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EXCERPT:

Chapter One

Henry gripped my shirt and shoved me away. I hit the stall door and froze momentarily, paranoid someone would walk in and catch us at any moment. The bathroom remained silent except for the leaky automatic faucet; it maintained a small but steady stream.

The last thing I wanted was to get caught in the boy’s bathroom with Henry. Honestly, I shouldn’t have come in here at all. But he swore it’d be a quick in and out and off to class. Like most things Henry swore, it proved untrue.

“Can you stay still for five seconds?” I tapped my foot on the sticky floor.

This was why we had never worked. Every day, he brought something new to my life. A new adventure. A new risk. A new situation I didn’t want myself involved in. I buried the rush that had initially swelled in my chest and took a deep breath. There was nothing fun about hiding in a boy’s bathroom. There was nothing romantic about it. There was nothing exciting—

He huffed. “Well, maybe if you’d stop trying to choke me.”

“You wouldn’t gag so much if you, you know, stopped moving your head.” My face burned. Whenever we were alone together, Henry would leave me flustered, at a loss for words. But here I was, alone with him once again, even though the whole point of a breakup was to avoid him.

“Fine. Just hurry up already.”

Of course. He dragged me into the stall for help and then rushed me. I gripped Henry’s curly, black hair and tilted his head back. “Now, say ah.”

He stretched his jaw wide. I held the iron file with my other hand, running it along his sharpened fang. Staring down at his dark brown eyes, I was grateful he trusted me enough to stop me in the hallway. No. Not grateful. Reminded he never had the sense of handling anything on his own and relied on me.

When he shared his secret, it was the best day of my life. Exciting. Exhilarating. Electrifying. Sometimes, quite literally. But the longer we were together, the more the thrill faded. I continued filing the fang down, taking all my frustrations out on his sharpened eyeteeth. Everything in our relationship turned into learning his world— finding my place in it—which turned into balancing a web of secrets, remembering the rules, proper etiquette, and hiding his tracks if slip ups like this happened.

I filed until my hand ached. Cleaning up after Henry became second nature. Two years, and our relationship had taken over my whole world. It ruined my attendance and my grades. My social life tanked. I wanted something new. Needed it.

“I can’t believe you didn’t bother checking your teeth this morning.”

“They hathened gwown back in like thwee weeks,” he said or attempted to without moving his tongue. “I canth help it. They were fine one minute and bam, fangs in sethond block.”

I continued sanding down the point of a fang until it matched the others. He could’ve totally helped it. He could’ve come to school prepared.

“Quiet”—I pressed the tip of the file against his tongue—“or you’ll end up with a second piercing.”

“That acthually sounds hot.” He pushed his tongue toward the file, and it clinked against his tongue ring.

Insufferable. Only Henry could whine about the iron file in one breath and make light of its danger in the next.

I finished trimming his tooth and blew the shavings off the file. Right in his smug, smiley face. He pouted, and his eyes softened. Briefly. That damn grin filled his face again, and he shook his head. Now the white flecks of his fangs covered my black shirt. “Great.”

“Looks like you should condition more, Logan.”

“Ha, ha, HA.” I brushed my shirt clean.

The bathroom door creaked open and smacked the tile wall. I held my breath like that’d somehow take back my sarcastic laughter a moment ago. Or like it’d somehow make me invisible.

Henry reached for the latch to the stall door. I swatted his hand and cringed at the popping sound.

“Stop,” I hissed.

“Why?” he asked in a breathy whisper. “Thought you were desperate to get to class?”

“Not this second.”

“Afraid what folks will say?” He winked.

I turned and stared at the graffiti on the stall wall. Carefully, I unfastened my belt buckle and softly slid the iron file back into the slot. It stuck. Cheap piece of crap always jammed. Henry stood, towering a solid half-foot above me, and closed the distance between us. Not that there was much to begin with in this tiny stall.

Heat warmed my face, moving down to my chest, and sent a rush of blood coursing through me. causing all sorts of sensations I didn’t want. “Do you mind?”

“Not at all.” His knuckles ran along my lower abdomen. “Just offering my assistance.”

CLICK.

He snapped the file back into the buckle. Whoever came into the bathroom flushed the urinal. The bathroom door slammed open and slowly creaked closed.

Henry unlatched the stall door and strutted toward the runny faucet.

“Didn’t even wash their hands”—he shuddered—“and folks call Vices gross.”

He gargled water and spat out the chalky residue of his former fangs.

“Maybe it’s time you remembered to bring your own iron,” I said, tightening my belt and adjusting the buckle.

“Probably,” he said, sucking his teeth. “Guess I really lucked out you still wear that flashy piece.”

A large, gaudy buckle in the shape of a flame. I always came prepared with iron in one form or another. It made it clear to anyone who noticed that I didn’t trust or involve myself with Vices, though in truth, Henry had given me the buckle. A gift that benefited him,

especially at times like this. It didn’t actually burn him, either. The iron thing was just a superstition a lot of people believed. Iron weakened Vices, but it wasn’t like kryptonite. It was resistant to their abilities or something—I didn’t fully understand it. Mainly because it had different effects on each type of Vice. All I knew was it didn’t harm Henry directly, but it could hurt him. Henry’s flesh could withstand a steel blade with ease, but an iron file could cut right through him. Or, in the case of maintaining a discreet human appearance, file down his vampiric fangs.

I grabbed my book bag off the countertop, and we walked toward the bathroom door together.

“Hold on.” Henry squeezed my arm. My heart fluttered. “You should probably wait a few minutes. Wouldn’t want anyone spotting us walk out at the same time.”

He chuckled and released my arm. I brushed by him, leaving the bathroom. A part of me wanted to race down the hallway to class so I could escape him, if only for a few minutes. Another part of me knew if Henry wanted a last word, I’d never outrun him. Henry’s dress shoes clicked behind me. Each step echoed in the empty hallway. Unlike everyone else at Sterling High, Henry loved uniforms. He always wore polished shoes, a fancy button-up shirt, wrinkle-free dress slacks, and a matching blazer. His ties were where his wacky, carefree personality shined best. Today, he’d gone with bright neon duckies because, much like everything about him, it made zero sense.

He’d attended some prep school before high school and never quit the tacky wardrobe choice. It didn’t matter that he could wear whatever he wanted here. A few exceptions, of course, but even those were subjective, depending on the teacher. Some only complained about baggy pants; others sent any girl with too much stomach or the slightest cleavage to the office; most didn’t care so long as we weren’t loud or disruptive. It was always funny how inappropriate a teacher might find someone’s clothes when that person was also too noisy.

We walked the halls and up the steps to the third floor, the main reason I hated my schedule. At least I could blame my tardiness on the long trek from Chemistry to English. They designed the science hallway in the worst place ever, all the way down on the first floor, past the library, past the gym, and down the longest hall ever in the furthest reaches of the school.

When I reached Ms. Goto’s room, Henry waltzed ahead and knocked on the glass window frame of the door. He grinned at me. “I’ve got this.”

Yet another reason to loathe my current class schedule: Henry and I had half our classes together, a schedule we worked tirelessly to map out at the end of sophomore year. When we broke up, I knew I’d have to see him regularly around school, but I’d hoped to have my classes switched by this point. Two weeks into junior year and the counselors were apparently “backed up” with flipping schedules. With my luck, I’d have a few more weeks at this rate before someone switched my courses.

Ms. Goto ignored the knock. She stood at her podium, continuing her lecture. Henry tapped on the glass again, this time rattling the door handle with his other hand. Her gaze shifted ever so slightly, but she continued talking. I couldn’t quite make out what she said, but I was certain she weaved a message about showing up promptly into her current lecture. She had a way of throwing in student behavior or

responses into her lessons. It mainly came from Henry’s comments. “Wow, she’s gonna teach the whole damn lesson before letting us in.” Henry huffed and knocked on the door. “Come on, Ms. Goto. I came here to learn. Teach me!”

He shook the handle again and again. I fought off familiar laughter that bubbled inside me. Henry possessed this ridiculous charm even when acting like a complete fool. I resisted the laugh and frowned in response to his grin. He pouted and blew a heavy, hot breath onto the glass. It fogged over, and Henry drew a little heart. Ms. Goto glared, gripped the podium, and I was almost certain she dug her nails into the wood as she continued talking to the class.

“What a jerk,” Henry said, tracing his finger along the heart and stabbing it. “You wound me, Ms. Goto.”

After the longest five-minute wait of my life, she finally opened the door and let us into the room.

“Do you have a pass?” She stood with her arms crossed and a leg extended, the tip of her heel practically ready to trip Henry if he went to his desk without an explanation. “Well, Mr. Hart? Mr. Ashford?” “Sorry,” I said. “You know the science h—”

“There was a massive SGA emergency,” Henry interrupted. “You wouldn’t believe the nonsense. The beginning of the year is really off to a busy start. It’s one thing after another. Madness. I don’t want to bore you with the details, but it was utterly urgent, and I needed Logan’s help. And while we managed to put out the fire—figurative, of course. See? I listen when you talk—it took far longer than I anticipated. Deepest apologies. Sincerely.”

Henry’s grin didn’t falter, and he managed to spin that lie in one quickly worded breath. Ms. Goto uncrossed her arms, musing over his story with a furrowed brow.

“And I suppose if I emailed Mr. Belmont, he’d confirm your top secret SGA emergency that didn’t involve any other SGA members in this class but somehow required Logan’s help?”

I gulped. Student Government, like most extracurriculars, was too much to manage with my already busy schedule. My hope was that now that I didn’t have to juggle Vice drama into my daily life, I could try signing up for some clubs. Unfortunately, Henry dominated most of the interesting clubs, which made avoiding him that much harder. Henry whipped out his phone, typing furiously.

“If you emailed Mr. Belmont, at this very moment, he would certainly,” Henry dragged out each word while texting, “absolutely, definitely, most likely”—his phone dinged—“tell you we were, in fact, working on important, highly classified SGA stuff.”

Mr. Belmont always kept an eye out for Henry, so when Henry shot him a text in the middle of class, he naturally agreed to cover for him. Mr. Belmont was old school and believed vampires should stick together. Henry, on the other hand, tried to have an in with every Vice at Sterling High. It was part of why I spent so much time researching the various types.

I walked to my desk and slid into the seat. Ms. Goto arranged the desks inside her classroom into small groups, and the only person in my assigned area I wanted to talk to was absent—again. I ignored the others and pulled out my phone to send a text.

“Perhaps you should try to catch up with what the rest of us are covering in today’s activity, Mr. Ashford.”

Ms. Goto remained close to my desk, likely ensuring I caught up on whatever lesson she’d covered before arriving. Oh, and calling me by my last name. That meant I’d done something I shouldn’t have.

“Huh?” I stared at Ms. Goto, whose eyes lingered on the phone in my lap under my desk. “Oh, yeah. Duh. Sorry.”

I slipped it back into my pocket, respecting her ‘no phone’ policy. Even though she said absolutely nothing to Henry, who fired off a message in front of her and was still using his phone on the other side of the classroom. She had a policy for everything, including her

seating arrangement. Normally, I didn’t like assigned seats, but in English, I lucked out. Henry ended up in the furthest corner, away from everyone else, with the rowdiest group and close to the window—a location Ms. Goto probably put a lot of thought into.

“What exactly are we doing today?” I skimmed the whiteboard for her instructions.

“We’re using our text from The Crucible. You’re familiar with the story by now, correct?”

“Of course.” I nodded, understanding the story more or less. It was old and hard to read or, in this case, listen to the audio Ms. Goto played.

Basically, a bunch of fake witches blamed the devil for what they did, then accused other people they didn’t like of being witches, who in turn accused more people of being witches. And if you didn’t accuse someone and beg God for forgiveness afterward, they killed you. But then it turned into people sleeping with married people, and that was why they were put on trial. Or maybe they were bad because they screwed each other without being married. Whatever. It was long and boring, and Ms. Goto kept talking about what it really meant. Apparently, it meant a lot. Like five pages worth of notes.

And I wrote small. Tiny scribbles that honestly even I had trouble reading sometimes.

Ms. Goto grabbed the textbook from under my desk. “Based on the text, today we’re focused on—”

“What are we doing?” Henry raised a flailing hand.

“Have you checked the board?” Ms. Goto asked in response. “No.”

“Can you read”—she paused for a breath—“the board?” “Well, yeah.”

“Then, perhaps you should read it before shouting across the room.”

Henry’s face scrunched in visible confusion. Not for the agenda. No, this was the type of expression where he held a breath to think of something witty, but today, he came up short. Ms. Goto gave as good as she got when it came to Henry’s theatrics in class. Most people, students and teachers alike, found it charming. He did everything in his power to draw attention to himself at school. From the clubs he joined to his behavior in class to the parties he threw, Henry shined a bright spotlight on his presence at Sterling High—something I warned could easily backfire given his secret. But did he ever listen?

I reread the whiteboard notes and hung on the objective for today’s lesson:

I can identify the allegory within The Crucible and correlate it to current events by providing three succinct examples.

This year, I vowed to do everything I could to show my commitment to improving my grades, but everything about that sentence confused me.

“Today’s objective is to take what we’ve learned while reading The Crucible and find modern comparisons.”

I wished she’d written that on the board instead.

“As you know, the play is based on the Salem witch trials and is literally about citizens accusing their neighbors of witchcraft, but it serves as an allegory for McCarthyism.”

McCarthy—what? Must be in my notes somewhere. I flipped through my notebook. Geez. Not sure I followed half her explanation. If that was really an explanation.

“Okay. Got it.” I nodded.

“Do you remember what an allegory is?”

“Yep.” I nodded again.

“And it’s a…”

I bit the inside of my lower lip and hesitated.

“It’s a lot like a big metaphor.”

“Right, right.” I jotted that down in my notebook.

My notes on the Vice community were so meticulous. Hopefully, that skill would transfer over to my academics soon enough. It’d only been a few weeks. A bit more time and I’d catch up. “And a metaphor is?” Ms. Goto tilted her head, her eyes fixed on the back wall, which was crammed with colorful words written in bubble letters with definitions below.

I scanned the wall, anxiously searching for metaphor. It was stressful not having an answer to what must’ve been a basic question. I was too far behind. Years behind.

“Jesus, dude,” Declan snapped. “It’s a comparison of two things.” I fought a groan. Declan sat across from me, the front of his desk pressed to mine, and he was the most annoying person in this classroom. No, the school. Possibly the city. No, there were worse people in Crescentville—maybe.

I knew what a metaphor was. I did. It was just I never really used the word except for class.

“You should’ve learned this shit in middle school. How’d you even get this far?”

“Language, Mr. Smythe.”

Declan rolled his eyes. “This sort of feels like a waste of time. Comparing this story to current events? To what exactly? Seems like you want us to compare it to the SPU tracking down Vices, which isn’t fair.”

There it was. The biggest annoyance about Declan. His father worked for the SPU, and he dropped that tidbit every chance he had. Made it real clear where he stood when it came to the state’s Vice policy.

“They’re a lot of similarities between the SPU’s current approach and the tactics utilized in The Crucible.”

She meant pointing fingers and accusing people. Aside from visible features many Vices worked to hide, there weren’t tests anyone could run to distinguish them from humans.

“Yeah, except they were accusing people when there were no witches in Salem,” Declan said. “There are actual witches here, among other monsters.”

Henry glared, and light shimmered against his brown eyes. He quickly went back to talking to his group and laughing. “What makes you think there weren’t real witches in Salem?” Ms. Goto leaned forward; strands of her long black hair draped the side of her face. “Maybe they were just clever enough not to get caught.” “That’d actually make sense,” Declan said. “Witches are like the only Vices that look totally human. The rest all have something ugly and monstrous about them.”

“That’s not true,” I said.

Declan spouted almost as much Vice misinformation as the news. God, they really knew how to pick and choose their Vice stories. “What?” he asked. “The only witches’ part or the ugly bit?” I hesitated and chose not to engage. But he was wrong on both counts. There was nothing ugly about Henry or any Vice I’d met. “Guess vampires look mostly human, that’s true,” he continued. “But my dad says they smell like rotten ass because they’re basically living corpses.”

SNAP.

“Dude, what the hell?” one of Henry’s group members shouted. Henry held a broken ruler in his hands. His sharp jaw clenched for a moment before he released a breath and smirked. “What can I say? Gotta flex these muscles every chance I get.” He laughed, filling the room. I fought a smile. There was something so joyful in his carefree laughter. Even despite what Declan had said, how it made Henry feel, he released that rage as quickly as it’d arrived. It was difficult not to get swept up by that pure happiness. “You owe me a new ruler.”

“Gentleman, do you mind?” Ms. Goto turned to Henry’s group. “Last time I’m going to warn you, Mr. Hart.”

“When was the first warning?” Henry muttered.

I ignored him, ignored Declan, ignored the world, and focused on my classwork.


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