It was not a dark and stormy night. Actually, it was a hot sticky June about a quarter past one—but balmy blue skies don’t help much when you’re getting very bad news.
I live in Newport News, Virginia. (That’s not the bad news. How could it be?) The trouble is not my town—it’s my aunt. Sylvia. (Make sure you emphasize the first syllable…a fake British accent helps.) Aunt Syl is an English Professor, which is bad enough. I don’t want to be mean-spirited, but reading about dead white dudes does weird things to your brain. And maybe to your face, too; she has these big owl eyes and bigger owl glasses, the better to see old print with, I guess. But her greatest fault is probably the fact that she lives in Cleveland, Ohio. If you’ve never heard of it, I should explain that it’s not a hot vacation spot… in much the same way that Death Valley isn’t selling out for honeymooners.
“Cleveland,” I muttered, because I was lying on my bed with a pillow over my face at the time.
“Cleveland,” my dad repeated. He was leaning over the large rolling cooler on the floor and counting shiny metallic bags. “It’s—well. It’s where you’re going.”
He shrugged, and the total lack of enthusiasm was not helping me at all.
“Why do I have to do this?” I asked, sitting up and staring at the top of his bald head. “There’s nothing to do there.”
“There’s plenty to do.”
“Like what? Swim in Lake Erie? They caught their own river on fire, Dad. And besides, you don’t have to go—Mom’s not even going!” Yes. I was whining. No, it wasn’t working.
“Look, Jake,” he sat down on his haunches. “It’s just two weeks. You and Lizzy will have a great time—and besides, your aunt really looks forward to it.”
“You know what’s gonna happen, right?” I asked. “She’s gonna give me the death watch. She’ll be analyzing me and crap like that!”
You have to understand—Aunt Syl is like a medical microscope, and I’ve had about enough of that in my short life.
“She won’t,” Dad insisted. But of course that was a lie… and lying is wrong…
“Well, she will,” he corrected. “But Jake, she’s been doing that to you for years. It can’t hurt you, can it?”
Hurt, no. Annoy and belittle, yes. I always come away from her house feeling like a sickly toddler.
“Why can’t Lizzy just go by herself?”
“Jake, be nice. Now, I’ve told her not to cook for you—and I’ve packed enough of the bags for you to get by on and then some just in case.” He tussled my hair. “Besides, Lizzy will be there, so she can draw fire if necessary.”
“Oh yay, Lizzy to the rescue,” I grumbled, slumping down on the bed again. Lizzy is my sister—my younger sister. But for some reason everyone thinks I need her to take care of me, as if I’d make a mess out of my already bizarre life without her help.
“Yes, Lizzy to the rescue,” said Lizzy, who’d just entered my room without permission. Again. “Because you’re a raging dork. Mom says lunch is ready, by the way.”
“Just a second,” my father pointed to the bags and did some mental calculation. “Thirty-six. Is that right?”
“Geez, Dad, I’m not staying forever,” I argued. “I only need one of those a day—if that.”
“Whatever,” Lizzy rolled her eyes. “You eat twice as much as that when you feel all whiny and depressed.”
“I do not!” I insisted, which was a total lie. Who doesn’t over-eat when they’re bored to tears?
“Are you three coming or not?” my mother asked, swinging the door open—and yes, now all of them were in my room, looking through my packing.
My mother has this way of arching her eyebrows; it’s hard to explain, but it’s like a whole sentence: “That’s all you’re sending with him?”
“Isn’t thirty-six right for two weeks?” My dad asked (he’s pretty good at reading eye-brows).
“Thirty-six!” she crossed her arms. “You know he overeats when he’s depressed.”
“Excuse me,” I interrupted. “I am still here—could we not talk about me in third person?”
This, you might know, had practically no effect whatsoever.
“What, forty? Forty-two?” my dad asked.
“We could ask the blood-mobile to stop by,” Lizzy snorted with entirely too much sarcasm.
“Lizzy, really!” My mother snapped. “Be nice to your brother.”
Lizzy just shrugged and picked up a weird-looking instrument from the cooler’s side compartment.
“What’s this supposed to be?” she asked. I blinked at it—for some reason I hadn’t noticed it among the other piles of junk I had to take with me.
“Is that a—a needle?” I asked. I hate needles. And other pointy objects.
Lizzy tossed her pony tail and then proceeded to point the syringe at me. It was attached to several hoses of some sort.
“It’s a portable transfusion kit,” my father said. “Don’t break it; it’s the only one I could find on short notice.”
Lizzy actually laughed until she snorted.
“Transfusion! Oh come on, Dad, he’s a vampire!” she said.
“I am not!” I yelled, throwing a pillow at her. “Dad!”
“He is not a vampire,” my father repeated. “He’s epilemic. You all know the terminology.”
Lizzy cleared her throat.
“Epilemic,” she began, performing like it was a spelling bee. “Aberration of a neurological dysfunction epilepsy, characterized by brain malfunction, manifested as episodic impairment and psychic disturbances, complicated by hemolytic anemia. Disease of unknown origin, first discovered by Franklyn Maresbeth, Newport News Medical, central campus.”
“That’s disturbances of brain function, not brain malfunction,” my dad—the honored Franklyn Maresbeth himself—corrected. “But very, very good.”
“Show off,” I muttered, and Lizzy punched me in the shoulder.
“Whatever. And your brain is dysfunctional.”
“Shut up, would you?” I asked. “There’s nothing wrong with my brain.”
“Yeah? Can you recite it?” She stared me down, knowing very well that I hadn’t bothered to memorize it. “See?” she added with a wink. “Dysfunctional—vampire.”
I scowled at her, but there wasn’t much point in arguing. Not with Lizzy. Besides, it’s a little true—sort of. I mean, I’m sixteen, not six-hundred. I don’t turn into a bat. I don’t go ransacking the neighborhood, and, though it would be nice, I’m not irresistibly attractive to the opposite sex. I’m just a tall, skinny blond kid with a doctor-dad and a blood disorder.
But let’s face it, consuming raw blood instead of cheeseburgers kind of gets you noticed, and not in a good way. So Lizzy calls it vampirism and Dad calls it epilemia. I don’t actually care so long as I’m more or less supplied with the basic necessities. You should see the basement cooler. I don’t know what sort of deal my dad worked out with the hospital (helps, I guess, that he’s bosom buddies with the Executive Director), but faking sick is better than being turned into some sort of ongoing vampire medical experiment. Or worse, getting burned at the stake. I’ve seen the movies; my team doesn’t usually win.
The trouble is, faking sick is hard to do when you are so incredibly healthy. And Lizzy, who is the family actress, will tell you that I can’t act to save my life. Literally. And that’s why this two week trip was such a fuss. It was the first time Lizzy and I were going to see Aunt Syl without my parents around to run interference.
And frankly, it didn’t seem worth the effort to me.
“We could just cancel the trip, you know,” I said, interrupting an ongoing conversation about—well, me.
“Jake, you’re going. I’ll get ten more from the cooler after lunch and bring them up,” my mother was saying.
My dad nodded agreement.
“Son, make sure you keep that thing plugged in,” he said, referring to the cooler. “Now go wash up.”
I heaved a sigh. I never seem to get my way around here. Even about mealtime. I don’t actually eat with my family; I haven’t touched solids since I was eight, so even if I wasn’t “allergic” to everything (as my aunt believes), I probably don’t have much of a digestive system left anyhow. Still, there are some family rituals you don’t get out of, so I plugged the refrig-o-mat into the wall outlet and hustled to join everyone else. Aunt Syl was set to arrive around nine that night; she was staying in the downstairs guest room so that we could all get a “fresh early start” the next morning.
And of course, being me, mornings are not my thing. […]