Thankfully, we didn't have to wait long before we heard something. Stevie Rae, the Twins, and I were watching The Dr. Phil Show and at exactly 3:10 (Stevie Rae and I were on our second bowls of cereal and I was on my third brown pop) Fox News broke into the program with a Special Report.
"This is Chera Kimiko with breaking news. We have learned that shortly after two thirty this afternoon the Oklahoma branch of the FBI received a bomb threat from a terrorist group calling themselves Nature's Jihad. Fox News has discovered that the group claimed to have planted a bomb on the I- 40 Arkansas River bridge not far from Webber's Falls. Let's go live to Hannah Downs for an update."
The four of us sat very still as we watched the camera shot take in the young reporter who was standing in front of a normal-looking highway bridge. Well, it was normal-looking except for the hordes of uniformed men who were swarming around it. I breathed a relieved sigh. The bridge was definitely closed.
"Thankyou, Chera. As you can see the entire bridge has been closed by the FBI and local police, including Tulsa's ATF team. They're doing a thorough search for the alleged bomb."
"Hannah, have they found anything yet?" Chera asked.
"It's too early to tell, Chera. They just launched the FBI boats. "
"Thank you, Hannah." The camera went back to the newsroom. "We'll keep you updated on this breaking story when we have more information on the alleged bomb, or on this new terrorist group. Until then, Fox returns you to..."
"A bomb threat. That was smart."
The words were spoken so softly and I was so focused on the TV that it took a second for Aphrodite's voice to register with me. When it did I looked up quickly. She was standing to my right, just a little behind the couch Stevie Rae and I were sitting on. I expected her face to be settled in its usual haughty sneer, so I was surprised when she nodded slightly, almost respectfully, at me.
"What do you want?" Stevie Rae's voice was uncharacteristically sharp, and I noticed that several girls who had been busy in their own little TV-watching groups up until then stopped what they were doing to look our way.
By Aphrodite's instant change in expression, she noticed it, too.
"From an ex-refrigerator? Nothing!" she sneered.
I felt Stevie Rae stiffen beside me at the slur. I knew she hated the reminder that she had allowed Aphrodite and her inner group of Dark Daughters to use her blood in the ritual that had gone so totally wrong last month. Being used as a "refrigerator" was not a good thing—and being called one was an insult.
"Hey, hag bitch from hell," Shaunee said in a sweet, friendly tone. "That reminds us, seems the new Dark Daughters inner group—
"Which would so be us and not you and your skanky friends," Erin inserted.
"... Has an opening for a new refrigerator for the ritual tomorrow," Shaunee continued smoothly.
"Yeah, and since you're not shit anymore, the only way you'll get into the ritual is as that night's snack," Erin said. "Are you here to apply for the job?"
"If you are, sorry. There's no telling where you've been and we don't like nasty," Shaunee said.
"Bite me, bitch," Aphrodite snapped.
"Not even if you begged," Shaunee said.
"Ya ho," Erin finished.
Stevie Rae just sat there, looking pale and upset. I wanted to knock all their heads together.
"Okay, stop." They all shut up. I looked at Aphrodite. "Don't ever call Stevie Rae a refrigerator again."
Then I turned to the Twins. "Fledglings being used during our rituals is one of the things I'm doing away with, so we won't need a kid to act as our sacrifice. Which means no one is going to be a snack." Okay, I hadn't actually yelled at the Twins, but they gave me identical looks of hurt and shock. I sighed. "We're all on the same side here," I said quietly, making sure my voice didn't carry to the obviously listening kids in the room. "So it would be nice if we could lose some of the bickering."
"Don't kid yourself. We're not on the same side—not even close." Then, with a laugh that was more like a snarl, she stalked off.
I watched her leave and just before she went out the front door she glanced back at me, met my eyes, and winked.
What was that about? She'd looked almost playful, like we were friends and just kidding around. But that wasn't possible. Was it? "She gives me the creeps," Stevie Rae said.
"Aphrodite has issues," I said, and the three of them looked at me like I'd just said Hitler really hadn't been that bad. "You guys, I really want the new Dark Daughters to be a group that brings people together, not one that's stuck- up and so exclusive that only a few from a chosen clique can join." They just stared at me. "It was her warning that saved my grandma and several other people today."
"She only told you because she wants something from you. She's hateful, Zoey. Don't ever think she's not," Erin said.
"Please do not tell me that you're thinking of letting her back into the Dark Daughters," Stevie Rae said.
I shook my head. "No. And even if I wanted to, which I don't," I added quickly, "according to my own new rules she doesn't qualify for membership. A Dark Daughter or Son has to uphold our ideals by her or his behavior."
Shaunee snorted. "No damn way that hag knows how to be authentic, faithful, wise, earnest, and sincere about anything except her own hateful plans."
"For world dominance," Erin added.
"And don't think they're exaggerating," Stevie Rae told me.
"Stevie Rae, she is not my friend. I just ... I dunno ..." I floundered, trying to put the instinct that so often whispered to me and goaded me to do, or not to do, things into words. "I guess I really do feel sorry for her sometimes. And I also think I understand her a little. Aphrodite just wants to be accepted, but she goes about it all wrong. She thinks manipulation and lies mixed with control can force people to like her. It's what she saw at home, and that's what made her like she is now."
"Sorry, Zoey, but that's bullshit," Shaunee said. "She's way too old to be acting a fool because she has a screwed-up mommy."
"Please. Just please with the blame-my-mommy-'cause-I'm-a-bitch crap," Erin said.
"Not to be mean or anything, but you have a screwed-up mama, too, Zoey, and you didn't let her, or your step-loser of a dad, mess you up," Stevie Rae said. "And Damien has a mama who doesn't like him anymore because he's gay."
"Yeah, and he didn't turn into a hateful slut hag," Shaunee said. "Actually, he's the opposite. He's like . he's like ." She paused, looking to Erin for help. "Twin, what's the Julie Andrews character's name in The Sound of Music?"
"Maria. And you're right, Twin. Damien is like that goody-goody nun. He needs to loosen up some or he's never gonna get any."
"I cannot believe you guys are discussing my love life," Damien said.
We all jumped guiltily and muttered, "Sorry."
He shook his head while Stevie Rae and I scooted over so he could sit beside us. "And I'll have you know I don't just want to 'get some' as you guys so nastily put it. I want a lasting relationship with someone I really care about, and I'm willing to wait for that."
"Ja, fraulein," Shaunee whispered.
"Maria," Erin muttered.
Stevie Rae tried to hide her giggle in a cough.
Damien narrowed his eyes at the three of them. I decided that was my cue to talk.
"It worked." I said quietly. "They closed the bridge." I pulled his cell phone out of my pocket and gave it back to him. He checked to make sure it was off and nodded.
"I know, I saw the news and came right over." Damien glanced at the digital clock on the DVD player that sat in the entertainment center with the TV, then he grinned at me. "It's three twenty. We did it."
The five of us smiled at each other. It's true; I was relieved, but I still had a nagging worried feeling I couldn't seem to get rid of that was more than just the stress about Heath. Maybe I needed a fourth brown pop.
"Okay, well, that's taken care of. So why are we sitting around here talking about my love life?" Damien said.
"Or lack thereof," Shaunee whispered to Erin, who tried unsuccessfully (with Stevie Rae) not to laugh.
Ignoring them, Damien stood up and looked at me. "Well, let's go."
He rolled his eyes heavenward and shook his head. "Must I do everything? You have a ritual to perform tomorrow, which means we have a rec hall to transform. Did you think Aphrodite was going to volunteer to get things set up for you?"
"I guess I hadn't thought about it." Like I'd had time?
"Well, think about it now." He yanked on my hand and pulled me to my feet. "We have work to do."
I grabbed my brown pop and we all followed the Damien whirlwind out into a very cold, cloudy Saturday afternoon. The rain had stopped, but the clouds were even darker.
"Looks like snow," I said, squinting up at the slate-colored sky.
"Oh, man, I wish. I'd love some snow!" Stevie Rae twirled around with her arms outstretched, looking like a little girl.
"Move to Connecticut. You'll have more snow than you can stand. It gets pretty damn tiresome after months and months of cold and wet. Please. It's why we northeasterners are so grumpy," Shaunee said pleasantly.
"I don't care what you say. You can't ruin it for me. Snow is magic. I think it makes the earth look like it has a fluffy white blanket pulled over it." She spread her arms wide and yelled, "I want it to snow!"
"Yeah, well, I want those four-hundred-fifty-dollar embroidered vintage jeans I saw in the new Victoria's Secret catalog," Erin said. "Which proves we can't always have what we want, snow or cool jeans."
"Oooh, Twin, maybe they'll go on sale. Those jeans are just too damn cute to give up on."
"So why don't you just take your favorite pair of jeans and see if you can reproduce the pattern yourself? I can't be that hard, you know," Damien said logically (and very gayly).
I was opening my mouth to agree with Damien when the first snowflake plopped on my forehead. "Hey, Stevie Rae, your wish came true. It's snowing."
Stevie Rae squealed happily. "Yeah! Snow harder and harder!"
And she definitely got her wish. By the time we made it to the rec hall, fat, quarter-sized flakes of snow were covering everything. I had to admit that Stevie Rae was right. The snow was like a magic blanket on the earth. It turned everything soft and white, and even Shaunee (from grumpy, snowbound Connecticut) was laughing and trying to catch flakes with her tongue.
We were all giggling when we went into the rec hall. There several kids inside. Some were playing pool, others were playing video games on the old- fashioned-looking arcade machines. Our laughing and brushing off snow made several of them stop what they were doing and pull back the thick black curtains that shielded the big room from daylight.
"Yep!" Stevie Rae yelled the obvious. "It's snowing!"
I just smiled and made my way toward the little kitchen area in the back of the building, with Damien, the Twins, and snow-crazed Stevie Rae following me. I knew there was a storage room off the kitchen, and inside was the stuff the Dark Daughters kept there for their rituals. Might as well get started setting things up, and I might as well pretend like I knew what the hell I was doing.
I heard the door open and then close behind me, and then was surprised by Neferet's voice.
"The snow is quite beautiful, isn't it?"
The kids standing around the windows answered Neferet with respectful yeses. I was surprised to feel a hint of annoyance, which I instantly squelched, as I stopped and turned to go back to greet my mentor. Like baby ducks, my gang followed me.
"Zoey, good. I'm glad I found you here." Neferet spoke with such obvious affection for me that the annoyance I'd felt at her interruption vanished. Neferet was more than my mentor. She was like a mother to me, and it was selfish of me to be irritated that she had come looking for me.
"Hi, Neferet," I said warmly. "We were just getting ready to set up the room for tomorrow night's ritual."
"Excellent! That's one thing I wanted to see you about. If you need anything for the ritual, please don't hesitate to ask. And I definitely will be here tomorrow night, but don't worry"—she smiled at me again—"I won't stay for the entire ritual just long enough to show my support for your vision for the Dark Daughters. Then I'll leave the Daughters and Sons in your very capable hands."
"Thank you, Neferet," I said.
"Now, the second reason I wanted to find you and your friends"—she shared her brilliant smile with my group—"was that I wanted to introduce our newest student to you." She motioned, and a kid I hadn't noticed till then stepped slowly forward. He was cute, in a studious kind of a way, with tousled sandy blond hair and really pretty blue eyes. Clearly he was one of those geeky kids who is a dork, but a likable dork with potential (translation: he bathes and brushes his teeth, plus has good skin and hair and doesn't dress like a total loser). "I'd like all of you to meet Jack Twist. Jack, this is my fledgling, Zoey Redbird, leader of the Dark Daughters, and her friends and Prefect Council members, Erin Bates, Shawnee Cole, Stevie Rae Johnson, and Damien Maslin." Neferet gestured to each of them in turn, and there were "hi"s said all around. The new kid looked a little nervous and pale, but other than that he had a nice smile and didn't seem socially inept or anything like that. I was just wondering why Neferet had looked for me to introduce the kid to when she went on to explain.
"Jack is a poet and a writer, and Loren Blake is going to be his mentor, but Loren won't be back from his trip east until tomorrow. Jack is also going to be Erik Night's roommate. As you are all aware, Erik is away from school until tomorrow, too. So I thought it would be nice if the five of you would show Jack around and be sure he feels welcome and gets settled in today."
"Of course, we'd be happy to," I said without hesitation. It was never fun to be the new kid.
"Damien, you can show Jack to his and Erik's room, can't you?"
"Sure, no problem," Damien said.
"I knew I could count on Zoey's friends." Neferet's smile was incredible. It seemed to light the room by itself and it made me suddenly intensely proud that all of the other kids were standing around watching Neferet show such obvious favor for us. "Remember, if you need anything for tomorrow, just let me know. Oh, because it's your first ritual I asked the kitchen to prepare something special for you and the Dark Daughters and Sons as a treat afterward. It should be a lovely celebration for you, Zoey."
I was overwhelmed by her thoughtfulness, and couldn't help but compare it to the cold, unconcerned way my mom treated me. Hell, the truth was my mom didn't actually care enough to treat me like anything anymore. I'd only seen her that one time in a whole month, and after the stupid scene her loser husband had caused with Neferet, it looked like I wouldn't be seeing her again soon. Like I cared? No. Not when I had good friends and a mentor like Neferet to be there for me.
"I really appreciate this, Neferet," I said, swallowing hard around the lump of emotion that had built in my throat.
"It's my pleasure and the least I can do for my fledgling's first Full Moon Ritual as leader of the Dark Daughters." She gave me a quick hug, and then left the room, nodding kindly to the kids who spoke to her and saluted her respectfully.
"Wow," Jack said. "She's really amazing."
"She sure is," I said. Then I grinned at my friends (and the new kid). "So, ready to get to work now? We have lots of stuff to clear out of here." I saw poor Jack looking totally clueless. "Damien, you better give Jack a quick catch-up lesson in vamp rituals so he doesn't feel so lost." I started to walk back toward the kitchen (again), and heard Damien start his little professor act, beginning with the facts about the Full Moon Ritual.
"Uh, Zoey, can we help you?"
I glanced over my shoulder. Drew Partain, a short, athletic kid I recognized because he and I were in the same fencing class (he's an incredible fencer—as good as Damien, and that's saying something), was standing with a group of guys near the wall of black-shrouded windows. He smiled at me, but I noticed he kept checking out Stevie Rae. "There's a lot of stuff to be pulled around. I know because the guys and I used to help Aphrodite get the room ready."
"Huh," I heard Shaunee say under her breath. Before Erin could add to the sarcastic sound, I said, "Yeah, we could use your help." And then I tested them. "Except my ritual is going to be different. Damien can show you what I mean." I waited for the disdainful looks and the sarcasm that the jocklike guys tended to throw at Damien and the few other openly gay kids at the school, but Drew just shrugged and said, "Cool with me. Just tell us what to do." He grinned and winked at Stevie Rae, who giggled and blushed.
"Damien, they're all yours," I said.
"I'm sure hell is freezing over somewhere," Damien whispered, barely moving his lips. Then, in his regular voice he said, "Well, the first thing Zoey didn't like is that it looks like a morgue in here with all of the arcade machines pushed to the walls and covered with that black fabric. So let's see if we can move most of them into the kitchen and the hall." Drew's group started to work alongside Damien and the new kid, and Damien returned to his mini-lesson.
"We'll get the candles and pull the table out here," I told the guys, and motioned for the Twins and Stevie Rae to follow me.
"Damien has died and gone straight to gay boy heaven," Shaunee said as soon as we were out of earshot.
"Hey, it's about time those kids stopped acting like ignorant rednecks and behaved like they have some sense," I said.
"She doesn't mean that, even though we agree with you," Erin said. "She means little Mr. Jack the cute-gay-new-kid Twist."
"Now why in the world would you think he's gay?" Stevie Rae asked.
"Stevie Rae, I swear you have got to broaden your horizons, girl," Shaunee said.
"Okay, I'm lost, too. Why do you think Jack's gay?" I asked.
Shaunee and Erin shared a long-suffering look, then Erin explained. "Jack Twist is yummy Jake Gyllenhaal's totally gay cowboy character from Brokeback Mountain. "
"And just please! Anyone who chooses that name and who looks all geeky cute like that is totally, completely playing for Damien's team."
"Huh," I said.
"Well, I'll be," Stevie Rae said. "You know, I never did see that movie. It didn't come to the Cinema 8 in Henrietta."
"You don't say?" Shaunee said.
"Please. I'm so shocked," Erin said.
"Well, Stevie Rae. I do believe it's time for a DVD showing of that excellent flick," Shaunee said.
"Do guys kiss in it?"
"Deliciously," Shaunee and Erin said together.
I tried, but failed miserably not to laugh at the look on Stevie Rae's face.
Damien has a partner!
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