in the middle of nowhere - was run by vampires. But she could believe that more easily than the idea that Frank Collins was somehow going to make it all better.
After all, she'd met the man.
Bishop - the new master vampire of Morganville - was planning something splashy in the way of executions for Frank and Shane, which apparently was the old-school standard for getting rid of humans with ideas of grandeur. Nobody had bothered to fill her in on the details, and she guessed she should be grateful for that. It would certainly be medievally awful.
The worst thing about that, for Claire, was that there seemed to be nothing she could do to stop it. Nothing. What was the use of being a main evil minion if you couldn't even enjoy it - or save your own friends?
Evil minion. Claire didn't like to think of herself that way, but Eve had flung it at her the last time they'd spoken.
And of course, as always, Eve was right.
A slice of birthday cake - vanilla, with vanilla frosting and little pastel sprinkles (and the exact opposite of what Eve would have baked) - landed in front of her, on her mom's second-best china. Mom had made the cake from scratch, even the frosting; she didn't believe in ready-made anything. It'd be delicious, but Claire already knew that she wouldn't care. Eve's fantasy cake would have tasted awful, left her teeth and tongue black, and Claire would have loved every bite.
Claire picked up her fork, blinked back her tears, and dug into her birthday treat. She mumbled, "Wonderful, Mom!" around a mouthful of cake that tasted like air and sadness.
Her dad seated himself at the table and accepted a slice, too. "Happy birthday, Claire. Got any plans for the rest of the day?"
She'd had plans. All kinds of plans. She'd imagined this party a million times, and in every single version, it had ended with her and Shane alone.
Well, she was alone. So was he.
They just weren't alone together.
Claire swallowed and kept her gaze down on the plate. She was about to say the honest truth: no. She didn't have any plans. But the thought of being stuck here all day with her parents, with their frightened eyes and joyless smiles, was too much for her. "Yeah," she said. "I'm . . . supposed to go to the lab. Myrnin wants me."
Myrnin was her boss - her vampire boss - and she hated him. She hadn't always hated him, but he'd betrayed her one time too many, and the last time had been a doozy: he'd turned her and Michael and Shane over to their worst enemy, just because it was easier for him than being loyal to them when things got tough.
She could practically hear Shane's voice, heavy on the irony: Well, he's a vampire. What did you expect?
Something better, she guessed. And maybe that made her an idiot, because, hey, vampire, and Myrnin had never been big on sanity anyway. She would have refused to work for him after that . . . only she couldn't refuse anything Bishop ordered her to do directly. Magic. Claire didn't believe in magic - that was, as far as she was concerned, just science that hadn't been fully investigated yet - but this felt uncomfortably close to meeting the standard definition.
She didn't like to think of that moment when she became - as Eve had so clearly put it - the pawn of evil, because she was afraid, down in the sickest depths of her nightmares, that she'd made the wrong choice. As she reached for her glass of Coke, her long-sleeved shirt slipped back on her forearm to reveal what Bishop had done to her - blue ink, like some tribal biker tattoo, only this ink moved. Watching it slowly revolve and writhe under her skin made her sick.
No such thing as magic. No such thing.
Claire tugged her sleeve back down to hide it - not from her parents; they couldn't see anything wrong with her arm at all. It was something only she could see, and the vampires. She thought that it had gotten a little lighter since the day that Bishop had forced it on her, but maybe that was just wishful thinking. If it fades out enough, maybe it'll stop working. Stop forcing her to obey him when he gave her orders.
She had no way of knowing whether it was getting weaker, one way or the other, unless she was willing to risk openly defying Bishop. That was slightly less healthy than swimming in a shark tank, smeared with fish oil and wearing a big Eat Me sign.
She'd ransacked Myrnin's library, looking for any hint of what Bishop had done to her, and how to get rid of it, but if the information was there, he'd hidden it away too well for her to find. For your own good, he'd probably have said, but she wouldn't believe him. Not anymore. Myrnin did only what was good for him, and no one else.
At least she could define what the tattoo had done to her - it had taken away her will to say no to Mr. Bishop. It's not magic, she told herself for the thousandth time today. It's not magic because there's no such thing as magic. Everything has an explanation. We just may not understand it yet, but this tattoo thing has rules and laws, and there's got to be a way to make it go away.
Claire again tugged down the sleeve over the tattoo, and her fingers skimmed over the gold bracelet she still wore. Amelie's bracelet, with the symbol on it of the former vampire ruler of Morganville. Before Mr. Bishop had arrived, it had been a mark of Protection . . . it meant she owed Amelie taxes, usually in the form of money, services, and donated blood, and in return Amelie - and the other vampires - would play nice. It was sort of like the Mafia, with fangs. And it hadn't always worked, but it had been a lot better than walking around Morganville as a free lunch.
Now, though, the bracelet wasn't such an asset. She hadn't seen or heard from Amelie in weeks, and all of Amelie's allies seemed to be MIA. The most prominent vampires in Morganville were in hiding, or maybe even dead . . . or else they were under Bishop's control, and they had no real will of their own. Seemed like that was happening more and more as time went along. Bishop had decided it was more trouble to kill the opposition than to convert them.
Just like he'd converted her, although she was pretty much the only human he'd bothered to put directly under his thumb. He didn't have a very high opinion of people, generally.
Claire finished her cake, and then dutifully opened the birthday presents her parents brought to the table. Dad's package - wrapped by Mom, from the neat hospital corners on it - contained a nice silver necklace with a delicate little heart on it. Mom's package revealed a dress - Claire never wore dresses - in a color and cut that Claire was sure would be drastically unflattering on her smallish frame.
But she kissed them both and thanked them, promised to try the dress on later, and modeled the necklace for her dad when her mom buzzed off to the kitchen to put away the rest of the cake. She put it on over the cross necklace Shane had given her.
"Here," Dad said, trying to be helpful. "I'll get that other one off."
"No!" She slapped a hand over Shane's necklace and backed away, eyes wide, and Dad looked hurt and baffled. "Sorry. I . . . I never take this one off. It . . . was a gift."
He understood then. "Oh. From that boy?"
She nodded, and tears prickled at her eyes again, burning hot. Dad opened his arms and held her tight for a moment, then whispered, "It'll be okay, honey. Don't cry."
"No, it won't," she said miserably. "Not if we don't make it okay, Dad. Don't you understand that? We have to do something!"
He pushed her back to arm's length and studied her with tired, faded eyes. He hadn't been in good health for a while, and every time she saw him, Claire worried a little more. Why couldn't they leave my parents out of this? Why did they drag them here, into the middle of this?
Things had been fine before - well, maybe not fine, but stable. When she'd come to attend college at Texas Prairie University, she'd had to leave the crazy-dangerous dorm to find some kind of safety, and she'd ended up rooming at the Glass House, with Eve and Shane and Michael. Mom and Dad had remained safely far away, out of town.
Or they had, until Amelie had decided that luring them here would help control Claire better. Now they were Morganville residents. Trapped.
Just like Claire herself.
"We tried to leave, honey. I packed your mom up the other night and headed out, but our car died at the city limits." His smile looked frail and broken around the edges. "I don't think Mr. Bishop wanted us to leave."
Claire was a little bit relieved that at least they'd tried, but only for a second - then she decided that she was a lot more horrified. "Dad! Please don't try that again. If the vampires catch you outside the city limits - " Nobody left Morganville without permission; there were all kinds of safeguards to prevent it, but the fact that the vampires were ruthless about tracking people down was enough to deter most.
"I know." He put his warm hands on either side of her face, and looked at her with so much love that it broke her heart. "Claire, you think you're ready to take on the world, but you're not. I don't want you in the middle of all this. You're just too young."
She gave him a sad smile. "It's too late for that. Besides, Dad, I'm not a kid anymore - I'm seventeen. Got the candles on the cake to prove it and everything."
He kissed her forehead. "I know. But you'll always be five years old to me, crying about a skinned knee."
"I felt the same way when my parents said it to me." He watched as she fiddled with Shane's cross necklace. "You're going to the lab?"
"What? Oh, yeah."
He knew she was lying, she could tell, and for a moment, she was sure he'd call her on it. But instead he said, "Please just tell me you're not going out today to try to save your boyfriend. Again."
She put her hands over his. "Dad. Don't try to tell me I'm too young. I know what I feel about Shane."
"I'm not trying to do that at all," her father said. "I'm trying to tell you that right now, being in love with any boy in this town is dangerous. Being in love with that boy is suicidal. I wouldn't be thrilled under normal circumstances, and this is isn't even close to normal."
No kidding. "I won't do anything stupid," she promised. She wasn't sure she could actually keep that particular vow, though. She'd happily do something stupid if it gave her a single moment with Shane. "Dad, I need to go. Thanks for the necklace."
He stared at her so hard that she thought for a second he'd lock her in her room or something. Not that she couldn't find a way out, of course, but she didn't want to make him feel any worse than she had to.
He finally sighed and shook his head. "You're welcome, honey. Happy birthday. Be careful."
She stood for a moment, watching him play with his piece of birthday cake. He didn't seem hungry. He was losing weight, and he looked older than he had just a year ago. He caught her look. "Claire. I'm fine. Don't make that face."
Innocence wasn't going to work on him. "The my-dad's-sick-and-I-feel-guilty-for-leaving face."
"Oh, that one." She tried for a smile. "Sorry."
In the kitchen, her mom was buzzing around like a bee on espresso. As Claire put the plates in the sink, her mother chattered a mile a minute - about the dress, and how she just knew Claire would look perfect in it, and they really should make plans to go out to a nice restaurant this week and celebrate in style. Then she went on about her new friends at the Card Club, where they played bridge and some kind of gin rummy and sometimes, daringly, Texas Hold 'Em. She talked about everything but what was all around them.
Morganville looked like a normal town, but it wasn't. Casual travelers came and went, and never knew a thing; even most of the college students stayed strictly on campus and put in their time without learning a thing about what was really going on - Texas Prairie University made sure it was a world unto itself. For people who lived here, the real residents, Morganville was a prison camp, and they were all inmates, and they were all too afraid to talk about it out in the open. Claire listened with her patience stretching thin as plastic wrap, ready to rip, and finally interrupted long enough to get in a hasty, "Thanks," and, "Be back soon; love you, Mom."
Her mother stopped and squeezed her eyes shut. "Claire," she said in an entirely different tone - a genuine one. "I don't want you to go out today. I'd like you to stay home, please."
Claire paused in the doorway. "I can't, Mom," she said. "I'm not going to be a bystander in all this. If you want to be, I understand, but that's not how you raised me."
Claire's mom broke a plate. Just smashed it against the side of the sink into a dozen sharp-edged pieces that skittered all over the counter and floor.
And then she just stood there, shoulders shaking.
"It's okay," Claire said, and quickly picked up the broken pieces from the floor, then swept the rest off the counter. "Mom - it's okay. I'm not afraid."
Her mom laughed. It was a brittle, hysterical little laugh, and it scared Claire down to her shoes. "You're not? Well, I am, Claire. I'm as afraid as I've ever been in my life. Don't go. Not today. Please stay home."
Claire stood there for a few seconds, took a deep breath, and dumped the broken china in the trash.
"I'm sorry, but I really need to do this," she said. "Mom - "
"Then go." Her mother turned back to the sink and picked up another plate, which she dipped into soapy water and began to scrub with special viciousness, as if she intended to wash the pink roses right off the china.
Claire escaped back to her room, put the dress in her closet, and grabbed up her battered backpack from the corner. As she was leaving, she caught sight of a photograph taped to her mirror. Their Glass House formal picture - Shane, Eve, herself, and Michael, caught mid-laugh. It was the only photo she had of all of them together. She was glad it was such a happy one, even if it was overexposed and a little out of focus. Stupid cell phone cameras.
On impulse, she grabbed the photo and stuck it in her backpack.
The rest of her room was like a time warp - Mom had kept all her things from high school and junior high, all her stuffed animals and posters and candy-colored diaries. Her Pokemon cards and her science kits. Her glow-in-the-dark stick-on stars and planets on the ceiling. All her certificates and medals and awards.
It felt so far away now, like it belonged to someone else. Someone who wasn't facing a shiny future as an evil minion, and trapped in Morganville forever.
Except for her parents, the photograph was really the only thing in this whole house that she'd miss if she never came back.
And that was, unexpectedly, kind of sad.
Claire stood in the doorway for a long moment, looking at her past, and then she closed the door and walked away to whatever the future held.