In this “equal parts heartbreaking and joyful” (School Library Journal) debut YA novel that’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown meets They Both Die at the End, a teen girl takes a trip to New Orleans with her estranged best friend to find a vampire to save her dying father.
Victoria and her dad have shared a love of the undead since the first vampire revealed his existence on live TV. Public fear soon drove the vampires back into hiding, yet Victoria and her father still dream about finding a vampire together. But when her dad is diagnosed with terminal cancer, it’s clear that’s not going to happen. Instead, Victoria vows to find a vampire herself—so that she can become one and then save her father.
Armed with research, speculations, and desperation—and helped by her estranged best friend, Henry—Victoria travels to New Orleans in search of a miracle. There she meets Nicholas, a mysterious young man who might give her what she desires. But first, he needs Victoria to prove she loves life enough to live forever.
She agrees to complete a series of challenges, from scarfing sugar-drenched beignets to singing with a jazz band, all to show she has what it takes to be immortal. But truly living while her father is dying feels like a betrayal. Victoria must figure out how to experience joy and grief at once, trusting all the while that Nicholas will hold up his end of the bargain…because the alternative is too impossible to imagine.
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I don’t know how to live in this world
if these are the choices, if everything just gets
stripped away. I don’t see the point.
—Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Be strong like Buffy. I repeat the mantra in my head as I glare into the garish fluorescent lights. But all I can think about is the episode where Buffy’s mom dies, and they keep showing the body, eyes wide and staring, and I imagine what Dad would look like. Eyes open or closed?
I bite the inside of my cheek. Be strong like Buffy.
Plastered smile in place, I look down at Dad, just in case he’s watching. He’s not. He slouches on the arm of an extra-large wheelchair, the only one still available from the hospital lobby. He’s always been tall and thin, but now three of him could sit in the wide seat.
When he first got sick, the hospital offered an insurance-bought wheelchair for us to take home, but back then my dad shook his head and smiled. You can’t show cancer any bit of weakness, he said, winking at me so we both laughed. Mom tried to take it, but we overruled her.
No one jokes now.
The paper covering the exam table crinkles as I squirm to get comfortable. My left leg’s gone dead. Numb, I mean. Not dead.
Mom turns her hard blue eyes on me, and I stop. She wanted me to stay home—told me I didn’t need to be here for this. I don’t know if she’s worried about me or how my emotions might affect Dad, but she should know by now that I can hide my feelings as well as she can.
Dad catches my eye and runs a hand over the stray tufts of hair the chemo hasn’t stolen yet. “Do I still look like Count Dracula?” he asks, lips parting into something like a grin.
Before cancer, Dad had a round face and thick brows and black hair he kept slicked back in an out-of-fashion look my mom constantly teased him for. But he loved it. He looked exactly like Bela Lugosi, the original Dracula. We always joke Dad is Lugosi’s long-lost relative.
“You might be sliding into Christopher Lee territory now.” Lee played Dracula after Lugosi, and his hair wasn’t quite as great.
Dad snorts, and the sound is soft and weak. “Even Gerald looks better than me now. I’ve got more in common with Count Orlok.” And then he grins, really grins. His eyes crinkle in the corners like they do when he’s told a joke he’s already laughing at and he’s waiting for me to catch up to his wit.
I laugh. Dad and I are vampire connoisseurs. We’ve seen every vampire movie and television show and documentary ever made at least ten times. Joking about the undead feels normal. He even mentioned Gerald. I thought he’d forgotten what today is, but maybe not. It’s not like he could wake up this morning and make his usual vampire pancakes with sliced strawberries as bloody fangs. But we could still be celebrating later.
I search his face for some indication he remembers. Nothing.
I realize I’m still laughing and stop. My eyes are wet, and I don’t even remember letting the tears sneak in.
Dad stops laughing when I do. His face slackens and his eyes drift away. He does that a lot now. I wonder what he’s thinking or if he’s trying to exist without thinking, like I do sometimes.
Mom shifts her gaze between us like she doesn’t get us at all. Her brow creases as I wipe at my eyes, but she doesn’t need to worry. I’m still in control.
What would it be like without Dad here? Just me and Mom—two people who don’t understand each other. Dad’s always been the one thing to connect us. Sometimes Mom smiles at one of his corny jokes or even laughs at one of mine if Dad goads her into it. He’s a fraying thread between us.
I tilt my head back and blink into the lights again.
The door clicks open, and Dad’s oncologist comes in. He’s young and looks like a professional tennis player, and it never ceases to bug me. Seeing him next to my dad doesn’t seem fair. I want an ancient doctor who should have retired ten years ago.
“David, how are you?” He reaches out and shakes Dad’s hand without waiting for an answer. It’s such a ridiculous question. The whole world knows how he is.
The doctor shakes Mom’s hand and then mine. At least he’s nice. He always acknowledges that I’m here and I’m an adult and I can handle whatever he throws at us—unlike my mom, who’s always staring at me like she’s waiting for me to break.
He pulls up his rolling stool. “The chemo’s stopped working,” he says. No prelude, no staring at his papers before speaking, no pre–bad news sigh. He blurts it. Leaving us no time to brace ourselves.
Silence stretches, and if nobody breaks it, then maybe we can stay in this moment forever and refuse to acknowledge what the doctor said. But then Mom nods, making the words real. My parents are holding hands, fingers interlaced like high school sweethearts.
My treacherous heart speeds, beating faster than I thought possible. Adrenaline rips through me, yelling at me to fight this, but what am I supposed to attack? I pull in breath after breath, calming my body, telling it not to be afraid. Dad’s still here. He’s right in front of me. Nothing’s over until it’s over. Dad taught me that.
I shake my head, but nobody notices. “What’s the next step?” I ask.
Everyone turns to me. Mom’s eyes are vacant, but a muscle in her jaw twitches, and she can’t hold my stare. Dad’s eyes are harder to read. Sadness lurks in them but also relief. The relief kills me. How could he possibly feel that? Doesn’t he understand what this will mean for us? We’ll never get to travel together like we planned—visit the places our favorite movies were filmed or the places where vampire myths were born. We won’t go to anymore midnight showings of the latest vampire movies. We won’t get to have chocolate shakes afterward at the twenty-four-hour Denny’s and dissect how well the movie vampire’s traits matched up with vampire lore. I won’t do those things without him. I won’t. He must realize this. I catch his eye, and he gives me the smallest nod. He knows, but he looks so tired. Like a man who can’t keep fighting no matter how much he’s losing by giving up. My eyes sting, and I can’t look at him anymore.
I turn to the doctor’s smooth, patient face. “We’re out of options,” he says.
“What about clinical trials?” I ask.
He shakes his head slowly. “We’re too far advanced for that.”
His use of “we’re” pisses me off. We’re not the ones going through it. He gets to go home tonight and have his tennis match, or sit in front of his television with a beer, or kiss his pretty spouse. He doesn’t see the pain that my dad’s in all day every day. He’s not a part of this.
I drag in a deep breath and try to force down the fear leaking into the hollow of my stomach. Dad’s not dead yet. I put those four words on repeat in my mind.
“How long?” Mom asks.
“A month. Maybe less.”
If pancreatic cancer were a vampire, it wouldn’t be well-groomed Lestat, and it definitely wouldn’t be sparkly Edward. No, it’d be the vampire horde from 30 Days of Night—merciless, bloody, ravaging a whole town until nothing is left.
But no, even that’s not right. Cancer is so merciless that even the cruelest of vampires can’t compete. Cancer takes its time. At least the townsfolk in 30 Days of Night died quickly—a few moments of terror and then boom, nothing. That’s got to be better. Anything’s got to be better than this.
Two hundred and forty-six days and counting.
“Do you have any questions?”
Why? The word’s been running through my head again and again. Nobody ever answers. Not even God, and Dad says he has all the answers. I’m sure the doctor can’t, either.
Dad grips the doctor’s hand, thanking him. I’m not sure what he’s so thankful for, but he’s always been like this, seeing reasons to be grateful where I see none. I used to admire that in him, but now I want to grab his shoulders and shake him until he admits we have nothing to be thankful for at this moment.
I wheel Dad out of the hospital, trying to avoid the sharp corners with his chair. I bump his feet into the wall more than once, and Mom asks me to be careful. Dad doesn’t seem to notice.
When we get home, Dad ends up where he spends most of his time now: the hospital bed set up in the spare bedroom. He insisted Mom’s snoring kept him up at night, and we’d laughed about it, but I know he did it for her. He moans a lot in his sleep now. Probably didn’t want her to hear. I thought she should have argued with him a little, but she let him go.
She lets things go too easily.
Mom gives him his morphine drops the second we settle in. She never forgets a dose. She cares for him with the efficiency of a well-programmed robot, but today she slows down and tucks my old 101 Dalmatians comforter under his chin. He claims it’s the most comfortable blanket in the house. He stopped her from throwing it out at least a dozen times.
She rests her hand on one of the faded puppies and leans down, touching her lips to his forehead.
I stare at the empty television. This isn’t the routine. It means something has changed.
“Anna,” Dad says softly as Mom pulls away from him. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Mom leans back in slightly, like she’ll collapse against his chest with the smallest nudge.
My stomach clenches, and in my head, I recite all the Dracula movies from oldest to newest. I cannot watch my mother break. She never gets emotional, and if she loses it now, everything will be too real, but I can’t leave the room either, or that will be my admission that this is actually happening.
But she sucks in a deep breath, and her back goes rigid. “I’m fine, love.” Her fingers squeeze the comforter before she pulls away. Her hard eyes find mine, and she nods. We’re together in this then. Nothing has changed. We’re not going to curl into sobbing balls of grief while Dad’s still here.
Mom leaves, and I don’t give Dad a chance to ask me if I want to talk. “Do you want to sleep?” I ask.
He shakes his head even as it droops toward his chest. “I can sleep when...”
He doesn’t finish the sentence, but I know what he stopped himself from saying. I can sleep when I’m dead. He used to sleep six hours a night and still be the chirpiest person in the house every morning, frying up bacon or eggs and flipping blueberry pancakes with unnatural energy. When I was little, I thought he was a vampire because I never saw him sleep. When I was older, I’d still ask if he was sure he wasn’t one of the undead, and he’d chuckle and lift one of his bushy brows in the classic Dracula look. I’d laugh hard enough to lose some of my orange juice down my chin, Jessica would roll her eyes, and Mom would sigh. But there would be a hint of a smile on Mom’s face as she ate her scrambled eggs.
Dad’s not a vampire. If he were undead, he’d still be able to make jokes about dying. I wish he would say the words, so we could laugh like it means nothing.
Leaving it unsaid takes up an impossible space inside this too small room.
I swallow, pick up the television remote, and click on the guide. Every station has some sort of vampire-related special airing.
Today’s the tenth anniversary of the day Gerald Durand announced to the world that he was a real-life vampire. And I don’t mean one of those blood-drinking humans. I mean an immortal creature of the night.
Gerald was short and thin with stringy black hair that hid his gaunt cheeks when he wasn’t tucking it behind his ears. His clothes were mismatched—modern slacks, a brocade waistcoat with faded gold stitching, a yellowing white shirt with ruffles at the neck and wrists—a collection of pieces from different eras with little care for how they went together. But despite all that, he held himself like a prince as he sat in a chair across from Lester Holt and smiled coyly when asked how many humans he’d killed. He said the number didn’t matter. What mattered was he didn’t kill them now, and it was well past time for vampires to live openly and peacefully with people.
Dad, Jessica, and I cemented ourselves in front of the television for weeks, witnessing it all unfold with our mouths hanging open, ignoring Mom’s protests that we were too young to watch that nonsense. But nothing could tear us away because we were already vampire lovers in our house before—minus Mom, who never liked anything she deemed fantasy. Dad had always been obsessed with vampires and had classic movie posters hanging in his office with Bela Lugosi in various menacing poses, usually with his eyebrows drawn together or a hand around a woman’s neck. Jessica and I would sneak in and stare at them—sometimes making up stories to go with the images. Her favorite was of Lugosi with his arms in the air like he might reach out and grab you. I always thought he looked funny in that one, not scary. My favorite was The Lost Boys poster though. I liked the way David smirked at me as if he had a secret. I wanted that secret.
We begged Dad when we were little to let us watch those movies with him, and sometimes he’d let us watch a clip, but most of the time we stuck to The Little Vampire.
I wanted vampires to be real, so Gerald didn’t scare me. I was a kid who already believed in ghosts and fairies and impossible things, so all I felt watching Gerald was fascination. The world was what I’d always imagined: huge with possibilities.
Not everyone felt that way. Most people thought he was performing an elaborate prank. But then he stabbed a knife into his chest on live television and the world watched the wound heal. Everyone wanted to meet him and ask him questions, even though he never quite gave answers. A few other vampires joined him in the press, and it seemed like everything would change.
But then a child went missing in Paris near where Gerald lived. Fear took over, and when that happens, people look for the unknown to direct their rage at, because that’s easier than facing fear and pain head-on. They blamed Gerald. He disappeared. Vampires vanished into the night as swiftly as they had come.
In theory, the existence of vampires broke the world open. For years, I daydreamed about a vampire kid moving next door. The two of us riding the bus together, studying math in the cemetery after dark. Would they start offering night classes at my school? Would an eternal being even want to attend school? Probably not. But it didn’t stop my imagination.
In reality, nothing significant changed.
But Jessica and I did. I became more obsessed with vampires, but she stopped wanting to make up stories with me. She said it wasn’t fun anymore. Back then I didn’t get it, but now I think it scared her as much as it excited me—the fact that every story we made up could be real. Eventually she started saying Gerald was a hoax, like Mom did from the start. She’d roll her eyes and share a look with Mom whenever I’d talk about him.
But Dad believed. We started watching more vampire movies. There still weren’t many I could see at eight years old, but we started doing Fangtastic Thursdays as soon as I could handle some of the classics, and every year on the anniversary of Gerald’s reveal, we watch the marathon of documentaries, listen to researchers talk about their continued efforts to find them again, and make our own speculations about where they might be, all while munching on my famous white-painted sugar cookies drizzled in red frosting.
Only I didn’t make the cookies this year. Dad’s on a no-sugar diet, and Mom gave me a look when I started pulling out the ingredients last night. I was so worried he’d be disappointed, but he doesn’t remember—not even now, with the special running in front of him. He probably thinks it’s one of our many recordings.
A cameraman who worked Gerald’s original interview is answering questions.
“Did he seem evil to you?” The interviewer leans forward a bit, like this is the question she’s been waiting to ask.
His brow creases. “How could anyone tell? Most of us can’t tell with the people closest to us.”
An uncomfortable moment of silence stretches as the interviewer swallows. “In your opinion, should we still be looking for them?”
He shakes his head. “Why risk it?”
Dad coughs a little, and I glance toward his half-closed eyes. He looks like he needs to sleep, but I don’t say it.
“Let’s watch a movie instead,” he says. “Something with a happier ending.”
I click the interview off before fanning a few choices in front of him. “What will it be?”
His lips quirk, and he stares off like he’s thinking, but it goes on for too long. Maybe he can’t remember the names of all our favorite movies anymore. We used to quiz each other on what year an obscure vampire movie came out, and now he can’t name a single one. A ball of pain forms in my throat. This should be easy—this is our thing. But he’s tired. I push my pain away—it’s nothing compared to his.
He turns back to me, clearly fighting to remember what we were talking about. “Your choice, kiddo.”
I smile, and it hurts. I hope it doesn’t show on my face, but his eyes are glazed, and I doubt he would notice anyway.
“Bold move,” I say. “You know what that means.”
I want to make him laugh. It doesn’t work, but one corner of his mouth rises, and I’ll take what I can get. I finger my go-to choice: Underworld. Gotta love Kate Beckinsale kicking ass in a wicked leather coat. I try to force myself to focus on the trivial things I used to think about: cool coats and fast action sequences. Dad always gripes that all the action scenes are gunfights. What’s the point of having a vampire and werewolf war if you give them all guns?
“Would you rather be a vampire or a werewolf?” I ask the question like we haven’t debated this topic at length. I always choose vampire, but Dad always argues that as much as he loves vampire stories, he wouldn’t give up sunny days. Werewolves get speed and superstrength and enjoy the sun and the moon. But I should win by default since werewolves don’t exist. At least I don’t think they do. The beauty of life after Gerald is we can’t write anything off.
Dad’s gaze flicks to me, and he leans forward. “Still a werewolf. Not going to switch sides just because I’m drugged.” He drops his head back on the pillow and closes his eyes. “Nice try, though.”
“But vampires are immortal.” My consistent argument. Dad always countered that nobody wanted to live forever, but that was before. When was the last time we watched a movie where a vampire died from cancer?
He doesn’t even open his eyes. I need him to switch sides. I need him to say he’d choose vampires now because he doesn’t want to leave me behind. I need him to erase the relief I saw earlier. To keep fighting.
“Dad,” I whisper. His eyes stay closed, and I should let him sleep, but sitting here, analyzing how much his round cheeks have sunken in the last two weeks, creates an overwhelming ache in my chest. What if he closes his eyes and never opens them again? The thought makes my heart pulse too hard and too fast, and I can’t breathe or think about anything else besides making sure his eyes open. I reach out and touch his hand. “Dad,” I say a little louder.
His eyes crack open. “What, honey?”
“You still have hope, right? You’re not giving up. I know you believe in miracles.” My voice breaks, and I bite my tongue to give myself a tangible pain to focus on. I put all my strength into making my voice strong and steady. “You taught me to believe in them.”
“Of course I do, honey. And I always have hope, but sometimes what we hope for changes, and sometimes we can’t hope for the thing we really want.” He holds his hand out for me, but I don’t reach for it. The gesture feels like acceptance, like he wants me to give up and hope for something else, but what? Maybe I had other hopes before, but right now I can’t think of a single one that doesn’t include my dad being there. “Do you understand?” he asks.
I nod but refuse to meet his eyes. When I look back, they’re closed again.
“Dad?” I say.
The front door slams, and I flinch. My sister’s voice rises and falls from the front of the house until it rises and doesn’t come back down. Relief unwinds the knot in my stomach. She’s angry, too. Mom told her they’re giving up, and Jessica will talk some sense into them. Mom listens to her.
When Jessica left for college two years ago, it was almost a relief. We’d grown so far apart after the vampire reveal that we barely spoke. I mostly avoided her because I couldn’t stand the condescending glances she shared with Mom whenever I spoke about anything vampire-related—even if was just a new movie.
But when Dad got sick, I needed her. I wanted the big sister from before vampires were real, the one I held hands with to fall asleep on those rare occasions Dad let us watch something too scary. Well, she was scared. I pretended so she wouldn’t feel alone. I’d squeeze her hand and she’d repeat vampires don’t exist over and over again until she fell asleep while I lay there and secretly dreamed they did.
I needed someone to be strong for again, but I also wanted her to squeeze my hand and tell me cancer wasn’t scary. It might exist, but it was an easily defeated monster.
And she did.
Jessica showed up with color-coded binders full of research and options and clinical trials. She had statistics for Mom. She had hope for Dad. She even knew the best diet—the one Mom’s been diligently following ever since. I’ve been eating cruciferous vegetables with every meal for months, and I haven’t complained once. I know Jessica will have another plan for us now. A new routine will be nothing I can’t handle.
But then she bursts through the door, cheeks wet with tears. “Daddy.” She sniffles, pausing steps from the bed. Dad opens his eyes, and she falls into his arms, weeping.
The hardness in my stomach expands to my throat. This isn’t the version of her I want.
The one ally I thought I could count on has fallen prey to my greatest enemy: statistics.
I stare at the blank television and listen to her sniffle. I wish I could walk in here and weep and then go back to my dorm and not worry about how Dad would feel after I left. But I’m here all the time. I don’t get to escape—not that I want to.
Dad rubs her back as she wipes at her eyes.
He doesn’t need this. It’s not fair to him.
My throat aches like it might burst open if I don’t release a few tears. I want to curl up against Dad’s chest and let him comfort me too, but I place my hand around the front of my neck and squeeze. I’m in control even if I can’t control Jessica. You can’t take care of others when you can’t keep a grip on yourself. Why can’t she realize that? If she would get it together, we could figure out a different plan. Scientists come up with new cures every day—we just need to research more.
But all she does is cry.
My face gets hot and stuffy, and I need to leave the room.
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” Jessica mumbles into his chest.
“It’s okay,” he says. But it’s not. Everyone knows it’s not.
I back toward the door.
“Victoria.” Dad says my name softly, stopping me. He’s still holding Jessica, but he looks at me over her shoulder. “Draw me a picture?” he asks.
I try not to cringe, nodding instead. He’s made that request a hundred times before—sometimes when he senses I need a distraction, sometimes when he needs a distraction, and sometimes just for fun.
But he doesn’t know that it’s been months since I’ve drawn anything.
I head to my bedroom and pull out the tub full of art supplies from under my bed, smudging the thin layer of dust on top. Pulling out my sketchbook, I flip to the first picture—a landscape of the forest behind our house done in stark charcoal with none of the vibrant chalks or watercolors I usually favor. The shading’s so intense I can barely make out the silhouettes of the trees. It looks like I drew it at midnight, not noon when it really happened. But I did it right after Dad got sick, and I couldn’t stop shading. Shadows usually shape the picture, make it come alive, but too many drown it in darkness. I flip to the next one and the next, but they’re all the same—a mess of shadows and hurt. Until they just stop. I couldn’t try anymore. My sketches wouldn’t let me lie about how I was feeling.
I dig out an older sketchbook, but all the pages have already been torn out and handed to Dad so I could pretend to be okay. Show him I could still draw with the same joy I had before.
Some lies are okay—especially the ones that keep a smile on his face—but I’m out of old drawings, and I desperately don’t want to know what will happen if I let myself try again right now.
I shove everything back under my bed and head down the hall to the office my parents share. On one side is Mom’s stark white desk with a single chrome lamp on it and a calendar taking up the wall above it. On the other side is Dad’s mahogany beast he found at a yard sale because he likes the history of used things. So do I—they tell stories like paintings. Tacked to the wall above his desk, spread out in the spaces around his movie posters, are twenty or so of my drawings—from one of our family that I must have done in preschool, where we look more like trees than people, to one of Lestat I gave him on his birthday last year. I know he has more tucked away in his desk drawer, and I consider pulling one out and regifting it, but I don’t want to risk him remembering it and catching me.
I turn to Mom’s desk instead. It’s not like I’ve never given her any—she just doesn’t like clutter. I pull out her bottom drawer and fish through the bland documents until my fingers hit the texture of real paper—the kind meant to hold everything. I pull out a watercolor of a lavender rose I gave her a couple of years back. It’s a bit plain, but I thought she might actually hang it up if it was more her style. The funny thing is, Dad’s always talking about how Mom used to be this fabulous artist, but she gave it up when she went to law school. I asked her once if I could see some of her work, but she got quiet and said she didn’t keep it. She doesn’t have time for it because she has a real job.
She’s less than thrilled I’m going to art school in the fall—that is, I am if I can draw again by then. Maybe she’ll get her wish after all, and I’ll study accounting like Jessica.
I stare down at the vibrant petals, melding subtle shades of purple. I want to create like that again. I need to, but I need Dad to be okay to do that, and I’m running out of old pictures to give to him. At least this one won’t go to waste.
When I get back downstairs, Jessica hasn’t come out yet, so I head into the kitchen instead.
Mom’s cutting onions into unrecognizable slivers when I pull myself up onto the stool on the other side of the island. Her eyes are dry. My dad and I always joke that she’s so composed even onions can’t make her shed a tear, but it’s really because she wears contacts.
“Jessica’s going full sprinklers in there,” I say, placing my stolen picture on the counter in front of me.
She stops mid-cut to look up, her gaze pausing on the drawing. I wasn’t sure she’d even recognize it, and I wait for her to mention it.
“Your sister’s taking this hard. Go easy on her,” she says.
Her words constrict around my throat, and I take a deep breath to shake them off. He’s my dad too.
She glances at my picture again as she goes back to slicing. “Are you back to drawing?”
My chest tightens. She doesn’t recognize the picture, and that stings, but I didn’t expect her to notice I wasn’t drawing anymore. I don’t want to explain why I can’t—she’s too practical to understand.
“Are you?” Mom doesn’t accept silence as an answer.
“No.” I stare at the vibrant petals and hope she doesn’t ask why.
“You’d better get over that if you want to go to art school.”
I wince. I hate that she says if you want to go, like nothing’s been decided even though I already accepted. But she’s not wrong. She just doesn’t understand that I can’t get over this.
I need to change the topic.
“What are we gonna do?” I ask.
She doesn’t look up. “About what?”
“Dad. Jessica had other options in those binders. Maybe a new diet?” We already tried the diet with the highest success rate, but that doesn’t mean the others aren’t worth trying as well.
The knife clanks against the quartz countertop as she sighs. “Victoria.” She pauses as if searching for the words. “It’s over. We knew the odds. Only twenty percent make it past the first year.”
Each short sentence is a stake in the chest.
Why does everything have to be odds and statistics with her? Why can’t she ever hope for the best without analyzing whether or not it makes sense?
“You don’t know that. We can’t give up.”
Mom’s agnostic. Dad’s religious. I waver between them both, but lately I’ve taken up praying again. It helps me voice everything I keep hidden from everyone else. I’m not sure anymore though—this is not the outcome I prayed for.
“Your dad is ready. He doesn’t want to fight anymore.” I’m staring at her pile of mutilated onions, and I think her voice breaks a little. I look up to try to catch a moment of vulnerability, but she’s picked up her knife again and gone back to work.
“You don’t know that.”
“He told me, Victoria.”
She punctuates the last sentence with my name—it’s usually my cue that our conversation is over and she doesn’t want to deal with me anymore.
“He wouldn’t say that.” Dad doesn’t give up. I’m the same way.
“Victoria,” she says, but her voice cracks again, and for a second we stare at each other. I lean toward her, praying she’s going to tell me she still has hope too, or at least show me that we’re both burying the same unfathomable pain.
But she turns away, her blade beating once again on the cutting board.
Jessica’s high heels click into the room behind me. “Dad’s going to sleep.” Her cheeks are redder than usual, but she got Dad’s olive complexion and black hair, and she always looks stunning, even when she cries—maybe that’s why she feels free to do it so often. I got Mom’s copper-blond hair and pink skin. If I cry, I look like someone scalded my face with boiling water.
“We’re going to watch a movie together.”
“You should let him sleep,” she says, sparing me a glance before turning to Mom. “We need to start planning.”
My stomach bottoms out. The chasm that used to be between us opens again in an instant. She’s too scared to hope just like she was too scared to believe in vampires. She’s not talking about a new diet. The determined quiver in her lips tells me she’s thinking about his memorial, and I can’t allow it. If we all think like Dad’s dying, then it’s over. We need to plan for him to live, and I need to show them how.
Dad’s birthday’s in a week and a half, and every year we invite all our extended family along with some friends for a barbecue and way too many rounds of charades. Dad looks forward to it.
I give my hands one quick clap, taking charge like I always do for special events. “Okay, I know Dad’s still on a diet, and maybe we need to make his diet more hardcore given the negative news today, but I’m thinking he can cheat for his birthday and we get that German chocolate cake from the bakery downtown that uses way too much frosting.”
For a second, the normalcy of planning a party makes me forget about anything else. I’m picking the cake, like I do every year. Dad will say it’s the best cake he’s ever had, like he does every year.
But their faces, strained and sad, won’t let me pretend. They share one of those condescending looks I hate—the ones that make me feel ridiculous.
“Victoria,” Mom whispers, her voice gentler than I’ve ever heard it.
Jessica reaches out and places her clammy hand over mine. “Dad’s not up for a party.”
I pull away. I know that, but I don’t want to admit it. I can’t. “Then what did you mean?”
Vaguely, I’m aware how cruel it is to make her say it, to keep pretending I don’t know, but I don’t want to stop. I don’t want to let go of this one last thing that says everything’s going to be okay.
“We need to plan a memorial.” She says the words slowly and carefully, as if I need the extra time to let them register.
I tell myself to let it go. Instead, I jump up fast enough to knock over my stool, and it crashes against the wood floor so hard I probably scratched it. “You realize he’s still breathing, right?”
Jessica gapes at me.
“Victoria.” Mom’s voice is a warning, her brief softness gone.
I’d needed Jessica to come in here and make plans, but not these.
Jessica’s face goes soft with sympathy, as if she understands something I don’t, and I hate that look more than any other.
“Don’t you have exams or something? Why are you here?” Jessica barely visited after she moved out two years ago, but she’s been here once a week since Dad got sick, usually sitting in the kitchen with Mom, drinking wine and going through her binders.
“Victoria,” Mom says. “Why don’t you go watch that movie with Dad?”
I glance between them. Jessica’s crying again, and I feel bad, but then I remember she’s given up, and I hate her enough to not care.
Snatching my painting off the counter, I leave the room without looking at either of them.
Dad’s asleep, but I go in anyway, pull Underworld out of the DVD player, stick in The Lost Boys, and watch Kiefer Sutherland trick Michael into drinking blood and becoming a vampire. But Michael doesn’t want to be a vampire and live forever. He spends the whole movie trying not to live forever.
He doesn’t understand—staying human means inevitable death. What fool fights so hard just to die one day? Someone who hasn’t seen what death looks like, I guess.