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Blood is my friend. Without it my cells shrivel. Without it I die.
At night, alone with myself, I hear it rushing through arteries and veins, platelets tumbling in a soup of plasma and glucose through slick, twisty tubes, lining up to enter narrow capillaries, delivering oxygen and fuel, seeking idle insulin. It is a low-pitched sound: wind passing through woodlands.
I hear a higher pitched sound too: A demon dentist drilling, rising and falling but never stopping. It is the sound of my thoughts.
Alone, at night, with myself, the low sound and the high sound become music. If I lie perfectly still and quiet the concert separates me from my body. Eyes closed, I float above myself, supported on a cloud of song.
But these are my secrets, things I do not talk about. You don't want people to think you're crazy, not even your best friends.
Even if you are crazy. Especially if you are.
When I was six years old I found a dying bat, probably Myotis lucifugus. Or maybe it was Desmodus rotundus, the infamous vampire bat, on vacation from South America. Nobody knows for sure. I saw the bat flopping around on the grass. I didn't know what it was, but being only six and fond of all small creatures, I picked it up. Its wings were velvety soft and it made squeaking, mewling protests. I put it in my pocket and took it home to show to my mother.
She let out a shriek. That was ten years ago, but I can still hear her screech echoing in my skull. I dropped the bat -- flop flop flop -- on the kitchen floor and my mother grabbed her broom and WHACK WHACK WHACK. She swept it into the plastic dustpan and carried it outside
and dropped it in the trash. Another pet story with a sad ending.
That night when my father got home he heard the story of the bat. He did not scream like my mother but instead got very gruff and concerned and made me show him my hands. Scratches, scratches everywhere. Did it bite? He kept asking me did it bite. I was going NO NO NO, but my hands were scratched from picking raspberries at the Fremonts', where I was not supposed to go, and he was holding my hands too hard and he was furious and my mother was whining and I was screaming and shrieking loudest of all, I'm sure.
WHERE IS IT?
The bat is in the trash, my mother tells him. He drops my scratched hands and runs outside, but the bat is gone. The trash has been picked up. My mother and I sob in the face of my father's rage.
I don't remember much about the hospital. They say that rabies shots are painful, and that there are a lot of them. I don't remember the shots. Maybe I have blocked the memories, or maybe they have dissolved into the memories of all the other shots I've had in my life. I've had a lot of shots. All I remember now is that the emergency room doctor was very calm and gentle, and I liked him.
"Little girls aren't supposed to play with sick bats," he told me, smiling.
"I'm not so little," I said.
I don't know why I remember that and not the shots.
Fish, my endocrinologist, tells me that the bat and the rabies shots had nothing to do with my diabetes. I am not so sure. How can you give a six-year-old girl rabies shots and not have it affect her? The way I see it (and I have done a lot of research in this area) the rabies vaccination trains the body's immune system to attack. That's what vaccines do. They don't actually kill the bacteria or virus, they just activate the immune system. As soon as the supposed rabies virus starts to multiply, the immune system is ready and waiting and BAM. The virus never has a chance.
But here's the thing: That same immune system that kills rabies viruses kills other kinds of cells too. The cells that make insulin, for instance. Beta cells. I have been over this with Fish. He doubts that the rabies shots did anything bad to me. He says that my immune system destroyed my beta cells all on its own. Fish (real name: Harlan Fisher, M.D.) knows his stuff, but he still can't tell me why, three months after the rabies shots, this little girl guzzled an entire half gallon of orange juice in just one afternoon.
Blood is my enemy. It carries death to my cells.
I still remember gulping orange juice right out of the carton, cold and sweet, pouring down my throat. Six years old, I could hardly lift the carton, but I was so desperately thirsty -- gulp gulp gulp -- I could've won a guzzling contest. Also, I could've won a peeing contest, because everything I drank went straight into the toilet.
You'd think my mother would've noticed earlier, but it didn't hit her how sick I was until I'd gone through about six cartons of juice in one week -- and wet my bed twice. Then it was whoosh -- off to the doctor. Dr. Gingrass with the big mole on his giant nose. He's the one who gave me my first shot of insulin. I stared numbly as he mixed the cloudy insulin with the clear, had me lift my shirt, and pinched up a bit of baby fat and slipped the needle in. It didn't hurt a bit, but my mother was freaking, crying and asking the poor doctor how this could happen. Even then, I knew enough to be embarrassed by her, but it wasn't until years later that I came to understand the fullness of what had happened to me. Insulin is more than just a treatment for the disease called diabetes mellitus. It is the thin strand that holds me to earth.
Without it I die.
Copyright © 2003 by Pete Murray Hautman
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide to Sweetblood By Pete Hautman About the Book “… there are only two races that matter: the Living and the Undead… and with every year that passes, the numbers of the Undead grow. It is inevitable.” So says sixteen-year-old Lucy Szabo. She has a theory: Hundreds of years ago, before the discovery of insulin, slowly dying diabetics were the original “vampires.” Lucy, a diabetic herself, counts herself among the modern Undead. As Sweetblood, Lucy frequents the Transylvania room, an Internet chatroom where so-called vampires gather to discuss all things goth. But Draco, one of the other visitors to “Transylvania,” claims to be a real vampire—and Lucy’s not entirely sure he’s kidding. As Lucy becomes more involved with the goth/vampire subculture, everything in her life begins to unravel. Her grades plummet, her relationship with her parents deteriorates, and her ability to regulate her blood sugar worsens dramatically. Then she meets Draco, face-to-face, and he invites her into his strange world. Lucy realizes that she needs to make some difficult choices—if it isn’t already too late. Sweetblood is a unique “reality-based” vampire novel about a smart, troubled teen struggling to find herself in the face of a chronic, potentially deadly disease. Diabetes and Vampirism by Pete Hautman Can an ordinary human live on blood alone? When I first decided to write a vampire novel, I read everything I could find about blood drinking. Unless you happen to be a mosquito or a vampire bat, I learned, blood should be consumed in moderation. Red blood cells contain iron, and too much iron is toxic. Over time, excessive iron leads to a condition known as hemochromatosis. Most hemochromatosis sufferers have a genetic flaw that makes it hard for them to metabolize iron-it has nothing to do with their diet. But whatever the cause, hemochromatosis victims suffer from numerous health problems, including insulin-dependent diabetes. Today, diabetes is treated with insulin, a natural hormone. Insulin allows the body to metabolize carbohydrates, allowing the patient to live a normal life. But a century ago, no effective treatment existed. A century ago, diabetics died. Unable to convert carbohydrates to energy, the untreated diabetic slowly wasted away. Not a pretty way to go! The more I read, the more eerie-and familiar-the symptoms sounded: • Severe weight loss • Pale, clammy skin • Elongation of the teeth (from receding gums) • Ravenous hunger and extreme thirst • A sweet, rotten odor • Loss of hair • Sensitivity to bright light and strong odors • Confused, angry, aggressive behavior • Coma • Death I imagined what it might have been like in, say, Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages… A man is slowly dying of diabetes. As the disease destroys his body, he grows thin and deathly pale. His hair falls out, His teeth get longer, and his lips are red with blood from his bleeding gums. His behavior is erratic and deranged. E demands tremendous amounts of food and drink. Sunlight hurts his eyes. He is repelled by the strong odor of garlic. Eventually he falls into a coma. The village priest pronounces him dead, but a few hours later the man opens his eyes and climbs out of his coffin, confused and famished… A stake through the heart might seem like a good idea to the frightened villagers. What if (I asked myself) the vampire legends had their roots in the tragic demise of untreated diabetics? Right there I had my idea for a new type of vampire story. Discussion Topics • Alienation • Self-Identity • Chronic Illness (Diabetes) • Love and Friendship • Lifestyle Cross-Disciplinary Connections Language Arts • Vampires have been appearing in fiction ever since a poem called “The Vampire,” by Heinrich August Ossenfelder, was published in Germany in 1748. Today, hundreds (perhaps thousands) of vampire books, stories, movies, and television shows are made every year. Why are vampires so popular? • Mrs. Graham reacts to Lucy’s essay by calling a meeting with Lucy’s parents. Why was she so upset? Was her reaction excessive? How would you feel if you wrote an honest, from-the-heart essay and your teacher called your parents about it? Visual Arts • Lucy’s first self-portrait portrayed her as blond, blind, and foolish-her true self-image. When Mrs. Winter rejected it (because she did not see any resemblance), Lucy covered the portrait with black paint, leaving only the whites of her eyes and two white canine teeth, showing a completely different side of herself. Activity suggestion: Draw, paint, or sculpt two or more self-portraits, each showing a different aspect of your personality. Health • Insulin Dependent Diabetes Mellitus (IDDM), also known as Juvenile Diabetes, or Type 1 Diabetes, affects more than 1,000,000 people in the United States today. How is the disease treated? What are some of the challenges faced by people with IDDM? • Lucy’s negative, despairing attitude toward her diabetes nearly causes her death. How else do our attitudes and beliefs affect our health? Science and History • How do people use fashion to connect to other people? Does changing how you dress change who you are? Why do we have fashion, anyway? Why don’t we all just wear gray coveralls? • In ancient times, people used stories of supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes to explain how the world came to be, and how it works. We call these stories “myths.” Myths about vampires are common in many cultures, from Europe to China to South America. • What are some of the ancient myths that no one believes anymore? • What are some modern myths? What stories are we told (and expected to believe) that are not based on fact? • What is the difference between a myth and superstition? • What is the difference between myth and religion? Questions for Classroom Discussion 1. Alienation: Many people-not just teenagers-feel alienated from society. Some people feel alienated because they look different. Some people feel alienated because of physical limitations. Others are alienated for psychological reasons: shyness, uncontrolled anger, or behavioral quirks. Why does Lucy feel she is different from her classmates? Is she really that different? 2. Self-Identity: What is a sense of self? Is it something you are born with, something we are given, or something we invent? Is it possible to change who you are? If you could change your sense of self, who would you become? 3. Chronic Illness (Diabetes): A chronic illness is a disease that won’t go away. Diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and asthma are examples of chronic diseases. How does having diabetes change the way Lucy views the world? 4. Love and Friendship: You can love a friend, or be friends with a lover, but the two things are very different. At first, Lucy is just friends with Mark Murphy. She does not see him as someone to fall in love with. What makes her change the way she sees Mark? Does the way she feels about him change, or did she feel that wat all along without realizing it? 5. Lifestyle: Most of us dress and act in ways that define us as part of a group. Some of us adopt extreme looks and behaviors. Goth and “vampire” looks are among the most conspicuous and creative of these groups. What other lifestyle choices do you see in your school? How are they defined by dress and behavior? This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.