"Any snake charmers?"
"Only once a year, when the carnival comes to visit."
"Well then, we'll have to make our own fun," she said emphatically. "Jameson, get the car!"
I scooted into the Mercedes next to Mrs. Sterling, her umbrella resting between us as Jameson drove us to town.
"Stop here," Alexander's mother called to Jameson when we came to the town square. It took a few moments for the creepy man to react and press the brakes. We stepped out of the car and into the busy square.
Main Streetwas filled with upscale preppy boutiques. It was a hangout for families, dog walkers, and strolling seniors. Mrs. Sterling, poised with her umbrella, sungla.s.ses, and purple velvet purse with black lace ribbons, was quite the sight to see. Even I found myself gawking at her. It was as if I were walking with a movie star.Dullsvillians , however, thought we were a freak show. Snickers and giggles and stares followed us up and down the block.
Mrs. Sterling, with her statuesque figure and graveyard-glam style, was oblivious to the stares. She looked like any A-list star, unfettered by her paparazzi.
When we pa.s.sed a few people walking dogs, the animals became unruly. Mrs. Sterling didn't seem to even notice the upset pets.
We stopped in front of Purse Party. Mrs. Sterling was enamored by a leopard clutch purse in the window.
"Let's peek inside," she said.
We stepped into the overpriced boutique. The gimmick was you picked a purse style, fabric, b.u.t.tons, and ribbons and walk away with a unique custom-made handbag. Long tables were set up in the middle of the store, with sample fabric strewn across haphazardly, as if there had just been a purse-picking party.
The owner had no idea who-or what-had just entered her shop. I could tell her face was straining, trying to hold back her real thoughts. She was ready to push the panic b.u.t.ton. Instead she did her best to feign enthusiasm. "We specialize in one-of-a-kind purses. We can come to your home and if you have at least five women show up, you get a free purse."
I could just imagine the shopkeeper, swatches of fabric in tow, arriving to discover the Mansion instead of her usual five-bedroom cookie-cutter mega-mansions and speeding away before her tires pa.s.sed the wrought-iron gates.
Mrs. Sterling didn't say a word as she cased the shop. She held her umbrella with one hand, and with her free one she picked through purses.
I sensed the saleswoman was checking her inner clock, hoping we'd get out of the storeimmediately.
"I'm absolutely crazy about this!" Mrs. Sterling exclaimed, holding up a woolly black carpet bag. "Do you have leopard print? "
"Yes. Would you like piping, trim, or ribbon?" the woman asked, now enthused about a possible sale.
"Black lace.I'd like a shoulder-length strap made of thick chain."
The saleswoman tried to hide her shock. Every handle in the store was either made of plastic or ribbon.
"I'm sure we can find that somewhere," she said, determined.
I was holding a crimson messenger bag. The cheapest purse was ninety-five dollars. And that was the size of a cosmetic bag.
"This is to die for. Pick one out, Raven."
I was in an awkward position. I knew my mom would freak if I let someone outside my family buy me an expensive gift. Even my mom, who wore fas.h.i.+onable designer purses, got them at the outlet mall.
"My treat."Mrs. Sterling's voice was intense but loving.
"That's okay. I don't need one."
The saleswoman, sniffing another sale, examined me.
There were pinks and greens and plaids. Nothing screamed my name.
"I'm not sure those prints are her style," she said to Mrs. Sterling. "We could make a black one with a red reversible. Or I do remember a special pattern-left over from Halloween.".She quickly popped in the back and returned with a wad of fabric. It was black with tiny metallic silver bats.
I couldn't help but show my infatuation for the small piece of cotton.
"To die for!"Mrs. Sterling said. "We'll take it."
My mom would kill me if she knew Mrs. Sterling bought me a hundred-dollar purse. But I was stuck in between a vampire and an overly eager shopkeeper.
"Pick out your style of purse" the woman encouraged.
"I really don't- "I tried.
"She keeps clutching the messenger bag. That will be stunning with the bat print," Mrs. Sterling said to the owner.
As the woman rang up our purchases, I could see how Mrs. Sterling transformed the shopkeeper's att.i.tude. Either way, Mrs. Sterling wasn't affected.
I admired Alexander's mom. I never really had anyone to look up to. A role modelOf course, I had my mother and Aunt Libby.Two women who were confident and opinionated and comfortable in their own skin. But no one like me in style and taste-not until I'd met Mrs. Sterling.
s.h.i.+rley's Bakery was a quaint establishment selling the freshest cookies, cakes, and donuts in Dullsville. On one side of the store a customer could buy a chocolate-covered pretzel, and on the other side was a pink-and-black-tiled ice-cream parlor.
s.h.i.+rley still dished out the ice cream with herteenworkers . On a clear night, the line went around the block, like for a first-runStar Wars flick.
Once inside, Mrs. Sterling held her umbrella proudly. She was tall and imposing, and I imagined that if anyone confronted her, though she'd behave like a lady, she'd be able to squash them like a bug.
"Two chocolate cones and one pistachio," she ordered. "Jameson's favorite/' she whispered to me.
My heart melted at her kindness to her butler.
"You must be from out of town," s.h.i.+rley said.
"Does it show?" she asked with a laugh. "Yes. But now we live up on Benson Hill. And your ice cream comes highly recommended."
"Why, thank you," s.h.i.+rley said. "For that I'll give you an extra scoop."
We scooted back into the Mercedes. And the two of us sat, parked outside, eating our ice cream.
"I love to people watch," she said with her lyrical voice.
It wasn't something I'd ever really done. Just watch people. I'd always sensed I was the one being watched. And I never felt comfortable hanging out on the square. I preferred the park, where there was less traffic.
"Look at those two. It seems like it's their first date. I low adorable," Mrs. Sterling said. "And that young man pus.h.i.+ng a stroller while his wife and child eat their treats- it's like a greeting card." Then she spied a trio of identical twin girls sitting on a bench sharing a sundae."Perfectly charming!"
I didn't spend much time admiring fellowDullsvillians . But Mrs. Sterling was fascinated with them. She showed me how interesting ordinary people could be if only I'd take the time to look.
When I finally got home, I was exhilarated-like a groupie who had just met her idol.
Mrs. Sterling was beautiful, a vampire, and as confident as a queen. She was everything I wanted to be.
As usual, I was unable to focus on my homework-and this time it was for a good reason. I'd finally met Alexander's parents and had a girls' night with his mother.
Still, I couldn't help but wonder what this meant for Alexander. He had been the master of the castle for months, so I imagined it was a hard transition for him now that they were occupying "his" s.p.a.ce. I was sure that's why he'd been so grumpy at the beginning of our last date. I lay on my bean bag and wondered how my life would be if Sarah and Paul Madison lived inEurope like theSterlings and I had full run of our home.
I'd do a total makeover of the entireMadison house. All white walls would be painted black. Bright floral curtains would be changed to dusty velvet ones. I'd remove the catalog-ordered furniture and replace it with antique thrift-store finds. I'd live by candlelight but keep the electricityfor much-needed necessities, such as a refrigerator, cableTV, and my hairdryer, Alexander's coffin would be next to my bed. I'd have a huge security officer by my door so my brother wouldn't be aware of Alexander's ident.i.ty. We'dstay up all night watchingThehost Boys and pigging out on popcorn. Billy and Henry would inhabit the bas.e.m.e.nt, under my strict curfew, and fire confetti-filled missiles atTrevor's house when I commanded.
I'd exist on CountChocula and caramel coffee lattes. School would be an optional part of the day.
My fantasy, however, was a far cry from my current living situation. I would never see such independenceuntil I was an adult. And though I craved it and wantedto spread my bat wings without boundaries, my conservative and governing parents were crucial to my existence. I didn't have enough money for my own apartment-orthe wherewithal to shop for groceries or make my own dental appointments. And when I was really down about life and love, even though I barked at their sentiments, they were my safety net. If my parents weren't around for guidance and support, my world would be darker than it already was.
Dullsville's rail yard was built in the late nineteenth century. What once must have been a thriving and highly active station, importing and exporting coal, wheat, and corn, was now a graveyard. The rail cars looked like tombstones, marking a life that once was.
Planks from tracks were missing, and it was a mystery where some of the rail lines even led. Overgrown gra.s.s and weeds covered the rest.
Alexander asked me to meet him by the rail yard office tower. I found him leaning against a graffiti-laden boxcar whose door had probably been missing for years.
"Finally we are together," I said, squeezing him with all my might. Alexander hugged me, but he seemed distracted. "What's wrong?"
"My coffin is so empty now." His words. .h.i.t me hard as I nestled into his chest.
"You resent your parents for intruding on our s.p.a.ce. That's normal. My parents totally get on my nerves. You've been lucky. You had a vacation from them for months."
"It's more than that. But I'd rather focus on you."
I leaned my head back, exposing my bare neck. "Please, just do it now. Take me away from all this-"
"You are so dramatic. Besides, we aren't on sacred ground."
"Is that why you brought me here instead of the cemetery? So I wouldn't be tempted?"
"So I wouldn't be..."
The normal world would perceive me to be in the hands of a monster, but I knew I was in the company of a dark angel. Alexander grazed his fangs over my neck, sending me into wild giggles. Then he pulled away.
"You don't know what our lives would be like. Youconstantly needing me."
"But I already do."
"Believe me, Raven, I think about what it would be like. I imagine it every day."
"What do you imagine?"
"We'd sleep in my coffin together. We'd live in the Mansion-so you could see your family-but we'd travelthe world together,Rome ,Paris,Greece . I'd paint picturesof you and we'd sell them in galleries across the world."
"Wow." I didn't have a clue that Alexander fantasized like I did. "Then could we? Make it everlasting?"
Just then we heard a dog bark.
"We'd better climb inside before someone spots us."
Alexander took my hand and lifted me into the rail car. I was the equivalent of a princess on a white horse being escorted by her handsome prince across a field of tulips. Except in my case everything was black and some of the flowers were dead.
I stepped into a dream world. Votives and candelabras lit the car.Crystal vases bloomed lifeless roses, and petals covered the wooden floors. The pictures of Dullsville and me that once hung on the Mansion walls were now fixed on the steel walls of the railroad car. The fragrant scent of lavender filled the air.
"I figured if I couldn't bring you to the Mansion, I'd bring the Mansion to you."
I stood frozen. My eyes began to well. Alexander's chocolate eyes gazed down at me, and his smile lit up his handsome, pale face as he waited for my response.
"I can't believe this!" I exclaimed as I examined each detail he had re-created. "This is the best present ever!"
I squeezed him so tight I thought I might pa.s.s out.
Alexander tickled my waist. His voice was soft and his lips tender. My heart filled with so much pa.s.sion I thought it would burst. I wove my fingers through the length of his silky hair. We spun around, our bodies entwined, untilwe both became so dizzy we fell over onto makes.h.i.+ft throw pillows.
I didn't need a Mansion. I only needed Alexander.
The following day, I was in the garage putting air into my bike tires. My mom pulled into the drive, popped out of her car, and charged toward me.
"I've invited theSterlings over for dinner," she declared.
"You did what?" I asked, releasing the air hose from the tire valve.
"I invited them over," she repeated, "Why?How?" I stood up, shocked by my mother's news.
"I called them up. Why is that so strange? People have been doing that for years."
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