On Valentine's Day it's customary to I've chocolates or candy. Instead I give you chocolate and vampires. ;)
For Want of Chocolate
A Void City Short Story
© J. F. Lewis
Nobody warned me about chocolate, which is why I was standing in the mall right outside Godiva, and to be honest, I thought I was going to go berserk. The luxurious bitter scent of dark chocolate mixed with other odors that I'd never noticed before: a spicy flair, a fruity bouquet...
When I was human, those odors never sang to me the way they did now that my olfactory senses had received a mystical boost. Of course, no matter how good it smelled, I knew I couldn't have any. Vampires can't eat... and I'd known that. Hell, I'd been dating one, for over a year. But in the moment, when I got the news about mom's illness and Jason made his offer, I hadn't been thinking about food, my job...anything.
My boyfriend Jason laughed at me. He leaned over the fourth floor balcony rail, by the DVD store next to the escalators. His long black hair cascaded past his hard muscled shoulders, and he tossed it back as he laughed. He whispered his words, but I heard him clearly. "What? You forgot vampires can't eat?"
An older woman brushed past me, purchase made. She didn't wait until she was out of the mall to open her chocolate. She discarded the bag, removing the multi-colored ribbon from the matte gold box. I felt like that rat in the Pixar movie, the one that can cook, because when she opened the box, the world faded away and the scent canceled out everything else. The nearby food court, the woman's own body odor, even the siren call of blood itself, were replaced by this cornucopia of rich, dark wonder.
I'd always laughed at Jason for the way he'd stared at me whenever I ate a bag of Cheetos. He'd focused on every nuance of what was such a simple action, eyes locked in on each individual Cheeto as it went into my mouth. Now I knew how he'd felt. The sensation was overwhelming, like hang-gliding... or really good sex.
Jason laughed again as I began to stagger, but I didn't look up at him. My eyes were on the chocolate. I recognized each piece, from the Coffee Feather to the Raspberry Caramel Duet. My fangs came out, tearing through my gums. It was only the second time they'd ripped free of their hidden sheaths; already the pain was more tolerable.
"Careful." Jason was next to me in a blink, right hand on the back of my neck. He forced me back against the glass of the shop, left hand on my abdomen. "Just watch."
I'd have gone for the Dark Ganache Heart, the Pecan Crunch, or the Dark Mint Medallion, but she didn't. She sat at an abandoned table at the edge of the deserted food court, the metal chair's creak inaudible to humans, but loud as the clatter of high heels on tile to me and to Jason. She lifted a brown square, the 72% Dark Demitasse, and unwrapped it with blasphemous abandon.
I wanted her to break it in half to savor it, but she chewed it recklessly, without thought, without care.
"She's not even tasting it," I said with a snarl of outrage.
The woman glared up at me with a scowl, her lips drawn up into a look of porcine self-importance. What must I have looked like to her? A skinny little bitch,dressed in black? Did she envy my hair, my pale perfect skin? Or did she look at the blue lipstick, the eyeliner, the tiny gold stud in my nostril and dismiss me as trash? Jason laughed again, a gentle laugh, a pitying laugh, and I could see it in the woman's eyes... she thought he was laughing at her.
As if to spite me, she grabbed the Pecan Crunch and stuffed it in, staring me in the eyes. I willed her to stop, screamed it in my head. To my surprise, she froze, gaze locked with mine and I felt our minds touch. She was a petty little thing. Her thoughts thrashed against mine, but there was no real fight in her, no spark.
"Did you just lock minds with her?" There was wonder in his voice, tinged with fear.
"She does not get to hork down the Pecan Crunch without even tasting it."
Jason's eyes narrowed. "Is it possible you're a Master? Most Soldiers can't instinctively lock minds with a human."
There are four levels of vampire, and Jason is only a Soldier, second from the bottom. If I turned out to be a Master, I'd be more powerful than him. But I didn't care about that; I cared about the woman and the woman's chocolate. Her green eyes were still locked with my brown eyes. I smiled.
"If she eats the chocolate and then I drink her blood...?" I let the question hang.
"It doesn't work that way." Jason released me and I took one step toward the lady with the chocolate. "I tried it with Cheetos and this homeless dude outside my old apartment. Even after I made the guy eat eleven big bags, I couldn't taste a thing."
But there's more to chocolate than the taste right? I told myself.
Layers of chocolate melted in the woman's mouth, revealing the pecan pieces within, the nuggets of crisped rice, and I watched as a bead of brown drool escaped the edge of her mouth and slid down her chin. An urge to leap upon her and lick the drool from her face roared up from deep inside me and I looked away.
In that instant, she was in control again and she threw herself away from me with such force that she fell out of the chair. I wanted to walk across the dull tile and lift her over my head, break her, smash her, because she could have what I craved and she didn't even have the decency to savor it. As if stuffing her face with fine chocolate was acceptable.
Jason was restraining me again, but not for long. I elbowed him hard and he went flying, arms and legs stretched out in front of him, his face a comical mask of surprise as he hurtled toward the glass window of the Godiva store behind me like an umbrella caught in the wind.
He caught himself at the last possible second, hands flat against the marble above the window. Using the momentum of my blow, he rolled backwards up the wall, caught the iron rail behind his head, and hung there for an instant before dropping back to the ground. The funny thing was, no one noticed it happened except for me, Jason, and possibly the woman. It had all happened that quickly. Vampire speed.
Whether she'd seen Jason's vampire-acrobatics or not, the woman was preparing to make a break for the parking deck. And taking her chocolate with her. There must have been forty bucks or more of Godiva's finest, and she wasn't just going to leave it behind. As she looked toward the escalator, I tested my own speed, appearing before her in a blur, head cocked to one side. Our eyes met and before she could look away, I had her again.
Sit. Back. Down. I thought at her. She followed the order. Again the metal of the chair creaked beneath her weight. I looked beyond the extra pounds, beyond my own casual, judgmental assessment, and really saw her. She was pretty in her way. Her make-up was inexpertly applied, but she was trying. With a better dye-job and a few make-up tips she'd be cute.
"What are you doing, Haley?" Jason whispered.
"I just want her to do it right," I hissed.
My name is Haley, I thought at her. Say it. Say hello.
"Hello, Haley?" she asked in a weak, frightened, yet pleasant voice.
I'm not going to hurt you, I thought at her again. Not if you follow my instructions.
"Can you do that?" I asked aloud.
She nodded, and I crossed the space between us and sat in one of the two unoccupied chairs at the food court table, resting my leather-jacketed elbows on the smooth, whitish surface.
"How can you do this?"
"I'm a vampire," I told her. My fangs were still out, and she started to draw away from me. I caught her wrist in a grip stronger than Mike, my trainer at the company gym, had ever had.
The company gym. I went to work on Friday, still human. Today is Saturday and I'm undead now. What do I do about a job? I work mornings! Who has time to worry about chocolate?
Nothing was more important to me right now than chocolate. I couldn't even muster the effort to lie to myself about it. Nothing, not Jason, not the woman across from me, not my mother in the hospital bed back home in Utah. Nothing was more important than the chocolate!
"What's your name?"
"Liz," she said. Her eyes were locked on my painted blue fingernails, which dug into the skin at her wrist. I let go.
"Liz." I rolled the word around in my mouth, feeling the strangeness of the fangs there, listening to odd way they affected my voice. "That's a pretty name." A bit of red spittle hit her cheek as the fangs slurred my sibilant. I wiped it away.
"Sorry, Liz." I handled the sibilants more carefully that time, speaking the words in a slow measured cadence. "Blood is the only fluid I have now and I'm not used to speaking around the fangs, yet."
"You're really a vampire?"
"I don't believe you. This is some kind of trick."
Believe me, I thought at her, catching her eyes with my stare again. Her panic almost forced me out, but my personality, my will, was stronger than hers. You'd think a vampire would win a mental contest automatically, but we don't. Jason had once described it as the undead version of the old Jedi Mind Trick: it's only one hundred percent effective on the weak-minded. After a second, after my mind had forced hers to submit, she believed me.
"Are you going to eat me?" She blinked back tears.
"Oh, come on," Jason whispered, the soul of impatience. "I thought you might want to go to the mall, buy some new boots or something. Eat a tween. I didn't think we were going to get stuck here all night messing around with some middle-aged office chick. I still want to see what kind of animal you can turn into."
In the presence of the chocolate, the idea of turning into a bat lost its appeal. I wanted to fly, true, loved the idea of soaring on wings of my own. It had even been part of Jason's pitch. And it had hit home at the time, bringing back memories of hang gliding with my dad, out at The Point back in Utah. Flying had been the only thing the two of us had ever really done as a father-daughter activity. It had been years, but I could still close my eyes and feel the freedom of gliding through the air. The idea that of doing that, flying, without gear -- truly soaring -- was a dream come true. But the chocolate... to give that up to be a squeaky little bat? I had serious buyer's remorse, and undeath came with no right of rescission.
"So go eat a tween," I told him.
He cursed, threw his hands up in the air. I could smell his frustration, but he wasn't angry.
"Just hurry it up, okay?"
"I'll make it up to you," I told him and he softened, grinning the grin that make him look like a dark angel, the grin that had talked me into joining him in undeath when I got the word about mom last night.
"Cool," he said. "We've got about thirty minutes before the mall closes. I think I'll go check out the video games or maybe the roleplaying game store." He'd gone from upset to realizing he could go to all the places I thought were a waste of time. He walked away, whistling the theme to The Andy Griffith Show like a True Nerd.
"What do you want from me?" Liz asked.
"I want you to eat a piece of chocolate." Her eyebrows raised and she opened her mouth to interrupt. But something stopped her. The fangs or the angry look in my eye, I don't know which. I said, "I want you to eat it properly. Enjoy it. Savor it."
I laughed. "And then, I give you some make-up tips and I let you go."
She laughed with only the slightest touch of hysteria, trying to roll with it, to keep calm. Liz had a pretty laugh, a high pitched but pleasant titter. She wasn't a snorter like me. "Don't get me wrong, Haley, but you and I don't exactly have the same fashion possibilities. You're gorgeous. You look like that Trinity woman from the Matrix movies, but with better hair and nicer features."
"I also used to work the make-up counter at Macy's."
"Really?" Her eyes brightened and her voice only cracked a little when she spoke.
I nodded. "Yes. So please, do this for me. Take a piece of chocolate." Her hand moved toward one of the Dark Mint Medallions and I realized that I'd kill her if I had to watch her enjoy that particular piece.
"No!" I batted her hand away with such force that it brought tears to her eyes. "Sorry." I took her hand. Pressed my cold hand against her warm one. The warmth of her body was like a beacon. If I hadn't eaten before the mall, I'd have been at her throat. "Please. Let me pick."
I let my hands linger on the pieces, caressing the molded chocolate shell of the Open Oyster, the rich brown profile of the Dark Lion of Belgium, the sinuous curves of the Midnight Swirl, before settling on the 50% Dark Demitasse. That, I could bear to watch, I thought. I removed the light brown wrapper and held the hard square of chocolate between my thumb and forefinger, its shiny gloss smooth beneath my fingers. A scent like toasted bread wafted up to me. Unable to resist, I put pressure on the chocolate and it broke clean with a crystal-clear snap.
Liz was mesmerized. "You're serious about chocolate."
I handed her the larger of the two pieces. "Smell it."
"Put it in your mouth, but don't chew it. Let it melt." Liz did as I commanded. Her eyes closed, but mine widened, watching her for every little twitch.
"Wow," she said after several seconds had passed, "And you gave this up?"
"Don't push me, Liz."
I slipped the other half into the pocket of my jeans and we headed to Macy's to give Liz the tips I'd promised. I stumbled slightly as we walked and leaned against her for support, my legs trembling in the same way they might after flying, or sex. The only thing missing was the racing of my pulse, the pounding of my heart... which no longer beat.
Changing Liz's look took no time at all. She'd been using the wrong foundation and concealer for half a lifetime. That by itself made a huge difference. I said goodbye to Liz and went back to the Godiva store, feeling empty. I watched through the window as the employee counted down the till. When Jason caught up with me, he was swinging a GameStop bag in his hand.
"They had the new..."
I kissed him, stopping the flow of words. I didn't care what new video game they had, even if it was one that I'd want to play, too. I didn't care. I was hungry. I wanted food. I had a sliver of chocolate in my pocket and it wasn't melting because my body wasn't warm enough, and I knew that if I put it in my mouth not only would I not be able to taste it, but it would make me sick, very sick, and have me vomiting blood all over the tile floor of the mall.
"You said we can turn into animals," I said, breaking the kiss. "How? What kind?"
Please let it be more than bats, cats, dogs, and rats.
"Well. Drones can't turn into anything and Soldiers usually only get one. Masters and Vlads can do several..."
"I don't care about all that, Jason." I squeezed his arm. "Just what kind and how do I do it?"
"You concentrate, picture yourself as the animal, but be careful. I think you're a Master, but if you're a Soldier, then the first one you pick might be the only one you ever get to choose." His eyes crinkled in amusement. "There's a stripper I heard of who can only turn into a frog."
"I didn't know vampires could turn into frogs."
"Oh, yeah, we can turn into anything pretty much. But choose wisely," he said the last part with an accent, trying to mimic the grail knight from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The mall was closing, but I didn't care. I was going to turn into something with feathers. It didn't matter if the bird was sensible for a nocturnal predator or not. I just needed something, a guilty pleasure to replace the ones I'd lost. I perched on the metal rail of the balcony and pictured myself as a hawk, a bird of prey. I might not be free to eat, but I would be free to fly. Flight would be a consolation.
The transformation hurt, like I was being forced into a tiny rubber ball as my bones twisted in on themselves, poking my insides, but then I had feathers rising out of my skin. The pain stopped and I fell. I was a red-tailed hawk and I flew, my cry echoing through the mall.
Gliding to the top of the five-story atrium and down again to brush my wingtips against one of the mall's fountains, I re-evaluated my choice: I didn't give up chocolate to be a vampire. I can't think of it that way. I gave it up for wings -- real wings, with rich brown feathers streaked with tan; tail feathers a deep rich red, dotted with dark black bars. That trade I can deal with. It still hurts, but with every wing beat, I know that it's enough.
Barely, but it's enough.
If you enjoyed that little taste of Void City, be sure to check out my novels set in the same universe: STAKED, ReVAMPED, CROSSED, and BURNED.