THERE USED TO be more of us. I’m certain of this. Not enough to fill a sports stadium or even a movie theater, but certainly more than what’s left today. Truth is, I don’t think there’s any of us left. Except me. It’s what happens when you’re a delicacy. When you’re craved. You go extinct.
Eleven years ago, one was discovered in my school. A kindergarten student, on her first day. She was devoured almost immediately. What was she thinking? Maybe the sudden (and it’s always sudden) loneliness at home drove her to school under some misbegotten idea that she’d find companionship. The teacher announced nap time, and the little tyke was left standing alone on the floor clutching her teddy bear as her classmates leaped feetfirst toward the ceiling. At that point, it was over for her. Over. She might as well have taken out her fake fangs and prostrated herself for the inevitable feasting. Her classmates stared down wide-eyed from above: Hello, what have we here? She started to cry, they tell me, bawl her eyes out. The teacher was the first to get to her.
After kindergarten, when you’re free and clear of naps, that’s when you show up at school. Although you can still get caught by surprise. One time, my swimming coach was so enraged by the team’s lethargic performance at a school meet, he forced all of us to take a nap in the changing room. He was only making a point, of course, but that point near did me in. By the way, swimming is fine, but don’t do any other sport if you can help it. Because sweat is a dead giveaway. Sweat is what happens when we get hot; water droplets leak out like a baby drooling. I know, gross. Everyone else remains cool, clean, dry. Me? I’m a leaky faucet. So forget about cross-country, forget about tennis, forget about even competitive chess. But swimming is fine, because it hides the sweat.
That’s just one of the rules. There’re many others, all of them indoctrinated into me by my father from the time I was born. Never smile or laugh or giggle, never cry or get teary-eyed. At all times, carry a bland, stoic expression; the only emotions that ever crack the surface of people’s faces are heper-cravings and romantic-lust, and I am obviously to have nothing to do with either. Never forget to apply butter liberally all over your body when venturing out in the daytime. Because in a world like this, it’s a tough task explaining a sunburn, or even a suntan. So many other rules, enough to fill a notebook, not that I ever felt inclined to write them down. Being caught with a “rulebook” would be just as damning as a sunburn.
Besides, my father reminded me of the rules every day. As the sun was going down, over breakfast, he’d go over a few of the many rules. Like: Don’t make friends; don’t inadvertently fall asleep in class (boring classes and long bus rides were especially dangerous); don’t clear your throat; don’t ace your exams, even though they insult your intelligence; don’t let your good looks get the better of you; no matter how the girls might throw their hearts and bodies at you, never give in to that temptation. Because you must always remember that your looks are a curse, not a blessing. Never forget that. He’d say all this while giving my nails a quick once-over, making sure that they weren’t chipped or scratched. The rules are now so ingrained in me, they’re as unbendable as the rules of nature. I’ve never been tempted to break any of them.
Except one. When I first started taking the horse-drawn school bus, my father forbade me from looking back at him to wave good-bye. Because people never do that. That was a hard rule for me, initially. For the first few nights of school, as I stepped onto the bus, it took everything in me to freeze myself, to not look back and wave good-bye. It was like a reflex, an insuppressible cough. I was just a kid back then, too, which made it doubly hard.
I broke that rule only one time, seven years ago. It was the night after my father staggered into the house, his clothes disheveled as if he’d been in a tussle, his neck punctured. He’d gotten careless, just a momentary lapse, and now he had two clear incisions in his neck. Sweat poured down his face, staining his shirt. You could see he already knew. A frenzied look in his eyes, panic running up his arms as he gripped me tight. “You’re alone now, my son,” he said through clenched teeth, spasms starting to ripple across his chest. Minutes later, when he started to shiver, his face shockingly cold to the touch, he stood up. He rushed out the door into the dawn light. I locked the door as he’d instructed me to do and ran to my room. I stuffed my face into the pillow and screamed and screamed. I knew what he was doing at that very moment: running, as far away from the house before he transformed and the rays of sunlight became like waterfalls of acid burning through his hair, his muscles, his bones, his kidney, lungs, heart.
The next night, as the school bus pulled up in front of my house, steam gushing from the horses’ wide and wet nostrils, I broke the rule. I couldn’t help myself: I turned around as I stepped onto the bus. But by then, it didn’t matter. The driveway was empty in the dark birth of night. My father was not there. Not then or ever again.
My father was right. I became alone that day. We were once a family of four, but that was a long time ago. Then it was just my father and me, and it was enough. I missed my mother and sister, but I was too young to form any real attachments with them. They are vague shapes in my memory. Sometimes, though, even now, I hear the voice of a woman singing and it always catches me off guard. I hear it and I think: Mother had a really pretty voice. My father, though. He missed them terribly. I never saw him cry, not even after we had to burn all the photos and notebooks. But I’d wake up in the middle of the day and find him staring out the unshuttered window, a beam of sunshine plunging down on his heavy face, his broad shoulders shaking.
My father had prepared me to be alone. He knew that day would eventually come, although I think deep down he believed it was he who would be the last one left, not me. He spent years drilling the rules into me so I knew them better than my own self. Even now, as I get ready for school at dusk, that laborious process of washing, filing my nails, shaving my arms and legs (and recently, even a few chest hairs), rubbing ointment (to mask the odor), polishing my fake fangs, I hear his voice in my head, going over the rules.
Like today. Just as I’m slipping on my socks, I hear his voice. The usual warnings: Don’t go to sleepovers; don’t hum or whistle. But then I hear this rule he’d say maybe just once or twice a year. He said it so infrequently, maybe it wasn’t a rule but something else, like a life motto. Never forget who you are. I never knew why my father would say that. Because it’s like saying don’t forget water is wet, the sun is bright, snow is cold. It’s redundant. There’s no way I could ever forget who I am. I’m reminded every moment of every day. Every time I shave my legs or hold in a sneeze or stifle a laugh or pretend to flinch at a slip of stray light, I am reminded of who I am.
A fake person.
Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Fukuda