The First Time I Dated a Vampire by Julian Winters
I’m certain of two things: I’m ready for this summer trip to end, and one more night in Santa Monica won’t change that.
“Tyrell? We’re here.”
I blink out of a daze. It happens a lot lately. Moments where I’m anywhere but the present. I jerk to face my mom, the seat belt strap digging into my neck at the sudden movement.
Through the windshield, ribbons of gold from fairy lights hung outside glow across Mom’s face. We look alike. Warm brown skin with reddish undertones. Smallish noses and long necks. But my curls—kept short with the sides of my head faded—aren’t hers. Neither is my bow-shaped mouth or awkward limbs.
Those are all Dad.
Are? Were? How do you describe something you inherited from a parent who’s now dead?
These days, I’d prefer not to discuss him. Mom hasn’t gotten the message yet.
She smiles wearily. “Do you really want to spend your last night watching a movie?”
“We’ve been here a month. You’ve barely seen the city. Only the walls of the house we’re renting and . . .” Mom gestures to the building across the street.
Reagan’s Cinema is a movie theater with old-school vibes: red-velvet-upholstered bucket seats. A giant marquee lit up in neon green and red. Big block letters advertising
FRIDAY NIGHT CLASSICS PRESENTS . . .
“Is that really a classic?” Mom whines. “I’m so old.”
I don’t comment.
“I’m surprised you haven’t seen it yet,” she continues. “You’re so obsessed with supernatural things. Your dad loved vampires, too.”
“I don’t want to see the city,” I tell her, quickly avoiding the topic of Dad. “This is fine.”
“Ty,” she says, cupping my cheek, “there’s so much to experience here.”
She talks like she hasn’t lived in Decatur, Georgia, where we’re from, her whole life. As if this isn’t the first time for both of us in Santa Monica, where my dad grew up. She’s clinging to the brittle memories of who Dad was. Ever since they lowered his body into the ground 182 days ago, I’ve been pretending none of this is happening.
“Rumor has it”—Mom wiggles her eyebrows—“there are tons of cute guys around your age. Maybe you can—”
“Ugh.” I scramble to unbuckle the seat belt strangling my flushed neck. “No, thanks. Just the movie.”
Before I can leap out into oncoming traffic, Mom’s coral pink nails, which match her sundress, dig into my forearm. She’s truly embracing the California aesthetic. Me? Scuffed Vans, black joggers, and a Rick and Morty graphic tee. Fitting in feels pointless.
“No curfew tonight.” Mom’s lips gentle into a grin. “Stay out after the movie.”
When I blink, she quickly corrects: “Within reason. You’re seventeen. College is around the corner, and—” She pauses, clearing her throat. “Give yourself the chance to fall in love with this place.”
I ignore the urge to roll my eyes. “Mom—”
“Do you have the list?”
The one she AirDropped to my phone the second we landed. A checklist of all the city sights Dad wanted to show me. The three of us were supposed to be here together. Dad planned the trip early last year. Then he got sick and, well . . .
I nod stiffly.
“Go do things,” she insists. “Maybe it’ll feel like . . . he’s here with you.”
It won’t, I want to tell her. Nothing does. Being in his hometown without him feels wrong. I don’t want to give it a chance. Problem is, I don’t want to go home either.
“Okay,” I lie through the thickness in my throat. “I’ll text you when I’m ready.”
Her smile widens. I wonder if she knows I’ll never be ready.
Friday nights at Reagan’s are like any other—a butter-scented ghost town. It’s three blocks from Third Street Promenade, where there are two AMCs less than half a mile from each other. But Reagan’s is my favorite spot to watch movies.
I check my phone. Ten minutes before start time. I ignore the pain needling behind my ribs at no new messages from my best friend, Kellan. His last text was days ago. An lol to a meme I sent, the extent of our communication now.
It’s another reason I don’t want to go home. I’m not the “Ty” Kellan’s known since middle school.
While I’m at the snack bar, contemplating my options, a throat clears. I lift my eyes and—
Come on, universe, why now?
A boy in a black Reagan’s T-shirt leans his elbows on the glass counter. His fair tawny complexion drinks in the bright overhead lights. We’re both scrawny, except he looks way more confident in his skin. Black fringe slices into his narrowed dark eyes.
If thunderclouds could take human form, they’d be Sean Kam.
His lips tilt up. “Why am I not surprised to see you?”
“I’m still deciding,” I say through my teeth.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Because you should’ve asked, ‘How can I help you?’ ” I snap. “Like a model employee.”
“You get the same thing every Friday.”
“What if I got Twizzlers?” I try. “And a Coke?”
More hair falls across his eyes. He scoops it away to say, flatly, “Are you?”
No. My nose wrinkles. “Nachos. Extra cheese.” A wicked smirk pulls at his lips. He’s waiting. “And a small blue raspberry slush,” I whisper.
“Now that we’ve established you’re basic and predictable,” he says, moving around the snack bar like there’s air under his soles, “Tell me you’re not here for . . . that movie.”
Here we go again. “I heard it’s good,” I say.
I don’t answer. Mom’s right. Supernatural stories are my favorite. Dad’s too. Secretly, we both believed in the unreal. That underneath this cruel and sometimes unexplainable world, things like monsters and myths must exist.
Not that I’ve ever seen one.
“The whole thing’s tragic.” Sean plonks a box of nachos and a large cup of slush on the counter, startling me. I raise an eyebrow when he doesn’t charge me for the bigger size. “It’s so . . . corny. Also, inaccurate.”
“It’s a movie,” I say while paying.
His features are sharp, almost beautiful when he squints. Unexpected heat blooms under my cheeks. “My point is,” I say, “every Friday you give me your hot film takes, even though I never ask. You hate everything, like the last Transformers movie.”
“Everyone hated that shitshow.”
True. I say, “What about the remake of—”
“Let me stop you right there,” he interrupts. “Remakes are inherently awful. The world deserves more original content.”
“Fine.” I lean on the counter, smiling. “Name one Christopher Nolan movie you like.”
“I can’t. He’s the devil,” Sean replies without blinking. His longest rants are always about Nolan. But when did I start caring enough to save that information?
Our faces hover inches apart. His eyes are obsidian pools trying to drown me. I quickly straighten. A group of noisy boys charges into the theater I’m supposed to be in.
After a beat, I say, “Vampire movies are never bad.”
“Enjoy your suckfest!” Sean calls after I gather my nachos and drink. My hands are too full to flip him off. I disappear into the cinema without another word.
a c a
I sit on the curb outside Reagan’s after the movie. It’s barely 8:00 p.m. The sky’s a hypnotic swirl of golds, oranges, and reds. Dipping sunlight glitters off nearby buildings. Santa Monica’s nothing like home.
Then again, home isn’t a place I know anymore either.
I hug my legs to my chest. It’s too early to text Mom. She’ll find a way for us to visit every destination on that list, forcing me to love a city I don’t want to be in without Dad.
A screaming ache shifts through my blood. I keep trying not to miss him.
The double doors behind me bang open.
Heavy feet thump on the sidewalk. Voices climb the air like stairs. I attempt to make myself smaller. It’s hard to do when you’re almost six feet tall. Even harder when you’re a Black boy sitting alone in a place where no one knows you.
“Yo, that movie blows!”
“Man, I don’t care if I was a vampire—there’s no way I’m gonna stop making out with some chick I’m thirsting for. Hell no!”
A cacophony of echoing laughter rings in my ears before large shadows surround me.
“Hey, weren’t you in the movie with us?”
“Obvi, Reece. You threw popcorn at him.”
Another ugly chuckle.
My fingers dig into my forearms. I habitually bite my nails to the quick, so there’s no pain. Only pressure.
“Wait . . . are you crying?”
Am I? The grief ebbs and flows until I barely notice its aftermath. Sometimes, I’m staring into space for five minutes. Sometimes, there’s a throb in my knuckles from absently punching a wall. Sometimes, tears fall without any warning.
“Bro, you’re crying over a movie?”
“Yeah,” I lie monotonously. I finally look up through half-bleary eyes. Five guys, mostly white, stand over me. “Crying over a movie and your face.”
“Ooh,” the one I suspect is Reece says. “He’s got sass!”
His eyes are a muddy brown. Nothing like Sean’s. Why am I thinking about Sean? I’m distracted enough to miss Reece’s hand raise. He shoves my shoulder.
“Don’t be rude, prick.”
His friends coo. My hands ball into fists. I’ve never been in a fight. It’s five-to-one. They’re bigger too, like college athletes. Chances are, if I punch just one of them, the police will find an excuse to point the finger at me.
Another angry Black boy.
My heart is a ten-piece drumline in my ears. I could run. Hide in Reagan’s lobby until Mom arrives.
Another shadow appears. Someone slides between me and the boys. A voice I almost don’t recognize snarls, “Leave. Him. Alone.”
Where did he come from?
He’s hunched forward, shoulders high. A lion uncaged. His features are blade sharp. The streetlamp’s luster twists around his irises, which are . . . crimson?
I blink. Is it the light or—?
I manage to stand on shaky legs. Of all the people in this city, Sean Kam is the last one I imagined ready to fight for me. The least I can do is make it two-on-five. The other boys shift on their heels, looking at one another, then at Sean. White-knuckled fists tremble at their sides. They’re . . . scared.
“Whoa, we were just—”
Sean’s upper lip curls. A mouthful of razors. “I said leave him alone,” he repeats.
“No prob,” Reece says, arms extended to usher his friends back. He gazes past Sean to me, stammering, “S-sorry. We loved the movie! K-Stew for prez—”
Sean’s voice is like storms colliding. Mountains crumbling. It echoes in my head.
Reece and his goons scramble in the opposite direction, vanishing into a crowd crossing the street.
Seconds pass. Sean keeps his back to me. Our ephemeral silence is interrupted by cars humming down the road. Strangers drifting by. No one bats an eye.
Eventually, Sean’s shoulders lower. He whirls around. “Were you really crying over that sobfest?”
I blink again, shocked. “Excuse me?”
“You loved it, didn’t you?”
“Yes!” His posture relaxes. He’s still a thundercloud, but the angles of his face aren’t as deadly. “You probably gave it five stars on FlixPicks. What’s your username? I’m reporting your account for inappropriate content.”
His lips lift slyly. He’s teasing me.
I’ve never seen Sean anything but grumpy and cynical and, frankly, dickish.
“Why do you hate Twilight so much?”
He sniffs, dismissing my question. Normal-shaped teeth pinch his lower lip. I must’ve imagined the dagger-sharp canines. Like I imagine waking up to Dad standing over a stack of burnt French toast every morning, smiling through the smoke. It’s the grief constantly warping my brain.
Sean studies me. “Are you . . . okay?”
I scrub my cheeks clean. “I will be once I get away from this city.”
Surprise widens Sean’s midnight-brown eyes. They were always that color, right? Did I really believe he was something else? Something . . . supernatural?
“You don’t live around here?”
“I live outside Atlanta. In Georgia.”
He scoffs. “I know where Atlanta is. I passed the fourth grade.”
Somehow, his petulant pout startles a laugh out of me.
Sean’s slipped a gray zip hoodie on over his T-shirt. Random buttons are scattered on it. His mouth opens, then shuts. He pivots on his heels to leave. My stomach sinks to my feet, and I half shout, “You never answered my question,” before he’s gone.
He twists around, a glint in his eyes.
“Why do you hate Twilight?”
Two girls scooter by. Warm August wind pirouettes between us. He pushes swaying threads of inky hair off his forehead before replying, “It glamorizes vampire life.”
I tilt my head, a go on in my eyes that he reads like a script.
“It’s all about how great vampirism is. You can run fast, climb trees, play baseball in a thunderstorm. Shine like diamonds! Bella’s a disaster, and if she becomes a vampire”—he scowls, a sadness hanging in his voice—“all her problems are solved.”
“It’s about other things, too,” I counter. “Choices. Finding where you belong. Love.”
He rolls his eyes.
I cross my arms. “Being heavily invested in a vampire love story doesn’t seem like your thing.”
“You’re right. It’s not.”
Copyright © 2023 by Julian Winters. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.