“Death by chocolate?” Dimitri asked.
I sighed at the phone pressed against my cheek. “I’m afraid so. Activate ‘Quinn-is-a-jerk’ protocol.”
“Text me the address.”
“Nice place, love,” Dimitri said.
His head swiveled around the restaurant with sparkling eyes. Best friends for years, Dimitri was made for the cover of GQ. About six foot two, handsome in a winsome way, muscular, and tan. Born into money, Dimitri had blond hair that was meticulously cut and carefully combed. He was a striking figure, charismatic but mysterious. He had always been out of my league, but I hid behind the shield of a long-term relationship to protect my self-esteem.
He rested his hand on my shoulder. “Having a good time, I see.”
“If Quinn had shown up, it would have been.”
“Let me guess. He was too busy with another engineering project?”
I shrugged and propped my head on my palm with an elbow on the table.
I shook my head.
“Okay. His cat had a heart attack,” he said, smirking.
Dimitri chuckled, then sat across from me. “Here.” He held out a gift bag with confetti tissue paper clawing to escape. “This will make you feel better.”
“What’s this?” I asked, my tone a bit too sharp. “You got Quinn a birthday present?”
Dimitri scoffed. “Not for your boyfriend, Lorenzo. It’s our friendship anniversary.”
“Wait. That isn’t for another couple of months.”
“I know. But I figured you could use a little ‘happy’ now.”
I shuffled through the maze of tissue paper and pulled out a picture frame. A smile tugged at the corners of my mouth. I’d never been good at hiding my emotions, especially around Dimitri.
“Don’t get too excited. It’s not much.”
Framed in darkened wood, a photo of the first time we had met greeted me. My memories traveled back to the day we sat beside each other during freshman orientation. We snapped a quick selfie together and have been best friends ever since. Somehow, we survived college together, and for as far back as I could remember, Dimitri was there for every moment that mattered. He’d bring me red velvet cupcakes for my birthday when I was studying in the library for midterms. On holidays when I couldn’t return home, he’d stay with me at the apartment. And when my parents died unexpectedly, he even held my hand and stood by my side at their funeral.
Of course, he negated the good by getting into bar fights, calling me from jail to bail him out with his own money, and escaping away on exotic trips by jetplane for days at a time. It was any wonder he passed all of his classes every semester. Don’t worry, he would say whenever I teased him for being a stereotypical bad boy. Parents love me.
I set the frame on the table between us with the same care a proud mother would handle her child’s baseball trophy. “You do have a soft side.”
His brows furrowed into a playful glare. “That’s the day we met. I made two of them. One for you, and one for me,” he said with a hand gesture to point at himself.
“It’s lovely.” Warmth radiated throughout my chest as I regarded him. “Thank you.”
“I just wanted to do something nice for you. Speaking of…”
His eyes flickered to the waiter, who set down a slice of red velvet cake in the space between us.
“Our favorite,” I said. “You shouldn’t have.”
One glance at Dimitri’s smoldering green eyes told me everything I needed to know: I would not get up from this table until I’d eaten dessert. Not that I minded. Like every other sweet confection in my life, Dimitri flirted with the line between indulgent and destructive to my health. The only thing worse than dying is living a boring life, he would say whenever I refused to give in to something terrible for me.
“One slice for every patron dining at this fine establishment tonight. My compliments,” he said with a nod to the waiter.
His gaze met mine from across the table, and my stomach fluttered as I broke the connection. Dimitri was an old soul. Aside from his British accent, he spoke with an eloquence that had been lost to civilizations centuries ago. When I had questioned him about it before, he blamed his love of history, though I had not completely believed him.
I forked a piece of cake and slid it into my mouth. We were frequent connoisseurs of red velvet desserts. Yet… there was something off about it. Gooier than expected, the icing tickled my throat, as if it were bleeding. I gulped down bubbly champagne to suppress the uneasiness swirling in my stomach.
“So. What’re you going to do after graduation? Have you heard about your med school applications?”
“Not yet,” I said. “But I might do something else.” I reached for the box inside my coat jacket and handed it to him.
Dimitri raised an eyebrow. He opened the box, and his lips pressed into a thin line when he saw the wedding ring. “You can’t be serious.”
Glaring eyes as sharp as daggers bore into me. “Why? Quinn is a jerk.”
“No.” He slammed his fist onto the table.
The couple sitting beside us glanced in our direction, keeping their faces forward as if not paying attention to our conversation. My cheeks flushed as their eyes wandered.
“Quinn stood you up on his birthday dinner. Give me one good reason you shouldn’t dump him after tonight.”
“We’ve been together for, like, eight years.”
“And? I’ve only been around for half of those, but the years I saw were shoddy.”
“Dimitri. Be reasonable.”
“I am being reasonable. How many times have you phoned me? Missed birthdays? Studying late at the library. Canceling vacation plans. It’s not like engineering is rocket science.”
“Am I? Who do you always call whenever Quinn fails you? Time after time, I’ve been by your side. Can you honestly say the same about him?”
“Dimitri,” I said, resting my hand over his. My breath caught as I touched his calloused fingers. His cool skin bit into mine, as if warning me to tread carefully with my words.
Strange. He hadn’t touched the red velvet cake, even though he loved it as much as I did. One Valentine’s Day, when Quinn had a family emergency, Dimitri came to the apartment and baked the best red velvet bars I had ever tasted. It’s like a thick cookie mixed with a brownie, he had said. What’s not to love?
“I love Quinn. What would you have me do?”
He stared at me for a breathless moment. His dark eyes flared with sympathy. “Die.”
A lump formed in my throat, and my stomach churned. “What?”
A discordant chorus of coughs surrounded us. I clutched my neck, gasping for air. “Dimitri…” I choked out. “What’s happening?”
He did not answer me but vanished with a whoosh. My heart jumped in my chest. The air grew heavier, too, and my breaths came in quick gasps, as if something were pressing down on my chest, preventing me from breathing.
Was I dying?
Coughing sounds from the other diners morphed into shrill screams of pain. Chairs whipped across the room and slammed into the couple sitting beside us. Something warm and wet slapped my face. I traced my finger along my soaked chin, and bile burned in the back of my throat as blood trickled down my hand. Nearby, a fork had pierced a woman’s chest. Beside her, someone had shoved a knife into a man’s abdomen.
As the woman stumbled toward me, Dimitri appeared behind her in a flash. I met his feral and glowing stare as he caressed her neck with the back of his hand. He licked his lips, straddling the line between hunger and desire. He bit into her neck, severing one or both of her carotid arteries. Her eyes rolled upward, and she dropped as gracefully as a toppling scarecrow, her gagging and death throes finished in seconds.
In a matter of moments, silence replaced the blood-curdling cries of the dying. Dimitri whooshed back to my side. The sclera of his eyes had transformed to a color darker than the dessert we had shared. Shadowy veins tunneled under his eyes as blood pumped through them, and razor-sharp fangs had erupted where his canine teeth once existed.
Dimitri grabbed the rest of the red velvet cake and shoved it into my mouth. His hands covered the nostrils of my nose, and my only choice was to chew, swallow, and steal gulps of air. The gooey confection crawled down my throat, and blackness pulled on the edges of my vision. As I faded out of consciousness, the last thing I heard was the sound of Dimitri’s husky voice.
“Hello… yes. Send an ambulance immediately. There’s been a massacre.”
I woke in a hospital bed. Somehow, the world around me transformed into an intense deluge of sensual stimulation. The room was washed in blinding white. A nurse tapped her pen on a paper chart thirty feet away, and it pulsed like a metronome inside my ear.
But the worst of it all was the…
A horrible, ravenous sensation enthralled me, tearing my body apart. Every fiber in my being yearned for something to eat…
Metallic, yet sweet; and
Darker than red velvet.
“Hello, love,” Dimitri said. He leaned against the frame of the doorway.
Images of the restaurant assaulted my mind. My fingers clawed at the bedsheet in a flimsy attempt to protect myself.
“Are you going to kill me?” The scratch of my voice revealed my dehydration and dripped fear.
A softness replaced the face of the feral beast I had seen. Such an ancient heaviness in his eyes, in the set of his jaw. Was this the same man who had just murdered an entire restaurant of people? The one I sat beside at freshman orientation?
My stomach turned, and I pushed a hand against my chest as my mind fought to reconcile the oxymoron of a handsome beast that stood before me.
Dimitri paused, and I could almost feel the sorrow in his voice. “Do you think that low of me?”
“I don’t know what to think.”
Dimitri set the picture frame of us on the bedside table. His eyes twinkled with the moonlight. “You’re already dead, Lorenzo. Well, almost, anyway.”
“I don’t understand.”
Dimitri pulled a bag of blood from his jacket—the kind that hung on IV poles in the hospital. My body reacted to the sight of it. Every second was a symphony of pain. A stabbing sensation radiated outward from my teeth, and my head throbbed to the erratic beating of my heart.
I choked on the tears caught in my throat. “Make it stop. Please.”
Dimitri sat in the space beside me and wrapped his arm around my shoulders. He held the bag of blood in front of me. “You need to eat.” The air around him was perfumed with sandalwood and moss, earthly and intoxicating.
“What will happen?”
“You’ll be… like me.”
I took the bag from him and held it with both hands. My mind swirled with new questions, too many to ask without risking sounding like a madman. Was it like in the movies? Would I need to be invited into houses and fear garlic? Would I burn or sparkle in the sunlight? My chest tightened when I settled on the one mystery that nagged me the most.
“Isn’t it obvious? I fancy you, Lorenzo.”
My arms flexed with a newfound strength I’d never experienced before. To my surprise, he flew several feet away, crashing into a full-length mirror on the wall. It was so easy.
And it felt good.
“You’re incapable of love, Dimitri.”
“Yes, really. You just flit from one person to the next, never really sticking around long enough to matter. And just when someone is about to get close enough to care, you push them away and move on to the next conquest. Another notch on the bedpost.”
“And what about us?”
A flutter in my stomach morphed into a raging tempest. “We’re just friends.”
“So, we’re doing our thing again.”
“The whole bit where we masquerade as chaps when, in fact, there is more. Masking our connection with silly jokes. Deny it as much as you want, Lorenzo. But I’ve seen it hidden in your eyes, even when your words betray you.”
Moonlight found its way through partially drawn curtains, shedding a silver glow in the space between us. I crossed my arms. Whether it was to keep myself warm from the chill of the room or to guard my heart against a man I thought I knew, I could not say.
The bag of blood rested on my lap, taunting me. “What happens if I don’t drink this?”
The slightest wince crossed his face before he smoothed it back out. “You die.”
Tears pricked my eyes. I hadn’t wanted to die. We were about to graduate from college. I planned to build a life for myself. A future filled with things that I wanted, like a house in the suburbs, a white picket fence, marriage, and maybe even adopting kids of my own. In my mind, none of those things involved Dimitri. At least, I hadn’t thought so.
I inhaled a cleansing breath. “I want you to leave.”
“Are you angry with me?”
“You killed me.”
“No, I’ve given you life, Lorenzo. Celebrate the fact that you are no longer bound by trivial human conventions. You’re free now. There’s a universe out there waiting for you. Majestic cities. Art. Music. Genuine beauty. And if you let me, I want to show it to you.”
I threw the bag of blood onto the floor.
Dimitri dusted shards of glass off his coat, then walked toward me. He stopped beside the bed, and our eyes met one last time. “Quinn is a small-town boy. Eventually, you will admit to yourself that you’ve grown tired of him.”
He brushed my messy hair to one side. “Though he is your first love… I intend to be your last.”
He rested his hand on my head and pressed a gentle kiss on my forehead, ending with a whisper. “However long it takes.”
His words echoed in the hollows of my mind after he left. I stared at the bag of blood: my salvation. If I refused, I would die. An inevitable choice.
I wanted to fight it. After all, the comfort of the familiar was like a warm blanket on a cold winter night. Quinn represented everything I had ever wanted growing up: stability, safety, and predictability. And though I loved Quinn with all my heart, I could not deny how much I loathed the darkest parts of me that desired Dimitri. And like everything else in the world, darkness could either be indulgent or destructive.
A nurse walked into the room. She frowned at fragments of shattered mirror on the ground beside the bag of red liquid. “What happened, hun?”
As I regarded her, icy fingers trailed across my body like claws that dug deep into my skin. A foreign sensation suffused me as blood pooled around my eyes. My vision shifted into shades of red as fangs sliced into my lower lip.
I could no longer fight it. Nor did I want to.
It was darkness—sinister and conniving—that promised to unlock a whole new world of secrets untold.
And with my next meal, all of it could be mine.