17 Seventeen

    Keats became a vampire about four years after I did. He was twenty-one, taking classes at Alamo Community College, working for some sort of computer programming/hacking company run by wealthy old men who couldn't find the "on" switch.

    They thought he was just brilliant. And he was, though not quite as widely brilliant as the man who worked in the lab across the hall from the hacker office, a man Keats knew only as Will.

    All the rumors about Will had to do with his extraordinary work ethic, how a man who worked all day and half the night, who seemed to be perpetually in that lab next door, even when someone came in on a Saturday to pick up a forgotten birthday present, would surely be a millionaire before he was forty.

    No one seemed to notice that he didn't eat the green-frosted cupcakes when they invited him to the annual St. Patrick's Day party.

    Keats noticed that every delivery girl seemed to drool as soon as she saw Will, and that not one of them looked twice at him. Keats tried not to blame them. He still looked like he was the captain of a high school chess team. He would only tell one person, ever, that one of the best years of his life had been the year he was the high school mascot because everyone loved the giant shell of a Brahma, and he could hide inside the costume and be someone other than himself.

    Keats never said it, but I imagined that he spent nearly as much time at work as Will did in those days. It would have been his Brahma mask-Hacker Keats was a persona that was appreciated, even admired. He would have been the company's most valuable employee. And Keats did love his job.

    That's probably one of the things that made his new life so hard to accept. Before I became a vampire, I worked as an intern at a big advertising agency-so big that the head of my project never actually learned my name. In the evenings, I went straight from the ad agency to Telemarketing USA, where I was an assistant manager. It was my job to yell at all the flunkies who used company phones to call their girlfriends in Japan and all the other employees who could never seem to meet the outrageous quota set by an upper management who hadn't dialed a number in decades.

    So when I woke up naked on top of a car in Denver and realized how many days of work I'd missed, that was a plus for me. Maybe I'd been brainwashed, carted halfway across the country, dumped with no money or ID, left to find my way impossibly home. But at least I wouldn't have to go back to work.

    Keats loved his job.

    Then one day, he woke up on the front step of Benaglio's Salad and Pasta Bar. The sun stung his skin, as though someone held a lit lighter against a sunburn. He crawled out of the sun before realizing that he wasn't sunburned, and the sun was still low in the sky. But he was shirtless. And pantless. A Furniture Emporium Liquidation Sale flier on the sidewalk told him that he was in Lubbock, Texas. He covered himself with the flier and told himself that screaming was not a productive option.

    Maybe there's a reason that we're transformed so far from home and left so destitute. But why would the judges steal our clothes? It's just mean. I always imagine them stripping an unconscious new vampire in the backseat of a limousine, pausing to chuck him out on the street, then speeding off, laughing so hard they can barely breathe. I wonder if there's a vault of vampire underwear somewhere or if they wear our clothes after they abandon us.

    Keats was lucky. Within ten minutes, a kind old man had found him, assumed he was the victim of some cruel prank (neither yet knew how cruel), and led him to an old gray pickup truck. Keats sat in the passenger seat and covered himself with the man's cowboy hat. They drove to Wal-Mart, and the old man went inside and bought Keats new clothes and shoes.

    Keats felt like crying. He couldn't, but he wouldn't know that for two more hours.

    The old man got into the driver's seat and handed Keats the bag of clothes. Keats got dressed as quickly as he could.

    "Thank you,��� he said. "I just can't even...thank you."

    "Don't mention it, kid," the old man said. "I just hope you get even with whoever left you like that."

    "I would. If I knew who it was."

    The man chuckled. "Well, then, I would recommend drinking a little less on the weekends."

    Keats tried to laugh, too, but he couldn't remember drinking anything for months, not since Fernando brought a bottle of Stoli's to work and passed it around in Dixie cups.

    "I hate to ask you for anything else, but if I could just have a couple of quarters to make a phone call-"

    "What's your name, kid?" the old man asked.

    Keats told him.

    "Peculiar. Anyhow, Keats, I'm not about to go dropping you off in the middle of nowhere with nothing to your name."

    Keats shook his head. "You've already-"

    The old man cranked the key and the ignition seemed to explode before it settled into a steady rumbling. "Well, I'm Leonard. And that's enough with your manners," he said. "I think we need breakfast, and then we'll talk about getting you home."

    Keats wanted to argue, but he was starving.

    Leonard drove him to a greasy little buffet, and Keats piled his plate full.

    In between swallowing and minimal chewing, Keats answered all Leonard's questions. He lived in San Antonio, he said. He couldn't remember how he'd gotten here, what had happened, who he'd been with. The last thing he remembered was watching a Get Smart rerun as he went to bed. Nothing else. No, he didn't have family near. His parents had lived in Alamo Heights, but they were dead now.

    His friend Fernando had a sister in Lubbock. Keats had met her twice. If he could call Fernando and get the sister's address, he could go spend the night on her couch, maybe wait there and have Fernando overnight his bank card and ID to him. Four hundred miles was too far to ask anyone to drive and pick him up.

    Leonard grinned. He took a drink of his black coffee, nibbled a dripping piece of bacon, and said, "You decide all that in the hour since I found you?"

    Keats nodded.

    "Well, it sounds like a good plan to me. Tell you what, let me give you a little cash to hold you over, and I'll drop you off at that sister's house once you find out where it is."

    Keats agreed, on the condition that Leonard also pass along his mailing address so that Keats could return the money to him once he got home. Leonard didn't like that, but he gave in when he realized that Keats wouldn't.

    Leonard slid a couple of quarters across the table, and Keats went to the pay phone in the back of the diner. He dialed the office number from memory and asked Manuel to connect him to Fernando.

    "Man, where the hell have you been?" Fernando asked. "What happened?"

    Keats explained as well as he could.

    "But," Fernando said. "You've been gone four days. You remember nothing?"

    Keats dropped the phone and scrambled to pick it up again. "I don't know," he said. Then, trying not to think of anything but getting home, he told Fernando what he needed, and Fernando gave him the address, told him he would call Gabriella to tell her Keats was coming, and promised to get the bank card in the mail within the hour.

    Keats went back to the table and told Leonard that everything would be fine.

    But four days. How was that possible?

    By that time, Keats had devoured two plates of food. He was starting his third when the nausea hit him.

    "Excuse me," he said, then ran for the restroom.

    Keats vomited everything out of his stomach, and he was still heaving when Leonard helped him to his truck and handed him the empty sack that had been full of Keats's new clothes half an hour ago. Keats held the sack under his chin, thinking that it wouldn't be fair to repay the old man's incredible generosity with a vomit-covered dashboard.

    Leonard drove to a drugstore next. He brought out a bagful of anti-nausea medicines, but by the time he made it through the checkout line with the world's slowest cashier, Keats had finished heaving and was starving again.

    Again, he wanted to cry, but couldn't.

    Four days.

    When Leonard took his place behind the wheel again, Keats insisted that they head toward Gabriella's house. Leonard had done too much for him already.

    They listened to an oldie's station-Patsy Cline lamenting long-gone lovers. Keats didn't want to talk, and Leonard let him have his silence. The buildings and cars whipping past the window made Keats ill, so he focused on the knees of his stiff new jeans, then let his eyes wander over the inside of the truck.

    One of those green, tree-shaped air fresheners stuck out of the otherwise empty ash tray. A picture of a little girl in a fairy costume hung from the rearview mirror on a string strung with painted macaroni.

    Leonard sat as though he spent his whole life in the truck, one tanned arm propped up against the side window, the paler arm draped over the steering-wheel so that he drove with his wrist. He stared ahead as though there was something interesting out there, not miles and miles of flat, boring road.

    Keats watched him. He could almost see the pulse in the man's thin neck, could definitely hear it. It was a sound that spoke straight to his stomach, bypassing the brain because it might tell him that his thoughts were worse than crazy. They were murder, and worse than murder.

    But somewhere on the road to Gabriella's house, Keats's mind faded into his hunger, and the warning that his brain might have given him was lost in the sound of the engine and of Leonard's thrumming pulse.
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