“The Thing That Matters”

Originally published in the evermore review, Midnights: The Mini Issue, April 2023

Author’s Note: This story is a sequel to “Blood, Chocolate, and Tinsel” in magic/madness, but it is not necessary to read that story first.

Content Warning: descriptions of blood consumption (in terms of both humans and vampires), brief language

Huddled against the wall outside Salman’s Café, Jez unwrapped the emergency dark chocolate bar she kept in her coat pocket and broke off a piece. She set the chocolate on her tongue and closed her eyes as the rich flavor saturated her mouth. The bite was larger than she was used to eating in one day, and her sensitive vampire stomach would probably get sick from that alone, but she didn’t care. She needed something to calm her nerves.

She wanted to hang out with Walt, her human sort-of friend, but not there. Maybe in some parallel universe where nobody cared that a vampire and a human were together, but not in Warlington.

And she didn’t expect Walt to understand. If people stared at him, it was only because he looked like the lead singer of The Mavericks—he was tall and solidly built with broad shoulders, warm brown skin, and large, soulful brown eyes. He probably didn’t even grasp how his life would implode if it looked like they were on a date.

Sure, in town there were some rumored relationships between vampires and humans, but it was all very hush-hush, not something either party would flaunt in daylight. People tolerated it as long as it wasn’t something they saw or had to deal with; yet, here Jez and Walt were, at the top of the department store in the center of town, where people couldn’t help but see.

Jez wasn’t that strong, and she hated to admit it, especially to herself.

Why had Walt wanted to do this? Why had she agreed to it? What if she was simply playing into one of his little protests about the way things were? If there was one thing she’d always known about Walt, it was that he liked to be subversive. He had a restless energy that demanded change. For humans. For vampires. For anyone as long as he got to be in the center of it. Damn it, he’d started a ‘save the bees’ campaign at age seven that led to a school-wide fundraiser and a play for the PTA.

Most people made the mistake of thinking Jez was also subversive because of her dress and her manners and her general attitude towards humans, but they were wrong. Jez didn’t have a disruptive bone in her body; her appearance was all self-preservation. It was a take-the-first-swing-before-she-got-hit type of thing, nothing more.

Take today, for instance. She’d foregone her blood vial necklace and had traded her flashy red coat for her mother’s oversized gray one; for once, she wanted something so badly that she was willing to shrink to get it. Today, she wanted to sit in a café with a boy and try chocolate chess pie and not be the most obtrusive person in the room. She didn’t want to make a fuss at all; she just wanted to be comfortable in her own skin.

But now, standing outside the glass doors that led into the café, that seemed more impossible by the minute.

If she went in and sat across from Walt, people were bound to notice. People were bound to talk. Maybe not to her face—or, at least, not to his—but later, behind closed doors, they’d say things like…like…

Well, Jez wasn’t human, so she didn’t know what they would say—which was almost worse, as she had to imagine.

She didn’t want to imagine.

She wanted to eat her fucking pie.

***

Three Years Ago

The jingle of the little brass bell that hung on the front door of the record store signaled to Walt of an arriving customer. He’d been stocking shelves in the back but hurried to the front, surprised to see who had entered: Jezäl Barkoulis, her usual bright red coat open to reveal her black sweater and plaid skirt—a stark color combination against the paleness of her skin and her snowy blonde hair. Around her neck dangled the crystal vial necklace that she claimed possessed the blood of a dragon and gave her psychic powers. Jez scowled when she saw Walt, though he greeted her as he would any other customer, hoping she didn’t catch the waver in his voice.

Was it bad of him to say Jez scared him?

He generally thought vampires were all right; his grandmother had raised him, and she insisted they were harmless and that all the horror stories surrounding them were government propaganda. She’d lived through the Inquest and had watched several of her friends disappear in the dead of night, some never to return, so Walt tried to see things from her point of view.

But sometimes he thought Jez could frighten even his grandmother. He just didn’t understand how she and her twin brother James could have such opposite personalities.

Staying up front where she couldn’t sneak up on him—at their high school, Jez made a sport of frightening people, as though she wanted to get in trouble—he busied himself with putting price tags on some new merchandise that had come in.

From time to time, he couldn’t help but glance up at her, though; she was pretty in a severe way, like a sculpture cut from ice. She was tall and slender with sharp features, and she had a confident, graceful way of moving; in another life, she might have been a ballerina. But her ethereal beauty was undercut by her chilly stare, perpetual frown, and brusque manner.

Sometimes she answered “hello” with “screw you.”

Suddenly, she looked up at him, and Walt looked away, though not before their eyes met.

Shit.

Do you have Carvalho’s latest record?”

The question, offered tartly, didn’t compute for a moment.

Record. Carvalho.

Uh, no. We’re sold out.” Walt trained his eyes on his work.

Hmph.”

A beat.

We should get more in on Friday,” he forced out.

Jez didn’t reply. She spent a few more minutes up front, thumbing through the vinyls on the two long tables that stretched from the front counter to the middle of the store. Then she wandered past the red velvet curtain to the back room where they kept discount items.

Once she was out of sight, Walt felt the air rush back into the room.

Outside, it had started raining buckets. Probably, there wouldn’t be anyone else entering the store for a while. As distracted as he was, Walt decided this was as good a time as any to eat the sandwich he’d brought for lunch, so he retrieved the ham and cheese on rye and stared out the window as he wolfed it down. The day had been so slow already, and now the rain was going to slow it down even more. Walt was bored out of his skull, and his uncle seemed to think he would take over the record store one day.

Walt had no interest in his uncle’s store. After he graduated high school, he wanted to go into law or politics, and he wanted to get out of Warlington, even if that only meant moving to the next town over. There were people out there doing important things in the world, and he was stuck in the middle of nowhere in a place where nothing ever changed. He felt like he could do something meaningful if he just got out of there. He didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do, but…

As soon as he graduated, he was going to be on the first bus out of town.

***

Jez stared through the glass doors at Walt. He’d taken a seat at a corner table by one of the floor-to-ceiling windows that offered a birds-eye view of Main Street. The chocolate chess pie sat in the center of the table, waiting for her.

Great, Jez thought. He only ordered one slice. Now this will look even more like a date.

Unless that slice was for him, but…no, he was setting it on the side of the table meant for Jez.

At that moment, Walt glanced towards the doors and noticed her.

Jez froze.

He waved, and she bolted.

***

Walt crammed the rest of his sandwich into his mouth, then glanced at the time on his wristwatch. Jez had been in the back room for ten minutes. Maybe she needed help finding something?

Walt was hesitant to engage with her again, but it beat watching the rain. He made his way to the back of the store and found her hunched over a crate of vinyls on the floor.

Can I help you with something?”

Jez jumped up.

God, do you always sneak up on customers like that?!”

Walt held up his hands in a defensive gesture, half-seriously.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Scare me?” Jez scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Please.”

Right…so…can I help you?” Walt ventured again.

No.” Jez sneered and turned her back. She got down on her knees and continued flipping through her chosen crate. “This record store is trash, you know. You don’t have Carvalho’s latest record. Or Winston’s. Or Kim’s. Or Markov’s.”

Markov?

Walt had seen that name somewhere, but he couldn’t remember where.

My uncle probably knows where those records are. I haven’t been working here very long. I can ask him when he gets back, which should be in a few minutes.”

Walt’s offer only earned him another dose of silence.

***

Jez had thought Walt would be easy to evade, but he found her tucked into a rarely visited corner of the home and bedding section.

“What happened? What’s wrong?” he asked, his forehead creasing with concern.

Jez kept her face towards a shelf of throw pillows.

“Nothing. I just decided I don’t want pie.”

“You came all the way here and then decided that?”

“Well, it’s going to make me sick anyway. Let’s just forget it.” Jez fingered the lacy white fringe on one pillow.

“I thought you’d dreamed about trying it for a long time. You’re going to get this close and then not do it?”

“God, Walt, not everyone follows through on everything they say like you do. Some people change their minds. Some people really don’t care that much.”

“So you changed your mind?”

“Yes.”

“About the pie?”

“Yes.”

“What about me?”

Jez pinched the lacy fabric. Her neck prickled.

“What about you?” she asked, less confidently than she would have liked.

“Will you still come sit with me?”

Jez’s chest tightened. Why should he want to sit with her?

He likes you, her mind immediately answered.

Jez swallowed. Maybe that was all it was, but she could be wrong. She’d been wrong before.

“No, thanks,” Jez answered coldly. “I don’t care to be part of your social experiment. I’m not your pet project.”

“What do you mean? Of course, you’re not a project.” Walt touched her arm, and Jez flinched away on instinct.

“I was your project in high school,” she said.

Walt said nothing for a moment. He dropped his hand.

“Sorry if I made you feel like that. I guess I did bother you a lot in high school.”

“I was your project. The school said so.”

Another pause.

“Look, maybe the counselor put us together because they thought I would be a good influence on you, but—”

“Maybe they just wanted you to watch me.”

“Maybe that too,” Walt conceded. “But I really liked talking to you. I liked getting to know you. This is probably stupid of me, but I thought we could be friends one day. That’s why I wanted to go here with you.”

Tears sprung to Jez’s eyes, though she didn’t know why. With her fingertip, she traced the outline of the pillow’s floral design; it grew blurrier by the second as her eyes watered.

“But if you don’t want to go here, we can go somewhere else. Anywhere else. You can pick a place.”

Walt clasped her wrist, and she stared at the blurry outline of his hand for too long until a tear dropped from her eye onto his skin. Immediately, she whipped her head away and dabbed at her eyes.

Attempting to sound indifferent, Jez answered, “Let’s go anywhere without people. I don’t like people.”

“Really?” Walt exclaimed. “Okay, hold on one minute. Just stay there.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him backing away and gesturing energetically. “I’ll be right back,” he assured her. “Just stay right there. Please don’t go away.”

***

Jez still wasn’t answering Walt. He’d made several attempts to locate the records she’d inquired about, but it was difficult when she wouldn’t give him any further information. Ordinarily, he would have kept things professional and left her alone, but since he had to deal with her crap at school too, and maybe because he felt like she hated him without reason, without knowing anything about him, he finally snapped at her.

You know, it’s polite when you talk back to people who talk to you.” Immediately, he wanted to suck the words back in. He felt a temperature shift as Jez craned her head to look at him.

Really?” she answered sarcastically. “Well, in that case, screw you.” She smiled tightly and turned back to her crate.

Sorry, did I do something to you?”

You exist.”

Noted. Next time, I’ll try not to exist in the same room as you, though I think that will be quite difficult seeing as we’re in the same classes.”

Sounds like a ‘you’ problem. I’m not going anywhere.”

See this?This is why no one at school wants to talk to you. You just blow everyone off.”

You think that’s why no one talks to me? Don’t you want to be a lawyer or some crap? Open your eyes.”

Walt blinked, surprised she remembered he’d said that in class. Still, she was wrong. Of course, people didn’t talk to her when she acted like she hated everyone!

No, that is the reason,” he insisted. “Your brother is so…James is so—”

James is so what?” Jez bit out. “Human enough for you? What, he sits on student council and knows more about human history than the lot of you and laughs at all your stupid vampire jokes like he doesn’t know they’re directed at him?”

Walt had opened his mouth to reply, but her last phrase drew him up short. He had been going to say that James was friendly, that he was a nice person to hang out with, but he supposed all those other things were also true.

Rising to her feet, Jez approached him as she continued pointedly, “I have no interest in being anything for anyone, so if people don’t like the way I am, they don’t need to breathe my air.”

Walt froze. He’d never been that close to her before, except on accident. With her face inches from his, he could see how the deep red shade of her coat brought out the crimson in her eyes.

Screw…you….” She breathed out the words, nearly whispered them. Walt swallowed and shivered, though, oddly, not because he was afraid. He had a sudden and ridiculous urge to kiss her. Instead, he let his gaze linger on her face. The bell to the store rang, but it didn’t compute until he heard his uncle’s voice announcing that he was back.

Jez looked away first; she crouched back down on the floor and began tearing through the records in a manic fashion.

***

“Better?” Walt asked, and Jez nodded.

He sat down next to her on the trunk of his car and handed her a takeout container of chocolate chess pie. His car was an old chrome-laden model he’d fixed up and painted robin egg blue, but it ran smoothly, and Walt kept it as clean and sparkling as if it had just rolled off a sales lot. They’d parked in a clearing next to Lake Sequoia, backed up to the edge of the water.

“Sometimes I go fishing here with my uncle,” he explained, scooping up a bite of his pie.

“Oh,” Jez replied, “I see.”

She opened her takeout container carefully, then inspected the pie just as carefully, her foggy breath billowing over it like smoke. It was freezing out, but the fresh air felt nice after she’d been so claustrophobic inside the store.

“So, what’s in this again?” she asked.

“Uh, sugar, butter, some type of dough?” Walt twisted his face uncertainly and shrugged.

“You are utterly unhelpful.” Jez stabbed at the pie with her plastic fork. She stuffed a generous bite in her mouth before she could panic about possibly being poisoned.

The pie tasted much sweeter than Jez expected, and she wasn’t sure if she liked that, but the inner texture was gooey, and the crust was crispy like a congealed blood tart with ground marrow flour crust. And so much chocolate. There was so much chocolate

“It’s good,” Jez decided, setting the rest of the pie next to Walt.

“You can have more.”

“Oh, no. You can have the rest of it.”

“You can have half.”

“I’m not even sure how a bite will affect me. It’s fine. I satisfied my curiosity.”

Walt looked like he might protest more but ultimately shrugged and let it go. Jez leaned back on her elbows, surveying the sunlight gleaming on the water and the cluster of green pine branches hanging overhead. She’d always loved forests, the embrace of the trees and the silence that demanded nothing from her.

“I didn’t think about it until later.” Walt broke the silence. “How awkward you might feel sitting in the café. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” Jez replied. “It was my idea to go. You just hopped on board with it.”

“But you didn’t want to sit there with me, did you?” He gave her a knowing smile.

“I didn’t want to sit there with them.

“Them?”

“The other people. It would have been okay if it was just you,” Jez admitted.

“I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

“Well, don’t let it go to your head. I have plenty of mean things I can say too.”

“I know. You’ve said them. Multiple times.”

Walt smiled at her as though they were sharing a secret, and Jez couldn’t help but smile back.

“Wait. Was that a…Did you just smile?” He pointed at her face. “You never smile.”

Jez scoffed.

“Just because I don’t smile around you doesn’t mean I never smile.”

“How many times a day do you smile? Count them, and report back to me.”

Jez scoffed again. Unfortunately, she also smiled again.

“Aha! See! There’s another one. It’s a miracle. I thought there was a problem with your facial muscles.”

“You did not.”

“I’m serious.”

“You did not,” Jez insisted, but a chuckle escaped her. Recovering, she asked, “What are you still doing here anyway? I thought you were going to leave six months ago. Weren’t you supposed to go off to college?” Jez quirked an accusatory eyebrow.

“You say that like you were praying for me to leave.”

“Just answer the question.”

Walt gave her an amused smile.

“I applied for next year. I’m waiting to hear back.”

“Oh? Why the delay?”

“Uh.” Walt pushed his last bite of pie around. “Well, my uncle injured his back a few months ago, so I’ve been helping him with the store while he recovers. Also, my grandmother’s getting…older.”

“Oh, I see.” Jez nodded solemnly. She knew how close Walt was to his grandmother.

She also knew how badly Walt had wanted to leave Warlington; she hoped he didn’t get stuck there like her.

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“What do you plan on doing now that high school’s over?” Walt had finished his pie, and now she held his full attention.

Unfortunately, the subject of “the future” was not Jez’s favorite. She could barely stomach the past.

“I work in my mother’s vampire apothecary shop. You know that.”

“Yeah, but is there anything else you want to do?”

“No,” Jez answered quickly. Perhaps too quickly. Of course, Walt sensed something was amiss.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Nothing.”

“It’s not nothing. You almost smiled just then. You never smile, remember?”

Jez rolled her eyes. She had a foolish dream that she fed scraps occasionally, just enough to have kept it alive all these years, but she’d never shared it with anyone. She didn’t care to share it now.

“It’s really not that interesting.”

“Try me.”

“No, it’s really silly.”

“Try me,” Walt repeated calmly, his face patient and open. That was the thing about Walt. He was so easygoing while he waited for her to blow him off, and when she inevitably did blow him off, he didn’t even get mad, which made blowing him off unsatisfactory, to be honest.

Perhaps Jez was tired of the whole back-and-forth, or perhaps she felt like she owed him something since he had driven her all the way to the lake and paid for her pie, or perhaps since she knew he’d be leaving town soon, or perhaps because he was Walt, he felt like a person she could tell…

“I think it would be cool to be, like…” Jez averted her eyes and concentrated on the pine needles littering the ground. “A band manager, or something. Something to do with music, I don’t know.” Her leg shook uncontrollably.

“That’s cool. Did you ever want to be an artist?”

“Oh god, no. I can’t sing. And I’m not being modest. People scream at me to shut up.”

Walt chuckled.

“That’s cool, though. I hope you get to do something like that one day. I know how much you like music.” When Jez glanced up, Walt’s smile burned into her, warming her chest and making her toes tingle.

A smile tugged at the corners of her lips again, but she didn’t allow it to show on her face. For the past three years, Walt had been such a nuisance, but she couldn’t imagine a Warlington without him. Or, rather, she didn’t want to.

At first, she’d pushed him away because she didn’t trust him. Now she pushed him away because she could breathe easier in his presence, and when he left, as he inevitably would, her lungs would have to toughen up again.

Maybe this hadn’t been a date, but suddenly, Jez wished it had been. It was a stupid wish, as stupid as being a band manager, but there it was, and it frightened her.

Her stomach churned with panic, twisting itself into knots. Or perhaps that was the pie, preparing to expel itself. Sugar and butter and dough and whatever else humans ate that she had no business consuming.

She shouldn’t have eaten such a large bite. She knew her limits.

She shouldn’t be there at all. She knew her limits.

Her gut soured, mocking her. Scolding her.

Jez wretched over the side of Walt’s car.

***

“I told you not to eat chocolate. How many times did I tell you?”

“I know, Mamă.” Jez swung her legs back and forth as she sat atop her mother’s store counter while her mother prepared one of her elixirs for upset stomach. She hadn’t wanted to come there—she’d been sick plenty of times without involving her mother—but Walt had insisted, so there they were. Walt wandered around the store, examining the labels on the glass medicine bottles that contained various elixirs and crushed herbs.

“Here. Drink this.” Jez’s mother handed her a vial of foul-smelling liquid, and Jez gulped it. She gagged when the taste hit her, but by that point, the medicine had gone down her throat. Her mother handed her a blood cider to chase it with, and she gulped that down too.

Wincing at her lingering stomach pains, she jumped down from the counter and was preparing to see Walt out when Walt turned to her mother and asked, with a tone of utmost sincerity, “Do you mind if I try a blood cider?”

Jez gaped at him; she crossed her arms.

“You are aware that blood cider has actual blood, right? It’s not…water with red dye.”

Walt laughed.

“Of course.”

“You know, I’ve never served that to a human before,” her mother said, not unkindly. “I don’t make the kind with herbs poisonous to humans, but are you sure it’s okay for you? I don’t think—”

“Humans have blood inside their bodies, same as vampires. I’m not sure how this would be different.” Walt walked over to the counter and sat himself at one of the bar stools. “Besides, I have confidence in you, Mrs. Barkoulis. If I get sick, you can fix me the same way you did Jez.”

Jez’s mother glanced from Walt to Jez, who advised, “Honestly, you should probably just give it to him. He doesn’t stop until he gets what he wants.”

“Thank you, Jez.” Walt turned to her with a smile, and she pulled a face.

“Well, all right then. Let’s try it.” Her mother poured a second mug of cider and clacked it down in front of Walt. “One sip.” She held up a finger. “One.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Walt raised the mug to his lips, and Jez couldn’t help but draw closer, curious as to how quickly he would spit the cider out.

To her shock, he didn’t. He screwed his face up immediately, and she could tell he didn’t like it, but he didn’t spit it out. Setting the mug down, he commented, “That is, uh…wow, that is really strong. It’s like alcohol.” He coughed and beat his chest.

“Well, it is fermented,” Jez offered. “Hence the name—”

“Cider. Oh.” Walt laughed. “Yeah, that makes sense.” He licked his lips and thanked her mother, though Jez wasn’t buying the smile on his face.

“Here.” Jez fetched her emergency chocolate from her coat pocket and laid it on the counter. “Have some chocolate. You look like you want to spit out your tongue.”

“Let me get you some water,” her mother offered; she hurried into the back where she had a small kitchen for preparing herbal remedies as well as small treats for her customers, like the blood cider Walt had imbibed.

“You know, you can say that you don’t like it. My mother won’t be offended,” Jez said when her mother had gone. “I thought the pie was too sweet,” she added for good measure.

“Well, I mean, it was…I think it’s…an acquired taste, you know, like—”

Walt.

“Fine, it was bad. It was really bad. You happy?”

“Supremely.” Jez smiled, leaning on the counter and resting her chin on her knuckles.

“Well, just know I didn’t think I would like it. I only wanted to try it because I was curious.”

“Curious? About the taste of blood?”

“No, about you. I told you. I like getting to know you.”

Walt studied her with an unbridled fondness that made her all too aware of how close their faces were. Fortunately, her mother reappeared, a tall glass of water in hand.

“I’m so sorry about that,” she said, handing the glass to Walt.

“Oh, no, please. I can tell it would taste good if I’d grown up drinking it.” Walt graciously smiled and sipped the water. “Maybe it’s too strong for my human tongue to handle.” He laughed, and Jez’s mother laughed with him.

Walt said something else, and her mother laughed again, a full-bodied chuckle. Sometimes Jez forgot how quickly Walt could set people at ease. People that weren’t her, at least. Most everyone gravitated to Walt at a feverish pace, whereas Jez had been inching towards him so slowly that she hadn’t even realized she was doing it.

Not until she’d gotten this close to him.

Here.

Wherever here was.

I told you. I like getting to know you, he’d said.

If anyone else had told her that, Jez would have scoffed and called them a liar because no one liked getting to know Jez. She made certain of that.

But deep down in her nauseous gut, she knew Walt wasn’t lying. He’d probably declare Jez an acquired taste. Like the cider.

She didn’t know what that meant for her, exactly, or what she should do about it. Or what she wanted to do about it.

What did she want?

Jez pondered it as she walked Walt to his car some time later. Silence stretched between them, broken only by the crunch of gravel under Jez’s heels and the bird caws overhead.

Her cheeks heated. She felt like she needed to say something, but she didn’t know what. And now that they’d arrived at Walt’s car, he was opening the door to the driver’s side…

Before he could get in, Jez caught his hand.

“Walt?” she asked, half-scared of her own voice. It was small and uncertain, the way she never liked to present herself. The way she always felt.

“Yes?” He glanced behind him, and she stared down at their joined hands, unable to meet his eyes.

“Do you…” Jez paused. “Do you think time is moving too fast, or are we just moving too slow?”

Walt tentatively brushed his thumb over her fingers; he maneuvered his hand until it warmly gripped hers.

When he spoke, his voice was soft, but sure and steady.

“I think the only thing that matters is we’re moving.”

#



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About Me

JodiMarie Meyer enjoys toeing the line between the mundane and the magical and exploring the dichotomies of good and evil; she primarily writes love stories, but not always. Definitely someone who got in trouble for daydreaming in class. Definitely someone who scribbles frantic story notes while stirring pasta. She makes her home in the Maryland countryside with her husband, dog, and rabbit. She is the author of one short story collection: magic/madness. Currently, she is writing her debut novel, Luc & Lila.