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"Suppose," it said in its voice like antique silk, faded and slightly torn, "that I could make you popular." It did not smile, for which Althea was glad. She did not particularly want to see it smiling. She waited, but no explanations followed. Talking to it was somewhat upsetting. Althea kept her back to the wall, waiting for it to leave. Usually it left rather early, having, she supposed, appointments to keep. Tonight it stayed. Waiting. She knew it could always wait longer than she could.
Her heart snagged on that word popular. At last Althea asked, "How could you make me popular?"
It nodded for some time, its entire trunk pulsing slowly back and forth, as if it were on a spring. "Tell me," it said, in that slippery satin voice, "what is the most popular group in school?"
That was easy. "Cheerleaders," said Althea with yearning. The Varsity Squad was a closed unit of slim blonds and sparkly brunettes who not only never spoke to Althea, but, far worse, never noticed her, either.
"Who," it went on like a river or a tide, "do you wish had never gotten on the squad?"
That, too, was easy. "Celeste," said Althea. Celeste had made Varsity as a freshman, which, to the sophomores, juniors, and seniors who failed to make it, seemed unfair. Celeste was quite extraordinarily beautiful. At first Celeste did not appear sufficiently energetic to cheer. She walked slowly, languidly, hands trailing. Celeste seemed more a romantic dreamer than a screaming, leaping, possibly even perspiring, member of a gymnastics-oriented squad. But cheerleading transformed her. Once in uniform, Celeste became a star.
And popular. So popular.
Althea longed for the popularity that cheerleading brought.
Althea was a gentle girl. She had sweet features and a demure posture. When she spoke, people quieted to hear her distinctive whispery tremor. In elementary and middle school, Althea had had a circle of giggly girlfriends, a phone that rang constantly, invitations every weekend to spend the night, or order pizza, or go to the movies. She was on the softball team, won several silver ribbons in horseback riding, and went on a wonderful group skiing trip. She had thought that in high school she would become a serious skier, and she had bought a beautiful ski outfit to shine on the snow.
But high school was horrible.
The circle of friends, like a kaleidoscope turned and refocused, had split cleanly apart, to form new groups. One group was heavily into Individuality and New Experiences; they wore trendy clothing or torn jeans, unique sweatshirts or giant earrings. They found Althea altogether too dull to bother with. Another group had boyfriends, and Althea, without one, was unwelcome. The third group became scholarly and embarked on a soul-whipping routine of trying to beat one another out with exam grades and extra-credit reports.
Althea's throaty whisper became a liability. Nobody heard it. She had to raise her voice, and the voice felt foreign: like an intruder, like a stranger yelling.
Loneliness absorbed her life.
It was a quiet life: no phones, no laughter, no gossip, no giggles.
It was November: a month of dark and chill.
A month in which Althea saw herself, like an abandoned waif in the gutter, without hope.
"Perhaps," the voice continued, "Celeste could be taken off the squad."
She slipped down those words, as if on a waterslide at an amusement park. She noticed how the voice liked to split sentences, teasing with the first word: who ... what ... perhaps ...
She did not like standing quite so close. It had given her all sorts of assurances, but did she know, for sure, that she could believe these promises? Under the circumstances?
"Would there not," it continued, in a lazy, inquiring sort of manner, as if they had all year to consider it, "be tryouts for Celeste's replacement?"
Althea nodded. The cheerleading squad was a precision team. They worked in pairs. They would have to have an even number. Althea had had years of dancing and gymnastics. Nevertheless she had not made the team.
The high school was jammed with girls who had had years of dancing and gymnastics. "There would be a lot of competition," said Althea, remembering the taste of humiliation and despair when she had been cut from the list long before the final round of tryouts.
"Perhaps ..." the voice said, with such slowness that it seemed to be melting away, "I could arrange for the competition to be missing."
She let her mind drift over that. Skimming like a seabird on the surface of the suggestion. Not landing, no. Not part of it ... but thinking about it. The power of it. The potential of it.
What a change it would make in her life! She would be among the lovelier, more exciting girls. The girls who partied and laughed, drove fast cars, and sat with adorable boys.
Me, Althea thought. Popular. A cheerleader.
"Perhaps someday I would even be captain," she whispered.
"Perhaps so." Its skin was the color of mushrooms.
"And date somebody on the basketball team," she breathed, imagining it. She remembered how the cheerleading squad sat on the bus with the team, how if they won the game there was laughter, and shared snacks, and favorite songs were played while they foot-danced, because the bus driver didn't allow standing. How in the back of the bus, girls sat entwined with their boyfriends, their laughter quieter, more intimate. How couples got off the bus last, holding hands.
"Maybe even Michael," said Althea, so softly she was not sure she had let the thought out, because the thought was so precious. Michael.
"Maybe even Michael," the voice agreed.
Althea pulled herself together. She was envious of the popular girls, but she was kind. She didn't want anything nasty to happen. And
Celeste seemed like a perfectly nice person. "What would you do to Celeste?" said Althea warily.
It smiled. The teeth were not quite as pointed as Althea had expected, but she shuddered anyway.
She was told, with an air of reproach, "It doesn't hurt, you know. It's just rather tiring. Celeste would simply be ... rather ... tuckered out."
The eyes changed their focus, leaving Althea's face. She felt as if she were released from suction cups.
It stared at the sky, at the black cloudless sky sprinkled with stars, gleaming with moonlight. It seemed to find a companion with whom smiles were exchanged. "Celeste would be back in school the next day."
"Then why wouldn't she stay on the squad?"
"I told you. She'll be tired. She'll feel a need to resign. She'll want a little time to herself. There's no cause for you to worry. Her grades won't suffer."
Althea decided not to think about the details.
She did not let herself think about being popular.
I can't condone ... but on the other hand ... a simple exercise that would leave Celeste ... well ... tired ... and after all, Celeste is only a ninth-grader, and I'm in tenth ... and I deserve it more ...
Its fingernails were gray, like foil.
"Althea," it said, stroking her name, feeding it new ideas, "think about school tomorrow. Think how you sit alone at lunch. How nobody talks to you in study hall. How nobody shares a soda with you after class."
How vivid it was. How often it had been true.
The voice was thready and sticky, like a spider's web. "But if you're a cheerleader ..."
Althea saw herself among the slender blonds and sparkly brunettes.
"You, Althea," said the voice, softer than clouds, "you deliver Celeste."
"I," breathed the vampire, "will make you popular."CHAPTER 2
But how? How was this supposed to work? Celeste wafted down the halls of high school like a sunset of spun gold, wrapped in the possession of her friends. From a distance Althea would see that soft hair, those sparkling eyes. From around a corner Althea would hear that trembly laugh, a laugh that shivered with delight.
It was so unfair! Celeste had every beauty, every friend, every power.
You deliver Celeste. I will make you popular.
My only claim to popularity, thought Althea, is that I have the same lunch schedule as the cheerleading crowd. I get to stand in the same cafeteria line.
When Althea went to lunch, Celeste was ahead of her, shimmering like a mirage. Celeste skimmed through the line, putting almost nothing on her tray, gliding to her seat. Celeste's laugh sparkled across a crowded table, where friends jostled and squeezed.
Althea's tray was heavy, and the plates slid around, bumping one another and threatening to spill. She carried it carefully, and when she finished paying, looked around for a place to sit. A group of girls she knew fairly well filled a distant table; there was no room. A girl like Celeste could dance up and they would make room, but for a girl like Althea they did not.
Her old friends from middle school were with their new friends from other parts of town. If she joined them, she would be a river barge shoving through sailboats. They would part to let her through, but she could never join. The only thing worse than being alone was to have people tolerate you because they felt pity.
Althea's eyes swept the entire cafeteria, and in the entire cafeteria there did not seem to be an empty seat.
"Come on," said an impatient voice behind her. "Get going."
Althea lifted her heavy tray and took two steps out into the hostile lunchroom. People trotted past, their trays as full as hers, but their steps were light. They found places to sit, and people looked up and said to them, "Hey, how are ya? Sit down!"
There is no room for me, thought Althea. There never will be.
She walked past table after table, and from each chair eyes turned, inspected Althea, and turned away. Every student in the high school had a chance to say, "Sit with us." Every student in the high school said nothing. Eventually Althea was back at the counter. If she had had any appetite, it was gone. She sat her tray down, untouched.
I'll just stand outside in the courtyard till lunch is over, Althea thought. I'll pretend—
A silver shot of laughter came from the cheerleaders' table. Celeste planted a sweet kiss on the cheek of the handsome boy next to her.
I want that life, Althea thought. I want to laugh and kiss and have friends! But how do I invite her to my house? The closest I'm ever going to get is the same building.
The second day was worse than the first, for Althea could not find the courage to enter the cafeteria at all, but brought a bag lunch and sat on a bench outside, pretending she liked the outdoors, pretending she needed the fresh breezes in her hair in order to compose her thoughts.
Lies, all lies.
On the third day, she forced herself into the cafeteria again. She did not actually get in the lunch line. She drifted on the edges, trying to think of a strategy.
Cheerleaders, thought Althea, important people, jocks, the party crowd—they're always on another side of the room, sitting at a different table, laughing at a different joke. There's no way to cross that dividing line. Either you're popular or you aren't.
Her heart filled with longing to be special, the way they were. She inched closer to hear their affectionate, silly talk.
Althea paused next to Celeste's table, pretending her attention was caught by something beyond, an interesting tableau, perhaps, of dieticians and cooks. In the cafeteria, she was camouflaged like an animal in the jungle, merely another anonymous student passing by to get extra ketchup or another dessert. They paid no attention to Althea. They just rattled on about their cars.
It seemed that Ryan's car had only one working door out of four and that to get in and out, you had to use the rear right passenger door. (Althea imagined herself in the crowd, giggling as she doubled over to squeeze in the back, crawling over boys' legs, gear stick, and parking brake to reach the front seat.)
It seemed that Kimmie-Jo had backed her new car into a tree. The car's trunk now had an interesting configuration, along with a tree print. (Althea imagined herself in the car with Kimmie-Jo when it happened, screaming, "What will your parents say? You're dead, Kimmie-Jo!" giggling, and suggesting they go to Dairy Queen and have ice cream first, and then deal with Kimmie-Jo's parents.)
Michael, however, had a car that was not only new to him, it was actually new. His father had bought it for his seventeenth birthday present last week. How like Michael, thought Althea, staring with adoration, forgetting to pretend she was neither watching nor listening.
Celeste said sadly, "I'm only fourteen. I won't be able to drive my own car forever and ever and ever."
Althea's heart hardened. I'm sixteen, and I have nothing! thought Althea.
"That's okay," said Michael, smiling at Celeste. "We'll give you a ride when you need one."
He had such a fine smile. Brotherly, welcoming—and yet sexy. He smiled like that at ninth-grader Celeste! For no reason except that Celeste was on Varsity. Cheerleading!
Althea walked straight into the group.
She expected to feel the prickles of their distaste, to have Kimmie-Jo and Michael and Ryan and Celeste look at her with amazement. An intruder. A pushy unwanted nobody.
But Ryan said, "Hi, Althea. How are you?"
Ryan knew her name? She was stunned. "Fine, thank you," she said.
"You live in that huge spooky house at the bottom of the hill, don't you?" said Celeste. Celeste shuddered pleasurably. Her pretty golden hair quivered, and the boys smiled gently at her. "They say it's haunted. Have you ever seen ghosts, Althea?"
Althea did not like to lie. "I have never seen a ghost," she said carefully.
"Your house isn't haunted?" said Celeste, with evident disappointment.
"Of course not." Althea sensed the group getting ready to move. They were always in transit, these popular people, drifting like a flock of bright-feathered birds from one perch to another. She needed to hold on to them. Or, at least, on to Celeste. She made a quick offering. A dangerous offering, because it trembled on the edge of truth. But it was all Althea had. "We do have a Shuttered Room, though."
"What does that mean?" Celeste had a pretty, little giggle and a trick of biting her lower lip as she giggled, taking her breath in funny little snatches. The boys looked on adoringly.
"There's a room in the attic," Althea explained. "The circular tower. You may have seen it when you've driven by. The tower room has three windows, none of which are ever opened. There are shutters on the inside of the windows and shutters on the outside."
"What's the room for?" asked Michael.
"It's for staying away from."
"Oh, wow," said Celeste, entirely satisfied. "I knew that house was haunted."
"It is not haunted," said Althea rather sharply. "It's simply that nobody is supposed to enter the Shuttered Room."
"What happens when somebody does?" asked Michael.
She had an answer to that now, of course. For she, a month ago, had done just that. Against all rules, against all tradition, she had touched the shutters. And now she knew what happened.
If you were to open the inside shutters, you would hear a whistling gurgle, the sound of somebody struggling for air, the sound of a living person in a locked coffin.
If you were to open the outside shutters, the wind would whirl into the tower, and the tower air would whirl out, and in the exchange of old air for new, something passed, something changed.
The vampire was set free.
She did not know where he came from: inside the tower or outside. She did not know where he stayed: inside the tower or outside. But the shutters were the key to his prison—and he was the key to hers.
The vampire could set Althea free. Free from the hostile cafeteria, free from loneliness. You give me Celeste, and I will give you popularity.
Althea fastened her eyes on Celeste. Althea's whispery tremor, deep in her throat, sounded frightening and mysterious. "Nobody ever has. It's a family tradition. The shutters in the Shuttered Room stay shuttered." She smiled, first at Celeste, then at Michael.
The kids laughed, repeating the rule like a tongue twister. Susie sells seashells on the seashore. The shutters in the Shuttered Room stay shuttered.
Excerpted from The Vampire's Promise Trilogy by Caroline B. Cooney. Copyright © 1993 Caroline B. Cooney. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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