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Chapter FOUR

The house took my breath away. It hadn't changed. Same colour door, same style curtains, same small garden out the back. As I stood gazing at it, gripping the top of the fence, I almost expected a younger version of myself to come bounding out the back door, clutching a pile of comics, on his way over to Steve's.

"May I help you?" someone asked behind me.

My head snapped round and my eyes cleared. I didn't know how long I'd been standing there, but by my white knuckles, I guessed it had been a few minutes at least. An elderly woman was standing close by, studying me suspiciously. Rubbing my hands together, I smiled warmly. "Just looking," I said.

"At what, precisely?" she challenged me, and I realized how I must appear to her - a rough-faced teenager, gazing intently into a deserted back yard, checking out the house. She thought I was a burglar casing the joint!

"My name's Derek Shan," I said, borrowing an uncle's first name. "My cousins lived here. In fact, they still might. I'm not sure. I'm in town to see some friends, and I thought I'd pop over and find out if my relatives were here or not."

"You're related to Annie?" the woman asked, and I shivered at the mention of the name.

"Yes," I said, fighting hard to keep my voice steady. "And Dermot and Angela." My parents. "Do they still live here?"

"Dermot and Angela moved away three or four years ago," the woman said. She stepped up beside me, at ease now, and squinted at the house. "They should have left sooner. That was never a happy house, not since their boy died." The woman looked sideways at me. "You know about that?"

"I remember my dad saying something," I muttered, ears turning red.

"I wasn't living here then," the woman said. "But I've heard all about it. He fell out of a window. The family stayed on, but it was a miserable place after that. I don't know why they stuck around so long. You can't enjoy yourself in a house of bitter memories."

"But they did stay," I said, "until three or four years ago? And then moved on?"

"Yes. Dermot had a mild heart attack. He had to retire early."

"Heart attack!" I gasped. "Is he OK?"

"Yes." The woman smiled at me. "I said it was mild, didn't I? But they decided to move when he retired. Left for the coast. Angela often said she'd like to live by the sea."

"What about Annie?" I asked. "Did she go with them?"

"No. Annie stayed. She still lives here - her and her boy."

"Boy?" I blinked.

"Her son." The woman frowned. "Are you sure you're a relative? You don't seem to know much about your own family."

"I've lived abroad most of my life," I said truthfully.

"Oh." The woman lowered her voice. "Actually, I suppose it's not the sort of thing you talk about in front of children. What age are you, Derek?"

"Sixteen," I lied.

"Then I guess you're old enough. My name's Bridget, by the way."

"Hello, Bridget." I forced a smile, silently willing her to get on with the story.

"The boy's a nice enough child, but he's not really a Shan."

"What do you mean?" I frowned.

"He was born out of wedlock. Annie never married. I'm not even sure anyone except her knows who the father is. Angela claimed they knew, but she never told us his name."

"I guess lots of women choose not to marry these days," I sniffed, not liking the way Bridget was talking about Annie.

"True," Bridget nodded. "Nothing wrong with wanting the child but not the husband. But Annie was on the young side. She was just sweet sixteen when the baby was born."

Bridget was glowing, the way gossips do when they're telling a juicy story. I wanted to snap at her, but it was better to hold my tongue.

"Dermot and Angela helped rear the baby," Bridget continued. "He was a blessing in some ways. He became a replacement for their lost son. He brought some joy back into the house."

"And now Annie looks after him by herself?" I asked.

"Yes. Angela came back a lot during the first year, for weekends and holidays. But now the boy's more independent, Annie can cope by herself. They get along as well as most, I guess." Bridget glanced at the house and sniffed. "But they could do with giving that old wreck a slap of paint."

"I think the house looks fine," I said stiffly.

"What do sixteen-year-old boys know about houses?" Bridget laughed. Then she bid me good day and went about her business. I was going to call her back, to ask when Annie would be home. But then I decided not to. Just as easy - and more exciting - to wait out here and watch for her.

There was a small tree on the other side of the road. I stood by it, hood up over my head, checking my watch every few minutes as though I was waiting to meet somebody. The street was quiet and not many people passed.

The day darkened and dusk set upon the town. There was a bite in the air but it didn't trouble me - half-vampires don't feel the cold as much as humans. I thought about what Bridget had said while I was waiting. Annie, a mother! Hard to believe. She'd been a kid herself the last time I saw her. From what Bridget said, Annie's life hadn't been the easiest. Being a mother at sixteen must have been rough. But it sounded like she had things under control now.

A light went on in the kitchen. A woman's silhouette passed from one side to the other. Then the back door opened and my sister stepped out. There was no mistaking her. Taller, with long brown hair, much plumper than she'd been as a girl. But the same face. The same sparkling eyes, and lips which were ready to turn up into a warm-hearted smile at a moment's notice.

I stared at Annie as though in a trance. I wasn't able to tear my eyes away. I was trembling, and my legs felt like they were about to give way, but I couldn't turn my gaze aside.

Annie walked to a small washing line in the back yard, from which a boy's clothes were hanging. She blew into her hands to warm them, then reached up and took the clothes down, one garment at a time, folding each over the crook of her left arm.

I stepped forward and opened my mouth to call her name, all thoughts of not announcing myself forgotten. This was Annie - my sister! Ihad to talk to her, hold her again, laugh and cry with her, catch up on the past, ask about Mum and Dad.

But my vocal chords wouldn't work. I was choked up with emotion. All I managed was a thin croak. Closing my mouth, I walked across the road, slowing as I came to the fence. Annie had gathered all the clothes from the line and was returning to the kitchen. I gulped deeply and licked my lips. Blinked several times in quick succession to clear my head. Opened my mouth again?

?and stopped when a boy inside the house shouted, "Mum! I'm home!"

"About time!" Annie yelled in reply, and I could hear the love in her voice. "I thought I told you to bring in the clothes."

"Sorry. Wait a sec?" I saw the boy's shadow as he entered the kitchen and hurried over to the back door. Then he emerged, a chubby boy, fair-haired, very pleasant looking.

"Do you want me to take some of those?" the boy said.

"My hero," Annie laughed, handing half of the load over to the boy. He went in ahead of her. She turned to shut the door and caught a glimpse of me. She paused. It was quite dark. The light was behind her. She couldn't see me very well. But if I stood there long enough? if I called out to her?

I didn't.

Instead I coughed, pulled my hood tight around my face, spun and walked away. I heard the door close behind me, and it was like the sound of a sharp blade slicing me adrift from the past.

Annie had her own life. A son. A home. Probably a job. Maybe a boyfriend or somebody special. It wouldn't be fair if I popped up, opening old wounds, making her part of my dark, twisted world. She enjoyed peace and a normal life - much better than what I had to offer.

So I left her behind and slunk away quickly, through the streets of my old town, back to my real home - the Cirque Du Freak. And I sobbed my heart out every painful, lonely step of the way.

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