I stare at Mom, can’t believe what she’s just said. Dad invited Gunther to the family party next Friday? Gunther the Gross? The lecher from the blood lagoon? That letter Gunther sent me five years ago—the description of my vulnerable white throat—bordered on vampire porn. No explicit sexual language, but I could read between the lines. Mom can’t possibly expect me to show up and meet him face to face, can she? Besides, I’ve got a date with Lenny, the non-Gunther… the sweetest man ever.
Oh, god. I may have to tell Mom and Dad about Lenny.
“Gunther’s rather crazy about you. You shouldn’t make yourself so scarce when he comes to California.” Mom minces an onion, her shoulder-length auburn hair swept back with silver combs. Her knife blade taps against the wooden chopping board. She blinks, eyes watering. “He’s just lonely. You ought to give him a second chance.”
Excuse me? Mom’s ignoring basic facts again. I’m twenty-five years old. Gunther’s three hundred. I eat raw vegetables. He prefers raw steak. I want a loving, nurturing relationship. He wants to lay me and drink my blood. Gunther’s more than “rather crazy” if he thinks he’ll attract me. He’s insane.
“We’ve nothing in common.” I wrap a lavender muffler around my neck and button my black leather coat.
“But he’s one of your dad’s best friends.” Mom’s voice has that quiver. Her big brown eyes widen, as though she could shapeshift into a cocker spaniel.
I’m about to get “The Lecture.” How Gunther smuggled Dad out of Paris during the French Revolution. How Dad smuggled Gunther into Paris during World War II. I don’t need to hear yet another rendition of this male bonding saga. Time to tune out, get out and bring Lenny dinner.
“Let me think it over,” I say and retrieve my handbag from a kitchen chair. “I’m meeting friends in San Francisco. Don’t wait up.”
The think-it-over period ends five seconds later. Sorry, Mom. I’ll head for S.F. this Friday night, too.
The screen door squeaks and closes behind me. The chilly December air feels good against my face. I climb into my white Honda and drive toward our local Italian deli. Dad’s so traditional. Preparing garlic bread at our house is politically incorrect. Lenny adores garlic. He’s my kind of vampire.
Mom and Dad… they’re so dear. They should back off, though. Sure, a dot com downsized me two years ago. Yes, I had to move back home. But I design websites and don’t ask my parents for money. I’m capable of running my own life. And I intend to run it with Lenny around.
Light shines inside of Delano’s Deli, although it’s past closing time. I knock on the door. My order’s packed and waiting. I place the warm bread and pasta on the floor of my car, near the heater vent. The Caesar salad goes into the trunk to stay cold. Soon I’m approaching the Golden Gate Bridge. The aromas of garlic and parmesan inside my car are amazing. Lenny is going to love this meal.
I Googled websites for supernaturals three months ago and met Lenny. He’s thirty-some. Works nights as a museum security guard. I’ll hang out with him until dawn. He occasionally does the blood experience thing—not with me—but never obsesses about it. I don’t drink blood at all, although the trait’s in my genes. I’m just not ready. Besides, I haven’t been through “The Change” yet. That might not happen for another ten or twenty years. There’s no predicting when. Lenny respects my feelings, doesn’t try to push me. And he writes free verse for Poetry Flash. Totally cool.
Traffic slows a little on the bridge. A stream of headlights blazes from across the divider. Holiday shoppers heading home to Marin County. The holidays… I’d really love to see Aunt Millie and Uncle Claude this Friday night. My second cousin Vinnie, too. But Gunther might arrive before I leave to meet Lenny. Okay, so what if he does? I’ll tell Gunther to stay out of my space. He’s got no right to ruin my family’s reunion.
Five minutes from the museum, I ring Lenny on my cell. I park in the usual spot. My headlights illuminate a tall, hairy form. That face… like Disney’s Beast on a bad hair day. The figure wears a guard’s uniform. Must be Lenny. I didn’t know he could shapeshift. Most vampires can’t. And what set him off? I roll down the window a few inches.
“Is it safe for me to open my door?”
“All clear.” Lenny breathes hard. “Couple of punks just tried to spray paint a statue in the courtyard. I scared the shit out of them.”
But, is it? Are there other major things about him I don’t know?
Lenny grins and shrugs, resembles a huge stuffed toy. God, he’s so cute, cuddly and kissable. I could curl up next to him in bed. We haven’t had sex together yet. Maybe he planned to surprise me this way the first time. That must be the reason he didn’t reveal his shapeshifting talent before.
If only I could introduce him to my parents, be more open about our future. But security guards don’t earn big money. And his mom lives in a trailer in rural North Carolina. He sends her a check whenever he can. Gunther owns a Manhattan penthouse. A private jet, too. Dad probably won’t approve of Lenny. But, wait, don’t I want to run my own life? I should ask Lenny to our family party now.
I climb out of my Honda, then picture Gunther meeting Lenny. I’ve never actually seen Gunther, not even his photo, although I once sent him mine. Bet he looks like the Terminator, only with Goth makeup and fangs.
I envision a confrontation. Gunther paws me. Lenny sprouts hair, snarls and leaps to my rescue. Fur flies. Mom screams. Neighbors dial 911 and Animal Control. I die from embarrassment. No, I can’t invite Lenny to this particular party.
“About Friday,” I say, as I remove the salad from the trunk. “My family is having a gathering. I might get to S.F. an hour late. Is that okay?”
“That’s what I want to talk to you about.” Lenny sounds excited. He picks up the foil bag of pasta and garlic bread. His fur recedes. He’s almost back to normal, now. “I’m reading my latest poem this Friday night. At this incredible new literary bar in Sausalito. You won’t have to drive anywhere. I’ll pick you up at nine-thirty.”
“My place?” If hearts could sink, mine would beat between my toes.
“That’s all right, isn’t it?” He scrunches his eyes. A lock of his curly black hair dangles between his bushy eyebrows. “I mean, if it’s a problem for you…”
My mind gropes for words, like a mountain climber struggling for footholds. Lenny’s sensitive about his iffy financial situation. I don’t want to hurt his feelings. And this isn’t the right time to mention Gunther.
“A storm’s predicted,” I say, “and your truck needs new brakes. Let me drive you.”
“A friend promised to work on my truck tomorrow.”
“Then… there’s no problem.” I flash a quick smile. “Hey, I’m really excited for you. This could take your writing career to the next level.”
And I am happy for Lenny. Except, what am I going to do on Friday night?
* * * * *
The minute hand on our mantel clock advances with a muted click. Eight o’clock. Guests should arrive soon. I straighten the holly garland festooning a nearby mirror, then curl a strand of my cocoa-brown hair around my first finger. The crimson sequins on my dress shimmer. Bare shoulders, calves and knees. Perhaps I should wear something less revealing.
Mom sets a platter of rare roast beef on the buffet table. Sprigs of parsley rim the border. Bloody juices ooze from the slices and pool beneath the garnish. Christmas colors of the macabre kind.
I place cocktail napkins near the crystal punch bowls. The smaller bowl contains eggnog. The larger one holds Dad’s infamous red punch. That color and texture don’t come from tomato juice. I’ll stick with eggnog tonight. I’m sure Cousin Vinnie will, too.
Gunther could be here any minute. Yet there’s still time to tell Mom about Lenny. She hums “Jingle Bells.” Looks so happy. Dad, dressed in a charcoal gray suit and green shirt, stuffs another oak log into the fireplace. Sparks scatter, like a flurry of red rain. A velvet ribbon decorates his thick salt-and-pepper ponytail. He glances toward Mom and smiles. This is their special party and they want to include Gunther. I would be selfish to darken their festive mood. Tonight, flying sparks are only permitted in the fireplace. And that’s exactly what I must say to Gunther—somehow—when we are alone.
The doorbell rings. I wait near the hearth. Mom gushes out a greeting. Dad calls my name. I straighten my posture. My three-inch heels clunk against the hardwood floor. This is it.
Dad’s hugging someone a little shorter than he is—a man, medium build and approximately Lenny’s size. Must be Gunther, although I expected a body builder. The guy has dark hair. I can’t see his face, though. But, wait… his hair appears so familiar… is as black and wavy as Lenny’s.
Then Dad steps aside. It is Lenny! But they don’t even know each other. What the hell is going on? And Lenny’s wearing an expensive tweed sports coat. He only owns uniforms and jeans.
“And you must be Angela,” Lenny says to me. He winks and extends his arm. “That high school photo you once mailed me hardly does you justice.”
But I’d sent that photo to… Gunther. Oh, no! I stammer the “F” word, run to my bedroom and slam the door.
Gunther stalked me. Used someone else’s name. Baited an electronic trap. Never wrote a poem in his life. Right now, he’s probably laughing with Mom and Dad. Telling them the whole ridiculous story, including the bit about his mom in North Carolina. I was so stupid and gullible. Totally out-of-touch. I sit on the edge of my bed and sob. If this were a reality T.V. show, I’d be voted off the island.
The doorbell rings. Relatives must be arriving. I refuse to endure Gunther’s smirks of satisfaction. I’ll stay where I am.
Then I remember. I wasn’t completely honest with him. Couldn’t even admit to Mom and Dad that I dated him. But Gunther’s—Lenny’s—betrayal of me is a far worse offense. Yet, when we were together, he was so much fun. Those words in the website ad. “One in search of another. Objective—eternal poetry.” How does he really feel about me?
Someone knocks on my bedroom door.
“Honey,” Mom says, “are you okay?”
I hadn’t wanted to spoil the party. I stand and face myself in the mirror. Vampires do cast reflections, despite the urban legend. And I’m twenty-five. Ought to be able to handle what’s just happened.
“I’ll be out in a minute.” I apply fresh mascara and lipstick. Raindrops dot my window, now.
The house buzzes with vibrant conversation as I walk toward the living and dining rooms. An array of platters smother the buffet table. Aunt Millie’s squash roll-ups… Cousin Vinnie’s artichoke frittata… raw carrot and celery strips… crisp snap peas. These are food gifts from my family. There for me.
Dad motions for me to hurry. He stands in front of the fireplace and claps his hands.
“My good friend, Gunther Morris,” he says, “has joined us for this special occasion. Few know, but his poetry has been published under a variety of names for two hundred years. I’ve asked him to read.”
So at least that part is true. Gunther doesn’t look at me. Just as well.
Then he reads. Words flow from his mouth, like a gentle stream tumbling over smooth rocks on a bright spring day. The volume intensifies, ebbs and flows like tides. He could be thirty or three-hundred. His verse is timeless—beautiful.
But who is he really? Dad’s friend and ally? The sensitive poet? Or the creep who wrote me that disgusting letter five years ago, that page I flushed down the toilet before anyone else could read it? Perhaps he’s a combination of all these people. Or, entirely different.
I can’t sort out his identity now. Only one decision matters. Do I, or don’t I, walk away from our relationship tonight?
He finishes reading. Aunt Millie daubs her lace handkerchief against the corner of her eye. Mom sniffles. Gunther proposes a toast. His gaze locks to mine.
“One in search of another.” He raises his cup. “May we share eternity with the true love we each find.”
Everyone raises a cup of Dad’s red punch, even Vinnie. I don’t have any cup. Mom gestures toward the eggnog. All wait for me. I’m old enough to serve myself. I approach the table.
The eggnog sits to my left—smooth and palatable. A symbol of my life until now? To my right is Dad’s red punch. My inevitable future. Which beverage should I choose?
Gunther’s letter… I sift through the memory of his written words. I once told him I read Anne Rice. Maybe he got the wrong impression. Lightning flashes beyond our picture window. Thunder rumbles. Gunther probably didn’t mean to offend me, just crafted a message for a real vampire.
One in search of another? He found me. Yet I continue to hide from myself.
I ladle red punch into a clear cup. Tiny clots dot an ice cube. Will this stuff make me gag? The mantel clock chimes, as though answering my question. Time to find out.
I raise my cup.
And whatever else happens before dawn, I’ll finally tell Mom and Dad about Lenny.