We received this story during the reading period for #Resist. The first page had me hooked. I love the concept and the delivery here. Tori’s work is smart with a hook. I bring you ‘Arithomania’.
by Tori Cárdenas
About a month ago, I talked to Ms. “Chalkboard Boobs” Smith about extra credit so I wouldn’t fail calculus. Again. Seriously, I desperately needed the help. If I wanted to graduate, I really had to get my shit together because this was my last chance to take the class. She knew that, too. Part of me wondered if she was failing me on purpose, but that meant she’d be stuck with me for another year. Neither of us wanted that. She said it wasn’t enough to get the answers from smarter kids if I couldn’t do anything on the final exam, and changing my grade wasn’t going to do me any good either. So, she assigned me a tutor.
She arranged for Vince (who had the highest grade in the class) and I (do I even need to tell you my grade?) to have weekly study nights. Later that day, she contacted Vince and his parents, and they were all about it.
Vince Costington is a pretty typical teenage nerd—glasses, face full of zits, super good at math—except he’s also a vampire. He and his family moved to our Cape Canaveral suburb over the summer, and they live in the most colorful house in the neighborhood. Didn’t give anyone warning. Why a family of vampires would move to the lamest stretch of the Florida Coast is beyond me, even if Vince is only half. He actually comes to Rockledge High with us because his mom’s human and his dad’s a vamp, and they sued the state for like, the rights to put Vince in a human school.
Oh, and he’s already got a scholarship to MIT.
Once they were on board, we had to figure out a time to meet. Originally, I suggested that we study before first period around six AM, but he said, “I have a thing about dawn.”
Guess he’s not a morning person. He’s always waiting at the bus stop with a huge black umbrella and even bigger sunglasses. I guess he needs them to go outside during the day so he doesn’t get a sunburn. Stoker never wrote anything about daylight killing vampires anyway. Look it up. And besides, it’s not like there’s night high school.
Still though, he doesn’t dress like a vampire. You’d think he’d be wearing those big spiked boots and black capes and shit all the time, but his wardrobe seems to consist solely of colorful polos, chino shorts, and flip-flops.
I asked him about it once. “Why do you always wear that preppy stuff?”
“Black attracts the sun and makes it feel even hotter than it already is,” he said. “I don’t do well with the heat.”
“So, you still need the umbrella?”
“Yeah, I don’t want to have to wear turtlenecks everywhere. Fashion’s not dead.”
“But you are.”
“That’s beside the point.”
Eventually, we set a schedule for Tuesday and Thursday evenings, at his house instead of mine. If we had it at my house and my dad were there, he wouldn’t have invited Vince in and/or he would have tried to clobber him with that huge, silver thermos of his.
The first study night at dinner Jay and Henry, Vince’s parents, said it would be good for Vince to put on his CV and give them a chance to start to know the community.
“Thanks so much for joining us for dinner, Max. We’re so happy to have you. Believe it or not, folks around here aren’t too friendly with us,” Jay said. She served me a helping of pasta with red wine sauce, and offered me a plate of cheesy, no-garlic bread.
“Yeah, it’s been nice to have somebody from the outside world for once,” Henry said. “We’ve had the worst time making friends so far. I mean, I work nights, so that hasn’t exactly helped.”
“You’re hardly one for the night life anyway, Henry.” Jay chuckled.
“They don’t call me ‘Creature of the Night’ for nothing,” Henry said and cocked an eyebrow at her.
Vince rolled his eyes and said, “Guyyyyys.”
Henry held Jay’s hand around the corner of the table and went on. “But D.C. was also…more accepting. Of us. Of what we are. My whole family’s there still. It wasn’t easy to move. But what are you gonna do? I’m just going with the flow.” He poured himself and Vince another glass of wine.
How could anyone not like these people? That was something I couldn’t wrap my head around. The Costingtons’ were 115% cooler than my family.
Henry loved Tommy Bahama shirts and always had some Jimmy Buffet or Bob Marley on the stereo. Dinner was really breakfast for him because he worked nights at Cape Canaveral’s Launch Deck, but that didn’t stop him from having almost a bottle of blood-red wine at every meal. He told me all about calculating for space launches and rockets, and how big of a hotshot he was there because of his excellent calculations. He was a transplant from D.C. where NASA’s headquarters are, but they needed him here more. I guess vamps are in high demand for calculations. Henry loved talking about what he had on his plate for the night and I was honestly not bored by his math talk because he was an all-around cool guy.
And Jay was the sweetest lady in the whole world. She was a master chef at a fancy restaurant in the city, and aside from being tall and blonde and full of sick tattoos, she always sent me home with stellar leftovers.
“We’re glad you’re around, Max. And I’m sure Vince can help you bring your grade up. He’s been trying to make friends this year, but it hasn’t been going so well—”
“We’re gonna go up and get started,” Vince said, and he pushed out his chair.
“So, what do we do with this imaginary integer here?” Vince said. “What rules do we follow for these?
Right, you know how to do this. I worked a little number magic and slid my paper across the desk to him.
He peered closely at my scratch paper with his pale red eyes, obsessively counting each carried number in the problem, each squiggly ƒ thing, everything right down to the decimal point—out loud. I looked around his room as he did the calculations.
The room’s windows faced southwest, and the sunset always poured in as we were studying. There was a twin bed, a dresser, and a wide desk, but that was about it. He also had a floor to ceiling poster signed by the cast of a TV hospital drama. The main actor signed his big loopy signature over his character’s smug face.
My room was full of cardboard cut-outs I got to keep from working at the theater and I had posters tacked on every available surface. Some of them were limited releases, and I was proud of the miniature collection I had. But Dad loved to lecture me about the potential fire hazard all of my “movie shit” posed, and encouraged me to be more like my sister. Lana’s room was tidier, but with the many layers of hairspray that had accumulated on her belongings over the years, her room was a hundred times more likely to go up than mine. Vince’s room was empty by comparison.
“You’re getting the hang of it, Max. But there’s still a couple of things you could improve on. Let’s each do a few more problems and then we’ll compare notes.” He pulled scratch paper over for himself and we both started a new problem. But before I was halfway finished with mine, Vince was already turning to the next page of problems.
“How’d you get so good at math?”
“Actually, I have…I have something called arithomania,” he said, forcing the last word out. He saw the dumb look on my face and continued. “So, basically, I have to count everything trivial or numerous that I come across—like ab-so-lutely have to. It’s genetic, my dad has it, too.”
He laughed, “Not really… Just really, really embarrassing. Do you know how much it sucks to be good at math? I’m not trying to be. Remember when Tina Timmons dropped her Dippin’ Dots at the baseball game and I knelt down and started counting them all?”
He had a bit of a lisp because of his fangs. It wasn’t too noticeable but it wasn’t helping the poor guy any, I can tell you that.
“And then they all melted. It was like…the middle of August.”
“And you started crying.”
“Anyway, the point is that it’s not like I have the choice to be good at math. And even if I did, my dad, and his dad, and his dad, and his dad—well, you get it—they all went to MIT and now they want me to go too, so I can work for NASA like they do. They all had to do it pretending to be human. But now that we’re out, they want me to be their poster child.”
“And…I don’t want to work for NASA. Or go to MIT. I just want to be a doctor.”
“Wait, what? What do you mean?” Vince did not want to be a doctor. He was a pretty okay guy. Doctors were jerks.
His fangs bit into his lower lip. He finally said, “I want to go to school to be a doctor. Everyone in my family is in some kind of boring physics or astronomy job where they’re in a basement or an office all night. No one is allowed to work with humans. To help them, or listen to them. We aren’t allowed.”
Well, wanting to help people was a much better reason for being a doctor than just making money.
“My dad’s a doctor. He might be able to give you some tips.” But I knew that was some bullshit the second it came out of my mouth.
“Max, you don’t understand, I can’t.” He sighed and put his forehead on his scratch paper. After a second he asked, “Your dad’s a doctor? What’s he like?”
Do I tell Vince just how much of a fucking racist my dad is? Better not. “He’s a doctor. But he’s kind of an asshole.”
“Yeah? How so?”
“I don’t really want to talk about it.” And we left it at that.
After a couple weeks, not only was my calculus getting better, I was having a lot of fun with Vince and his family.
The only problem with that was my dad.
Vampires were popping up all over the place after Marcus Caligari III, vampire civil rights activist, came forward to announce the real existence of vampires. They had united under the desire to help humanity however they could, given the deplorable state of our society, and work together to save the planet and expand space exploration. My dad and about half the country hated the idea, but the bat was out of the bag.
Vampires existed and what could we do except let them integrate into society? They’d kill us if we didn’t. Not that they said that explicitly, and not that there were very many of them. It would take all 100,000 or so vampires across the country years to kill all of the humans, even if that were something they were interested in.
But my dad wasn’t convinced. He had the newspaper delivered even though we’re in the 21st century. Every once in a while, there would be an article about a new bill in Congress or a letter to the editor about vampire rights or something, and he’d whisk it back to his office to type up a scathing response. He strung long chains of garlic by all of the doors and windows, and hung crosses all around the house even though we weren’t religious, and snuck bags of blood home from the hospital to stock the mini-fridge in the garage, in case the blood shortage Rush Limbaugh mentioned on the radio turned out to be real. One day, there was a sign by the front door that read, “Reminder: Don’t invite ANYONE into the house.”
And to top it all off, he smashed into the streetlight in front of our house one night because he said a flurry of bats flew into his windshield. But I think he was looking at the news on his phone.
One day while Lana and I were doing our homework in the living room, Dad turned his recliner around, put down the paper and said, “Don’t you girls go near that vampire boy. Those bloodsuckers can take over a neighborhood in a heartbeat, inviting themselves over for dinner or coffee or a harmless barbecue, and you know who they go after first?”
Lana and I stared at him. Like we were supposed to know.
I thought of Lana and tried not to laugh. If she were a virgin, I was the most popular girl in school. Unfortunately, it was the other way around.
“You girls stay safe while I’m at work. Don’t invite anyone into the house under any circumstances.”
He’d burst a blood vessel if I ever told him about Vince tutoring me.
Lana said, “Daddy, I don’t have mace or stakes or anything. Can I have some money to go buy some?” She batted her fake fucking eyelashes at him.
I knew exactly what she was doing. But Dad is so easily fooled by her for some reason. He can get the truth out of any patient about what they’ve been eating or drinking or smoking, but Lana always manages to stay under his radar. Before he left for a conference in Miami in August, she got him to leave her a thousand bucks for food and clothes and shit, and she threw a huge back-to-school party at the house. Four kegs and twenty bottles of Goldschläger and Pumpkin Spice Svedka—booze only stupid jocks and their basic girlfriends would want to drink—were delivered as if by magic. About two hundred people showed, and the party raged on until five in the morning, when nearly everyone had staggered home. And out of all of them plus my sister and I, guess who had to clean everything up before Dad got home?
I, unlike Lana, can never catch a break around here. My mom couldn’t either. I guess that’s why she left at the beginning of the year. She didn’t tell anyone why. Well, not me or Lana anyway.
All Lana had to do was flash her ‘helplessness,’ and Dad pulled out his wallet to give her a few $100 bills. It was going to be exchanged for booze as soon as she could get one of her boyfriends to pick her up and take her to the liquor store, I knew it.
“Make sure you get some stakes for Max, sweetheart. And Max,” Dad added. “Try to lose some weight, you don’t look healthy.”
Lana smirked at me. She and I are twins but you’d never be able to tell; we don’t look anything alike or have anything in common. But I can totally vouch for that “evil twin” theory.
Lana looks like Dad but I look like Mom, and I think that’s why he hates me so much. Right before she left, Mom and Dad seemed fine. Or as fine as they ever were. One day, they were screaming at each other at the end of the three-car garage like they always were, and the next, she was gone. She left everything behind; her clothes and jewelry were still there, mostly, and she left behind her record collection that she’d been adding to since college. She also left behind Granddad’s .357 Magnum. Dad did his best to hide all of her stuff in a storage unit on the other side of town, but he couldn’t get rid of the gun-safe that was bolted to the floor in her office.
When she was still home, we went to the range almost every weekend to shoot. At the dusty outdoor range about two miles from our house, she taught me how to clean it, how to line up the sights, how to squeeze the trigger instead of pulling. My marksmanship was getting pretty good. And we always went for burgers after. She would never have left that gun behind. But there it was, still locked in the gun-safe downstairs, and there it remained—one of the only artifacts Dad couldn’t get rid of, because he didn’t know where the key was.
But I did.
My boss Marty decided to have a horror movie marathon in honor of the season, and he was playing back to back movies in a different theme for every weekend in October except the last one so everyone could have Halloween off. The first weekend we showed zombie flicks, then the Hannibal Lecter series, werewolves after that, and the weekend before Halloween would end the series of marathons with vampire movies.
Different groups of people came to each one. The survivalists came out of the woodworks to the George A. Romero series. They avoided the snack counter like the plague and snuck in homemade energy bars in their cargo pockets. A huge group of girls my age and their moms came to see the Silence of the Lambs in shirts that said ‘#SSDGM’ and ‘Elvis want a cookie?’ If Jodie Foster did anything more interesting than breathing, the whole theater would shout, “Stay sexy and don’t get murdered!”
The dog show people came to the werewolf movies. I had to turn one lady away at the door because she brought her Chihuahua in a bag. The dog ogled me with one eye and a poster for “Land of the Dead” with the other, while his owner screamed at me that she spent a lot of money here and that I was just a dumb, fucking kid, let me speak to your manager. But Marty waddled out and told her the same thing I did. I stood behind him with my arms folded, and I raised my eyebrow at her as she left swearing under her breath.
Dumb, fucking kid indeed.
The turnout was always pretty steady, and we were left sweeping up about as much popcorn and squished M&Ms as usual. But it seemed like everyone in town came to see the vampire movies. And they were a rowdy crowd. Sitting in the box office is one thing, you hear people ask for a ticket, pay and leave. But I was working the lobby most of the night, and I heard everyone’s conversations as I rushed around scooping popcorn, pouring sodas and neon yellow streams of butter, handing out boxes of candy.
“Can’t be too careful. We gotta know how to defend ourselves.”
I turned around. That was my dad’s voice. He went on. “You didn’t bring Junior? I don’t think he’s too young, he’s already in kindergarten. He has to learn about this now that whole families of them moving in to work at NASA. There have to be a couple of little ones going into elementary.”
I saw my dad and his buddy Eric from the hospital standing in Juanita’s line, two registers over. I made it a point not to make eye contact. If I didn’t look at him, my father wouldn’t approach me. My dad’s an eye surgeon, but you wouldn’t be able to tell; he never looks people in the eye when he’s talking to them.
Eric chewed on a fingernail and said, “Yeah, I’ll bring him to tomorrow night. But isn’t there a boy already in school? Older?”
“Yeah, he must be about the twins’ age. Lana and Maxine haven’t said anything so far, but you’d better believe I’m going to give the PTA a piece of my mind. Letting that filthy beast into school with our kids. It’s just not right.” He bought a huge bag of popcorn and went to the condiments counter on the other side of the lobby by the arcade.
We have these bottles of different flavors of salt for you to shake on your bag of popcorn. Apple cinnamon, yeast and salt, salt and vinegar, lemon pepper and chile lime salt, and my favorite—garlic salt. It’s those big granules that have garlic mixed right into them and it’s seriously the best stuff ever, especially with all that fake butter. Every time we go, my dad and I get our own big bag of popcorn and Lana gets her own. Or she used to; now she says popcorn goes straight to her ass. But whenever we go, my dad shakes a ton of that garlic salt all over our bag and we munch the whole thing away during the movie. It’s really all we can agree on.
Then, Marty announced from the end of the lobby, “Velcome to the Atherton Cinema. Our vampire movie marathon is about to begin! Please take your seats and get ready for the terror and foul horror that is,” he took a long breath for dramatic effect. “Nosferatu!” He laughed his best vampire laugh and his cape shook on his fat shoulders. The people in the lobby crowded into the dimly lit theater, my dad and Eric included.
Marty ran up to start the movie and after about ten minutes he came down the stairs to the counter, wiping sweat and some white makeup off with a corner of his cape. His ruffled vampire shirt front was coming untucked from under his potbelly. “Hey gals. We’re a full house tonight! How’s it been so far?” He was beaming.
“I dropped a soda back here, when a customer reached for it too fast. I’m gonna mop it up really quick, now that there’s no line,” Juanita said.
“No, it’s looks like it’s about time for your break, both of you” he said. Marty was a great boss. He always pitched in and helped us clean and replace everything, right up until closing. That was the reason there was only one movie theater in town. Everyone had worked for Marty at the theater while they were in high school and would never take their money anywhere else; they all loved him. But I’d be lying if I said we didn’t take advantage of that every once in a while. We stepped out into the alley to smoke cigarettes.
“My dad’s in there,” I said.
“Damn bro, that sucks,” she said, and took a puff. She held the smoke in her mouth for a few moments before handing the cigarette back to me, stained with her mauve lipstick. That was the signal to stop talking.
I was about to ask her to light another one, when a muted roar issued from the theater. The sound leaked under the emergency exit door, getting louder and louder. Juanita and I exchanged a confused look and we both went over to peek in the door. I fumbled with my keys and finally, we cracked it open a tiny bit. I crouched below her so we could both look in.
The crowd in the theater was in an uproar. People were throwing popcorn at the screen, screaming, “Go back to Transylvania!” and “Suck this!” Sodas were being knocked out of cupholders, black liquid spilled into large, bubbly puddles, and malted milk balls and candy corn skittered across the floor. A few kids were crying. I looked around for my dad, but I didn’t have to look for long. He was shouting from the front of the theater, “Fucking bloodsuckers, stay out of our town!”
I was mortified, but Marty was already waddling down the aisle to get control of the room. I ducked away from the door. I couldn’t handle it. I mean, Nosferatu is nothing in the grand scheme of vampire movies. It came out in ’22 and there’s no blood, no gore, no nothing. These people were freaking out over nothing. And in real life, vampires really weren’t that bad. I would know.
Vince was better than most humans I know.
After school on Wednesday, all I wanted was to get home. I was on my period and I was already having a less than stellar day. But class made me feel particularly stupid, and I was tired of feeling so fucking invisible. It felt like Vince was the only person who acknowledged my existence at school, and it was nice to eat lunch with someone that wanted to hold a conversation.
But as I was getting onto the bus home, Kyle, a guy from the baseball team that was also in our calc class, said, “Hey Max, you going over to Vince’s again tonight?”
Lana got onto the bus and sat in the seat across from me. I saved her a seat every day but she never took it. Kyle looked over the seat at me, with one arm crooked over it.
Kyle was so cute. I had a crush on him all last year. It hadn’t really gone away, I guess. We had different classes on completely opposite ends of campus this semester so I never saw him. Except for calc. He was quieter than most of the other stupid jocks that went to our school, and I imagined every time he brought a new girl to the movies, that he would ask me next time and I would get to be on that side of the counter, with him telling me to order whatever I wanted. Maybe he would brush a lock of hair behind my ear when he said it, and look into my dusty brown eyes with his icy blue ones.
It hadn’t happened yet but I wasn’t holding my breath or anything. I mean, not really.
“Yeah, why?” Were his grades slipping too? Maybe Chalkboard Boobs told him about our study sessions and encouraged him to join us. Please let that be the case, I thought. I should have known it was a long shot but hey, a girl can dream.
“Well, I was wondering,” Kyle said, looking at the letterman patches on his white leather sleeve. The bus was bumping down the main road, closer and closer to my neighborhood. Lana and I lived closest to school, so we got picked up last and dropped off first. Kyle would have to ask soon if he wanted the details.
He continued, “I wondered if he could smell it on you.”
Lana giggled. He nodded at her and winked. Then he turned back to me and said, “You know, Max. Can the bloodsucker smell when you’re on the rag?”
My heart started pounding and I felt the blood rush out of my face. How did Kyle know that I was on my period? I thought back to when I had changed my tampon last. I couldn’t remember. The bus was slowing down for our stop and I slid my hand underneath me and felt where it was faintly warm and damp there.
The bus screeched to a stop and I bolted out of my seat, down the aisle, and out the door before the bus driver could even open it all the way. The hot tears spilled from my eyes as I stumbled down the steps, my hands covering my backside. I ran up the driveway to my house and before the bus pulled away, I heard Kyle yell out one of the half-windows, his red and white letterman’s jacket glistening in the afternoon sun, “Better change before you go to the vamp’s, Period Pants!” Before the bus left from view, I saw Lana move over to my seat and start talking to Kyle. She didn’t get off the bus.
I fumbled with my house key, threw open the door, and barged into the kitchen. With tears spilling down my cheeks, I dialed her cellphone like I did every day after school.
But she never picked up. I couldn’t blame her for leaving. Dad was always holding money over her head, saying her writing would never amount to anything, screaming about how fat I was. If eight months of living with just my dad and sister was enough to make me want to kill myself, I can’t imagine how my mom felt having to put up with Dad for 18 years.
I tore the lid off the flour jar on the counter and dug around until I found the edge of the Ziploc bag. I pulled a key out of it and dialed my mom again. No answer.
I stumbled down the hall and sat in my mom’s desk chair where she’d drafted most of her short stories since Lana and I were born. This empty room didn’t even look like my mother’s office anymore, it looked like any other boring home office, one lonely chair at a desk with a few wonky paperclips scattered on the surface. I wiped my face on my sleeve to keep from dripping on the carpet.
I dialed my mom again. No answer.
I unlocked the gun safe and pulled out the Romeo and Julietta cigar box that held Granddad’s gun. I dialed my mom again, put the phone on speaker and opened the cigar box. The phone rang. No answer.
I dialed again, loaded one bullet into the revolver. The cigar box smelled like old tobacco. The phone rang. No answer.
I dialed again, slid the gun between my teeth, the cold steel heavy on my tongue. The phone rang. No answer.
I was getting ready to squeeze the trigger with my thumb when my phone’s cheerful marimba ringtone cut the silence. It rang. It rang and it rang and it rang.
It was Mom. I set the gun down on the desk. It was so heavy. Heavier than it had ever felt before.
“Hello,” I said, shaking. A tear rolled down my cheek. Or maybe it was sweat.
“Maxine? Honey? It’s Mom. How are you?”
I wasn’t sure if she really wanted to know. After almost a year of not talking to someone do you say, “Hey, not much, I just really feel like dying, how are you?”
No. You suck it up and you say, “I’m fine.” Which is what I did.
“Honey, I miss you so much. I’m coming back to town and I want to take you to dinner.”
“Mom, I miss you.” I felt all the tears from the afternoon, from the last few weeks, months, all welling up behind my shut eyelids, squeezing their way out.
“I know, honey. It’s gonna be okay. I’m so sorry things have been such a mess, Maxine. I’m gonna take you to dinner and we’ll talk,” she said and she sighed. “Just don’t tell—“
“Good. I’ll come get you tomorrow at 8. I’ll see you soon, honey. I love you.”
“I love you too, Mom.” My voice cracked and I could hear my mom sob when she hung up the phone.
I came down the stairs for breakfast the next morning and poured myself a box of Count Chocula. October is the only time they sell it anymore, and even though I knew my dad wouldn’t like it, I bought it anyway. It’s the best.
I took a seat next to Lana. She narrowed her mascara-laced eyelashes at me and scowled.
“Daddy, I need to tell you something. I think there’s someone stalking me.” Her perfect eyebrows puckered together. She does that just to make guys give her what she wants. Makes me sick.
“Well, did you tell him you weren’t interested honey?” Dad asked. He glanced up from his paper at Lana and back down again. The headline read, “Rogue Vampire Carnival Worker Abducts Teenager at State Fair: Is Nothing Safe?”
“Yeah, sis. Did you tell him you weren’t interested?”
“Let your sister talk, Max.”
Lana shot me a dirty look. “He hasn’t talked to me yet, but I don’t even know what I’d do if he did. He’s always watching me with those creepy eyes of his. And I’m sure he knows where all of my classes are,” she said and she hung her head like she was absolutely terrified or something. But that was a big, fat lie.
“Honey, I don’t think you should worry so much. He’s a boy. That’s what boys do. He’ll get over it.” Dad took a big sip out of his espresso and turned back to his newspaper. He never ate actual food for breakfast. And if he ate at the hospital, we didn’t know. It seemed like he subsided only on dark coffee and espresso, since we never saw him eat at home. He loved to lecture us about what kind of food we shouldn’t eat though—burgers and hotdogs and fried SPAM for breakfast with eggs and cheese—all the things he said latched on to your heart in the form of gooey, yellow cholesterol.
“No, you don’t get it, Dad.” Lana tapped her long, manicured nails on the dining table. Her red lips twisted into a pouty scowl. “He’s a…he’s a vampire.”
Dad slammed the paper down. His face was turning the color of Lana’s favorite Coach bag—puce, I think she calls it. Sounds like puke.
Lana smiled that smug smirk she has for when she knows she’s dragging me into something. “And that’s not even the worst part. He’s been tutoring Max in calc for about a month now. It’s really freaking me out. I think he’s using you to get to me,” she said, straight to my face.
“Is that true, Max?” Dad’s voice sounded like string pulled too thin.
While Lana and I were waiting at the bus stop with a few other neighbor kids the first day of school, Vince walked over and said, “Good Morning.”
Lana said, “Go rob a blood bank, leech.” I was pretty sure that was the only time they’d interacted. I guess I could be wrong. But Vince wouldn’t do that, would he? “Yeah, he’s been tutoring me, but—“
Dad cut me off. And here comes my full name, I thought. I just know it.
“Maxine Anne Summers, you had better not let that filthy bloodsucker into our house or anywhere near your little sister.” His voice shook the hanging kitchen lights.
Little sister. Lana happens to come out six minutes after me and she’s the little sister. Makes perfect sense. And it was my fault my grades were slipping, I knew that. I’d actually taken steps to improve them, I was getting better. But that wasn’t worth shit to my dad.
“Next thing we know, they’ll start trying to marry us and assimilate and then they’ll take our jobs and our homes, and before you know it, we’ll be hooked up to the fountain drinks at McDonald’s. He hasn’t made any moves on you, too…Has he Max?”
I didn’t answer.
“Has he, Max?”
I turned my spoon around in my bowl of Count Chocula. Dad’s eyes narrowed. He said, “What’s that?”
“Dad, it’s October, come on,” I said. “It’s just cereal.”
“Just cereal. Just cereal? This is propaganda. Did you buy this with my money? You come on, Maxine,” he said.
He picked up the box and threw it across the wall at the trash can, but instead of hitting its mark, it struck the wall and chocolate puffs and marshmallows exploded all over the room.
“And don’t even get me started on school. I can’t believe you, Maxine. Tutoring from a fucking bloodsucker?”
He slammed his hands down on the table in front of me, making me jump.
“Drop your ‘tutoring sessions’ with that leech, and then we’re gonna have a long talk about your grades.” He swept the paper off the table with his hand.
“Clean this up.”
He slammed the door to the garage and we heard his car speed off down the street.
“Have fun with your bloodsucker, Max,” Lana said. She tossed her beautiful blonde hair. “Kyle’s coming to get me later, don’t wait up.”
She left her cereal on the table and walked out to the bus stop.
Maybe Mom had the right idea. I figured I would ask her when she picked me up from school later. But until then, I had to pick up a million pieces of cereal and still get through school.
I rode the bus home again, in the front seat with my headphones on. I could still feel Kyle and Lana behind me, snickering. But my stop came and I got off without a word. Mom would be here soon. So, I waited at the bus stop by the mailboxes instead of walking around the corner to my house.
A few minutes later, I saw a black limo with blackout windows roll onto our street. It was gleaming in the hot Florida sun, little heat waves rising off of its roof. I couldn’t believe it, but it slowed down right where I was and the door opened.
“Maxine, get in!” That was my mom’s voice. I slid into the wide backseat without another thought.
It was dark in the back of the limo but not dark enough to see my mom. I couldn’t help it. I fell over onto her in a tearful hug.
“Hey baby girl,” she said. “Let’s go to Jonesy’s.” She rolled down the partition and gave the driver directions.
Were there four sweeter words in the English language? I hadn’t had a hamburger in nearly a year.
Jonesy’s was just as I remembered it: the gumball and pinball machines were still sitting in the corner, hungry and waiting for quarters, and the walls were covered in pictures of local families. Some overlapped and each one had a small label tacked over it. Jonesy gave a family a small discount if they brought a picture for his wall. He never forgot a face so the discount was only good for one time. But he let you bring in a new picture whenever the family had another baby.
The counter with its puffy red barstools was empty, except for Patsy Garretson who was there, just like every day, with his crossword and his half-eaten burger, and he nodded to us as we walked in. Mom and I sat down in one of the vacant booths against the wall.
Jonesy came over to take our order, wiping the same lettuce and tomato stains on his apron. “Hey, you two! Long time, no see! Can I get you all the usual?” We agreed and he walked back into the kitchen. We heard the sizzle of meat dropping onto a hot grill. She asked me about school, and I filled her in about calc, and what had happened on the bus yesterday. Not about what happened when I got home. Just what happened on the bus. And I told her about breakfast.
“Do what you have to do survive with them, just a little while longer. I’m gonna come get you sweetie. You and Lana. I promise.”
“I mean, you can leave Lana if you want to.” I said. I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t have said it.
Mom rolled her eyes. “She still sleeping around?”
“Of course I know, Max. I’m not as dense as your father.” She bit into her burger, and blood oozed out of the rare center. “And she hasn’t been any nicer to you?”
“No, it’s gotten worse. She and Dad gang up on me all the time.” I took another bite of my burger. Who knows when I’m getting another one of these? Might as well enjoy it.
Mom watched me from over her glasses for a long minute and then she said, “Listen honey, I’m coming to get you. I’m going to come and get you, I promise. Pack yourself a bag, and keep an eye on your phone. Tonight’s the night.”
She was really coming to get me?
“I know it’s taken me a long time to get around to it, but I had to wait until your father thought I was long gone. I had to wait until I could set everything up somewhere else, and come to get you when the time was right.” She reached out her hands to me across the formica surface of the booth’s table. “I’m here, honey. I’m coming to take you away from here. And there’s someone I want you to meet,” she added.
I had just taken a big bite of my burger so I couldn’t respond. I replied by raising my eyebrows.
“Finish your burger, honey,” she said, and she took another bite herself.
Mom dropped me off around the corner from the house, and I rushed inside to pack my bag. I packed all of the money I’d earned from working at the theater, my favorite couple of outfits, as many of my figurines as I could, and I rolled up about twelve of my favorite movies posters into one cardboard tube. The last thing I grabbed was the key to the gun safe, and the cigar box that held Granddad’s gun. I unloaded it before I put it in my bag. I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten to the day before.
As I was zipping up my bag, I got a text from Mom that read: Hey Max, have everything ready. B there @ midnite. Xoxo, Mom.
She still didn’t understand that you don’t have to sign off on a text message but who cared? She was coming to get me in five hours. Dad wouldn’t be home until late, Lana probably wouldn’t be home at all, and all I would have to do after study night was grab my stuff and run out the door. When I left for Vince’s a few hours later, I stashed my bag in the azaleas in the front yard and walked around the corner.
It was just like any other study night, dinner and math problems. But the entire time I was there, I counted down the hours. Four hours until Mom gets here. Did I put toothpaste in my bag? Yes. Three hours until Mom gets here.
I must have looked distracted, because Jay asked, “Hey Max, penny for your thoughts?” She passed the cheesy bread as she said it.
I couldn’t to let on that this was the last time we’d see each other. I was going to miss them. “Oh, I’m just hoping my grade’s picked up by now.”
“I’m sure it has honey. Vince says you’ve been making a lot of progress. He’s really impressed, by the sound of it.”
“Mooooom, stop,” Vince said. If he could blush, his face would have been bright red.
Henry laughed his big dad laugh. I couldn’t help but join him; it was infectious. I really, really was going to miss them. I had to push the tears back in and try not to hug her too tight when Jay sent me home with the leftovers of cheesy no-garlic bread.
After we finished studying for the evening, we walked to the mailboxes as usual, my leftovers wrapped in foil and tucked beneath my arm. Vince had his hands in his pockets and he looked a little shaky.
I was shaky, too. Pretty soon, Mom was going to be outside the house in that gleaming black limo, waiting to take me away forever.
Only one hour left.
“Max? Can I ask you a favor?”
I nodded. I mean, I wasn’t gonna see Vince again. He’d really helped me out but more importantly, he was a really good friend. I had to listen to what he had to say.
In his pale hand, he held out an envelope sealed with red wax and a stamp of a fancy crest. It was heavy and felt like parchment. Vince was really trying. No one wrote letters anymore.
But I knew what Lana would do with it; she’d hold it between her long-manicured fingernails and take it to Dad so that he could get in a big rage and yell at me. She probably wouldn’t even read it. And knowing Vince, it was probably very sweet. But this meant that what she said was true. Lana wasn’t just being a huge bitch for once.
“Sorry, dude. I can’t give her that,” I said. “She said you’ve been stalking her. Plus, if my dad found out—“
We were still talking so Vince had walked me all the way to my house. We were approaching the front steps when the door opened. And there, in the shadows on the porch, was my dad.
He looked pissed off, more than I’d ever seen him. There was a vein in his neck and I could see it throbbing from where we were on the sidewalk. He held a jar under one arm, a clear, wide mason jar full of something white, and he said, “Don’t you come any closer, demon.”
Vince’s eyebrows popped up in surprise. He stuttered, “What’s going on? I don’t even know your Dad.”
“Right. But he knows who you are. Or what you are, at least. Let me take care of this.”
I was about to say something to my dad, but he shouted, “Put your fucking hands up.” He came down a few more steps and I could see the whites of his eyes burning in the dim starlight.
Vince sniffed at the air and said, “Wait, is that garlic salt? What’s that for?”
“If this is what it takes to keep you from hunting my daughter, so be it.” My dad unscrewed the lid of the jar and held it out toward Vince like it was a loaded gun.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was just helping her study.” He put his hands up and added, “Her gradeth are really improving, thir.” Poor guy. His lisp was leaking out, he was so scared.
“You know damn well what you’ve been doing. You’ve been stalking Lana. And if you think you’re going to get your filthy claws on her, you’ve got another thing coming.”
Vince hung his head. “So, you’re going burn me with garlic salt? It might do the trick, and it might not. I know what real garlic does but salt I’m not so sure about. I guess if it didn’t work, I’d still have to count all of the grains. I’d be here a while.”
Dad looked a little confused. “What do you mean you don’t know?”
“Believe me, I know what I’m talking about.” I guess he had to know what would kill him. It was like having a really bad allergy, he was probably looking out for these things everywhere.
“Well, then you’d still have to count them. I’m assuming it works for salt just like it does with rice.” Dad had done his homework.
“Then you shouldn’t waste the salt. All you’d have to do is tilt my head up.”
“What do you mean?” Dad was shaking. He held the jar out as far from his body as he could and it was shaking, too.
“You think I haven’t thought about doing it before?” Vince said. His voice was soft and quiet, and his lisp wasn’t as pronounced. He sounded the way he did that first night we studied together. Hopeless.
“Doing what? Looking up at the stars?” Dad laughed. “We’ve all done that, you’re not fucking special.”
“Well, I’d be stuck here all night, counting.” He pointed up to the sky and I saw the stars poking out from the darkness. I could see a lot of stars because the streetlight by our house was still tilted on its side and smeared with paint from Dad’s car.
Vince went on. “And dawn is when sunlight is at its most pure. So, even though I can walk around during the day for the most part, dawn is like…” He trailed off, and made a slicing motion with one finger across his neck.
Whatever happened, I couldn’t let Dad hurt Vince. And I wouldn’t. But if Vince felt this way, I didn’t know what to do.
“All I would have to do is look up.” Vince removed his glasses and wiped them on his shirt, but didn’t hold them up to check for streaks. “All it would take is one star and I’d be stuck here counting them all night.”
The jar of garlic salt looked like it was getting heavier.
“That’s kind of why they all work for NASA, all my family. I guess that’ll be me one day, too. No hospital would let me be a doctor. Even if I did get into medical school by some miracle.”
My dad stood up a little straighter. “Yeah, I’d trust a vampire doctor about as much as I’d trust a werewolf to be a dairy farmer. You’re goddamn right, we’d never let you become a doctor. Humans aren’t that fucking stupid, we know vampires don’t feel the same things we do. They only care about one thing.”
He wiped his nose. “Do you know why your mom left, Max? One of those things from Cape Canaveral. One of those egghead leeches, the ones that were here before his family showed up. They took her away.”
He was descending the front steps that led from our door to the street, the jar still held out at Vince. A breeze drifted by and I smelled the garlic wafting toward us. “They took her away. And I’ll be damned if I let them take Lana away, too.”
Then I remembered my bag. I pulled it out of the azaleas, I unboxed Granddad’s gun and I pointed it straight at my dad.
“What are you doing, Maxine?”
“Put it down, Dad.” I didn’t shake or stumble over my words like I normally did. But Dad didn’t put down the jar. “Do it, Dad. I’m not kidding.”
He set it down on the last step and held his hands up at eye level. Vince and I backed down the street and turned the corner, and then we jogged back to Vince’s house.
“Where in the world did you get that gun?” Vince’s voice was shaky and he had his hands tucked in his armpits.
“Chill, dude. It’s not even loaded.” I showed him the inside of the chamber. “It’s my mom’s. She’s coming back to get me, that’s why I had my bag in the front yard. I’m finally going to get out of here, Vince. I’m not going to have to stay here with them anymore.”
“Wait, you’re really leaving?”
“Yeah, I hate it here. Living with Lana and my dad? Are you kidding me?”
He paused for a second and said, “Yeah, meeting your dad didn’t exactly go as I imagined. I guess I can’t blame you.”
I texted my mom Vince’s address, and Vince sat with me out on the curb while we waited for her.
Finally, my mom’s car pulled up and I said, See you later, even though I knew I probably wouldn’t. I don’t know if vampires have hearts or not, but the way his fangs bit down and how his big, black eyebrows got all scrunched up, it looked like his was breaking. I gave him a big hug. It was going to hurt, losing his only friend. I knew that feeling.
“And just so you know, Lana’s a real pain in the ass. You could do a whole lot better.”
As we drove away, I thought I saw him toss his head back in laughter or something else.
Tori Cárdenas is a queer Latinx poet from Albuquerque, NM. She is currently earning her MFA in Poetry from the University of New Mexico. Her work has appeared in Lavender Review, Raspa Magazine, and Vice.