On the day Claire became a member of the Glass House, somebody stole her laundry.
When she reached into the crappy, beat-up washing machine, she found nothing but the wet slick sides of the drum, and—like a bad joke—the worst pair of underwear she owned, plus one sock. She was in a hurry, of course—there were only a couple of machines on this top floor of Howard Hall, the least valued and most run-down rooms in the least valued, most run-down dorm. Two washing machines, two dryers, and you were lucky if one of them was working on any given day and didn't eat your quarters. Forget about the dollar-bill slot. She'd never seen it work, not in the last six weeks since she'd arrived at school.
"No," she said out loud, and balanced herself on the edge of the washer to look down into the dark, partly rusted interior. It smelled like mold and cheap detergent. Getting a closer look didn't help.
One crappy pair of underwear, fraying at the seams. One sock.
She was missing every piece of clothing that she'd worn in the last two weeks. Every piece that she actually wanted to wear.
"No!" She yelled it into the washer, where it echoed back at her, and slumped back down, then kicked the washer violently in the dent made by all the other disappointed students before her. She couldn't breathe. She had some other clothes—a few—but they were last-choice clothes, oh-my-God-wouldn't-be-caught-dead clothes. Pants that were too short and made her look like a hick, shirts that were too big and too stupid, and made her look like her mom had picked them out. And she had.
Claire had about three hundred dollars left to last her for, well, months, after the latest round of calling out for pizza and buying yet another book for Professor Clueless Euliss, who didn't seem to have figured out yet what subject he was teaching.
She supposed she could find some clothes, if she looked around, that wouldn't totally blow her entire budget. After all, downtown Morganville, Texas, was the thrift shop capital of the world. Assuming she could find anything she could stand to wear.
Mom said this would happen, she thought. I just have to think. Keep my cool.
Claire threw herself into an orange plastic chair, dumped her backpack on the scratched linoleum, and put her head in her hands. Her face felt hot, and she was shaking, and she knew, just knew, that she was going to cry. Cry like the baby they all said she was, too young to be here, too young to be away from Mommy. It sucked to be smart, because this was where it got you.
She gulped deep, damp breaths and sat back, willing herself not to bawl (because they'd hear), and wondered if she could call Mom and Dad for an extension on her allowance, or use the credit card that was "just for emergencies."
Then she saw the note. Not so much "note" as graffiti, but it was addressed to her, on the painted cinder-block wall above the machines.
DEAR DORK, it read, WE FOUND TRASH IN THE MACHINES AND THREW IT DOWN THE CHUTE. IF YOU WANT IT, DIVE FOR IT.
"Shit," she breathed, and had to blink back tears again, for an entirely different reason. Blind, stupid rage. Monica. Well, Monica and the Monickettes, anyway. Why was it the hot mean girls always ran in packs, like hyenas? And why, with all the shimmery hair and long tanned legs and more of Daddy's money than Daddy's accountants, did they have to focus on her?
No, she knew the answer to that.
She'd made Monica look stupid in front of her friends, and some hot upperclassmen. Not that it had been all that hard; she'd just been walking by, heard Monica saying that World War II had been "that dumbass Chinese war thing."
And by simple reflex, she'd said, "It wasn't." The whole lot of them, slouched all over the couches in the dorm lobby, looked at her with as much blank surprise as if the Coke machine had just spoken up. Monica, her friends, three of the cool older frat boys.
"World War II," Claire had plunged on, panicked and not quite sure how to get out of what she'd gotten herself into. "I just meant—well, it wasn't the Korean War. That was later. World War II was with the Germans and the Japanese. You know, Pearl Harbor?"
And the guys had looked at Monica and laughed, and Monica had flushed—not much, but enough to ruin the cool perfection of her makeup. "Remind me not to buy any history papers off of you," the cutest of the guys had said. "What kind of dumbass doesn't know that?" Though Claire had been sure none of them had, really. "Chinese. Riiiiight."
Claire had seen the fury in Monica's eyes, quickly covered over with smiles and laughter and flirting. Claire had ceased to exist again, for the guys.
For the girls, she was brand-new, and unwelcome as hell. She'd been dealing with it all her life. Smart and small and average-looking wasn't exactly winning the life lottery; you had to fight for it, whatever it was. Somebody was always laughing at, or hitting, or ignoring you, or a combination of the first two. She'd thought when she was a kid that getting laughed at was the worst thing, and then—after the first couple of school-yard showdowns—getting hit jumped up to number one. But for most of her (brief, two-year) high school experience, being ignored was worse by far. She'd gotten there a year earlier than everybody else, and left a year ahead of them. Nobody liked that.
Nobody but teachers, anyway.
The problem was that Claire really loved school. Loved books, and reading, and learning things—okay, not calculus, but pretty much everything else. Physics. What normal girl loved physics? Abnormal ones. Ones who were not ever going to be hot.
And face it, being hot? That was what life was all about. As Monica had proved, when the world had wobbled off its axis for a few seconds to notice Claire, and then wobbled right back to revolve around the pretty ones.
It wasn't fair. She'd dived in and worked her ass off through high school. Graduated with a perfect 4.0, scored high enough on the tests to qualify for admission to the great schools, the legendary schools, the ones where being a brainiac mutant girl-freak wasn't necessarily a downside. (Except that, of course, at those schools, there were probably hot tall leggy brainiac mutant girl-freaks.)
Didn't matter. Mom and Dad had taken one look at the stack of enthusiastic thumbs-up replies from universities like MIT and Caltech and Yale, and clamped down hard. No way was their sixteen-year-old daughter (nearly seventeen, she kept insisting, although it wasn't really true) going to run off three thousand miles to go to school. At least not at first. (Claire had tried, unsuccessfully, to get across the concept that if anything would kill her budding academic career worse than being a transfer student at one of those places, it was being a transfer student from Texas Prairie University. Otherwise known as TPEwwwwwww.)
So here she was, stuck on the crappy top floor of a crappy dorm in a crappy school where eighty percent of the students transferred after the first two years—or dropped out—and the Monickettes were stealing her wet laundry and dumping it down the trash chute, all because Monica couldn't be bothered to know anything about one of the world wars big enough to rate a Roman numeral.
But it isn't fair! something in her howled. I had a plan! An actual plan! Monica slept late, and Claire had gotten up early just to do laundry while all the party crowd was comatose and the studious crowd was off to classes. She'd thought she could leave it for a couple of minutes to grab her shower—another scary experience—and she'd never even thought about anybody doing something so incredibly low.
As she bit back her sobs, she noticed—again—how quiet it was up here. Creepy and deserted, with half the girls deep asleep and the other half gone. Even when it was crowded and buzzing, the dorm was creepy, though. Old, decrepit, full of shadows and corners and places mean girls could lurk. In fact, that summed up the whole town. Morganville was small and old and dusty, full of creepy little oddities. Like the fact that the streetlights worked only half the time, and they were too far apart when they did. Like the way the people in the local campus stores seemed too happy. Desperately happy. Like the fact that the whole town, despite the dust, was clean—no trash, no graffiti, nobody begging for spare change in alleyways.
She could almost hear her mother saying, Honey, it's just that you're in a strange place. It'll get better. You'll just have to try harder.
Mom always said things like that, and Claire had always done her best to hide how hard it was to follow that advice.
Well. Nothing to do but try to get her stuff back.
Claire gulped a couple more times, wiped her eyes, and hauled the arm-twisting weight of her backpack up and over her shoulder. She stared for a few seconds at the wet pair of panties and one sock clutched in her right hand, then hastily unzipped the front pocket of the backpack and stuffed them in. Man, that would kill whatever cool she had left, if she walked around carrying those.
"Well," said a low, satisfied voice from the open door opposite the stairs, "look who it is. The Dumpster diver."
Claire stopped, one hand on the rusted iron railing. Something was telling her to run, but something always told her that: fight-or-flight—she'd read the textbooks. And she was tired of flighting. She turned around slowly, as Monica Morrell stepped out of the dorm room—not hers, so she'd busted Erica's lock again. Monica's running buddies Jennifer and Gina filed out and took up flanking positions. Soldiers in flip-flops and low-rise jeans and French manicures.
Monica struck a pose. It was something she was good at, Claire had to admit. Nearly six feet tall, Monica had flowing, shiny black hair, and big blue eyes accented with just the right amount of liner and mascara. Perfect skin. One of those model-shaped faces, all cheekbones and pouty lips. And if she had a model's body, it was a Victoria's Secret model, all curves, not angles.
She was rich, she was pretty, and as far as Claire could tell, it didn't make her a bit happy. What did, though—what made those big blue eyes glow right now—was the idea of tormenting Claire just a little more.
"Shouldn't you be in first period at the junior high by now?" Monica asked. "Or at least getting your first period?"
"Maybe she's looking for the clothes she left lying around," Gina piled on, and laughed. Jennifer laughed with her. Claire swore their eyes, their pretty jewel-colored eyes, just glowed with the joy of making her feel like shit. "Litterbug!"
"Clothes?" Monica folded her arms and pretended to think. "You mean, like those rags we threw away? The ones she left cluttering up the washer?"
"I wouldn't wear those to sweat in."
"I wouldn't wear them to scrub out the boys' toilet," Jennifer blurted.
Monica, annoyed, turned and shoved her. "Yeah, you know all about the boys' toilet, don't you? Didn't you do Steve Gillespie in ninth grade in there?" She made sucking sounds, and they all laughed again, though Jennifer looked uncomfortable. Claire felt her cheeks flare red, even though it wasn't—for a change—a dis against her. "Jeez, Jen, Steve Gillespie? Keep your mouth shut if you can't think of something that won't embarrass yourself."
Jennifer—of course—turned her anger on a safer target. Claire. She lunged forward and shoved Claire back a step, toward the stairs. "Go get your stupid clothes already! I'm sick of looking at you, with your pasty skin—"
"Yeah, Junior High, ever heard of sunshine?" Gina rolled her eyes.
"Watch it," Monica snapped, which was odd, because all three of them had the best tans money could buy.
Claire scrambled to steady herself. The heavy backpack pulled her off-balance, and she grabbed on to the banister. Jen lunged at her again and slammed the heel of her hand painfully hard into Claire's collarbone. "Don't!" Claire yelped, and batted Jen's hand away. Hard.
There was a second of breathless silence, and then Monica said, very quietly, "Did you just hit my friend, you stupid little bitch? Where do you think you get off, doing things like that around here?"
And she stepped forward and slapped Claire across the face, hard enough to draw blood, hard enough to make flares and comets streak across Claire's vision, hard enough to make everything turn red and boiling hot.
Claire let go of the banister and slapped Monica right back, full across her pouty mouth, and for just a tight, white-hot second she actually felt good about it, but then Monica hissed like a scorched cat, and Claire had time to think, Oh crap, I really shouldn't have done that.
She never saw the punch coming. Didn't even really feel the impact, except as a blank sensation and confusion, but then the weight of her backpack on her shoulder was pulling her to one side and she staggered.
She almost caught herself, and then Gina, grinning spitefully, reached over and shoved her backward, down the stairs, and there was nothing but air behind her.
She hit the edge of every stair, all the way to the bottom. Her backpack broke open and spilled books as she tumbled, and at the top of the stairs Monica and the Monickettes laughed and hooted and high-fived, but she saw it only in disconnected little jerks of motion, freeze-frames.
It seemed to take forever before she skidded to a stop at the bottom, and then her head hit the wall with a nasty, meaty sound, and everything went black.
She later remembered only one more thing, in the darkness: Monica's voice, a low and vicious whisper. "Tonight. You'll get what's coming to you, you freak. I'm going to make sure."
It seemed like seconds, but when she woke up again there was somebody kneeling next to her, and it wasn't Monica or her nail-polish mafia; it was Erica, who had the room at the top of the stairs, four doors down from Claire's. Erica looked pale and strained and scared, and Claire tried to smile, because that was what you did when somebody was scared. She didn't hurt until she moved, and then her head started to throb. There was a red-hot ache near the top, and when she reached up to touch it she felt a hard raised knot. No blood, though. It hurt worse when she probed the spot, but not in an oh-my-God-skull-fracture kind of way, or at least that was what she hoped.
"Are you okay?" Erica asked, waving her hands kind of helplessly in midair as Claire wiggled her way up to a sitting position against the wall. Claire risked a quick look past her up the stairs, then down. The coast looked Monica-clear. Nobody else had come out to see what was up, either—most of them were afraid of getting in trouble, and the rest just flat didn't care.
"Yeah," she said, and managed a shaky laugh. "Guess I tripped."
"You need to go to the quack shack?" Which was college code for the university clinic. "Or, God, an ambulance or whatever?"
"No. No, I'm okay." Wishful thinking, but although basically everything in her body hurt like hell, nothing felt like it had broken into pieces. Claire got to her feet, winced at a sore ankle, and picked up her backpack. Notebooks tumbled out. Erica grabbed a couple and jammed them back in, then ran lightly up a few steps to gather the scattered textbooks. "Damn, Claire, do you really need all this crap? How many classes do you have in a day?"
"You're nuts." Erica, good deed done, reverted to the neutrality that all the noncool girls in the dorm had shown her so far. "Better get to the quack shack, seriously. You look like crap."
Claire pasted on a smile and kept it there until Erica got to the top of the stairs and started complaining about the broken lock on her dorm room.
Tonight, Monica had leaned over and whispered. You'll get what's coming to you, you freak. She hadn't called anybody, or tried to find out if Claire had a broken neck. She didn't care if Claire died.
No, that was wrong. The problem was, she did care.
Claire tasted blood. Her lip was split, and it was bleeding. She wiped at the mess with the back of her hand, then the hem of her T-shirt before realizing that it was literally the only thing she had to wear. I need to go down to the basement and get my clothes out of the trash. The idea of going down there—going anywhere alone in this dorm—suddenly terrified her. Monica was waiting. And the other girls wouldn't do anything. Even Erica, who was probably the nicest one in the whole place, was scared to come right out on her side. Hell, Erica got hassled, too, but she was probably just as glad that Claire was there to get the worst of it. This wasn't just as bad as high school, where she'd been treated with contempt and casual cruelty—this was worse, a lot worse. And she didn't even have any friends here. Erica was about the best she'd been able to come up with, and Erica was more concerned about her broken door than Claire's broken head.
She was alone. And if she hadn't been before, she was scared now. Really, really scared. What she'd seen in the Monica Mafia's eyes today wasn't just the usual lazy menace of cool girls versus the geeks; this was worse. She'd gotten casual shoves or pinches before, trips, mean laughter, but this was more like lions coming in for the kill.
They're going to kill me.
She started shakily down the flights of stairs, every step a wincing pain through her body, and remembered that she'd slapped Monica hard enough to leave a mark.
Yeah. They're going to kill me.
If Monica ended up with a bruise on that perfect face, there wasn't any question about it.
Erica was right about the quack shack being the logical first stop; Claire got her ankle wrapped, an ice pack, and some frowns over the forming bruises. Nothing broken, but she was going to be black-and-blue for days. The doctor asked some pro forma questions about boyfriends and stuff, but since she could truthfully say that no, her boyfriend hadn't beaten her up, he just shrugged and told her to watch her step.
He wrote her an excuse note, too, and gave her some painkillers and told her to go home.
No way was she going back to the dorm. Truth was, she didn't have much in the room—some books, a few photos of home, some posters.... She hadn't even had a chance to call it home, and for whatever reason, she'd never really felt safe there. It had always felt like... a warehouse. A warehouse for kids who were, one way or another, going to leave.
She limped over to the Quad, which was a big empty concrete space with some rickety old benches and picnic tables, cornered on all sides by squat, unappealing buildings that mostly just looked like boxes with windows. Architecture-student projects, probably. She heard a rumor that one of them had fallen down a few years back, but then, she'd also heard rumors about a janitor getting beheaded in the chem lab and haunting the building, and zombies roaming the grounds after dark, so she wasn't putting too much stock in it.
It was midafternoon already, and not a lot of students were hanging around the Quad, with its lack of shade—great design, considering that the weather was still hovering up in the high nineties in September. Claire picked up a campus paper from the stand, carefully took a seat on the blazing-hot bench, and opened it to the "Housing" section. Dorm rooms were out of the question; Howard Hall and Lansdale Hall were the only two that took in girls under twenty. She wasn't old enough to qualify for the coed dorms. Stupid rules were probably written when girls wore hoopskirts, she thought, and skipped the dorm listings until she got to off campus. Not that she was really allowed to be living off campus; Mom and Dad would have a total freak-out over it, no question. But... if it was between Monica and parental freakage, she'd take the latter. After all, the important thing was to get herself someplace where she felt safe, where she could study.
She dug in her backpack, found her cell phone, and checked for coverage. It was kind of lame in Morganville, truthfully, out in the middle of the prairie, in the middle of Texas, which was about as middle of nowhere as it was possible to get unless you wanted to go to Mongolia or something. Two bars. Not great, but it'd do.
Claire started dialing numbers. The first person told her that they'd already found somebody, and hung up before she could even say, "Thanks." The second one sounded like a weird old guy. The third one was a weird old lady. The fourth one... well, the fourth one was just plain weird.
The fifth listing down read, three roommates seeking fourth, huge old house, privacy assured, reasonable rent and utilities.
Which... okay, she wasn't sure that she could afford "reasonable"—she was more looking for "dirt cheap"—but at least it sounded less weird than the others. Three roommates. That meant three more people who'd maybe take up for her if Monica and company came sniffing around... or at least take up for the house. Hmmmmm.
She called, and got an answering machine with a mellow-sounding, young-sounding male voice.
"Hello, you've reached the Glass House. If you're looking for Michael, he sleeps days. If you're looking for Shane, good luck with that, 'cause we never know where the hell he is"—distant laughter from at least two people—"and if you're looking for Eve, you'll probably get her on her cell phone or at the shop. But hey. Leave a message. And if you're looking to audition for the room, come on by. It's 716 West Lot Street." A totally different voice, a female one lightened up by giggles like bubbles in soda, said, "Yeah, just look for the mansion." And then a third voice, male again. "Gone with the Wind meets The Munsters." More laughter, and a beep.
Claire blinked, coughed, and finally said, "Um... hi. My name is Claire? Claire Danvers? And I was, um, calling about the, um, room thing. Sorry." And hung up in a panic. Those three people sounded... normal. But they sounded pretty close, too. And in her experience, groups of friends like that just didn't open up to include underage, undersized geeks like her. They hadn't sounded mean; they just sounded—self-confident. Something she wasn't.
She checked the rest of the listings, and felt her heart actually sink a little. Maybe an inch and a half, with a slight sideways twist. God, I'm dead. She couldn't sleep out here on a bench like some homeless loser, and she couldn't go back to the dorm; she had to do something.
Fine, she thought, and snapped her phone shut, then open again to dial a cab.
Seven sixteen Lot Street. Gone with the Wind meets The Munsters. Right.
Maybe they'd at least feel sorry enough for her to put her up for one lousy night.
The cabbie—she figured he was just about the only cabdriver in Morganville, which apart from the campus at TPU on the edge of town had only about ten thousand people in it—took an hour to show up. Claire hadn't been in a car in six weeks, since her parents had driven her into town. She hadn't been much beyond a block of the campus, either, and then just to buy used books for class.
"You meeting someone?" the cabbie asked. She was staring out the window at the storefronts: used-clothing shops, used-book shops, computer stores, stores that sold nothing but wooden Greek letters. All catering to the college.
"No," she said. "Why?"
The cabbie shrugged. "Usually you kids are meeting up with friends. If you're looking for a good time—"
She shivered. "I'm not. I'm—yes, I'm meeting some people. If you could hurry, please...?"
He grunted and took a right turn, and the cab went from Collegetown to Creepytown in one block flat. She couldn't define how it happened exactly—the buildings were pretty much the same, but they looked dim and old, and the few people moving on the streets had their heads down and were walking fast. Even when people were walking in twos or threes, they weren't chatting. When the cab passed, people looked up, then down again, as if they'd been looking for another kind of car.
A little girl was walking with her hand in her mother's, and as the cab stopped for a light, the girl waved, just a little. Claire waved back.
The girl's mother looked up, alarmed, and hustled her kid away into the black mouth of a store that sold used electronics. Wow, Claire thought. Do I look that scary? Maybe she did. Or maybe Morganville was just ultracareful of its kids.
Funny, now that she thought about it, there was something missing in this town. Signs. She'd seen them all her life stapled to telephone poles... advertisements for lost dogs, missing kids or adults.
Nothing here. Nothing.
"Lot Street," the cabbie announced, and squealed to a stop. "Ten fifty."
For a five-minute ride? Claire thought, amazed, but she paid up. She thought about shooting him the finger as he drove away, but he looked kind of dangerous, and besides, she really wasn't the kind of girl who did that sort of thing. Usually. It was a bad day, though.
She hoisted her backpack again, hit a bruise on her shoulder, and nearly dropped the weight on her foot. Tears stung at her eyes. All of a sudden she felt tired and shaky again, scared.... At least on campus she'd kind of been on relatively familiar ground, but out here in town it was like being a stranger, all over again.
Morganville was brown. Burned brown by the sun, beaten down by wind and weather. Hot summer was starting to give way to hot autumn, and the leaves on the trees—what trees there were—looked gray-edged and dry, and they rattled like paper in the wind. West Lot Street was near what passed for the downtown district in town, probably an old residential neighborhood. Nothing special about the homes that she could see... ranch houses, most of them with peeling, faded paint.
She counted house numbers, and realized she was standing in front of 716. She turned and looked behind her, and gasped, because whoever the guy had been on the phone, he'd been dead-on right in his description. Seven sixteen looked like a movie set, something straight out of the Civil War. Big graying columns. A wide front porch. Two stories of windows.
The place was huge. Well, not huge—but bigger than Claire had imagined. Like, big enough to be a frat house, and probably perfectly suited to it. She could just imagine Greek letters over the door.
It looked deserted, but to be fair every house on the block looked deserted. Late afternoon, nobody home from work yet. A few cars glittered in the white-hot sunshine, finish softened by a layer of dirt. No cars in front of 716, though.
This was such a bad idea, she thought, and there were those tears again, bubbling up along with panic. What was she going to do? Walk up to the door and beg to be a roommate? How lame-ass was that? They'd think she was pathetic at best, a head case at worst. No, it had been a dumb idea to even blow the money on cab fare.
It was hot, and she was tired and she hurt and she had homework due, and no place to sleep, and all of a sudden, it was just too much.
Claire dropped her backpack, buried her bruised face in both hands, and just started sobbing like a baby. Crybaby freak, she imagined Monica saying, but that just made her sob harder, and all of a sudden the idea of going home, going home to Mom and Dad and the room she knew they'd kept open for her, seemed better, better than anything out here in the scary, crazy world....
"Hey," a girl's voice said, and someone touched her on the elbow. "Hey, are you okay?"
Claire yelped and jumped, landed hard on her strained ankle, and nearly toppled over. The girl who'd scared her reached out and grabbed her arm to steady her, looking genuinely scared herself. "I'm sorry! God, I'm such a klutz. Look, are you okay?"
The girl wasn't Monica, or Jen, or Gina, or anybody else she'd seen around the campus at TPU; this girl was way Goth. Not in a bad way—she didn't have the sulky I'm-so-not-cool-I'm-cool attitude of most of the Goths Claire had known in school—but the dyed-black, shag-cut hair, the pale makeup, the heavy eyeliner and mascara, the red-and-black-striped tights and clunky black shoes and black pleated miniskirt... very definitely a fan of the dark side.
"My name's Eve," the girl said, and smiled. It was a sweet, funny kind of smile, something that invited Claire to share in a private joke. "Yeah, my parents really named me that, go figure. It's like they knew how I'd turn out." Her smile faded, and she took a good look at Claire's face. "Wow. Jeez, nice black eye. Who hit you?"
"Nobody." Claire said it instantly, without even thinking why, although she knew in her bones that Goth Eve was in no way bestest friends with preppy Monica. "I had an accident."
"Yeah," Eve agreed softly. "I used to have those kinds of accidents, falling into fists and stuff. Like I said, I'm a klutz. You okay? You need a doctor or something? I can drive you if you want."
She gestured to the street next to them, and Claire realized that while she'd been sobbing her eyes out, an ancient beater of a black Cadillac—complete with tail fins—had been docked at the curb. There was a cheery-looking skull dangling from the rearview mirror, and Claire had no doubt that the back bumper would be plastered with stickers for emo bands nobody had ever heard of.
She liked Eve already. "No," she said, and swiped at her eyes angrily with the back of her hand. "I, uh—look, I'm sorry. It's been a really awful day. I was coming to ask about the room, but—"
"Right, the room!" Eve snapped her fingers, as if she'd forgotten all about it, and jumped up and down two or three times in excitement. "Great! I'm just home for break—I work over at Common Grounds, you know, the coffee shop?—and Michael won't be up for a while yet, but you can come in and see the house if you want. I don't know if Shane's around, but—"
"I don't know if I should—"
"You should. You totally should." Eve rolled her eyes. "You wouldn't believe the losers we see trying to get in the door. I mean, seriously. Freaks. You're the first normal one I've seen so far. Michael would kick my ass if I let you get away without at least trying a sales pitch."
Claire blinked. Somehow, she'd been thinking that she'd be the one begging for them to consider her... and normal? Eve thought she was normal?
"Sure," she heard herself say. "Yeah. I'd like that."
Eve grabbed her backpack and slung it over her own shoulder, on top of her black silver-studded purse in the shape of a coffin. "Follow me." And she bounced away, up the walk to the gracious Southern Gothic front porch to unlock the door.
Up close, the house looked old, but not really run-down as such; weathered, Claire decided. Could have used some paint here and there, and the cast-iron chairs needed a coat, too. The front door was actually double-sized, with a big stained-glass panel at the top.
"Yo!" Eve yelled, and dumped Claire's backpack on a table in the hallway, her purse next to it, her keys in an antique-looking ashtray with a cast-iron monkey on the handle. "Roomies! We've got a live one!"
It occurred to Claire, as the door boomed shut behind her, that there were a couple of ways to interpret that, and one of them—the Texas Chainsaw Massacre way—wasn't good. She stopped moving, frozen, and just looked around.
Nothing overtly creepy about the inside of the house, at least. Lots of wood, clean and simple. Chips of paint knocked off of corners, like it had seen a lot of life. It smelled like lemon polish and—chili?
"Yo!" Eve yelled again, and clumped on down the hall. It opened up to a bigger room; from what Claire could see, there were big leather couches and bookshelves, like a real home. Maybe this was what off-campus housing looked like. If so, it was a big step up from dorm life. "Shane, I smell the chili. I know you're here! Get your headphones out of your ears!"
She couldn't quite imagine Texas Chainsaw Massacre taking place in a room like that, either. That was a plus. Or, for that matter, serial-killing roommates doing something as homey as making chili. Good chili, from the way it smelled. With... garlic?
She took a couple of hesitant steps down the hallway. Eve's footsteps were clunking off into another room, maybe the kitchen. The house seemed very quiet. Nothing jumped out to scare her, so Claire proceeded, one careful foot after another, all the way into the big central room.
And a guy lying sprawled on the couch—the way only guys could sprawl—yawned and sat up rubbing his head. When Claire opened her mouth—whether to say hello or to yell for help, she didn't know—he surprised her into silence by grinning at her and putting his finger over his mouth to shush her. "Hey," he whispered. "I'm Shane. What's up?" He blinked a couple of times, and without any change in his expression, said, "Dude, that is a badass shiner. Hurts, huh?"
She nodded slightly. Shane swung his legs off the couch and sat there, watching her, elbows on his knees and hands dangling loosely. He had brown hair, cut in uneven layers that didn't quite manage to look punk. He was an older boy, older than her, anyway. Eighteen? A big guy, and tall to match it. Big enough to make her feel more miniature than usual. She thought his eyes looked brown, but she didn't dare meet them for more than a flicker at a time.
"So I guess you're gonna say that the other chick looks worse," Shane said.
She shook her head, then winced when motion made it hurt even more. "No, I—um—how did you know it was—?"
"A chick? Easy. Size you are, a guy would have put you in the hospital with a punch hard enough to leave a mark like that. So what's up with that? You don't look like you go looking for trouble."
She felt like she ought to take offense about that, but honestly, this whole thing was starting to feel like some strange dream anyway. Maybe she'd never woken up at all. Maybe she was lying in a coma in a hospital bed, and Shane was just her lame-ass equivalent of the Cheshire cat. "I'm Claire," she said, and waved awkwardly. "Hi."
He nodded toward a leather wing chair. She slid into it, feet dangling, and felt a weird sense of relief wash over her. It felt like home, although of course it wasn't, and she was starting to think that it really couldn't be. She didn't fit here. She couldn't actually imagine who would.
"You want something?" Shane asked suddenly. "Coke, maybe? Chili? Bus ticket back home?"
"Coke," she said, and, surprisingly, "and chili."
"Good choice. I made it myself." He slid off the couch, weirdly boneless for his size, and padded barefoot into the kitchen where Eve had gone. Claire listened to a blur of voices as the two of them talked, and relaxed, one muscle at a time, into the soft embrace of the chair. She hadn't noticed until now, but the house was kept cool, and the lazy circle of the ceiling fan overhead swept chilly air over her hot, aching face. It felt nice.
She opened her eyes at the sound of Eve's shoes clomping back into the room. Eve was carrying a tray with a red and white can, a bowl, a spoon, and an ice pack. She set the tray on a coffee table and nudged the table toward Claire with her knee. "Ice pack first," she said. "You can never tell what Shane puts in the chili. Be afraid."
Shane padded back to the couch and flopped, sucking on his own can of soda. Eve shot him an exasperated look. "Yeah, man, thanks for bringing me one, too." The raccoon eye makeup exaggerated her eye roll. "Dork."
"Didn't know if you wanted zombie dirt sprinkled on it or anything. If you're eating this week."
"Dork! Go on and eat, Claire—I'll go get my own."
Claire picked up the spoon and tried a tentative bite of the chili, which was thick and meaty and spicy, heavy on the garlic. Delicious, in fact. She'd gotten used to cafeteria food, and this was just... wow. Not. Shane watched her, eyebrows up, as she started to shovel it in. "'Sgood," she mumbled. He gave her a lazy salute. By the time she was halfway through the bowl, Eve was back with her own tray, which she plunked down on the other half of the coffee table. Eve sat on the floor, crossed her legs, and dug in.
"Not bad," she finally said. "At least you left out the oh-my-God sauce this time."
"Made myself a batch with it," Shane said. "It's got the biohazard sticker on it in the fridge, so don't bitch if you get flamed. Where'd you pick up the stray?"
"Outside. She came to see the room."
"You beat her up first, just to make sure she's tough enough?"
"Bite me, chili boy."
"Don't mind Eve," he told Claire. "She hates working days. She's afraid she'll tan."
"Yeah, and Shane just hates working. So what's your name?"
Claire opened her mouth, but Shane beat her to it, clearly happy to one-up his roomie. "Claire. What, you didn't even ask? A chick beat her up, too. Probably some skank in the dorms. You know how that place is."
They exchanged a look. A long one. Eve turned back to Claire. "Is that true? You got beat up in the dorm?" She nodded, hastily shoveling more food in her mouth to keep from having to say much. "Well, that totally blows. No wonder you're looking for the room." Another nod. "You didn't bring much with you."
"I don't have much," she said. "Just the books, and maybe a couple of things back at my room. But—I don't want to go back there to get stuff. Not tonight."
"Why not?" Shane had grabbed a ratty-looking old baseball from the floor and tossed it up toward the tall ceiling, narrowly missing the spinning blades of the fan. He caught it without effort. "Somebody still looking to pound you?"
"Yeah," Claire said, and looked down into her fast-diminishing chili. "Guess so. It's not just her, it's—she's got friends. And... I don't. That place just—well, it's creepy."
"Been there," Eve said. "Oh, wait, still there."
Shane mimed throwing the baseball at her. She mimed ducking.
"What time is Michael getting up?"
Shane gave her another mock throw. "Hell, Eve, I don't know. I love the guy, but I don't love the guy. Go bang on his door and ask. Me, I'm gonna go get ready."
"Ready for what?" Eve asked. "You're not seriously going out again, are you?"
"Seriously, yeah. Bowling. Her name's Laura. If you want more details, you're gonna have to download the video like everybody else." Shane rolled off the couch, stood up, and padded off toward the wide stairs leading up to the second floor. "See you later, Claire."
Eve made a frustrated sound. "Wait a minute! So what do you say? You think she'd do okay here, or what?"
Shane waved a hand. "Whatever, man. Far as I'm concerned, she's okay." He gave Claire one quick look and a crooked and oddly sweet smile, and bounded up the stairs. He moved like an athlete, but without the swagger she was used to. Kind of hot, actually.
"Guys," Eve sighed. "Damn, it'd be good to have another girl in here. They're all like, Yeah, whatever, and then when it comes to picking up the place or washing dishes, they turn into ghosts. Not that you have to, like, be a maid or anything, I mean... you just got to yell at 'em until they do their part or they walk all over you."
Claire smiled, or tried to, but her split lip throbbed, and she felt the scab break open again. Blood dribbled down her chin, and she grabbed the napkin Eve had put on the tray and applied pressure to her lip. Eve watched in silence, frowning, and then got up from the floor, picked up the ice pack, and settled it gently against the bump on Claire's head. "How's that?" she asked.
"Better." It was. The ice began to numb the ache almost immediately, and the food was setting up a nice warm fire in her stomach. "Um, I guess I should ask... about the room...."
"Well, you have to meet Michael, and he has to say yes, but Michael's a sweetie, really. Oh, and he owns this place. His family does, anyway. I think they moved away and left him the house a couple of years ago. He's about six months older than I am. We're all about eighteen. Michael's sort of the oldest."
"He sleeps days?"
"Yeah. I mean, I like to sleep days, but he's got a thing about it. I called him a vampire once, 'cause he really doesn't like being up in the daytime. Like, ever. He didn't think it was real funny."
"You're sure he's not a vampire?" Claire said. "I've seen movies. They're sneaky." She was kidding. Eve didn't smile.
"Oh, pretty sure. For one thing, he eats Shane's chili, which, God knows, has enough garlic to explode a dozen high-quality Dracs. And I made him touch a cross once." Eve took a big swallow of her Coke.
"You—what? Made him?"
"Well, sure, yeah. I mean, a girl can't be too careful, especially around here." Claire must have looked blank, because Eve did the eye-roll thing again. It was her favorite expression, Claire was sure. "In Morganville? You know?"
"What about it?"
"You mean you don't know? How can you not know?" Eve set her can down and got up to her knees, leaning elbows on the coffee table. She looked earnest under the thick makeup. Her eyes were dark brown, edged with gold. "Morganville's full of vampires."
Eve didn't. She just kept staring.
"Um... you're kidding?"
"How many kids graduate TPU every year?"
"I don't know.... It's a crappy college, most everybody transfers out...."
"Everybody leaves. Or at least, they stop showing up, right? I can't believe you don't know this. Didn't anybody tell you the score before you moved in? Look, the vamps run the town. They're in charge. And either you're in, or you're out. If you work for them, if you pretend like they're not here and they don't exist, and you look the other way when things happen, then you and your family get a free pass. You get Protection. Otherwise..." Eve pulled a finger across her throat and bugged out her eyes.
Right, Claire thought, and put down her spoon. No wonder nobody rented a room with these people. They're nuts. It was too bad. Except for the crazy part, she really liked them.
"You think I'm wacko," Eve said, and sighed. "Yeah, I get that. I'd think I was, too, except I grew up in a Protected house. My dad works for the water company. My mom is a teacher. But we all wear these." She extended her wrist. On it was a black leather bracelet, with a symbol on it in red, nothing Claire recognized. It looked kind of like a Chinese character. "See how mine's red? Expired. It's like health insurance. Kids are only covered until they're eighteen. Mine was up six months ago." She looked at it mournfully, then shrugged and unsnapped it to drop it on her tray. "Might as well stop wearing it, I guess. It sure wouldn't fool anybody."
Claire just looked at her, helpless, wondering if she was the victim of a practical joke, and if any second Eve was going to laugh and call her an idiot for buying it, and Shane would go from kind of lazy-sweet to cruel and shove her out the door, mocking all the way. Because this wasn't the way the world worked. You didn't like people, and then have them turn up all crazy, right? Couldn't you tell?
The alternative—that Eve wasn't crazy at all—just wasn't anything Claire wanted to think about. She remembered the people on the street, walking fast, heads down. The way the mother had yanked her little girl off the street at a friendly wave.
"Fine. Go ahead, think I'm nuts," Eve said, and sat back on her heels. "I mean, why wouldn't I be? And I won't try to convince you or anything. Just—don't go out after dark unless you're with somebody. Somebody Protected, if you can find them. Look for the bracelet." She nudged hers with one finger. "The symbol's white when it's active."
"But I—" Claire coughed, trying to find something to say. If you can't say anything nice... "Okay. Thanks. Um, is Shane—?"
"Shane? Protected?" Eve snorted. "As if! Even if he was, which I doubt, he'd never admit it, and he doesn't wear the bracelet or anything. Michael—Michael isn't, either, but there's sort of a standard Protection on houses. We're sort of outcasts here. There's safety in numbers, too."
It was a very weird conversation to be having over chili and Coke, with an ice pack perched on the top of her head. Claire, without even knowing she was going to do it, yawned. Eve laughed.
"Call it a bedtime story," she said. "Listen, let me show you the room. Worst case, you lie down for a while, let the ice pack work, then bug out. Or hey, you wake up and decide you want to talk to Michael before you leave. Your choice."
Another cold chill swept over her, and she shivered. Probably had to do with the bang on the head, she figured, and how tired she was. She dug in her pocket, found the package of pills the doc had prescribed for her, and swallowed one with the last gulp of Coke. Then she helped Eve carry the trays into the kitchen, which was huge, with stone sinks and ancient polished counters and two modern conveniences—the stove and the refrigerator—stuck awkwardly in the corners. The chili had come from a Crock-Pot, which was still simmering away.
When the dishes had been washed, trays stacked, trash discarded, Eve retrieved Claire's backpack from the floor and led her through the living room, up the stairs. On the third riser, Eve turned, alarmed, and said, "Hey, can you make it up the stairs? Because, you know—"
"I'm okay," Claire lied. Her ankle hurt like hell, but she wanted to see the room. And if they were likely to throw her out later, she at least wanted to sleep one more time in a bed, however lumpy and old. There were thirteen steps to the top. She made every one of them, even though she left sweaty fingerprints on a banister Shane hadn't even bothered to touch on his way up earlier.
Eve's steps were muffled here by a rich old-looking rug, all swirls and colors, that ran down the center of the polished wood floor. There were six doors up here on the landing. As they passed them, Eve pointed and named. "Shane's." The first door. "Michael's." The second door. "He's got that one, too—it's a double-sized room." Third door. "Main bathroom." Fourth. "The second bathroom's downstairs—that's kind of the emergency backup bathroom when Shane's in there moussing his hair for like an hour or something...."
"Bite me!" Shane yelled from behind the closed door. Eve pounded a fist on the door and led Claire to the last two on the row. "This one's mine. Yours is on the end."
When she swung it open, Claire—prepared for disappointment—actually gasped. For one thing, it was huge. Three times the size of her dorm room. For another, it was on a corner, with three—three!—windows, all currently shaded by blinds and curtains. The bed wasn't some dorm-sized miniature; it was a full-sized mattress and box spring with massive wooden columns at the corners, dark and solid. There was a dresser along one wall big enough to hold, well, four or five times the clothes that Claire had ever owned. Plus a closet. Plus...
"Is that a TV?" she asked in a faint voice.
"Yeah. Satellite cable. You'd pitch in, though, unless you want to take it out of the room. Oh, and there's Internet, too. Broadband, over there. I should probably warn you, they monitor Internet traffic around here, though. You have to be careful what you say in messages and stuff." Eve put the backpack on top of the dresser. "You don't have to decide right now. You probably ought to rest first. Here, here's your ice pack." She followed Claire to the bed and helped her pull back the covers, and once Claire had pulled off her shoes and settled, she tucked her in, like a mother, and put the ice pack on her head. "When you get up, Michael'll probably be awake. I have to get back to work, but it'll be okay. Really."
Claire smiled at her, a little fuzzily; the painkillers were starting to take effect. She got another chill. "Thank you, Eve," she said. "This is—wow."
"Yeah, well, you look like you could use a little wow today." Eve shrugged, and gave her a stunning smile back. "Sleep well. And don't worry, the vampires won't come in here. This house has Protection, even if we don't."
Claire turned that over in her mind for a few seconds as Eve left the room and shut the door, and then her mind wandered off in happy clouds of noticing the softness of the pillow and how good the bed felt, and how crisp the sheets were....
She dreamed about the strangest thing: a silent room, with someone pale and quiet sitting on a velvet sofa, turning pages in a book and weeping. It didn't scare her, exactly, but she felt cold, on and off, and the house... the house seemed like it was full of whispers.
Eventually, she fell into a deeper, darker place, and didn't dream at all.
Not even about Monica.
Not even about vampires.