Everybody knows that a true vampire, though possessed of many traits, is critically defined by three:
- Is afraid of the sun.
- Has really, really long fangs.
- Thirsts for human blood.
Eli was a true—one hundred percent, without a doubt—vampire, and had none of the traits above.
• • •
California days are long in the summer. In the winter, the sun would set before Eli got up and no one would be out to play, but in July, the sky was red, and warm, and just dim enough for his mom to sit outside without burning. She watched from the shade of an elm tree as Eli pushed his way into the small group of children gathered around the swings. They were discussing what to play next. One boy screamed, “Vampires and Priests!”—as filterless children will do, learning from their older siblings, cousins, parents, and all the generations before who thought, well, it doesn’t mean anything; no harm intended. Except harm had been intended, in the past if not the present. Painful lessons became reflexes and unexplainable anxieties, inherited like blood—and some knew how to strike the vein a bit too well.
Eli had never heard of this game before. They didn’t play it at night school. His primos never played it, either, and for good reason, but Eli didn’t know that. No one had explained the game’s rules and origins to him yet. All he knew was the word vampire—very much like vampiro—and so he chimed in: “Oh! I’m a vampire! What game is that?”
Thus, the inquisition began.
“What do you mean you’re a vampire?” said the boy who had suggested the game. His name was Ralph and he was nine years old, a few months older than Eli and barreling through his first growth spurt. He towered over Eli, and while Eli had to be taught to speak up, Ralph struggled with the concept of an inside voice. All of their eyes were on Eli now. He stepped back.
“You don’t look like a vampire,” said Jessie.
“Yeah, why aren’t you on fire?” added Marcus. “I thought vampires die in the sun.”
“My mama gets sunburned sometimes. We’re all just asleep during the day.”
“Well, it’s day now,” boomed Ralph. “So why are you here?”
“I just woke up.”
“But there’s sun!” Ralph pointed to the west. Eli couldn’t see the sun but he felt it watching him as it set. “So you should be asleep, right? You can’t be out here during the day if you’re a real vampire. Are you half?”
“His mom looks like a vampire.” Marcus knew Eli’s mom well. She had long black hair, light skin, and a svelte body.
Marcus’s dad often sat next to her under the tree, enjoying the shade and sharing recipes—his husband was a chef, like Eli’s father, and sometimes Marcus’s dad would bring cookies left over from his husband’s kitchen. One time he brought a small Tupperware of polvorones and asked if they were right. “Marcela, you have such a handy palate!” he gushed, then took out a notepad and asked her all kinds of questions about “authentic south-of-the-border vampire cuisine.” “My husband is looking to expand his catering menu,” he explained.
Eli had seen his mother’s face change from across the playground, with a twitch perceptible only to those who loved her. It reminded him of another time, when they were walking home and a man called out to her on the midnight street: “Yo, Morticia! Why don’t you come over and suck on this?” Eli, even younger then, hadn’t understood. They flew—as in ran—from the spot, the man’s eyes burning like suns after them. Later she told him Morticia was a vampire from a very old cartoon, and to never repeat it.
“That’s her over there,” said Marcus, finger pointing at Chela’s heart.
Eli tried to stand in front of them. He wanted to hide her, protect her from their questions and prying eyes. He turned to look and she waved.
She was applying sunscreen and drinking coffee from a pink thermos, which matched the sundress and huaraches she was wearing. She had her headphones in and couldn’t hear what any of the children were saying to her gordito—not even Ralph, who sounded like he was born to lead an angry mob—but Eli must have looked concerned, or maybe Chela just felt it in her especially maternal heart, because, still waving, she mouthed, “‘Stas bien?” then reached into her purse to pull out a high-iron, high-protein jerky bar. “Hungry?”
Eli shook his head.
“Is that your snack?” asked Jessie. “My mom eats those, but she’s not a vampire.”
“Vampires drink human blood,” accused Ralph, with the force of a mallet hitting wood—table, cross, stake, take your pick. The other children made faces like they smelled something rotten.
“No we don’t!” The blood rushed to Eli’s cheeks. He felt like he was burning.
“They do in the movies! I’ve seen them!” said Marcus.
“Show us your teeth!” demanded Ralph.
Eli clasped his hands over his mouth. He’d rather they all be unsure of his vam-purity than be so certain of its absence.
Jessie bounced and chanted “Teeth! Teeth! Teeth!” then pounced, her little fingers pawing at Eli’s mouth. Ralph went for his arms. Marcus ran. Eli said no, no, no, but he was so small, and his baby fat was just that, fat, no muscle behind it yet.
Ralph pinned Eli’s arms in an X across his chest, pushing him into the playground sand while Jessie peeled back his lips to reveal two average-sized incisors.
“They’re so small!” she laughed.
Tears blurred Eli’s vision. Their laughs stung and he could feel himself sinking with the weight of them and their expectations, deeper and deeper into the sand below. Eli bit down and Jessie screamed, letting go of his face. There were shouts and hands grabbing this way and that. Ralph was lifted off of him and Eli was pulled to his feet, facing his mother. She was biting her chapped lip, something she always warned Eli not to do or else he might break skin. Jessie was still screaming, running to her aunt with one little hand cradling the other. Eli could taste her foul blood on his teeth. Ralph’s father, holding his boy behind his back, suggested that, if they couldn’t all play nice together, someone should leave. At first Eli agreed with him—Ralph and his dad should leave—but neither of them were moving. His mom tugged on his hand and they walked away.
Eli understood the game now.
• • •
Four a.m. is rush hour for vampiro taqueros like the Gomez family. Vampiros are bartenders, bouncers, night guards, cooks—”We’re the backbone here! We do the jobs day-people don’t want to, and during the hours they won’t!” they boast. It’s a kind of pride that only gets more exhausting as time goes on.
Eli’s father, Jesús Gomez el segundo, owned a taco truck: Chuy’s Tacos. He shared it with their neighbor Qique, a sympathetic day-person with a face friendly to day-customers. Nice short teeth and a golden-boy tan, so as to say, “Look, I like the sun too! And combing my blond hair in the mirror! And garlic in my guacamole!”
Qique was, en realidad, severely allergic to garlic. His allergy was part of why Jesús had chosen him to run the truck during the day. There were stories of day-people poisoning vampiros with garlic and then taking their businesses for themselves. Qique’s allergy meant that anything he handled or ate, the Gomezes could eat too.
There was still trouble, though. Qique ran the truck on Whittier Boulevard during the day, then after 6 p.m. moved it to a parking lot by the bars where the Gomezes sold to munchie-seeking teenagers, drunk day-people, and—in the early hours—vampiros off work. At dawn, there was a two-hour gap when no one was watching the truck; hits had become rare but when they happened, they happened at sunrise. Jesús kept a list in his mind of what kind of damage the truck had seen over the years: slashed tires, broken windows, dented bumpers, and graffiti—Chuy’s Tacos became Chewy’s, and words like chupón, goat eaters, and other slurs dripped down the menu board, along with thick red paint splashed by the bucket and crude, violent drawings of chupacabras and what Jesús assumed was Dracula with a sombrero and zarape. Then there was the garlic. When Jesús had first started out it was just him and Chela—still newlyweds then—living their hustle in the lower Central Valley, where towns punctuated hundreds of acres of farm fields, skies left open to a sadistic sun. The whole valley was thirsty, constantly. It drank its fill from day workers, and though working in the night was no real advantage, not everyone saw it that way. One evening, the pair found their truck in their driveway looking as fine on the outside as it had the night before, but as soon as Chela opened the door she began to choke. Someone had broken in and poured a jar of minced garlic in the air conditioning vent. Once the truck was cleaned out, they moved to Los Angeles, where the people, if nothing else, were less bold.
Most of their neighbors liked the truck and the Gomezes. Word of mouth had made them the go-to place for carne cruda—raw beef prepared with a spiced blood marinade, warmed up to 98.4ºF, and served on tortillas grilled into a concave tostada shaped like a bat wing—con todo, of course. They had plenty of regulars and on summer nights like this one, business was good and heavy.
Eli read in one of the plastic chairs they placed outside for customers. Next to him was Papa Thiago—his mother’s papi, from whom she had inherited her skin tone and build and occasional Spanish lisp—dressed in a loose button-down over a sleeveless undershirt, tucked into Depression-era jeans. He had a plate of tacos and chiles on his lap, and munched between drags of a cigarette while Eli read Calvin and Hobbes comics aloud to him.
He spoke only in Spanish. “Si mijo, very good. You need to do well in school, so you don’t have to work with your arms like me.” He raised an arm and flexed, cupping the bicep and smiling as if to say, Eh? No que no?
Jesús and Chela watched from the window as they rushed to fill the last few orders. Chela plated three tortillas and handed them to her husband. “Eli got in a fight today.”
Jesús added the raw carne. “With who?” He passed off the plate and took another order. “Un plato de morcilla, querida—is he okay?”
She sighed. “He bit one of them.”
Jesús waited until the customer at the window walked away, then backed into the truck where no one outside could see him curse and rub his face.
“It’s not his fault,” she said flatly.
“It doesn’t matter. You know what they do to biters. Do to all of us.”
Someone knocked on the truck window. The pair resumed their work. In between customers, Chela filled her husband in on the rest of it, keeping an eye out for metiches.
Eli was a miniature version of his dad—shy, short, a bit chonchis, though there was the chance he would grow out of that—except for his eyes, which were light green like his mother’s, and his incisors, small like his great-aunt’s. Jesús was tall, barrel-chested, moreno in complexion with dark curly hair, a bull nose, and larger-than-average incisors. The teeth were what always gave him away.
Growing up, people would stare when Jesús smiled and flinch when he laughed. At thirteen, his incisors had grown to twice their original length, so he learned to speak with a small mouth. People stared at him more than his friends who were vampires, but not vampiros. Maybe it was because they were already looking for something, some misstep, some validation of their suspicions. Their looks cut, and they cut, and they cut. Over time, Jesús forsook his accent, spoke only in English outside of the house, and in culinary school got very close to making a perfect imitation garlic. Day-people stared at him less, then, but only because he had assumed their role, cutting and carving away at himself until he was hollow. It had taken him years to unlearn this, to understand it for what it was: bloodletting. It hurt, it emptied, and it made absolutely no sense, but there he was, somehow still alive, albeit smiling with a closed mouth in almost every picture since high school.
Eli smiled like how his father used to smile—big and reckless. Just so, so foolishly full of joy. Who could ever make a child feel like they weren’t allowed that?
Chela finished telling Jesús what happened. His heart hurt, but he said nothing.
• • •
The sun was going to rise soon. Chela left the truck while Jesús cleaned up for Qique and the day crew. Eli had fallen asleep on his grandfather’s lap, their empty plates on the floor and the open book still in his hands. She smiled at her father and stroked her son’s forehead, playing with his hair. There was a bruise on his temple and a cut on his lip.
“Someday, I’ll buy you a computer,” she murmured to him. “Where you can read all the stories you want.”
“Why?” said Papa Thiago. “There’s never any stories about people like us.”
“Take your son. I need to stretch.” Chela leaned down to lift Eli. She passed Papa Thiago his cane and tilted her shoulder down for him to use as support. He waved it away and rose with a grunt. “I’ll see you in the car.”
The drive home was quiet. Chela took the first shower and stepped out to find her husband asleep on the bed. She put on her day-clothes and headed for the kitchen.
The bedrooms were connected to a single hallway that led to the front of the house, where the living room, kitchen, and entryway all shared a space. In the corner, on his La-Z-Boy where no one could see him without turning on a light or the TV, sat Papa Thiago. There were only two bedrooms in the house and he insisted on Eli having his own, so next to the La-Z-Boy was a futon that, in theory, doubled as a couch, though it was never used as one. Chela glanced to see if he was asleep yet. He was, but in the chair, not his bed.
She crossed the living room into the kitchen, pulled out a jar of instant coffee, and heated a mug of water in the microwave. On her phone she searched for the city library’s summer hours. It wouldn’t be a long drive, she reasoned. She’d be fine, and back before anyone noticed. Her baby needed new books, better books. Something to tell him that he didn’t need to prove anything. He was perfect just as he was—one hundred percent, without a doubt, vampiro.
She thought of what her husband had said about biters. About what that Ralph boy and his father would be telling their friends.
But they were wrong. Her baby was no blood-sucker. Those traditions were things of the past, and not really even their past. Or, only the smallest part of it. They were wrong. He’d be fine, she told herself. Everything was going to be just fine.
She grabbed her purse and car keys, then left.
• • •
Papa Thiago counted to thirty after hearing her drive off before getting up. His daughter was the lightest sleeper in the house.
• • •
Eli recognized Papa Thiago’s heavy tobacco breath before opening his eyes. His grandfather stood over him, cane in one hand and umbrella in the other.
“Wake up. We’re going out.”
“Shh! Don’t talk, you’ll wake your father. Bring your jacket and day-clothes. Apúrate.” He tapped on his belt buckle as he walked out. This threat meant nothing to Eli, whose father never pulled the belt out on him. He grabbed his jacket and backpack (mama had said not to go anywhere without his backpack, which had his address and emergency snacks inside). His shoes were by the front door. The microwave light was on and the clock read 6 a.m.
“‘Uelo, the sun—”
“I know, mijo. I don’t like it either but we can’t wait for nightfall. Believe me, it’s worse for me than it is for you. Ready?” Outside, the sky was a steel blue-black. The car was gone. Eli nestled under his grandfather’s arm as they walked towards the bus stop. “Tell me, Eli—the boy that insulted you, how do you know him?”
• • •
The park felt wrong in the morning. Everything was so bright, but there was no warmth to it. How could daybreak be so cold? Eli burrowed deeper into his abuelo. They crossed the grass, zigzagging from one tree’s shade to the next, all the way to the playground.
Papa Thiago leaned on his cane and smelled the breeze—not sniffed, like a caricature on an old cartoon or Halloween special, clawed hands and nose to the air, sniffing, slobbering, hunting for flesh. No—Papa Thiago breathed in the air and all the names that came with it.
“He… he has dark hair, no?”
“No. Red. Like Hobbes.”
“Who? Never mind.” He took another deep breath. “Older than you?”
“Yes, by three months.” Eli stuck three fingers up towards his grandfather’s face, showing him his answer.
“Good. They live nearby.” Papa Thiago pointed towards the street and ushered Eli forward with a hand on his back.
A chill crawled up Eli’s skin. The morning sun would be up soon. Even Eli could burn at this time of day, and Papa Thiago was so old and so pale. He tugged on his ‘uelo’s sleeve and asked him to put up the umbrella.
“Why are you scared? You have skin like your father. Like his people. Your father has told you of his people, no? And their traditions?” He laughed. “I’m sure he’s proud.”
Papa Thiago didn’t especially like Jesús, nor considered him paisano, for reasons that Eli’s parents hadn’t told him yet. Eli didn’t understand what Papa Thiago meant by “his people,” just like he didn’t understand what the man had screamed at his mother, or why the other kids had demanded to see his teeth. Similar games but different rules.
“My papa,” said Eli, “said that a long time ago people weren’t scared of vampiros. They were like healers, and advisors, and important people.” Papa Thiago rolled his eyes, but Eli went on. And they never drank raw blood—like how we don’t drink it.”
“Ay, they did drink blood! But it was the blood of beasts. Filthy beasts!” This was false, as Eli would later learn; a rumor spread when European vampires, who did have a history of blood-feeding, first met their American counterparts. “But that’s of your father’s side. Our traditions are different. You’ll see.” Papa Thiago stopped at an intersection, inhaled, then turned right into the neighborhood surrounding the park. He flashed a crooked smile, revealing incisors that reached below his bottom gum line; he often complained of sores, and though many of his teeth were fake now, these remained strong and sharp and stubborn. “You see these? These are the teeth from my side. You don’t have them yet, but you will, and you need to learn how to use them. How to defend yourself, and show your strength!”
Papa Thiago stopped, gripping Eli’s shoulder and pulling him back underneath the umbrella. Birds were singing. The sky turned from indigo to a pale, corpse gray. They were standing in front of a house—one story, with a clean lawn and U.S. flag porch mat. He led Eli across the lawn to the wooden backyard gate. It had a steel lock. Papa Thiago handed the umbrella to Eli and took his cane in both hands, upside-down so the metal handle pointed to the ground.
“‘Uelo, what are we doing?”
“We call this ‘La Caza de Cabras’.” He said the name again, this time in English: “The Goat Hunt.” Papa Thiago lifted his cane above his head and brought it down on the lock, splitting it from the wood so that the gate swung open. “Go to the window there.”
Eli ran in the direction that Papa Thiago pushed him, forgetting that he still held the umbrella. He crouched underneath the windowsill and watched his ‘uelo flatten himself against the wall of the house, squeezing his body into the shrinking shadows. Vampires and vampiros do not burst into flames in the sun, despite what the day-children believed, though many can burn badly. Papa Thiago wouldn’t admit to any fear, and sneered at daylight as if the sun only ever came up to spite him. When he reached Eli, he took the umbrella back and put a finger to his lips.
“Did the boy tell you that you don’t look enough like a vampiro? That you aren’t vampiro enough?” When Eli didn’t answer right away, Papa Thiago asked again, sharper this time: “Is that what he said?” Eli shrank back and nodded. “Do you believe him?”
“No,” Eli squeaked.
“You’re a vampiro?”
Eli nodded again.
“I’m vampiro! I’m sorry. I’m vampiro.”
“Don’t say sorry to me. Show me.” Papa Thiago put the head of his cane to the bottom of the window like a lever and pushed down. The window was unlocked and opened easily. “Show him.”
Eli peeked over the windowsill. Inside, sleeping, lay Ralph.
• • •
Everybody knows that a real, pray-to-your-maker, Dracula-level vampire is critically defined by three traits:
- Papa Thiago hissed at Eli to hurry up—the sun was coming and he didn’t want to miss the first bus home.
- He licked his incisors, careful not to accidentally pierce his own tongue.
- His mouth began to water.
Papa Thiago remembered his first hunt with his own abuelo. His grandfather had come from Spain to Mexico as a teenager, and held on to certain ways of thinking and ways of seeing others. Ways like this one, and the names he called Jesús behind his back.
• • •
Eli hung on to the window’s edge, white-knuckled and shaking. Papa Thiago grabbed him by the jacket collar and, with all the old-man strength he could muster, dropped Eli into the room next to Ralph’s head.
Ralph stirred. Jesús had told Eli what day-people did to biters, but his abuelo was telling him now, “Try him! Prove yourself!” For a moment, to Eli, it sounded like Papa Thiago had repeated himself; the word “to try”—probar—can also mean “to prove,” “to taste,” and “to test.”
The air was warming.
Sharp, orange sunlight licked at Papa Thiago’s heels and climbed up his calves.
“Sí o no!”
Papa Thiago leaned in, claws holding on to the windowsill, his form silhouetted against the light. His eyes pinned Eli in place and, petrified, Eli thought he smelled something foul. Foul like Jessie’s blood, and her laughter, and her fear. He thought maybe it was Ralph’s blood beneath his skin, but no, that wasn’t it.
It was the smell of ash, and anger, and blistering skin.