Chapter 6: When In Rome

Not to be a pessimist, but Italy sucked.

I was sure Italy itself was great—it wasn't the actual place I was judging—but my trip had so far been lonely and depressing. In the two hours since I'd arrived, I had raided the hotel minifridge, tried (and failed) to turn on the TV, and watched my roommates leave on some fantastic adventure. Neither had invited me along.

Chewing morosely on something that vaguely resembled candied fruit, I paced around the room. Every five steps or so I'd pass the window, where tourists milled five hundred feet below. I wondered if Dale was one of them; for someone who had asked to spend time with me, he was abysmally absent.

Yes, Italy sucked. I didn't like traveling in the first place, but even I had had high expectations after unloading a private jet in glamour and style.

Why had I gone? Why had it even sounded like a good idea? The thought of flying to Europe had never appealed to me—I always, always preferred to hole up at home with my laptop, where I could look up pictures and enjoy Italy from a healthy thousand-mile distance. Damn Dale. Damn stupidity. Damn his pretty-ass face.

I sighed. "You're an idiot," I muttered, secure in my own lone company. "You've known him for, like, two weeks."

"But he's really hot," I added, laughing to myself. Then: "Shitsticks, I'm crazy."

I glanced toward the door, half-expecting Dale to be standing there. He'd apologize for being late, tell me he got held up, or that he'd been looking for me for ages. Then we'd make out.

. . . All right, I was getting carried away. But he was really good-looking, and I was really bored. Altogether, not a good combination.

Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Maybe if I thought it long enough, the stupidness would be exorcised out of my brain. Stupidstupidstupid, Catherineyou'refugginstupid. Like Dale would actually come knocking. Like Dale wasn't enjoying Rome with Howie and Evelyn and Monica and—and—okay, not Liam.

Where was Liam? Why wasn't he here? We were kind of friends, right?

Now I really was going crazy. Liam would be my BFFL when ponies started eating lions.

I felt idiotic for expecting anything. Dale was an eleven on a bad day. But still, he'd asked me to come along, hadn't he? That was supposed to count for something.

My brain felt lobotomized. I stuck another handful of dried fruit in my mouth and started downstairs. It seemed sensible; maybe I'd meet someone I knew. Maybe I'd meet someone I didn't know. Maybe that someone would be hot, with a particular taste for desperate redheads.

"Nice day, isn't it," asked a man in the elevator with me. I looked at him. Of course he spoke English. Only when I least wanted conversation . . .

"Yeah," I said. I didn't say anything else, and the man took this as an invitation to go on.

Jesus, was this how Liam felt when I tried to socialize with him on the bus? No wonder why I was miserable and alone in Rome.

"You look kind of like my daughter. Younger, I think—but I don't know how old you are. What are you doing in Italy alone, anyway? You can't be over eighteen, surely." The man adjusted his tie and pressed a hand to his damp forehead. "Irrelevant, irrelevant . . . you don't need to tell me. You shouldn't, actually, that would be weird. Where are you heading?"

"Uhh," I said, looking stupidly at the little button that read my destination. "Uh, the lobby."

"Ah, I see. I'm headed to the second floor; my room's there, with my wife and my daughter. She just graduated, see, and we're on a road trip around Italy. We got her one of those little cars . . . A Fiat, it's called. Very cute. Italian, since her graduation celebration is all about Italy. That's why we're in Rome . . ."

"Oh, really?" I said, trying and failing to look surprised. It was with relief that I bid him goodbye and continued my ride down.

Of course, being in the lobby was worse than sitting around my room by tenfold. I was surrounded by people, but nobody knew me, nor did they want to. After all, what kind of European vacation was spent meeting strangers?

I looked around uncertainly. Turning back to the elevator would be weird. Sure, no one was watching, but still. I didn't want to. Maybe I could go to one of those little built-in restaurants, with all that "authentic" Italian cuisine.

No shit, though. Any cuisine made in Italy was authentically Italian. Just like an authentic American cheeseburger—if you lived in America, there was no way you couldn't make an authentic American cheeseburger. Unless it wasn't a cheeseburger—

Crap crap crap, was that Liam? I nearly had a stroke trying to look and look away at once. Yeah, it was Liam, but he was surrounded by people. For someone who acted like a frigging social pariah, he sure was popular.

Approaching him was out of the question. I'd look pathetic and sad and lonely—which I was, but he didn't know it yet—and plus, we'd have an audience the size of the Sydney Opera House. Why couldn't Liam just be an emo or something and have no friends?

"Because you're freaking lame and he's not," I mouthed to myself. Liam was smiling, something he didn't do very often, and I wished I knew what he was smiling about. Hell, I just wished someone would talk to me, besides the man on the elevator.

God, I needed a life. I could feel the lump building in my throat.

I looked away and headed back for the elevator, but there was a black wall preventing me.

Deja vu.

"Liam?" I said, biting back a huge smile. "What are you doing?"

"Second time you've mistaken me for him," the black wall noted. "Should I be offended?"

My spirits fell. I looked up at Liam's brother and said, "Hi, Hollis."

"Hi. Sorry, didn't catch your name the other day," said Hollis. "Mind telling me again?"

"Catherine." I snuck another glance at Liam. Only a sliver of his pale face was visible; the rest was blocked by all those gathered around him. He was literally like Jesus and the apostles.

"Hello, Catherine. You look bored. Care to join me upstairs?" said Hollis. He had the same eyes as Liam, but somehow softer. That didn't make any sense—eyes didn't have hardness or softness or whatever the hell—but it was true. I liked them better than Liam's.

"Uhh," I said.

"Great, come on," said Hollis, grinning.

"No, I shouldn't," I said, throwing another glaringly unsubtle glance at Liam. I wouldn't go there, but if he noticed me here and came over . . . No, that would be just as bad. He'd notice me standing alone, he'd think, God, what a loser, and he'd go back to his friggin' apostles.

"Yes, you should," decided Hollis. "You're coming with me. You know me, anyway, so you shouldn't be worried."

"No, really," I said, stepping away. "I don't . . . I really . . ."

Hollis snorted. "You're in Italy, lovey. Have some spirit, I'm not going to bring you to my room just to slash you."

I had seen a lot of slasher films. Maybe I was being paranoid, but these days, I was reluctant to be in the same room as anyone from Iowa. Even Dale. The radioactive spider thing was out of the question, but I was seriously beginning to wonder if there had been some radiation spill that had mutated everyone within a fifty-mile radius. It would explain things; radiation was some crazy-ass stuff.

"All right. If you can honestly tell me you're not bored, I'll leave you be. If not, you get a tour of my suite," said Hollis.

I considered lying and telling him that yes, I was perfectly content with staring at his younger brother all day, but I was bored. I was very bored, and my self esteem had taken a dip in the noted absence of Dale Sinclair. So I said, "Okay, whatever."

"Yeah, that's the spirit."

". . . Whatever."

He smirked. We stepped into the elevator, and even though he was, like, way old, part of me couldn't help but go Ooooh. A hot guy was a hot guy—I mean, Channing Tatum was thirty-over, and Channing Tatum was . . . mind-explosion.

"So, you and Liam. Do you like him?" said Hollis, without preamble.

"Uh . . ."

"You're right, that's too personal. We barely even know each other." Hollis laughed, his funny gold eyes glinting, and said, "Would you like to ask me anything? I'll trade you an answer for an answer."

"Uh." My word of the day. "N-no, not really."

Hollis pushed a button and crossed his arms. "You're boring. Let's try again. You like Liam?"

"Wh—no, I don't like him," I sputtered. "He's, like, a year older than me anyway, it's not like he'd—"

"Oh, Jesus Baby Christ, not in that way," said Hollis loudly. "Your generation is really too focused on babymaking, you know. No wonder why the human population's seven billion-over; you're like goddamn mice."

My cheeks flamed. What was I supposed to assume? Nobody asked if you liked someone as a friend anymore; like had come to mean something separate. "Well, I—how would I—yeah, sure, I like Liam fine. It's like—I don't know. Liam talks to me sometimes."

"Oh, he talks to you sometimes," said Hollis, face filled with mock enrapturement. "Imagine. Are you friends or not?"

"I don't know, he's the one who—I don't—I've got a question for you."

"All right, shoot." Hollis looked amused.

"Why are you in Italy? Are you stalking . . . us?"

I had been about to say, "Are you stalking me?" but it wasn't as if. We'd met once, he hadn't even bothered to learn my name, and his brother was here. It didn't take a genius to add things up.

"No, I'm not. I hate the word stalking, don't you? It implies that I'm doing something wrong, when really I'm just making sure things go right," said Hollis. The corner of his mouth twitched. I concentrated on that, but regretted it: he had very pretty lips.

"So why are you in Italy?" I said, looking away.

"I answered one question. I'm not stalking you; you can rest in peace now. You'll have to answer one for a reply."

"But that was one question," I argued. "You only answered half of it."

"No combos. My turn. Do you like Dale Sinclair?"

My stomach did a funny flip at his name. Dale, the boy who'd abandoned me in a foreign country. Dale, the boy who'd invited me to sit with him when I had nowhere to go during lunch. Dale, the hottest, nicest boy in the universe.

Well, not the nicest. Possibly the hottest nice boy, or the nicest hot boy. But definitely the hottest.

"Yeah, I like him. He's funny," I said. "What, he's not your brother too, is he?"

"That's a question. You want me to answer it?"

"No. No, that's fine," I said hastily, glancing at the meter that showed how far the elevator was. "Answer the first one. Why're you in Italy, I mean."

"Because I'm worried about Liam," said Hollis. "My turn. In what way do you—"

"No, no, hold up, that's cheating," I said, eyes widening. "You can't just give me a two word answer and be done with it. You have to elaborate. Why are you worried about Liam? Don't you, like, trust him or something? I mean, he's pretty sensible, isn't he?"

"Now you're cheating. No combos, remember?" Hollis eyed me shrewdly. "Again, my turn."

I frowned at the meter, watching our animated elevator inch closer and closer to floor sixteen. Hollis wasn't as intimidating as he'd first come off, but that wasn't much of a relief. It would have been better if he were silent and surly like Liam—less frustrating.

"Do you like Dale in terms of baby-making? To put it elegantly, of course."

I choked on my own spit and gaped, flabbergasted. "Are you—holy crap, you have got to be kidding me. You can't just ask people something like that, that's personal! And—and why do you want to know, anyway? Why are you so interested in Dale and me?"

"I'm more interested in you and Liam, but you said that was personal, too," Hollis reminded me. The elevator dinged open, but Hollis continued like he hadn't noticed. "There've got to be some topics that aren't off limits. Anyway, I haven't made a fuss over your questions, even though it's none of your business why I'm in Rome."

"You made it my business," I said. "You popped out of nowhere, creepily and stalk-ily, and pulled me to your room. Duh, I have questions."

"Hey, I did you a favor. You were bored; you said it yourself," said Hollis.

Scowling, I stomped out of the elevator, but lightened my step when I remembered there were fifteen floors of tourists beneath me. Hollis followed, smirking.

"I'm at the end of the hall. Sixteen-ninety-eight. Are you angry?"

"No," I lied, then blushed. Why was I mad, anyway? There was nothing to be angry about . . . it was petty, really . . . but he just pissed me off. I couldn't keep his good looks off my mind, either, because he was handsome and older. Dale and Liam were on the very top of the pyramid, and Hollis was the damned halo.

Hormones. God.

"All right, how about this. When we get into my suite, you can ask as many questions as you like, as long as you give me long enough to answer. There's a lot I can answer, you know." Hollis grinned, flashing teeth so white they were nearly blue. Unnatural—he'd probably slept with his whitening strips still in—but still impressive. His next words, however, took my mind completely off teeth.

"Ever notice, say, someone's eyes turning red?"

My mouth fell open. Holy shit. I was really, actually, finally going to get answers, and from Hollis. Not Liam. Not even Dale, the nicest hot boy in the universe. I was almost afraid to ask; maybe this was a prank, and Hollis would be screaming, "GOT YOUR CONK!" any minute now.

But maybe rebellion ran in the Barneses' blood, and Hollis truly intended to tell me everything.

"Yeah," I said. "Yeah, let's talk."

"Let's have your theories."


"Well, for starters, I'm the one who's bored now. Make me laugh."

I looked at him crossly. "I don't want to make you laugh. It's not funny; something weird is going on in your weird hillbilly town. No offense. It's just that everybody's so pretty, and that can't just be a coincidence. I mean, why?"

Hollis laughed.

Scowling, I stood up from the bed. "I'm gonna leave."

"No, you're not. I'm flattered that you think I'm pretty, but we're moving on to the next question. Hey-hey-hey, I said I would answer everything," he said, holding up a hand to my protests, "and I will. But we need to build up to all that stuff, alright? We'll go slow. You want to know about the red eyes? Genetics."

"Genetics? That's impossible," I scoffed.

"A lot of things are supposedly impossible, Catherine, but they're all possible. Anyway, you've got a lot of nerve, talking back like that. I'm your intel source, remember? Don't belittle the intel."

Intel. I hated that word; it sounded so fake and wannabe-spy. It was like the NYC thing. People shortened things and made abbreviations to sound cool, like they were at home, like they were comfortable, when all you needed was the original.

My mind traveled to Dale's nickname for me. Cathy. Somehow, when it came from his lips, it was okay. Dale was like a little kid—you could be exasperated, irritated, but never angry.

"I'm going to need one more answer before, you know, I continue," said Hollis. I looked up. "Are you friends with Liam?"

I squirmed in my seat. Really, I had no idea. Liam was one of those on-off people who sometimes liked you, sometimes hated you, and sometimes just ignored you. How could you be friends with someone like that? If he thought I was his friend, then he was mine, but it was all conditional.

"No," I said at last. "Not really. It's just kind of complicated."

"Yes, Liam does like complicated," said Hollis. "Okay, that's all I need to know. You wanna know why we're weird, red-eyes creatures of the night? You wanna know why we're all 'pretty,' as you call it, and mysterious little bongo hats? It's because we're vampires."

So he didn't shout, "Got your conk!" but this was the literary equivalent. I glared at him and said, "Okay, seriously, I'm leaving."

"Okay, seriously, I'm telling the truth," Hollis said.

"No, you're not. You're lying and pranking me, and I already dislike you. Thanks for wasting my time," I said furiously, slamming my foot to the ground with each step. I didn't care if the people below could hear; I hoped they could hear, so stupid Hollis would get a complaint and the hotel would fucking boot him out. I hoped the hotel would just fall down.

"Are you on your time of the month?" said Hollis, smirking. I looked at him, rage curling in my stomach, and glowered as hard as I could. Hollis raised his eyebrows and put his hands in the air as a "don't shoot" motion.

"It's not funny," I said. "It's not funny, and I think you're—I think—I think it's no wonder Liam doesn't talk about you! You think you're cool, but you're not. Intel is not a friggin' word, and just because you think it makes you sound all thug life and stuff, it doesn't. So please, go to hell."

Hollis whistled. "I would, only I'm immortal."

"Oh, come on. I know you're not a vampire, so drop it already." My radiation spill theory was sounding pretty good now.

"You know, do you." Hollis didn't look amused anymore. "Don't talk about things you don't understand. I've seen far more than you'll ever, and I've certainly seen many girls like you. Obnoxious, know-it-all, full of yourselves . . . Don't." He stood as well, and I noticed a fine red mist beginning to cloud his eyes. Adrenaline pumped through my veins, and he inhaled. "You know what, Catherine? I have fangs."

He's not a vampire, I told myself. He's not a vampire. Vampires don't exist.

His incisors lengthened, just as blindingly white as the rest of his teeth. Hollis smiled, and it made me think of a lion. The eyes and the teeth combined.

They were orange now. Liam's eyes looked almost exactly like his, so I knew they would soon be red.

He's not a vampire, he's not he's not he's not . . .

Hollis ran his tongue over his fangs and looked at me. "I'd like to eat you," he told me, "but I won't. I need you to run away from Iowa, and preferably break Dale Sinclair's heart."

"Dale?" Even in this situation, I found the idea of him liking me ludicrous. "Like I could break his heart. He just thinks I'm a friend."

"Friends can break friends' hearts," said Hollis, lifting his eyebrows. His eyes were a clear red, with no sign of fading. "That's why I'm glad you're not Liam's friend."

"I . . ." I shook my head, dazed. "No, no. This isn't real. I am going crazy, and this is one of those crazy dreams where weeks pass at a time. None of this happens." An idea occurred to me. "Hey, step out in the sun."

Hollis stared, but he complied. I squinted.

"So vampires don't sparkle?"

". . . Yeah, no, I'm not even going to dignify that with a response."

"Too bad. I figure you don't find lots of sparkly skin. It'd get a lot on eBay."

Hollis made a funny noise in the back of his throat, like he didn't know what to make of me. "You're not dreaming, Catherine. I'm a vampire. Dale's a vampire. Liam's a vampire. You're simply in denial."

"Yeah, right, I—OW!"

I slammed my knee against the bedpost and crumpled to the floor, eyes watering. It hurt. I clenched my teeth, feeling myself tearing up from the pain, and met Hollis's red gaze.

This wasn't a dream.

Dale was a vampire. The hottest nice boy in the universe was not actually a boy. Who knew how old he was? Fifty? Eighty? Thirty? I hoped he wasn't thirty. I'd rather he be three hundred than thirty.

"What are you going to do, now that I know?" I said shakily. I took a step back, even though I'd seen the way Liam could move—there was no chance for me to escape if Hollis tried. "Are you . . . going to . . ."

"No," said Hollis, looking a little offended. "If I wanted to bite you, I would've done it before talking to you. It's like you with your pets; I don't suppose you'd want to take a chunk out of your dog, would you?"

I didn't have a dog, but it bothered me more that I was being compared to one. "Just because you eat humans doesn't mean we're, like, uncivilized or anything."

"And that's why I'm not sucking your blood, love." Hollis grinned, and his fangs contracted into his gums. His eyes were beginning to drain of red. "Take some advice from me. Leave Iowa. Make it clean, make it messy, I really don't care, but you have to leave. And let Dale know you know, or he'll follow you, because that's the kind of person Dale is. Just leave, or you will be murdered."

"Murdered?" Ice prickled at my neck. "Is that what happened to all the other people who moved there?"

Hollis's smile widened. "Only the ones that found out."