Approx. 9,500 words
A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i
by Alaya Dawn Johnson
(Winner of the 2015 Nebula award for best novelette. Originally published in the July/August 2014 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, guest edited by C.C. Finlay. Back issues of the magazine are available here.)
Key’s favorite time of day is sunset, her least is sunrise. It should be the opposite, but every time she watches that bright red disk sinking into the water beneath Mauna Kea her heart bends like a wishbone, and she thinks, He’s awake now.
Key is thirty-four. She is old for a human woman without any children. She has kept herself alive by being useful in other ways. For the past four years, Key has been the overseer of the Mauna Kea Grade Orange blood facility.
Is it a concentration camp if the inmates are well fed? If their beds are comfortable? If they are given an hour and a half of rigorous boxercise and yoga each morning in the recreational field?
It doesn’t have to be Honouliui to be wrong.
When she’s called in to deal with Jeb’s body—bloody, not drained, in a feeding room—yoga doesn’t make him any less dead.
Key helps vampires run a concentration camp for humans.
Key is a different kind of monster.
Key’s favorite food is umeboshi. Salty and tart and bright red, with that pit in the center to beware. She loves it in rice balls, the kind her Japanese grandmother made when she was little. She loves it by itself, the way she ate it at fifteen, after Obachan died. She hasn’t had umeboshi in eighteen years, but sometimes she thinks that when she dies she’ll taste one again.
This morning she eats the same thing she eats every meal: a nutritious brick patty, precisely five inches square and two inches deep, colored puce. Her raw scrubbed hands still have a pink tinge of Jeb’s blood in the cuticles. She stares at them while she sips the accompanying beverage, which is orange. She can’t remember if it ever resembled the fruit.
She eats this because that is what every human eats in the Mauna Kea facility. Because the patty is easy to manufacture and soft enough to eat with plastic spoons. Key hasn’t seen a fork in years, a knife in more than a decade. The vampires maintain tight control over all items with the potential to draw blood. Yet humans are tool-making creatures, and their desires, even nihilistic ones, have a creative power that no vampire has the imagination or agility to anticipate. How else to explain the shiv, handcrafted over secret months from the wood cover and glue-matted pages of A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i, the book that Jeb used to read in the hours after his feeding sessions, sometimes aloud, to whatever humans would listen? He took the only thing that gave him pleasure in the world, destroyed it—or recreated it—and slit his veins with it. Mr. Charles questioned her particularly; he knew that she and Jeb used to talk sometimes. Had she known that the boy was like this? He gestured with pallid hands at the splatter of arterial pulses from jaggedly slit wrists: oxidized brown, inedible, mocking.
No, she said, of course not, Mr. Charles. I report any suspected cases of self-waste immediately.
She reports any suspected cases. And so, for the weeks she has watched Jeb hardly eating across the mess hall, noticed how he staggered from the feeding rooms, recognized the frigid rebuff in his responses to her questions, she has very carefully refused to suspect.
Today, just before dawn, she choked on the fruits of her indifference. He slit his wrists and femoral arteries. He smeared the blood over his face and buttocks and genitals, and he waited to die before the vampire technician could arrive to drain him.
Not many humans self-waste. Most think about it, but Key never has, not since the invasion of the Big Island. Unlike other humans, she has someone she’s waiting for. The one she loves, the one she prays will reward her patience. During her years as overseer, Key has successfully stopped three acts of self-waste. She has failed twice. Jeb is different; Mr. Charles sensed it somehow, but vampires can only read human minds through human blood. Mr. Charles hasn’t drunk from Key in years. And what could he learn, even if he did? He can’t drink thoughts she has spent most of her life refusing to have.
Mr. Charles calls her to the main office the next night, between feeding shifts. She is terrified, like she always is, of what they might do. She is thinking of Jeb and wondering how Mr. Charles has taken the loss of an investment. She is wondering how fast she will die in the work camp on Lanai.
But Mr. Charles has an offer, not a death sentence.
“You know… of the facility on Oahu? Grade Gold?”
“Yes,” Key says. Just that, because she learned early not to betray herself to them unnecessarily, and the man at Grade Gold has always been her greatest betrayer.
No, not a man, Key tells herself for the hundredth, the thousandth time. He is one of them.
Mr. Charles sits in a hanging chair shaped like an egg with plush red velvet cushions. He wears a black suit with steel gray pinstripes, sharply tailored. The cuffs are high and his feet are bare, white as talcum powder and long and bony like spiny fish. His veins are prominent and round and milky blue. Mr. Charles is vain about his feet.
He does not sit up to speak to Key. She can hardly see his face behind the shadow cast by the overhanging top of the egg. All vampires speak deliberately, but Mr. Charles drags out his tones until you feel you might tip over from waiting on the next syllable. It goes up and down like a calliope—
“…what do you say to heading down there and sorting the matter… out?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Charles,” she says carefully, because she has lost the thread of his monologue. “What matter?”
He explains: a Grade Gold human girl has killed herself. It is a disaster that outshadows the loss of Jeb.
“You would not believe the expense taken to keep those humans Grade Gold standard.”
“What would I do?”
“Take it in hand, of course. It seems our small… Grade Orange operation has gotten some notice. Tetsuo asked for you… particularly.”
“Tetsuo?” She hasn’t said the name out loud in years. Her voice catches on the second syllable.
“Mr. Tetsuo,” Mr. Charles says, and waves a hand at her. He holds a sheet of paper, the same shade as his skin. “He wrote you a letter.”
Key can’t move, doesn’t reach out to take it, and so it flutters to the black marble floor a few feet away from Mr. Charles’s egg.
He leans forward. “I think… I remember something… you and Tetsuo…”
“He recommended my promotion here,” Key says, after a moment. It seems the safest phrasing. Mr. Charles would have remembered this eventually; vampires are slow, but inexorable.
The diffuse light from the paper lanterns catches the bottom half of his face, highlighting the deep cleft in his chin. It twitches in faint surprise. “You were his pet?”
Key winces. She remembers the years she spent at his side during and after the wars, catching scraps in his wake, despised by every human who saw her there. She waited for him to see how much she had sacrificed and give her the only reward that could matter after what she’d done. Instead he had her shunt removed and sent her to Grade Orange. She has not seen or heard from him in four years. His pet, yes, that’s as good a name as any—but he never drank from her. Not once.
Mr. Charles’s lips, just a shade of white darker than his skin, open like a hole in a cloud. “And he wants you back. How do you feel?”
Terrified. Awestruck. Confused. “Grateful,” she says.
The hole smiles. “Grateful! How interesting. Come here, girl. I believe I shall have a taste.”
She grabs the letter with shaking fingers and folds it inside a pocket of her red uniform. She stands in front of Mr. Charles.
“Well?” he says.
She hasn’t had a shunt in years, though she can still feel its ridged scar in the crook of her arm. Without it, feeding from her is messy, violent. Traditional, Mr. Charles might say. Her fingers hurt as she unzips the collar. Her muscles feel sore, the bones in her spine arthritic and old as she bows her head, leans closer to Mr. Charles. She waits for him to bare his fangs, to pierce her vein, to suck her blood.
He takes more than he should. He drinks until her fingers and toes twinge, until her neck throbs, until the red velvet of his seat fades to gray. When he finishes, he leaves her blood on his mouth.
“I forgive… you for the boy,” he says.
Jeb cut his own arteries, left his good blood all over the floor. Mr. Charles abhors waste above all else.
Mr. Charles will explain the situation. I wish you to come. If you do well, I have been authorized to offer you the highest reward.
The following night, Key takes a boat to Oahu. Vampires don’t like water, but they will cross it anyway—the sea has become a status symbol among them, an indication of strength. Hawai’i is still a resort destination, though most of its residents only go out at night. Grade Gold is the most expensive, most luxurious resort of them all.
Tetsuo travels between the islands often. Key saw him do it a dozen times during the war. She remembers one night, his face lit by the moon and the yellow lamps on the deck—the wide cheekbones, thick eyebrows, sharp widow’s peak, all frozen in the perfection of a nineteen-year-old boy. Pale beneath the olive tones of his skin, he bares his fangs when the waves lurch beneath him.
“What does it feel like?” she asks him.
“Like frozen worms in my veins,” he says, after a full, long minute of silence. Then he checks the guns and tells her to wait below, the humans are coming. She can’t see anything, but Tetsuo can smell them like chum in the water. The Japanese have held out the longest, and the vampires of Hawai’i lead the assault against them.
Two nights later, in his quarters in the bunker at the base of Mauna Kea, Tetsuo brings back a sheet of paper, written in Japanese. The only characters she recognizes are “shi” and “ta”— “death” and “field.” It looks like some kind of list.
“What is this?” she asks.
“Recent admissions to the Lanai human residential facility.”
She looks up at him, devoted with terror. “My mother?” Her father died in the first offensive on the Big Island, a hero of the resistance. He never knew how his daughter had chosen to survive.
“Here,” Tetsuo says, and runs a cold finger down the list without death. “Jen Isokawa.”
“Alive?” She has been looking for her mother since the wars began. Tetsuo knows this, but she didn’t know he was searching, too. She feels swollen with this indication of his regard.
“She’s listed as a caretaker. They’re treated well. You could…” He sits beside her on the bed that only she uses. His pause lapses into a stop. He strokes her hair absentmindedly; if she had a tail, it would beat his legs. She is seventeen and she is sure he will reward her soon.
“Tetsuo,” she says, “you could drink from me, if you want. I’ve had a shunt for nearly a year. The others use it. I’d rather feed you.”
Sometimes she has to repeat herself three times before he seems to hear her. This, she has said at least ten. But she is safe here in his bunker, on the bed he brought in for her, with his lukewarm body pressed against her warm one. Vampires do not have sex with humans; they feed. But if he doesn’t want her that way, what else can she offer him?
“I’ve had you tested. You’re fertile. If you bear three children you won’t need a shunt and the residential facilities will care for you for the rest of your mortality. You can live with your mother. I will make sure you’re safe.”
She presses her face against his shoulder. “Don’t make me leave.”
“You wanted to see your mother.”
Her mother had spent the weeks before the invasion in church, praying for God to intercede against the abominations. Better that she die than see Key like this.
“Only to know what happened to her,” Key whispers. “Won’t you feed from me, Tetsuo? I want to feel closer to you. I want you to know how much I love you.”
A long pause. Then, “I don’t need to taste you to know how you feel.”
Tetsuo meets her on shore.
Just like that, she is seventeen again.
“You look older,” he says. Slowly, but with less affectation than Mr. Charles.
This is true; so inevitable she doesn’t understand why he even bothers to say so. Is he surprised? Finally, she nods. The buoyed dock rocks beneath them—he makes no attempt to move, though the two vampires with him grip the denuded skin of their own elbows with pale fingers. They flare and retract their fangs.
“You are drained,” he says. He does not mean this metaphorically.
She nods again, realizes further explanation is called for. “Mr. Charles,” she says, her voice a painful rasp. This embarrasses her, though Tetsuo would never notice.
He nods, sharp and curt. She thinks he is angry, though perhaps no one else could read him as clearly. She knows that face, frozen in the countenance of a boy dead before the Second World War. A boy dead fifty years before she was born.
He is old enough to remember Pearl Harbor, the detention camps, the years when Maui’s forests still had native birds. But she has never dared ask him about his human life.
“And what did Charles explain?”
“He said someone killed herself at Grade Gold.”
Tetsuo flares his fangs. She flinches, which surprises her. She used to flush at the sight of his fangs, her blood pounding red just beneath the soft surface of her skin.
“I’ve been given dispensation,” he says, and rests one finger against the hollow at the base of her throat.
She’s learned a great deal about the rigid traditions that restrict vampire life since she first met Tetsuo. She understands why her teenage fantasies of morally liberated vampirism were improbable, if not impossible. For each human they bring over, vampires need a special dispensation that they only receive once or twice every decade. The highest reward. If Tetsuo has gotten a dispensation, then her first thought when she read his letter was correct. He didn’t mean retirement. He didn’t mean a peaceful life in some remote farm on the islands. He meant death. Un-death.
After all these years, Tetsuo means to turn her into a vampire.
The trouble at Grade Gold started with a dead girl. Penelope cut her own throat five days ago (with a real knife, the kind they allow Grade Gold humans for cutting food). Her ghost haunts the eyes of those she left behind. One human resident in particular, with hair dyed the color of tea and blue lipstick to match the bruises under her red eyes, takes one look at Key and starts to scream.
Key glances at Tetsuo, but he has forgotten her. He stares at the girl as if he could burn her to ashes on the plush green carpet. The five others in the room look away, but Key can’t tell if it’s in embarrassment or fear. The luxury surrounding them chokes her. There’s a bowl of fruit on a coffee table. Real fruit—fuzzy brown kiwis, mottled red-green mangos, dozens of tangerines. She takes an involuntary step forward and the girl’s scream gets louder before cutting off with an abrupt squawk. Her labored breaths are the only sound in the room.
“This is a joke,” the girl says. There’s spittle on her blue lips. “What hole did you dig her out of?”
“Go to your room, Rachel,” Tetsuo says.
Rachel flicks back her hair and rubs angrily under one eye. “What are you now, Daddy Vampire? You think you can just, what? Replace her? With this broke down fogie look-alike?”
“She is not—”
“Yeah? What is she?”
They are both silent, doubt and grief and fury scuttling between them like beetles in search of a meal. Tetsuo and the girl stare at each other with such deep familiarity that Key feels forgotten, alone—almost ashamed of the dreams that have kept her alive for a decade. They have never felt so hopeless, or so false.
“Her name is Key,” Tetsuo says, in something like defeat. He turns away, though he makes no move to leave. “She will be your new caretaker.”
“Key?” the girl says. “What kind of a name is that?”
Key doesn’t answer for a long time, thinking of all the ways she could respond. Of Obachan Akiko and the affectionate nickname of lazy summers spent hiking in the mountains or pounding mochi in the kitchen. Of her half-Japanese mother and Hawai’ian father, of the ways history and identity and circumstance can shape a girl into half a woman, until someone—not a man—comes with a hundred thousand others like him and destroys anything that might have once had meaning. So she finds meaning in him. Who else was there?
And this girl, whose sneer reveals her bucked front teeth, has as much chance of understanding that world as Key does of understanding this one. Fresh fruit on the table. No uniforms. And a perfect, glittering shunt of plastic and metal nestled in the crook of her left arm.
“Mine,” Key answers the girl.
Rachel spits; Tetsuo turns his head, just a little, as though he can only bear to see Key from the corner of his eye.
“You’re nothing like her,” she says.
But the girl storms from the room, leaving her chief vampire without a dismissal. Key now understands this will not be punished. It’s another one—a boy, with the same florid beauty as the girl but far less belligerence, who answers her.
“You look like Penelope,” he says, tugging on a long lock of his asymmetrically cut black hair. “Just older.”
When Tetsuo leaves the room, it’s Key who cannot follow.
Key remembers sixteen. Her obachan is dead and her mother has moved to an apartment in Hilo and it’s just Key and her father in that old, quiet house at the end of the road. The vampires have annexed San Diego and Okinawa is besieged, but life doesn’t feel very different in the mountains of the Big Island.
It is raining in the woods behind her house. Her father has told her to study, but all she’s done since her mother left is read Mishima’s Sea of Fertility novels. She sits on the porch, wondering if it’s better to kill herself or wait for them to come, and just as she thinks she ought to have the courage to die, something rattles in the shed. A rat, she thinks.
But it’s not rat she sees when she pulls open the door on its rusty hinges. It’s a man, crouched between a stack of old appliance boxes and the rusted fender of the Buick her father always meant to fix one day. His hair is wet and slicked back, his white shirt is damp and ripped from shoulder to navel. The skin beneath it is pale as a corpse; bloodless, though the edges of a deep wound are still visible.
“They’ve already come?” Her voice breaks on a whisper. She wanted to finish The Decay of the Angel. She wanted to see her mother once more.
“Shut the door,” he says, crouching in shadow, away from the bar of light streaming through the narrow opening.
“Don’t kill me.”
“We are equally at each other’s mercy.”
She likes the way he speaks. No one told her they could sound so proper. So human. Is there a monster in her shed, or is he something else?
“Why shouldn’t I open it all the way?”
He is brave, whatever else. He takes his long hands from in front of his face and stands, a flower blooming after rain. He is beautiful, though she will not mark that until later. Now, she only notices the steady, patient way he regards her. I could move faster than you, his eyes say. I could kill you first.
She thinks of Mishima and says, “I’m not afraid of death.”
Only when the words leave her mouth does she realize how deeply she has lied. Does he know? Her hands would shake if it weren’t for their grip on the handle.
“I promise,” he says. “I will save you, when the rest of us come.”
What is it worth, a monster’s promise?
She steps inside and shuts out the light.
There are nineteen residents of Grade Gold; the twentieth is buried beneath the kukui tree in the communal garden. The thought of rotting in earth revolts Key. She prefers the bright, fierce heat of a crematorium fire, like the one that consumed Jeb the night before she left Mauna Kea. The ashes fly in the wind, into the ocean and up in the trees, where they lodge in bird nests and caterpillar silk and mud puddles after a storm. The return of flesh to the earth should be fast and final, not the slow mortification of worms and bacteria and carbon gases.
Tetsuo instructs her to keep close watch on unit three. “Rachel isn’t very… steady right now,” he says, as though unaware of the understatement.
The remaining nineteen residents are divided into four units, five kids in each, living together in sprawling ranch houses connected by walkways and gardens. There are walls, of course, but you have to climb a tree to see them. The kids at Grade Gold have more freedom than any human she’s ever encountered since the war, but they’re as bound to this paradise as she was to her mountain.
The vampires who come here stay in a high glass tower right by the beach. During the day, the black-tinted windows gleam like lasers. At night, the vampires come down to feed. There is a fifth house in the residential village, one reserved for clients and their meals. Testsuo orchestrates these encounters, planning each interaction in fine detail: this human with that performance for this distinguished client. Key has grown used to thinking of her fellow humans as food, but now she is forced to reconcile that indelible fact with another, stranger veneer. The vampires who pay so dearly for Grade Gold humans don’t merely want to feed from a shunt. They want to be entertained, talked to, cajoled. The boy who explained about Key’s uncanny resemblance juggles torches. Twin girls from unit three play guitar and sing songs by the Carpenters. Even Rachel, dressed in a gaudy purple mermaid dress with matching streaks in her hair, keeps up a one-way, laughing conversation with a vampire who seems too astonished—or too slow—to reply.
Key has never seen anything like this before. She thought that most vampires regarded humans as walking sacks of food. What pleasure could be derived from speaking with your meal first? From seeing it sing or dance? When she first went with Tetsuo, the other vampires talked about human emotions as if they were flavors of ice cream. But at Grade Orange she grew accustomed to more basic parameters: were the humans fed, were they fertile, did they sleep? Here, she must approve outfits; she must manage dietary preferences and erratic tempers and a dozen other details all crucial to keeping the kids Grade Gold standard. Their former caretaker has been shipped to the work camps, which leaves Key in sole charge of the operation. At least until Tetsuo decides how he will use his dispensation.
Key’s thoughts skitter away from the possibility.
“I didn’t know vampires liked music,” she says, late in the evening, when some of the kids sprawl, exhausted, across couches and cushions. A girl no older than fifteen opens her eyes but hardly moves when a vampire in a gold suit lifts her arm for a nip. Key and Tetsuo are seated together at the far end of the main room, in the bay windows that overlook a cliff and the ocean.
“It’s as interesting to us as any other human pastime.”
“Does music have a taste?”
His wide mouth stretches at the edges; she recognizes it as a smile. “Music has some utility, given the right circumstances.”
She doesn’t quite understand him. The air is redolent with the sweat of human teenagers and the muggy, salty air that blows through the open doors and windows. Her eye catches on a half-eaten strawberry dropped carelessly on the carpet a few feet away. It was harvested too soon, a white, tasteless core surrounded by hard, red flesh.
She thinks there is nothing of “right” in these circumstances, and their utility is, at its bottom, merely that of parasite and host.
“The music enhances the—our—flavor?”
Tetsuo stares at her for a long time, long enough for him to take at least three of his shallow, erratically spaced breaths. To look at him is to taste copper and sea on her tongue; to wait for him is to hear the wind slide down a mountainside an hour before dawn.
It has been four years since she last saw him. She thought he had forgotten her, and now he speaks to her as if all those years haven’t passed, as though the vampires hadn’t long since won the war and turned the world to their slow, long-burning purpose.
“Emotions change your flavor,” he says. “And food. And sex. And pleasure.”
And love? she wonders, but Tetsuo has never drunk from her.
“Then why not treat all of us like you do the ones here? Why have con—Mauna Kea?”
She expects him to catch her slip, but his attention is focused on something beyond her right shoulder. She turns to look, and sees nothing but the hall and a closed feeding room door.
“Three years,” he says, quietly. He doesn’t look at her. She doesn’t understand what he means, so she waits. “It takes three years for the complexity to fade. For the vitality of young blood to turn muddy and clogged with silt. Even among the new crops, only a few individuals are Gold standard. For three years, they produce the finest blood ever tasted, filled with regrets and ecstasy and dreams. And then…”
“Grade Orange?” Key asks, her voice dry and rasping. Had Tetsuo always talked of humans like this? With such little regard for their selfhood? Had she been too young to understand, or have the years of harvesting humans hardened him?
“If we have not burned too much out. Living at high elevation helps prolong your utility, but sometimes all that’s left is Lanai and the work camps.”
She remembers her terror before her final interview with Mr. Charles, her conviction that Jeb’s death would prompt him to discard his uselessly old overseer to the work camps.
A boy from one of the other houses staggers to the one she recognizes from unit two and sprawls in his lap. Unit-two boy startles awake, smiles, and bends over to kiss the first. A pair of female vampires kneel in front of them and press their fangs with thick pink tongues.
“Touch him,” one says, pointing to the boy from unit two. “Make him cry.”
The boy from unit two doesn’t even pause for breath; he reaches for the other boy’s cock and squeezes. And as they both groan with something that makes Key feel like a voyeur, made helpless by her own desire, the pair of vampires pull the boys apart and dive for their respective shunts. The room goes quiet but for soft gurgles, like two minnows in a tide pool. Then a pair of clicks as the boys’ shunts turn gray, forcing the vampires to stop feeding.
“Lovely, divine,” the vampires say a few minutes later, when they pass on their way out. “We always appreciate the sexual displays.”
The boys curl against each other, eyes shut. They breathe like old men: hard, through constricted tubes.
“Does that happen often?” she asks.
“This Grade Gold is known for its sexual flavors. My humans pick partners they enjoy.”
Vampires might not have sex, but they crave its flavor. Will she, when she crosses to their side? Will she look at those two boys and command them to fuck each other just so she can taste?
“Do you ever care?” she says, her voice barely a whisper. “About what you’ve done to us?”
He looks away from her. Before she can blink he has crossed to the one closed feeding room door and wrenched it open. A thump of something thrown against a wall. A snarl, as human as a snake’s hiss.
“Leave, Gregory!” Tetsuo says. A vampire Key recognizes from earlier in the night stumbles into the main room. He rubs his jaw, though the torn and mangled skin there has already begun to knit together.
“She is mine to have. I paid—”
“Not enough to kill her.”
“I’ll complain to the council,” the vampire says. “You’ve been losing support. And everyone knows how patiently Charles has waited in his aerie.”
She should be scared, but his words make her think of Jeb, of failures and consequences, and of the one human she has not seen for hours. She stands and sprints past both vampires to where Rachel lies insensate on a bed.
Her shunt has turned the opaque gray meant to prevent vampires from feeding humans to death. But the client has bitten her neck instead.
“Tell them whatever you wish, and I will tell them you circumvented the shunt of a fully-tapped human. We have our rules for a reason. You are no longer welcome here.”
Rachel’s pulse is soft, but steady. She stirs and moans beneath Key’s hands. The relief is crushing; she wants to cradle the girl in her arms until she wakes. She wants to protect her so her blood will never have to smear the walls of a feeding room, so that Key will be able to say that at least she saved one.
Rachel’s eyes flutter open, land with a butterfly’s gentleness on Key’s face.
“Pen,” she says, “I told you. It makes them… they eat me.”
Key doesn’t understand, but she doesn’t mind. She presses her hand to Rachel’s warm forehead and sings lullabies her grandmother liked until Rachel falls back to sleep.
“How is she?” It is Tetsuo, come into the room after the client has finally left.
“Drained,” Key says, as dispassionately as he. “She’ll be fine in a few days.”
She won’t look at him.
“I do, you know.”
She knows. “Then why support it?”
“You’ll understand when your time comes.”
She looks back down at Rachel, and all she can see are bruises blooming purple on her upper arms, blood dried brown on her neck. She looks like a human being: infinitely precious, fragile. Like prey.
Five days later, Key sits in the garden in the shade of the kukui tree. She has reports to file on the last week’s feedings, but the papers sit untouched beside her. The boy from unit two and his boyfriend are tending the tomatoes and Key slowly peels the skin from her fourth kiwi. The first time she bit into one she cried, but the boys pretended not to notice. She is getting better with practice. Her hands still tremble and her misted eyes refract rainbows in the hard, noon sunlight. She is learning to be human again.
Rachel sleeps on the ground beside her, curled on the packed dirt of Penelope’s grave with her back against the tree trunk and her arms wrapped tightly around her belly. She’s spent most of the last five days sleeping, and Key thinks she has mostly recovered. She’s been eating voraciously, foods in wild combinations at all times of day and night. Key is glad. Without the distracting, angry makeup, Rachel’s face looks vulnerable and haunted. Jeb had that look in the months before his death. He would sit quietly in the mess hall and stare at the food brick as though he had forgotten how to eat. Jeb had transferred to Mauna Kea within a week of Key becoming overseer. He liked watching the lights of the airplanes at night and he kept two books with him: The Blind Watchmaker and A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i. She talked to him about the latter—had he ever tasted breadfruit or kiwi or cherimoya? None, he said, in a voice so small and soft it sounded inversely proportional to his size. Only a peach, a canned peach, when he was four or five years old. Vampires don’t waste fruit on Grade Orange humans.
The covers of both books were worn, the spines cracked, the pages yellowed and brittle at the edges. Why keep a book about fruit you had never tasted and never would eat? Why read at all, when they frowned upon literacy in humans and often banned books outright? She never asked him. Mr. Charles had seen their conversation, though she doubted he had heard it, and requested that she refrain from speaking unnecessarily to the harvest.
So when Jeb stared at her across the table with eyes like a snuffed candle, she turned away, she forced her patty into her mouth, she chewed, she reached for her orange drink.
His favorite book became his means of self-destruction. She let him do it. She doesn’t know if she feels guilty for not having stopped him, or for being in the position to stop him in the first place. Not two weeks later she rests beneath a kukui tree, the flesh of a fruit she had never expected to taste again turning to green pulp between her teeth. She reaches for another one because she knows how little she deserves this.
But the skin of the fruit at the bottom of the bowl is too soft and fleshy for a kiwi. She pulls it into the light and drops it.
“Are you okay?” It’s the boy from unit two—Kaipo. He kneels down and picks up the cherimoya.
“What?” she says, and struggles to control her breathing. She has to appear normal, in control. She’s supposed to be their caretaker. But the boy just seems concerned, not judgmental. Rachel rolls onto her back and opens her eyes.
“You screamed,” Rachel says, sleep-fogged and accusatory. “You woke me up.”
“Who put this in the bowl?” Kaipo asks. “These things are poisonous! They grow on that tree down the hill, but you can’t eat them.”
Key takes the haunted fruit from him, holding it carefully so as to not bruise it further. “Who told you that?” she asks.
Rachel leans forward, so her chin rests on the edge of Key’s lounge chair and the tips of her purple-streaked hair touch Key’s thigh. “Tetsuo,” she says. “What, did he lie?”
Key shakes her head slowly. “He probably only half-remembered. It’s a cherimoya. The flesh is delicious, but the seeds are poisonous.”
Rachel’s eyes follow her hands. “Like, killing you poisonous?” she asks.
Key thinks back to her father’s lessons. “Maybe if you eat them all or grind them up. The tree bark can paralyze your heart and lungs.”
Kaipo whistles, and they all watch intently when she wedges her finger under the skin and splits it in half. The white, fleshy pulp looks stark, even a little disquieting against the scaly green exterior. She plucks out the hard, brown seeds and tosses them to the ground. Only then does she pull out a chunk of flesh and put it in her mouth.
Like strawberries and banana pudding and pineapple. Like the summer after Obachan died, when a box of them came to the house as a condolence gift.
“You look like you’re fellating it,” Rachel says. Key opens her eyes and swallows abruptly.
Kaipo pushes his tongue against his lips. “Can I try it, Key?” he asks, very politely. Did the vampires teach him that politeness? Did vampires teach Rachel a word like fellate, perhaps while instructing her to do it with a hopefully willing human partner?
“Do you guys know how to use condoms?” She has decided to ask Tetsuo to supply them. This last week has made it clear that “sexual flavors” are all too frequently on the menu at Grade Gold.
Kaipo looks at Rachel; Rachel shakes her head. “What’s a condom?” he asks.
It’s so easy to forget how little of the world they know. “You use it during sex, to stop you from catching diseases,” she says, carefully. “Or getting pregnant.”
Rachel laughs and stuffs the rest of the flesh into her wide mouth. Even a cherimoya can’t fill her hollows. “Great, even more vampire sex,” she says, her hatred clearer than her garbled words. “They never made Pen do it.”
“They didn’t?” Key asks.
Juice dribbles down her chin. “You know, Tetsuo’s dispensation? Before she killed herself, she was his pick. Everyone knew it. That’s why they left her alone.”
Key feels light-headed. “But if she was his choice… why would she kill herself?”
“She didn’t want to be a vampire,” Kaipo says softly.
“She wanted a baby, like bringing a new food sack into the world is a good idea. But they wouldn’t let her have sex and they wanted to make her one of them, so—now she’s gone. But why he’d bring you here, when any of us would be a better choice—”
“Rachel, just shut up. Please.” Kaipo takes her by the shoulder.
Rachel shrugs him off. “What? Like she can do anything.”
“If she becomes one of them—”
“I wouldn’t hurt you,” Key says, too quickly. Rachel masks her pain with cruelty, but it is palpable. Key can’t imagine any version of herself that would add to that.
Kaipo and Rachel stare at her. “But,” Kaipo says, “that’s what vampires do.”
“I would eat you,” Rachel says, and flops back under the tree. “I would make you cry and your tears would taste sweeter than a cherimoya.”
“I will be back in four days,” Testsuo tells her, late the next night. “There is one feeding scheduled. I hope you will be ready when I return.”
“For the… reward?” she asks, stumbling over an appropriate euphemism. Their words for it are polysyllabic spikes: transmutation, transformation, metamorphosis. All vampires were once human, and immortal doesn’t mean invulnerable. Some die each year, and so their ranks must be replenished with the flesh of worthy, willing humans.
He places a hand on her shoulder. It feels as chill and inert as a piece of damp wood. She thinks she must be dreaming.
“I have wanted this for a long time, Key,” he says to her—like a stranger, like the person who knows her the best in the world.
“Our thoughts can be… slow, sometimes. You will see. Orderly, but sometimes too orderly to see patterns clearly. I thought of you, but did not know it until Penelope died.”
Penelope, who looked just like Key. Penelope, who would have been his pick. She shivers and steps away from his hand. “Did you love her?”
She can’t believe that she is asking this question. She can’t believe that he is offering her the dreams she would have murdered for ten, even five years ago.
“I loved that she made me think of you,” he says, “when you were young and beautiful.”
“It’s been eighteen years, Tetsuo.”
He looks over her shoulder. “You haven’t lost much,” he says. “I’m not too late. You’ll see.”
He is waiting for a response. She forces herself to nod. She wants to close her eyes and cover her mouth, keep all her love for him inside where it can be safe, because if she loses it, there will be nothing left but a girl in the rain who should have opened the door.
He looks like an alien when he smiles. He looks like nothing she could ever know when he walks down the hall, past the open door and the girl who has been watching them this whole time.
Rachel is young and beautiful, Key thinks, and Penelope is dead.
Key’s sixth feeding at Grade Gold is contained, quiet and without incident. The gazes of the clients slide over her as she greets them at the door of the feeding house, but she is used to that. To a vampire, a human without a shunt is like a book without pages: a useless absurdity. She has assigned all of unit one and a pair from unit four to the gathering. Seven humans for five vampires is a luxurious ratio—probably more than they paid for, but she’s happy to let that be Tetsuo’s problem. She shudders to remember how Rachel’s blood soaked into the collar of her blouse when she lifted the girl from the bed. She has seen dozens of overdrained humans, including some who died from it, but what happened to Rachel feels worse. She doesn’t understand why, but is overwhelmed by tenderness for her.
A half-hour before the clients are supposed to leave, Kaipo sprints through the front door, flushed and panting so hard he has to pause half a minute to catch his breath.
“Rachel,” he manages, while humans and vampires alike pause to look.
She stands up. “What did she do?”
“I’m not sure… she was shaking and screaming, waking everyone up, yelling about Penelope and Tetsuo and then she started vomiting.”
“The clients have another half hour,” she whispers. “I can’t leave until then.”
Kaipo tugs on the long lock of glossy black hair that he has blunt-cut over his left eye. “I’m scared for her, Key,” he says. “She won’t listen to anyone else.”
She will blame herself if any of the kids here tonight die, and she will blame herself if something happens to Rachel. Her hands make the decision for her: she reaches for Kaipo’s left arm. He lets her take it reflexively, and doesn’t flinch when she lifts his shunt. She looks for and finds the small electrical chip which controls the inflow and outflow of blood and other fluids. She taps the Morse-like code, and Kaipo watches with his mouth open as the glittering plastic polymer changes from clear to gray. As though he’s already been tapped out.
“I’m not supposed to show you that,” she says, and smiles until she remembers Tetsuo and what he might think. “Stay here. Make sure nothing happens. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
She stays only long enough to see his agreement, and then she’s flying out the back door, through the garden, down the left-hand path that leads to unit two.
Rachel is on her hands and knees in the middle of the walkway. The other three kids in unit two watch her silently from the doorway, but Rachel is alone as she vomits in the grass.
“You!” Rachel says when she sees Key, and starts to cough.
Rachel looks like a war is being fought inside of her, as if the battlefield is her lungs and the hollows of her cheeks and the muscles of her neck. She trembles and can hardly raise her head.
“Go away!” Rachel screams, but she’s not looking at Key, she’s looking down at the ground.
“Rachel, what’s happened?” Key doesn’t get too close. Rachel’s fury frightens her; she doesn’t understand this kind of rage. Rachel raises her shaking hands and starts hitting herself, pounding her chest and rib cage and stomach with violence made even more frightening by her weakness. Key kneels in front of her, grabs both of the girl’s tiny, bruised wrists and holds them away from her body. Her vomit smells of sour bile and the sickly-sweet of some half digested fruit. A suspicion nibbles at Key, and so she looks to the left, where Rachel has vomited.
Dozens and dozens of black seeds, half crushed. And a slime of green the precise shade of a cherimoya skin.
“Oh, God, Rachel… why would you…”
“You don’t deserve him! He can make it go away and he won’t! Who are you? A fogey, an ugly fogey, an ugly usurping fogey and she’s gone and he is a dick, he is a screaming howler monkey and I hate him…”
Rachel collapses against Key’s chest, her hands beating helplessly at the ground. Key takes her up and rocks her back and forth, crying while she thinks of how close she came to repeating the mistakes of Jeb. But she can still save Rachel. She can still be human.
Tetsuo returns three days later with a guest.
She has never seen Mr. Charles wear shoes before, and he walks in them with the mincing confusion of a young girl forced to wear zori for a formal occasion. She bows her head when she sees him, hoping to hide her fear. Has he come to take her back to Mauna Kea? The thought of returning to those antiseptic feeding rooms and tasteless brick patties makes her hands shake. It makes her wonder if she would not be better off taking Penelope’s way out rather than seeing the place where Jeb killed himself again.
But even as she thinks it, she knows she won’t, any more than she would have eighteen years ago. She’s too much a coward and she’s too brave. If Mr. Charles asks her to go back she will say yes.
Rain on a mountainside and sexless, sweet touches with a man the same temperature as wet wood. Lanai City, overrun. Then Waimea, then Honoka’a. Then Hilo, where her mother had been living. For a year, until Tetsuo found that record of her existence in a work camp, Key fantasized about her mother escaping on a boat to an atoll, living in a group of refugee humans who survived the apocalypse.
Every thing Tetsuo asked of her, she did. She loved him from the moment they saved each other’s lives. She has always said yes.
“Key!” Mr. Charles says to her, as though she is a friend he has run into unexpectedly. “I have something… you might just want.”
“Yes, Mr. Charles?” she says.
The three of them are alone in the feeding house. Mr. Charles collapses dramatically against one of the divans and kicks off his tight, patent-leather shoes as if they are barnacles. He wears no socks.
“There,” he says, and waves his hand at the door. “In the bag.”
Tetsuo nods and so she walks back. The bag is black canvas, unmarked. Inside, there’s a book. She recognizes it immediately, though she only saw it once. The Blind Watchmaker. There is a note on the cover. The handwriting is large and uneven and painstaking, that of someone familiar with words but unaccustomed to writing them down. She notes painfully that he writes his “a” the same way as a typeset font, with the half-c above the main body and a careful serif at the end.
Dear Overseer Ki,
I would like you to have this. I have loved it very much and you are the only one who ever seemed to care. I am angry but
I don’t blame you. You’re just too good at living.
She takes the bag and leaves both vampires without requesting permission. Mr. Charles’s laugh follows her out the door.
Blood on the walls, on the floor, all over his body.
I am angry but. You’re just too good at living. She has always said yes.
She is too much of a coward and she is too brave.
She watches the sunset the next evening from the hill in the garden, her back against the cherimoya tree. She feels the sun’s death like she always has, with quiet joy. Awareness floods her: the musk of wet grass crushed beneath her bare toes, salt-spray and algae blowing from the ocean, the love she has clung to so fiercely since she was a girl, lost and alone. Everything she has ever loved is bound in that sunset, the red and violet orb that could kill him as it sinks into the ocean.
Her favorite time of day is sunset, but it is not night. She has never quite been able to fit inside his darkness, no matter how hard she tried. She has been too good at living, but perhaps it’s not too late to change.
She can’t take the path of Penelope or Jeb, but that has never been the only way. She remembers stories that reached Grade Orange from the work camps, half-whispered reports of humans who sat at their assembly lines and refused to lift their hands. Harvesters who drained gasoline from their combine engines and waited for the vampires to find them. If every human refused to cooperate, vampire society would crumble in a week. Still, she has no illusions about this third path sparking a revolution. This is simply all she can do: sit under the cherimoya tree and refuse. They will kill her, but she will have chosen to be human.
The sun descends. She falls asleep against the tree and dreams of the girl who never was, the one who opened the door. In her dreams, the sun burns her skin and her obachan tells her how proud she is while they pick strawberries in the garden. She eats an umeboshi that tastes of blood and salt, and when she swallows, the flavors swarm out of her throat, bubbling into her neck and jaw and ears. Flavors become emotions become thoughts; peace in the nape of her neck, obligation in her back molars, and hope just behind her eyes, bitter as a watermelon rind.
She opens them and sees Tetsuo on his knees before her. Blood smears his mouth. She does not know what to think when he kisses her, except that she can’t even feel the pinprick pain where his teeth broke her skin. He has never fed from her before. They have never kissed before. She feels like she is floating, but nothing else.
The blood is gone when he sits back. As though she imagined it.
“You should not have left like that yesterday,” he says. “Charles can make this harder than I’d like.”
“Why is he here?” she asks. She breathes shallowly.
“He will take over Grade Gold once your transmutation is finished.”
“That’s why you brought me here, isn’t it? It had nothing to do with the kids.”
He shrugs. “Regulations. So Charles couldn’t refuse.”
“And where will you go?”
“They want to send me to the mainland. Texas. To supervise the installation of a new Grade Gold facility near Austin.”
She leans closer to him, and now she can see it: regret, and shame that he should be feeling so. “I’m sorry,” she says.
“I have lived seventy years on these islands. I have an eternity to come back to them. So will you, Key. I have permission to bring you with me.”
Everything that sixteen-year-old had ever dreamed. She can still feel the pull of him, of her desire for an eternity together, away from the hell her life has become. Her transmutation would be complete. Truly a monster, the regrets for her past actions would fall away like waves against a seawall.
With a fumbling hand, she picks a cherimoya from the ground beside her. “Do you remember what these taste like?”
She has never asked him about his human life. For a moment, he seems genuinely confused. “You don’t understand. Taste to us is vastly more complex. Joy, dissatisfaction, confusion, humility—those are flavors. A custard apple?” He laughs. “It’s sweet, right?”
Joy, dissatisfaction, loss, grief, she tastes all that just looking at him.
“Why didn’t you ever feed from me before?”
“Because I promised. When we first met.”
And as she stares at him, sick with loss and certainty, Rachel walks up behind him. She is holding a kitchen knife, the blade pointed toward her stomach.
“Charles knows,” she says.
“How?” Tetsuo says. He stands, but Key can’t coordinate her muscles enough for the effort. He must have drained a lot of blood.
“I told him,” Rachel says. “So now you don’t have a choice. You will transmute me and you will get rid of this fucking fetus or I will kill myself and you’ll be blamed for losing two Grade Gold humans.”
Rachel’s wrists are still bruised from where Key had to hold her several nights ago. Her eyes are sunken, her skin sallow. This fucking fetus.
She wasn’t trying to kill herself with the cherimoya seeds. She was trying to abort a pregnancy.
“The baby is still alive after all that?” Key says, surprisingly indifferent to the glittering metal in Rachel’s unsteady hands. Does Rachel know how easily Tetsuo could disarm her? What advantage does she think she has? But then she looks back in the girl’s eyes and realizes: none.
Rachel is young and desperate and she doesn’t want to be eaten by the monsters anymore.
“Not again, Rachel,” Tetsuo says. “I can’t do what you want. A vampire can only transmute someone he’s never fed from before.”
Rachel gasps. Key flops against her tree. She hadn’t known that, either. The knife trembles in Rachel’s grip so violently that Tetsuo takes it from her, achingly gentle as he pries her fingers from the hilt.
“That’s why you never drank from her? And I killed her anyway? Stupid fucking Penelope. She could have been forever, and now there’s just this dumb fogie in her place. She thought you cared about her.”
“Caring is a strange thing, for a vampire,” Key says.
Rachel spits in her direction but it falls short. The moonlight is especially bright tonight; Key can see everything from the grass to the tips of Rachel’s ears, flushed sunset pink.
“Tetsuo,” Key says, “why can’t I move?”
But they ignore her.
“Maybe Charles will do it if I tell him you’re really the one who killed Penelope.”
“Charles? I’m sure he knows exactly what you did.”
“I didn’t mean to kill her!” Rachel screams. “Penelope was going to tell about the baby. She was crazy about babies, it didn’t make any sense, and you had picked her and she wanted to destroy my life… I was so angry, I just wanted to hurt her, but I didn’t realize…”
“Rachel, I’ve tried to give you a chance, but I’m not allowed to get rid of it for you.” Tetsuo’s voice is as worn out as a leathery orange.
“I’ll die before I go to one of those mommy farms, Tetsuo. I’ll die and take my baby with me.”
“Then you will have to do it yourself.”
She gasps. “You’ll really leave me here?”
“I’ve made my choice.”
Rachel looks down at Key, radiating a withering contempt that does nothing to blunt Key’s pity. “If you had picked Penelope, I would have understood. Penelope was beautiful and smart. She’s the only one who ever made it through half of that fat Shakespeare book in unit four. She could sing. Her breasts were perfect. But her? She’s not a choice. She’s nothing at all.”
The silence between them is strained. It’s as if Key isn’t there at all. And soon, she thinks, she won’t be.
“I’ve made my choice,” Key says.
“Your choice?” they say in unison.
When she finds the will to stand, it’s as though her limbs are hardly there at all, as though she is swimming in mid-air. For the first time, she understands that something is wrong.
Key floats for a long time. Eventually, she falls. Tetsuo catches her.
“What does it feel like?” Key asks. “The transmutation?”
Tetsuo takes the starlight in his hands. He feeds it to her through a glass shunt growing from a living branch. The tree’s name is Rachel. The tree is very sad. Sadness is delicious.
“You already know,” he says.
You will understand: he said this to her when she was human. I wouldn’t hurt you: she said this to a girl who—a girl—she drinks.
“I meant to refuse.”
“I made a promise.”
She sees him for a moment crouched in the back of her father’s shed, huddled away from the dangerous bar of light that stretches across the floor. She sees herself, terrified of death and so unsure. Open the door, she tells that girl, too late. Let in the light.