ABOUT THE BOOK:
Diagnosed with a rare disease, Jake can’t help but wonder. After eight years in and out of the Newport News hospital, he’s had it up to here with doctors, diseases and dishonesty. After all, Jake’s father, respected neurologist Franklyn Maresbeth, has been hiding some of his more unusual symptoms for years… particularly that part about drinking blood.
In High Stakes, Jake records his summer vacation in the home of his maiden aunt, the bangled and be-spectacled Professor Sylvia. If that isn’t bad enough (and it is), Jake and his theatre-loving sister Lizzy must keep the “unofficial” details of Jake’s disorder a secret from Aunt Sylvia’s seductively beautiful graduate student, Zsofia. Will Jake survive a whole month pretending to be an invalid? Will Zsofia weaken his resolve with her flirtatiously dangerous Hungarian accent? Will Jake lose his heart–in more ways than one?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Brandy grew up in an underground house in abandoned coal mining territory near a cemetery. It does things to you (like convince you to get a PhD). It also encourages a particular brand of fictive output. HIGH STAKES, Book 1 of The Jacob Maresbeth Chronicles, came out in 2014 with Cooperative Trade Press.
Brandy is managing editor of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry and Research Associate for the Dittrick Museum of Medical History. She is also editor of the Fiction Reboot | Daily Dose blogs. When she isn’t researching arsenic poisoning for the Museum, writing fiction, taking over the world, or herding cats, she teaches for Case Western Reserve University. Her non-fiction, DEATH’S SUMMER COAT, comes out with Elliott and Thompson in 2015.
Connect with Brandy:
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Chapter 2 [after Jake and Lizzy have been sent to Aunt Syl's house for the summer]
... Dad had packed enough of the blood-bags for four weeks, but thankfully he sympathized with the psychological damage additional visit time would cause me. (Besides, its beach season in Newport News, and I was missing it).
Lizzy was all up for the challenge, of course, since Aunt Sylvia was her new favorite person, but Dad promised to come get me at the end of week two. Aunt Syl would drive Lizzy back up after classes were over. Problem solved. Sort of; I still had to put up with my aunt’s fussing and fluttering around me like a big well-meaning bird.
“You had better get early to bed, Jacob dear,” she said, poising over me with a teapot. “More herbal?”
“Er, no, thanks,” I said. I can drink tea and most other water-based fluids. But I don’t really like it much, and whatever Aunt Syl was brewing smelled and tasted pretty awful.
“Sure? It’s arrowroot and honeywort—very cleansing!”
“Thanks, but I feel pretty clean already,” I said, trying to smile like I meant it. Lizzy was sitting across the room from me, hiding her face in a magazine and trying not to laugh. Which wasn’t helping much. I decided “early to bed” was as good an idea as any, so I faked a yawn. My aunt, who watches my every move anyway, seemed to take the hint.
“Very good, very good—off to bed with you, then,” she said, shooing me towards the big front stairs.
My room is at the top of the steps, the one with blue carpet and denim curtains. You know, “boy’s” colors. Lizzy’s is some shade of rose or pink.… Aunt Syl needs a life so bad it hurts.
“Now, Jake,” she was saying (because she’d followed me up the stairs, of course), “there are extra towels in the linen closet. I left a few little things out for you to look at … brochures, you know. Summer classes don’t begin for two weeks, but—oh, there you are!”
Aunt Syl stopped in mid-sentence to swish her two cats, Byron and Shelley, off my bed. In movies, vampires always get wolves and bats. Me, I attract cats. The dumb things love me.
“Just look at them, so delighted to see you! Feline felicity!” My aunt tittered to herself as the cats did figure-eights around my legs.
“Er—you were saying?” I asked, trying not to step on anyone.
“Ah, yes! I have to take Lizzy to orientation tomorrow; then I have to prepare for my own summer classes. I am so sorry you’ll be here all alone, but I promise we’ll be back by. I know the week might be a bit slow, but don’t you trouble yourself! We’ll have a mad, dashing time this weekend!”
“Great. That’s—what, the play, right?” I asked. Then I faked another yawn, hoping she’d chalk up my lack of enthusiasm to lack of sleep.
“Précisément!” she said. Yes, not content to throw the English dictionary at you, she gets French in there, too. She’s a mean Scrabble player.
“Right—well—I’ll just—” But what I was “just” doing was falling over a fat cat. I managed to catch hold of the dresser and swing myself over the both of them and onto the other side of the bed. But that’s bad. My aunt’s eyes got as big as dinner plates, making me wish I’d just fallen over. See, I’m not exactly coordinated most of the time, but I get a little rush of energy in the evening… something that I—as an “invalid” and all—am not supposed to have.
“Luck?” I said lamely.
“You young men, all acrobats I suppose! Well,” she straightened her bangles and checked her watch. “You will tell me if you need anything? Mmm? See, I left a bell here in case there’s an emergency in the night!”
“Thank you, Aunt Syl,” I said grimacing.
“And I know you keep your own special food—but if you want anything, even a wee snack?”
“I promised Dad no snacks,” I said, crossing my heart.
“Quite right, of course,” she said with a little shrug and finally (thankfully) headed for the door. “Oh, one more thing, dear. I do have a graduate student or two coming here tomorrow. They’re doing annotations for me in the library, but don’t be alarmed! They’re quite safe and quiet as church mice!”
With that, she bobbed on down the steps again, and I let out a sigh I hadn’t realized I’d been holding in. This was going to be such a loooong two weeks, I thought. I have a cow-bell alarm system and an aunt who thinks I’m afraid of her graduate students. Have you ever met a graduate student? Apparently, to be really good at it, you have to hate sleep, food, and social life, and enjoy reading books by people who are now dead. My aunt’s previous graduate assistant, Leonard, was fidgety and morose and apparently suffering from malnutrition. He always reminded me of a melancholy squirrel. These are not people who inspire fear.
“Scoot, cat,” I said to Shelley, who was getting her orange fur all over my pants. I checked to see that conversation was happening downstairs and then shut and locked the door. It was dinnertime, after all, and I didn’t need to go freaking anybody out. I’d plugged the cooler in under the window so I could keep the thing shoved between the bed and the wall. I wasn’t exactly hiding it; my aunt knew that I brought blood “transfusion” supplies with me, and I had an assortment of health-food looking crap in the top compartment as a screen. It’s just that serious inspection would make it clear there was more blood than food in there, and I’m not so good at fielding questions. I unbuttoned the flap and opened the hard case of the cooler, and suddenly life seemed a little brighter. Forty-five tidy little packages, like deep red juice boxes. Dad’s design, bless him. I picked one up, nipped the top off, and sucked it down so fast I didn’t really taste it.... Not that they taste terribly interesting, but I’ve grown rather fond.
Forty-four left. You’d think I was staying forever. Which meant, really, there was no reason why I couldn’t have another one.… So I did. And (I hate to admit it) one more after that. I wasn’t even hungry, but the stuff calms me, and I figured that, after the day I’d had, I deserved a treat. Besides, it helped me face the second dilemma of the evening: I have nocturnal tendencies, it was only, and there’s no TV upstairs. Lucky for me, an over-full tank tends to induce sleepiness.
I propped myself up with pillows with a stack of “Great Things about Cleveland” pamphlets and my favorite notebook. Yes, notebook—not netbook. I got my dad’s hand-me-down computer last year, but I like my spiral-bound-flip-top legal pad just fine. I’m not anti-tech or anything. It’s just that since I was five, I’ve always wanted to be a reporter. Not a fireman (fire? really?). Not a doctor (had enough of hospitals). A journalist. And in my opinion, real journalists carry notebooks. Don’t have to plug it in. Just have to write in it.
I flipped it open to the last entry, but that one wasn’t even mine. It was Henry’s: Dude, tell the college chicks I said hi! I smirked. Henry’s my best friend, but he has these delusions about visiting my college-professor-aunt. The town is not crawling with sorority hotties; it’s summer, for one thing, and besides, my aunt prefers weirdo grad students. I flipped the page and clicked the ballpoint: Monday, June 8th: Arrived. Unpacked. Yee-haw. The Cleveland brochures didn’t inspire much more than that, though I could probably write up some sort of “summer travel” spot for the school paper. But who would read it? Stinky city with stinky lake, empty campus, twitchy research assistant. Exciting stuff. I dumped the pamphlets on the floor and switched off the light. I then proceeded to stare broodingly at the ceiling until I fell asleep.
When I woke up the next morning (is still morning), however, I found I could not move. It wasn’t paralysis. It was cat-love. I’d been trapped Gulliver-style by Byron and Shelley, who’d managed to tuck themselves into the blanket on either side.
“Off, off already!” I said, wriggling loose and knocking Byron onto the floor. He protested but took the hint; Shelley just dug her claws into the bedspread so I had to leave her there. I managed to find my toiletry bag and then slogged into the bathroom.
Thankfully, I have my own bathroom at Syl’s. You know, because I’m sickly and “enervated” or whatever she thinks about me. If the medicine cabinet is any indication, she thinks a lot about me. Lozenges with zinc in them… a bunch of herbal supplements for everything from night sweats to diarrhea. There was even some sort of medicated soap stuff next to my washcloth. I wrinkled my nose—it’s not like I have leprosy or something (though to Syl, that would be like Christmas). Lizzy’s room is not decked out like a drug store; I checked. I’m just lucky that way.
The sun was high by the time I got out of the shower, but it wasn’t all that warm, frankly. (When does it get warm in Cleveland, I wonder?) I opted for long sleeves, brushed my teeth, and then headed downstairs to occupy myself until Syl and Lizzy got home.
Occupy yourself. That’s one of my mother’s favorites. And trust me, you’d better do it because she can think of all kinds of things to occupy you with. On the bright side, Lizzy and I have learned to be great at self-amusement, and Aunt Syl’s house actually has plenty to offer. It’s got its own library (if you’re into that), a pool table and a pretty serious entertainment system in the den. I peeked out the front room window; the sun was getting blocked by thick-looking rain clouds, so I felt more or less guilt-free about deciding on TV. Aunt Syl only gets basic cable, but she’s a film buff with more than two hundred titles … lots of them black and white. Bela Lugosi is a big favorite (yay, more vampires that get staked) but she also has a bunch of Bogart films, so I stretched, yawned, and headed for the library to collect them.
And then, I think I died.
At least, my heart stopped for a minute. Why? Because I had just seen an angel.
The library is a big room with tall windows and Victorian-style furniture; the bookshelves are on one end, and on the other is a low table where Aunt Syl keeps her current projects spread out. There, in a little pool of light from the window, was a girl. Not just a girl, either. Awoman-girl. The sun broke through the clouds to shine on her hair, which was golden and tied in a braid so thick it looked like dock-rope. She was leaning over the table when I entered, but she turned—very slowly—and looked up at me. A round face, peaked at the chin like an acorn, with the most utterly fascinating eyes. Meanwhile, I stood there with my mouth open.
“I am sorry? Can I help?” She asked with a gently rolling accent that I’d never heard before.
“I—you—you’re not Leonard,” I stuttered. This was not even remotely Bogart, incidentally. More like Woody Allen on a bad day.
“I am not,” she smiled and put her book down. “I am Zsòfia.”
“Sophia?” I asked stupidly.
“No, no—Zsa, Zsa,” she puckered her lips as she said it, make a breathy soft “g” sound, “Zsòfia.”
I swallowed and looked for a place to sit before my legs melted.
“Zsòfia,” I repeated. “It’s wonderful!—to meet you, I mean.…” (I cringe to write this.) “You’re, ah, not from around here?” (I cringe to write that, too.)
“No, not at all. I am from Hungary. You are Jacob, yes?” She tucked a pen behind her ear, and I gulped air like a fish on land.
“Yeah—Jacob Maresbeth. Aunt Syl is my, oh—well, my aunt.” I was mentally smacking myself as a reminder to do it for real later … this was not cool. This was the opposite of cool.
“She tells me about you and your sister. Are you playing?” she asked.
“Playing?” I sure hoped not.
“I am sorry—are you acting in the play? Your sister, she is an actress.”
“Oh, no—I mean, yes, she is. But I’m not. I write,” I said, not without a little hint of returning pride. Okay, it’s not Pulitzer material, but I have the notebook and I do write things in it. Zsòfia nodded.
“That is right! You are the journalist, I remember. I write as well, you see,” she indicated the scattered note cards and other materials. “But it is a dissertation.”
Now, I had no idea what a dissertation was, but I wasn’t about to admit that.
“Oh?” I asked, praying my voice wouldn’t crack as it still does sometimes. “What’s it about?”
“You would not be interested,” she said, shaking her head (and making that wonderful braid bounce around). “It is all work, work, research, and history.”
“No, really! I would love to hear about it!” I said, which was true, because I could listen to her voice all day. She could be telling me the history of plywood for all I cared.
“It tells something about my country. Hungary lies in the Carpathian Basin of central Europe. Do you know where that is?” she asked.
I shook my head and then went back to staring.
“It is not far from Romania, you see—the region of Transylvania, what we call Erdély in Hungarian.”
“Transylvania?” I started.
“Yes, and this region was once part of Hungary, before the 1500s. It is a very beautiful place, and very mountainous,” she said, still smiling. I relaxed a little.
“So, ah, your dissertation is about the mountains there?”
“No, no,” Zsòfia shrugged her pretty shoulders and looked back to her work. “It is about vampires.”
She said this so nonchalantly that for a minute it didn’t totally register. When it did, I’m afraid I made a little chirping sound.