Lips Like Sugar

The first thing Viviana noticed, on her first night as a vampire, was how much she wanted to fuck everyone. When she was alive she’d been drawn to the same few types, again and again, and she had always longed for a palate more adventurous, more brave. Now everyone she passed smelled wonderful, the hunger sharpening inside her with every breath, and she wanted to slide her mouth over the softness of every neck and take them all in. She felt her skin waking up, beading with drops of a cold sweat, a feeling she remembered so well from the beginning of her time with Ravi, her ex. Those day-long hikes on misty trails where desire was so strong it pulled them into hollow trees damp and covered with moss. Everyone she saw now under the streetlights was sending her cold limbs thrumming with the want, like a scarlet nail against a metal guitar string, like a theremin.

Wait, she told herself. Wait.

On Friday morning at ten her phone screamed her awake in time to slap concealer under her eyes before her Zoom interview. (How did vampires get jobs in the old days?) Sheets hung all over the windows of the messy space that belonged to Ravi’s friend Sara, who’d heard of the breakup and had kindly offered up her bedroom while she was backpacking to the middle of nowhere. The lamps of the borrowed room burned Vivi’s eyes, but faintly, like the after-mark of a sunburn. The interviewer kept looking at her phone.

“Looks like you’ve had a lot of different jobs. May I ask if you see yourself being a janitor long-term?” Vivi just nodded, her smile too shallow to show her new baby fangs. Probably a lot longer than you can imagine.

“Why did you seek out the night shift?”

Vivi sucked at her teeth, glad the woman’s open-necked shirt wasn’t within her reach.

“Well, I . . . finally accepted that I’m just a night person. I’m at my best when everyone else is sleeping.”

“Like a vampire?”

Vivi had to turn her laughter into a cough.

“And the employer’s not a problem? All those bodily fluids?”

“Oh, no.” Vivi could feel the blood thumping inside her, as if calling for reinforcements.

Sunday night at nine would be her first shift. Saturday night she walked around Broadway until she found a bar called Este, full of beautiful people, mostly Black and Brown, and she let herself sway in the crowd, taking in all the glistening skins and the glorious smells. She let her own skin prickle with the want if someone brushed against her, but she touched none of them back, these people who almost surely woke up in the daylight. Instead she fixed her eyes on the janitor, a short and thick woman a few years younger than Vivi, with faded tattoos on her neck and breath of sweet mint when she told Vivi where the bathrooms were. Vivi let the intoxication spread her lips into a hot grin, and as if in response she saw a flush descend from the girl’s cheeks down to her throat. Less than ten minutes later she was pressing the girl up against the locked door in the janitor’s closet, watching the beautiful mouth contort in screams hidden by the thumping bass of Azealia Banks.

When the girl came off work at two a.m. Vivi was waiting, and they took an Uber all the way back to Antioch, straight to the girl’s bed (“Lisa. My name is Lisa. Please . . . ” she gasped with Vivi’s mouth at the swell of her breasts) and after they had drifted in and out of sleep several times Lisa’s hands slid along the rolls at Vivi’s waist.

“You’re so hot.”

“Thank you.” Vivi wished she could blush.

“I mean, yeah, that too. But you’re so hot.”

When Vivi’s alarm buzzed her awake, she wanted so badly to stay in that place, the air warm and thick, blackout curtains already protecting against the encroaching dawn. But she kissed Lisa’s lush mouth goodbye and walked the two miles to BART. The dark platform was covered with bodies waiting for the 4:15 train. Vivi’s thirst, still unquenched, was now thick on her tongue and pounding in her head. Wait. Wait. At least the hunger was softer now, thanks to Lisa, although her hands still throbbed with the wish to slide over every body she saw, pulling aside the uniforms, from construction worker to train dweller, feeling the rush of their blood under her bones. Before leaving Lisa’s room she’d pawed through a dresser and stolen a pair of pink gloves. Now she pulled one off, and just as she’d planned it the scent of Lisa, encased in the wool, rose into the air from Vivi’s naked hand. She rode the whole way home caressing her own face, breathing in the incredible scent perfuming the air. No one even blinked.

By Sunday night her thirst was screaming in her throat as she waited outside Journey Diagnostics for her supervisor, Jesús, a hiccup of a man in a pale blue shirt. He eyeballed her and handed her a uniform, an access card, a ring of keys, yammered about safe lifting techniques while walking them right past the rooms where the blood was stored. Finally he opened a door and inside were rows upon rows of workstations, samples being tested, the maroon liquid nearly glowing in the overhead lights.

When he finally left her alone she gripped the cart in her clutching hands and rolled it into the emptiest row, eyes on her mop, the floor, while the blood was tested and then tossed into biohazard bins. When one of the techs got up for coffee she pushed the cart toward the bin, hard enough to throw it and its contents onto the floor. “Shit!” she said, louder than she needed to, in case anyone could hear, and she knelt down and slid three vials into her bra. She made herself replace the bin on the wall, even though her fingers were grasping for the vials, ready to tear them open and splatter her hands in scarlet that she would have to lick off.

In the narrow bathroom stall she pulled open the first one, and she could smell the danger right away. You could have told me this stuff yourself, asshole, she cursed Andre in her head. After he’d turned her, the only thing he’d done to help was getting her the interview here. She’d stolen a phlebotomy textbook to learn about the chemicals used to test blood, including some that might put her to sleep or send her vomiting a maroon puddle onto the tiles. She threw the shining liquid down the toilet. The next one smelled of warm copper, the color a candy-apple red. Her lips closed around the edge of the vial and gulped it in, and she could feel it warming and coating her throat on the way down. She could take her time with the last one, older and duller but rich and sweet all the same, and her eyes in the mirror looked clearer now as she wiped her mouth and got back to mopping the floors.

When her first paycheck came she posted an ad on Facebook (Do you need a roommate but still want your space? I work nights and I promise I’ll stay out of your hair) that led her to a couple who rented a tiny little house on Peach Street. They both worked graveyard at an airport motel and drove days for Amazon, and for a rent she could just afford she could have their converted laundry room for fifteen blissful hours a day, Dollar Store sheets tacked up over every window, three layers deep. At her next paycheck she bought real blackout curtains and treated Lisa to an Uber home from Este, Lisa half asleep and half moaning at the tug of Vivi’s lips at her throat. The baby fangs pressed against Lisa’s veins but Vivi reminded herself of her promise, the one she’d actually managed to keep in the days since her turning: Do no harm. She’d been raised by a Mexican grandmother in a house littered with crosses and so by the time she was sixteen she’d been holding back her desires for years. Until the afternoon her grandmother came home early to find Vivi and her girlfriend Nidia making out on the couch and her response was, “I kind of knew that. Baby, you left the bathroom a mess. Go clean it up. Nidia, are you staying for dinner?”

The nights she didn’t go home with Lisa she wandered into dark places where she could sate her hunger, but never her thirst. She was fascinated by the effect her desire had on its objects, the way its power seemed to intoxicate her and them both. There was the barber who blew the last of the hair off her neck and then pulled down the shades and bent her over his green leather chair. The woman in the white sweater and flat shoes who smelled like night-blooming jasmine, who protested, “Aren’t I a few decades too old for you?” as Vivi slid aside the damp wool and tasted the woman’s neck. Vivi loved the sweet tension of pulling her swelling fangs away from their veins. She loved curbing the strength that she was thrilled to feel pushing through her skin, which in defiance of all myths had remained its same rich brown, except for the black circles under her eyes when her thirst was at its peak. She wondered if it would always feel this exciting, this knowing she could have nearly anyone she wanted, the intoxication that came from walking into places full of strange drunk men and knowing that she was nobody’s prey.

One night before work she walked right into a coffee shop and sat across from the kind of man she had never bothered with before, slim and pale and shy, enormous headphones around his ears making him look like a hungry insect. He took her back to his apartment overlooking Beeryland and they ignored his roommates banging on the door for them to quiet down. While she was putting on her uniform she could hear the roommates’ dramatic argument, something about Instagram photos and why one of them hadn’t proposed yet. She realized how little she missed that life, maybe how little she’d ever wanted it. Memories of when she was alive were drifting away fast, but she remembered how unmoored she had always felt from the world. Her roots had been so shallow and thin even after thirty-one years, leaving nothing for anyone to hold onto, not even Ravi, a man who could make anything bloom.

She kissed the shy man goodbye at the door, his blood smelling delicious, and another roommate (how many of them were there, anyway?) looked over her work uniform and laughed: “Who’s slumming?” And a desire rose in her from somewhere that was neither hunger nor thirst. She pictured herself pulling the roommate into a bathroom and pushing down his boxers, tongue and teeth landing on the vein pulsing in the thickest part of his thigh. The life leaving his body, his head rolling back. “Do no harm,” she whispered, and left that apartment behind, running her tongue over her baby fangs as the elevator took her down. The fangs liked to poke through even at the most inconvenient times, but they would retract if she concentrated hard. She made herself read the elevator repair certificate and the package theft warnings and anything else within sight, and by the time she was back out on the street she looked normal to the outside world, nothing to see.

Back on Peach Street she started to hear whispers from her housemates, rumors that the landlord was planning to sell. Vampires in movies never got eviction notices, never had to worry about packing up those velvet-lined coffins that she was pretty sure were a myth. She slept just fine without one. And of course they were always rich, money always flowing into the cracks of their existence. Like the one between their unchanging faces and the dates on every official document they had, a gap that for Vivi was narrow enough now but would widen every year. Lisa was undocumented; that dark space was where she lived.

At work, there were dangers of a different kind. She could manage on only one vial a shift, but she didn’t dare steal more than four at a time, the most that would fit into her bra. So many nights she was lucky to end up with one she could actually drink. Then there was the tiny thread of hallway just outside the bathrooms, where sometimes she was careless, starting to drink before she was safely inside. One night she was pulling away the lid of a vial when behind her she heard a cough. It was the shift supervisor, Jesús. She dropped the vial and in the clatter of the plastic onto the floor she could hear all of it: the click of the handcuffs, the cell door locking her in for days or weeks with no relief for her thirst. The sunlight on her skin the first time she had to show up for court, the blisters erupting across her face and her hands. The smile on Jesús’ face was thin and wet.

“Did you think you were the only one?”

Relief flooded through her, hot and fast, and the words practically tumbled over each other on their way out of her mouth: “Of course that’s what I thought! I haven’t met any others yet, just the one who turned me . . . see, I was lonely after I broke up with my ex and I went on a Tinder date and it was this guy Andre, maybe you’ve met him? Anyway I convinced Andre to turn me instead of–I mean, you know, of course–and then he did and I then asked him what do I do now but he said he wasn’t a fucking tour guide so I’ve been figuring all this shit out on my own and–”

“Whoa, slow down, sister. You don’t need to go telling everyone about your Tinder life. I mean, I might not mind, but we’ll get to that. Also, why blood? There’s much more of a market for piss, but careful, they watch that real close.” And the flood of relief was cold water now, soaking through her limbs. He handed her the vial and the smile on his face was like the wolf who’s told the girl that she’ll be in real trouble for wearing that bright red cape, but don’t worry, he won’t tell a soul.

Jesús began showing up in the same hallway as Vivi multiple times a week, his eyes always sweeping over her shirt, no matter how loose she began to wear them. The other women on the night shift warned Vivi away from him, and she noticed the way their voices got higher and weaker as they told her, their eyes suddenly sweeping down to the floor. They showed her the pictures he’d sent them, thumbs blocking out what she shouldn’t see. They couldn’t tell HR; they needed this job. And when two days later the picture came in from him, the text following, “sure you don’t want to help me with this?” she knew she couldn’t either. Jesús seemed to have a homing beacon for the women who couldn’t afford to speak up. And the next time she saw him he brushed up against her in the hallway and she could feel something against her hip, and when the revulsion and fury drained away something else poured into its place, like the feeling from the man who laughed at her uniform, but so much stronger that Vivi’s fangs pressed against her parted lips. She closed her eyes and envisioned herself lifting Jesús three feet off the floor, his feet dangling uselessly in the air. Do no harm, she reminded herself, and anyway you can’t kill your boss and still expect to get your paycheck.

The days grew shorter and sometimes she spent them with Lisa, the two of them huddling over Vivi’s cracked laptop, watching the baking and house hunting and wedding planning shows that Lisa loved and Vivi couldn’t stand. Lisa teared up when the happy couple would step out into the lights, frothing gowns gleaming. She loved to draw, big-eyed women in swirling dresses and sparkly shoes, and Vivi noticed that the women in the drawings slowly began to look more like Lisa herself. She liked to pull Lisa in front of the bathroom mirror, with its horrible fluorescent light, and murmur to Lisa how beautiful her skin was, all of it, and she would watch Lisa’s spine straighten and her breath come shallow and fast. She would borrow Lisa’s phone to look up “fashion design schools” and “online fashion degrees” to make the ads pop up in her absence, planting a seed.

All the same, the cracks were beginning to show, the arguments already repeating themselves. “Why do you never want to meet my friends?” Lisa complained when Vivi refused, again, to go play soccer at Jacobsen Park.

“That’s not true. I’ve done stuff with them.”

“One time. You went to drinks with us once.”

Tell them to stop planning so much shit in the daytime, Vivi knew she couldn’t say.

Then there were all the times she left Lisa’s apartment in the dark, never staying for breakfast, saying she was in a hurry, that she wasn’t hungry. And then there was the freedom Vivi still went out to taste. She kept telling herself she’d stop when it got boring, when she felt done. She hadn’t yet.

Even so, Lisa had begun weaving a daydream out loud, of some cute little apartment an easy train ride away from Este, the two of them spending mornings in a tangle of limbs and then going out in the bright of the afternoon to walk their dog, some fluffy little thing Lisa would spoil with kisses. Vivi could feel the truth longing to push itself through her skin. She tried to imagine it, going down on one knee, the way some people might hold out a little box with a ring or maybe a shiny new house key, except that in hers was a vial of blood. And then she would pull Lisa onto her lap: “I have something I have to tell you.” Something Lisa wouldn’t believe, the way Vivi hadn’t believed it herself, not until the pain howled its way through her limbs, turning her skin thirsty and cold.

One night in early December Vivi showed up at Este at closing time as she often did, to find Lisa waiting for her with a bag of Vivi’s stuff. “I know you never lied to me. You said you could never promise to only be with me. And I said I was okay with that, but–” she sucked in a breath, making her face passive, this girl who cried at reality shows– “I don’t think I am. Not anymore. Do you think we could . . . ”

Vivi closed her eyes, feeling the tears roll over her cold cheeks. Here was Lisa summoning all her courage to ask for what she needed, even if the answer was “no.” Vivi knew that the end had to come sometime, that someday the cracks would be too wide for either of them to reach across. And here it was, come way too soon. Too soon for that little vial, to ask Lisa to give up every sunrise for the rest of her days. And hadn’t Vivi done so much of this when she was alive? So many promises she’d made to Ravi, to the lovers before him, promises she’d always thought she could keep.

The two of them held each other until Lisa’s Uber pulled up, and Vivi walked the seven miles home with the weight of the canvas bag over her shoulder, the bag that Lisa had packed and had ready because she’d kind of known what the answer would be.

Then a week later Lisa showed up at Peach Street without texting, just like in the old movies, and Vivi threw a hoodie over her head and hid her arms inside her sleeves and bit off the gasp as a strip of sun hit her exposed hand. They were diving under the covers before the laundry room door even shut, and she could pretend they were in a safe cocoon, these borrowed sheets in a borrowed bed in a rented house with For Sale signs popping up all up and down the block. She poured mimosas for them both, tossing her own down the sink when Lisa’s back was turned, and then Vivi lay there watching her dream, feeling the pulse of Lisa’s blood in her neck, marks in the shape of a mouth on Lisa’s throat, like sugar spots on a peach, the room filling with the scent of her, and Vivi had never thrummed more with desire in her life. Or after it.

Two nights later Vivi stood on the Coliseum platform, not shivering in the chill. She needed to sneak in to work a little early, see if she could steal a quick drink. Lisa was sending flurries of texts, none of them touching the distance that still yawned between them, the questions neither of them wanted to ask. Was there a future where that little box might live? Or were they just spooling the end even longer behind them both, making sure it would only bleed harder when the thread finally had to be cut? The images Lisa was sending made Vivi glance over her shoulder, glad she couldn’t blush. She started typing: how many can I give you this time?

And then the picture crawled across her screen. This wasn’t Lisa; this was Jesús, and she could feel the nameless desire stabbing into her ribs, stronger than hunger, stronger than thirst. She let herself imagine the release of finally, finally letting her new fangs serve their use, how sweet her thirst would feel when it was just about to be quenched. She imagined his blood still warm as it coursed into her mouth, and she slid her thumb over the screen of the phone, back and forth. She had plenty of time before she had to clock in. Another text came in: You sure? No roommates…I live alone.

Back in September, when she’d swiped right on Andre’s profile (“I like hot nights and cold days”) it wasn’t only for sex, but also for a night away from a bedroom borrowed from a friend of her ex, the awkwardness of feeling both unwelcome and grateful. It was delicious to see Andre’s face when he realized she wasn’t afraid of his fangs, but instead saw something she wanted. It wasn’t so much the thought of eternity. It was never again wondering how she’d pay for both rent and food in the same month, no more worrying about checkups and fillings and the specter of hospital visits she could never pay for anyway, the cost of maintaining a body that would still get weaker and sicker and old. The ability to finally walk at three a.m. in joyful solitude and without fear. “But I won’t become a killer,” she’d sworn, half-contorted in pain, begging for Andre to finish the turning.

His laugh was cruel. “That’s what I said too. But once you open that door, it’s going to want to stay open.”

“I mean it,” she’d told him, her voice weak and thin. He’d regarded her carefully. “Maybe you do.” And then he’d leaned in to finish the job, her blood fresh on his mouth.

The speakers crackled overhead; the train would arrive at 7:09. Jesús was taking her silence for consent and kept sending pictures. You might want to rethink that, she wanted to tell him. And then the next picture came in, and she could tell from the shapes in the window behind him just what building he was texting her from. She’d been in that very building, in fact, on one of her roving nights out, a crumbling thing with dark hallways and a front door that didn’t close. She could find his apartment number from a mailbox, a package left in the lobby. He wouldn’t know she was coming until she was already there. She could drop her phone on the train floor, no trace to lead back to her. Maybe she’d only warn him, drawing just enough to leave him feeling dizzy and weak. And afraid. “This is what happens when you can’t keep it in your pants,” she could shout behind her as she slammed his front door.

“Who’s gonna believe you?” he liked to say to women when he rubbed up against them in the halls. “Careful with that, Jesús,” she told the empty air. “They might not believe you, either.” She licked her lips. The train was coming.