Paradise – Sloane Leong
September 23, 2022
Always now, the world sits in a halo of green.
Kolea takes off her respirator, knuckles at the tiny leaves growing from her eyelids, fuzzing the edges of her vision into a hazy emerald tunnel. It is late afternoon, the sun high but softened by a generous foam of clouds. Daylight refracts through her tears. Kolea blinks, clearing the moisture from her itching, viney lashes as she takes in the stretch of ocean before her. She tries not to scratch anymore. It only makes it worse.
It’s not that bad compared to the rest of her hair: on her head, it’s thickened into vines so heavy, she has to cut them or else her neck is forced to arch back. If she falls asleep under the sun, the tendrils will rise towards the light and it will take a whole day before she can push them back into place. Her body hair thickened too, the follicles forking out like hungry roots, threatening to block her holes. She has to trim them or it’s impossible to piss or shit. Her vined, rooty hair bleeds when she pares it back now.
It’s strange growing something from your body that knows how to hurt when it didn’t before. The first time she’d taken her hunting knife to the thatch between her legs, Kolea had jumped right in to hack away the hair-vines then screeched and passed out from the pain as multiple stalks gushed arterial watery red fountains.
Another lesson from her dear sister. Fucking bitch.
Sand sprays sharply across Kolea’s spine, sea salt catching at her thighs and belly. Ghost crabs bubble up around her feet as the tide slides in to lick at her soles. Their eye stalks bulge out and sparkle like beads, their claws brushing at her skin warningly. One is grumpy enough to pinch her pinky toe but she bears the sting and it withdraws, shuddering itself back beneath the sand.
Her face feels worse than their little pinches, anyway. It itches hotly from where the swim mask and respirator have been chafing against her heat-rashed skin. She pulls on a smaller, lighter pair of swim goggles, leaving the respirator on a tide-softened rock, and wades into the ocean, the only place she can breathe safely without a mask to filter the air. The pollen catches in the sea spray here, grows heavy in the humidity baking off the summer sea and sinks.
But that, of course, only preserved her from the land and air. The sea would make its own judgment of her.
Diving into a cresting wave, she cuts through the water like a blade, arms scooping the salt water hard until it’s almost like a solid pulling her into the ocean’s depths. As a little kid, she’d raced her sister Nakana out into the deep. As a teen, she’d sat in crowded lineups waiting for her turn to take off, watching herds of haoles patched with rot congregate in floaties out on the waves, turning the water oily with sunscreen.
Now, the very idea of swimming with another person—already a risky endeavor solo—seems like a greedy fantasy. Deranged. Kolea hasn’t seen a tube of sunscreen that hasn’t expired or piled up in the landfill. She hasn’t seen anything imported that isn’t sun-faded and coated in pollen.
Just like her sister wanted.
Once past the white of the sandbar, Kolea gulps air and then floats belly down, focusing on the seafloor. She could harvest a few uni and some limu to eat without upsetting the ecosystem. Through the tidal tremor, life swarms and darts in primordial play. Fish and crabs of every stripe and spot skitter to and fro on invisible undertows. Urchins and sponges crown the corals in black and red. Turtles nip at strands of sweetgrass.
Twenty years ago, the reefs had been a killing field, bleached of all life by heat and artificial chemicals. Sea turtles floated listlessly in the waves, tumors clotting their vision, immobilized with growths. Foreign algae curdled on the acid shores. Fishing lines and nets tangled up dolphins and sharks while the rest choked on all manner of plastics. Myriad amphipods boiled to death, starving whale after whale. To say nothing of the land, the air.
Now the color of it all is so bright, it becomes violent to her eyes, Medusal in its piercing, motional beauty. As Kolea watches the life drift and dart beneath her, she grudgingly gives her sister credit. All the honua had needed was a helping hand and she had given it. And now it has healed itself. Escaping from the grave humanity’s greed had dug for it.
It had made itself free.
1. nvt. to open a crack, as a door; to free_.
It’d be easy for Kolea to say she knew what was going to happen all those years ago. Sometimes, when she meets another survivor on the island, it slips out; there’s some power there in pretending to have known, to have seen the signs. And with a little rewriting of history, she can self-flagellate at the same time.
But the truth was, her sister Nakana had never stood out to her. Not in any meaningful way.
Constant community service and volunteer work, Straight As, advanced placement classes, a Hawaiian language immersion princess—Nakana was a cheery, likable girl, and pretty. Pleasantly innocuous. On track to go into environmental sciences because of her love of plants and animals. A try-hard kiss-ass, all told.
Nothing like Kolea, who’d been held back and then placed in schools where security roamed the campus with batons and mace at hand and teachers napped at their desks while the students scratched graffiti into the wooden desktops. Kolea didn’t have the loamy rich skin her sister had, the perfect long Hawaiian hair; she’d inherited her father’s Germanic looks and was pale with thin, straight hair, tall and bony. Going into Hawaiian immersion felt like a farce. Besides, she was never one for community; she got into scraps when she should’ve smiled, cursed when should’ve sang. While her sister made her way up the STEM path, Kolea resigned herself to the destiny of most island kids: hotel work.
But of course, fate had more in store for Nakana, as it always did. Why, Kolea couldn’t say. It should have been her to wake the islands up, if it had to be anyone. She hated people as much as she knew the trees did, the animals, the boiling ocean. Why hadn’t that hate made a bridge between her and the islands? Why had it been _Nakana_ of all people?
Kolea’s last memory of normalcy was working with her sister at the Grand Orchid Resort, taking all manner of tourists out on kayak tours. Fangless, passive invaders. It was almost an insult when Kolea learned a tourist was the catalyst to it all: Beacon. The woman-worm that had burrowed in Nakana’s ear.
Kolea’s first impression of Beacon—the humble moniker the woman had assumed once she became leader of the Seekers Of Universal Language or SOUL—was that she was simply the wealthy hippie-type with a nerdy, yoga flair. She was well-tanned and mottled in freckles, with long, weightless blonde hair. Maybe forty or so. Typical enough tourist fare. She probably intended to go on a transcendental meditation retreat upcountry or maybe try and set up some essential oils apothecary in the strip mall.
“Aloha, ‘o Nakana ko’u inoa. I’m Nakana and this is my older sister Kolea,” Nakana said, her chipper white smile gleaming against her warm skin. The group of tourists blinked back expectantly, their smiles limp from mimosas, their skin oily-white with noxious sunscreen. Hotel management insisted all the employees introduce themselves in Hawaiian to honor the local culture, but it always made Kolea nauseous to speak it to people who clearly only appreciated the exotic performance of the words without any interest in the culture or people that spoke it. “We’ll be your guides today. We’ve got waters and lunch in the cooler and our own environmentally-friendly sunscreen for you. If you have trash, please make sure to give it to me and don’t toss it in the water.”
“Of course! I so appreciate your care for our dear Mother Nature. I am Beacon,” the woman said, delivered with the same tone one had when giving someone a gift they’re sure to appreciate. The self-satisfied knowingness forced Kolea’s mouth into a tight line. The rest of the tourists, a significantly younger group of nine and mostly white, all introduced themselves with the name name: Seeker. It took everything in Kolea to keep a sneer off her face as they repeated their name to them. Seeker, Seeker, Seeker, Seek her, Seek her, Seek her, Sicker, Sicker Sicker.
After running the group through safety precautions and the route they’d be kayaking, Kolea loaded them up into two-man kayaks and they paddled out. She took a solo kayak as lead while Beacon shared her kayak with Nakana. A sea turtle with a tumorous eye watched them as they moved past the sandbar.
“Just paddle regularly, Beacon,” Nakana said kindly as Beacon continued paddling haphazardly as if she were trying to steer. “I’m steering for us so you don’t have to worry about keeping us on course.”
“Ah, of course, sorry about that. I’m not used to letting someone else take the lead. A fault of mine I’m trying to meditate more frequently on.”
“No worries,” Nakana chirped. Kolea slowed down until she was parallel to Beacon and rearranged her grip and posture while Nakana waited; it was a common enough correction with new kayakers.
“We’ll handle paddling,” Kolea said, trying to keep a pleasant smile on her face as she tied the nose of Nakana’s kayak to her stern. “Just take it easy, okay?”
“You’re so kind. All of your people, really. Even your language has a sort of…gentleness, about it,” Beacon said with a maternal fondness. “It’s like music.”
“…Thanks.” Kolea tried to unclench her jaw as she paddled hard, trying to expend her shitty mood by pulling Nakana and Beacon’s kayak along.
“So, where did you fly in from?” Nakana asked, matching Kolea’s paddling rhythm with ease.
“We’ve just arrived from a retreat in Brazil. Lovely community deep in the Amazon, not unlike here.”
“That sounds amazing! I’ve never been to Brazil, but I’ve always dreamt of joining the conservation efforts there. Any highlights?” Nakana asked with practiced sincerity. It was a voice she used on their parents all the time when she needed something, sugared in a smile. Kolea made a concerted effort to dig her paddle in faster. The sooner she got them to the snorkeling cove, the sooner she could get everyone in the water and be alone.
“Oh, plenty,” Beacon said. “It’s truly a spiritually abundant place. We stayed quite a ways out from any major cities or villages. Very private, enmeshed with the natural environment. That’s what we Seekers prefer, you see. To commune with nature, it’s important to detach yourself from the artificiality of society.”
“Yeah. I feel like that, too,” Nakana said with a reverent quietness. “If I could stay out on the water or in the forest forever and out of my head, I would. So did you just, um, meditate in nature?”
Kolea restrained herself from scoffing. Her sister could be so corny.
“Something like that,” Beacon said, turning in her seat to face Nakana. “Have you ever heard of the giant leaf frog? They call it the Kambo there. I would say that was the highlight of our retreat. It’s an amphibian that produces a toxin that decouples the self,” she stopped paddling to lace her fingers in front of her, then parted them, “from the ego. It’s very freeing. Soul cleansing.”
“Oh, kind of like, what’s it called… ayahuasca?”
“Mm-hmm, you’ve got it. A few months ago, we also partook in an ayahuasca ceremony. Incredibly profound experience, if you ever get the chance.”
“Indeed. The shamans call it ‘plant teacher’ because of its ability to tell you exactly what you need to know. It allows you to access a super conscious state and receive visions of the energetic world. It’s part of our practice to connect with nature through itself. To hear what it needs and its wisdom by taking it within.”
“Yea, totally,” Nakana said, voice brimming with interest. Kolea rolled her eyes. “Don’t know about plants but we got kava, which is supposed to make you feel funny. We have a few animals, too. No one really like, gets high off them, though. Too dangerous.”
n. Certain species of the Mullidae, surmullets or goatfish. Both red and light-colored weke were popular as offerings to the gods to turn away curses_.
A shadow shimmers silver-green in Kolea’s periphery. She whips her head up for a breath and spots the jagged fin of a dolphin—a pod—circling. A warning. She had stayed too long. The swim back is always easier than it is out because she knows her destination and when she hits the shore, she holds her breath until she’s pulled the respirator out of her backpack and onto her face. Salt and sand chafe under the rubber of the mask’s tight seal.
A helicopter propels itself across the perfect blue of the sky. They’d been making flyovers more often in the last few weeks–or maybe months, it was hard to gauge time anymore—spiraling around the island, pausing above certain points. Looking for something, maybe. Not survivors, that was for sure. In her darkest moods, Kolea assumed they were weighing whether they should bomb the place. That was what she would do, if she wasn’t trapped here. What good was this island if it swallowed everyone that set foot on it?
It takes her an hour to hike back to her tent. When she arrives, she zips it up, then runs the air purifier, siphoning the pollen out through a duct tape-sealed hole through the canvas. After fifteen minutes, she tugs off her mask and flops flat against the canvas floor. She snacks on a mango then settles in to read. In her years scavenging and surviving, she’d only found a half-burned Hawaiian dictionary and the torn-out middle of some nameless airport thriller. She chooses the dictionary more nights than not, reads in an undertone until the sun grows low and the sky flushes orange.
Māla; garden. Malau; decomposed. In the safety of isolation, it feels comfortable to indulge in her heritage; her parents would’ve been thrilled to see her taking an interest in her mother’s native language. Or, more likely, they would have compared her pronunciation and proficiency with Nakana’s. It was stupid to think anything she did would escape the orbit of her sister’s competence.
The shaky greeting sends Kolea jerking upright, scrambling for her mask and spear. It’s far enough away that the voice echoes in the canopy, but it’s clear they’ve spotted her tent.
A survivor. And a foolish one at that.
The ones that hadn’t escaped on the container and cruise ships had quickly been subsumed. Her family and friends, her schoolmates, her neighbors: all of them gone. But there were still a small handful of survivors who managed to eke out an existence like Kolea, cautious and smart enough to stay isolated and keep their lungs protected. Crazy or stubborn enough to try and live in this paradisiacal hell. For Kolea, every day alive and untransformed was a satisfying ‘fuck you’ to her sister. Over the years, she and the other survivors managed to stay away from each other, leaving signs and visible boundaries so they wouldn’t congregate too closely and push the limits of their environment. A single human in the forest was tolerable as long as they didn’t burn or trample the flora. But two in close proximity? The trees would start emitting warning chemicals, riling their faunal counterparts.
“Anyone home?” The stranger calls out, obviously counting on her absence and being able to rob her blind. Kolea peeks through the narrow mesh flap window, sees a scruffy haole with no mask and a hunting rifle poised toward the ground in front of her tent. There were still guns around, but she doubted that he’d found ammunition to arm it. If he did, the bullets would be over a decade or so old.
He walks toward the tent with his gun at his side, focused on stepping soft like it’s the _sound_ that would wake the trees, the animals. A useless endeavor; the land could feel them just like Kolea could feel a static shock, could smell waste in the air. Their very presence was an irritation.
The wind shimmers the trees. Pollen falls slowly, filling the air like static.
Kolea unzips the tent door slowly and the man stops cold, snapping his rifle up to her head. She steps out into the twilight, empty hands up. Her machete isn’t far. Her spear is an arm’s length away.
“It’s not safe to be here. You’re too close.”
“I need food. Supplies.” He looks her up and down, licks his lips. Seeing him closer, without mesh to obstruct her view, Kolea observes the actual state of him: his eyes are bloodshot, lids puffy. His hair and skin have been mostly scraped away, leaving viscous, gritty scabs in their wake, weeping with infection. He’d tried to cut away all the flora his body was producing, effectively cutting away himself. He was nothing but a walking wound now.
Kolea swallowed, throat tense. “You need to leave.”
A pause, considering. Then a smile, facial scars pinching around his mouth. “You’re a…girl. Been looking for a girl. Local girl.”
Kolea’s stomach tightens, fills with ice. Clearly, he was already pollen-crazed. That meant dangerous, unpredictable.
“Hah… I—” The man holds a hand to his mouth and hacks into it. His nose leaks a mix of chlorophyll and blood, a braid of green and red. “This damn air! He takes a deep breath to try to clear his throat, but it only forces another cough from his chest.
“You’re sick,” Kolea says calmly, hand out in front of her, palms down. “You need to find a respirator and get your wounds treated. Do you have a respirator?”
“I’m fine. I just…I lost it. My mask. But I’m fine.” He opens his mouth to say something else, but all that emerges is another wet hack. He tries again, manages to rasp, “Come with me. It’s… what it wants.”
The trees. The animals.
Kolea wonders if it was truly in the soil, microbial organisms all exuding some psychic desire for them to die, driving them all to violence and suicide with every pulse of their tiny protozoan hearts.
The survivor levels the rifle at her. “Come here. Hands up.”
A guttural grunting echoes from behind the man, catching in the koa trees. Something skitters in the underbrush. Chittering, hissing, an angry cacophony. It builds in the air like a breeze wracking up to a gale. Boars pass behind the trees like bristling shadows, the pale glint of their tusks a warning. Kolea eases back a step toward her spear.
“They’ll charge us,” she whispers, panic infusing a sharpness into her words. “I need to protect myself. And you…you need to fucking go. Now.”
“No. No, I need…I need…” The survivor ambles forward, each step slightly off-kilter. The pollen was getting to him now, she could see it in the glaze over his pupils. The muzzle of the rifle droops from her head to her chest, down to her feet. He was going to pass out but he was still advancing on her. Kolea moves backward with each of his closing steps.
A boar squeals and growls to her left, emerging from the trees. Three more boars follow it, their long, coarse hair bridled and high. Mongoose seethe around their split hooves, darting toward the man’s feet and Kolea’s, hissing like windblown reeds.
The survivor lurches forward, gaze fogged, unseeing. Kolea lunges to the side. A boar howls.
The spear tip pierces his throat before he even realizes she’s got it. Blood spouts from the exit wound then razors across a koa tree as he staggers and falls. He gargles half-formed words then goes silent. Kolea shivers, holding stock-still, throwing hand still extended. Please, she thinks, leave me alone. She repeats the thought in her head, hoping it’s conveying through her scent or her heartbeat, however they communicate.
The angry snuffling quiets. The mongoose chatter but melt back into the brush. Kolea collapses onto the gore-darkened soil, the leaves gemmed with blood. A new vine curls from her tear duct, studded with a single bead of salt.
1. nvs. Nightmare (named for a chief of evil spirits on Lā-naʻi who was killed by Ka-ulu-lāʻau; his spirit enchanted certain fish, especially weke. If a weke head is eaten near bedtime, nightmares are said to result_.
_Price is no object_, Beacon had told them, legs hanging off the side of the kayak and circling contentedly in the water. Under her feet, the fish darted away at the agitation. _Transcendence is beyond valuation_.
So, as the rest of the group of Seekers snorkeled in the cove, Kolea named a ridiculous number as a joke, expecting a laugh in reply. But Beacon only nodded and agreed with a casual tone that told Kolea she should have asked for double, maybe triple.
Kolea should have said no. Nakana should have never offered her spear at all, never even told the haole about the weke. But they had rent to pay, family to care for, and a future to try and build. Nakana’s future, at least.
“You have to watch out for your sister, Kolea,” her mother had said. “Don’t you want to see her succeed?”
“She’ll succeed without me just fine.”
“That’s not true. She looks up to you. You affect her.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“And you affect _us_. Your papa and I need to…focus on getting her out of here, into the colleges she’s working so hard to get in.”
_And what about me?_ Kolea had wanted to say. Maybe she wasn’t as accomplished as Nakana, but didn’t she deserve their efforts? A means to escape this dead-end island? But the answer was clearly no. They could only afford to rescue one child and Kolea had already proved too risky of a venture. But maybe with this weke money, she could put some away, pull herself out of the shack they were living in. Make a future with her own two hands.
“It’s easy money, sis! Less risky than weed,” Nakana had said as she rinsed off the kayaks. She was too confident for someone who’d only dealt a few times and only as a go-between for her boyfriend.
Kolea snorted. But she was right and besides, worst case scenario, Nakana would get in trouble with their parents right along with her; a rare treat.
Beacon told them to bring enough weke for each of her followers at their rental in Paia. The fish were sleek and whiskered silver-white with neon yellow stripes. Kolea had never eaten them before, but they were plentiful enough; at least Nakana hadn’t told them that manini and ‘alo’ilo’i could produce the same toxic effects. They were tiny and impossibly quick, difficult to spear.
It took them two days to catch enough for the nine Seekers. When they finally arrived at the SOUL house, a yurt-style bamboo rental hidden away in a cluster of kukui nut and avocado trees, they were stopped by four of Beacon’s followers as they exited the car.
“She asked us to bring these,” Kolea said, deadpan.
“We need to confirm it with her first,” one of the followers said. “If you could just wait here.”
“Sure!” Nakana adjusted her grip on the fish cooler, her smile unperturbed.
“We have to protect the energy of our sanctuary here,” another follower said quietly, as if offering a secret. “Surely you understand.”
After a few minutes, one of the Seekers returned with permission to enter and they were escorted to the backyard. Beacon sat beneath a Balinese gazebo, legs crossed in a meditative pose on a worn cushion. Her eyes were closed, not a ripple in the pond of her face. Other Seekers were scattered around the yard, spread out on the grass under the shadow of swaying palms or napping in hammocks. Pakalolo was rich in the air. Kolea hadn’t noticed then, but there were more Seekers than she’d seen at the tour, more hippie transplants they’d hooked up with.
“There’s a lot of you,” Nakana said, glancing around the premises with interest.
“Indeed there is,” Beacon said, not opening her eyes. “Sit with me?”
The sisters paused then hauled the cooler of fish over to the gazebo, leaving it on the grass before joining Beacon on the warm wooden platform.
“We’ve been studying the Language all weekend while we waited for you. We’ve heard so much in such a little time, but now we can truly open ourselves up to it. You can make your entire body an ear if you try.” Beacon dragged her hand along a curling fern brushing at her thigh. “I knew it wouldn’t be long for you to find them,” Beacon said, gently tapping her temple knowingly.
Nakana gestured with her chin at the cooler. “This is dangerous, you know. People get really sick from these toxins. Why take the risk?”
“Anything worth doing is risky.” A smile spread across the woman’s face, an encapsulated serenity that Kolea found immediately irritating. “I’ve been in contact with a local _kahuna_ here for many months now. He’s shared such fascinating things about your belief system. It’s interesting how the more ancient, elemental tribes of humanity knew how important it was to listen to nature and its creatures.”
Kolea breathed heavily through her nose. “Hawaiian spirituality is different for everyone, miss.”
Nakana gave her a scolding look that said she needed to reign in her rudeness, at least until they were paid.
“Yes, of course, of course. It’s just so simple to prioritize that connection first and yet, most of humanity doesn’t. There’s an almost embryonic spiritual clarity in native religions and their animal and environmental gods.”
Kolea needed to leave before she got into a fight, but every word that left Beacon’s mouth began to itch like a sumac rash. Why was it that haoles always insisted that, with a brief conversation, they could ascertain the depths of any topic they deigned to give their attention? Embryonic spiritual clarity, her ass. Hawaiians were polytheistic, monotheistic, and animists at once; all of their ‘gods’ were simply spiritual energy from pō poured into various shapes. That was why all their thousands of gods were referred to as ke kini akua with the singular indefinite marker, ke, not the indefinite plural marker, nā. The thousands were separate at the same time they were one.
But there was no way Kolea would gift this understanding to the woman. She could continue seeing the world from her blinkered, self-satisfied point of view.
A breeze rustled the leaves in the palm and mango trees around them. Beacon closed her eyes, held up a hand to catch the passing current. Kolea looked at Nakana, who seemed unperturbed. Curious, even.
When Beacon opened her eyes, she smiled as if awoken from a sweet dream. “There it was,” she said. “Are you listening?”
After a curt goodbye, Kolea drove Nakana up the 37 toward home while the sunset bled rainbows behind them. She’d ranted her frustrations for a full twenty minutes before she noticed Nakana’s silence.
“Kans, are you even listening to me?”
“Huh? Sorry, yeah, she was full of shit,” Nakana said, forehead pressed against the grimy truck window. “I was just thinking…”
A pause, fateful, pregnant with all the destruction Kolea wouldn’t know until weeks later. “…listening.”
2. nvs. Exhausted, worn-out, of over-farmed soil; to let the land rest and lie fallow_.
Kolea wakes to a dimming in her legs. Not a numbness, that sleepy prickling nerve-crawl; a dimming, as if the perception of her limbs is fading into nothing, into absence. She reaches down to her knees, her calves, tries to squeeze some life into them. No sensation. Jerking up, she slaps on the solar-powered lantern and hangs it over her legs.
Long, skinny white roots have taken the place of her toes, popped from the soles of her feet in thick skeins. They trail across the canvas floor and out the tent, through a small unzipped gap. Cursing, she tugs her lifeless ankles toward her to pull the roots back in, but finds resistance. Scooting forward, numb legs a dead weight at her side, she opens the tent with a zippered hiss and shoves the lantern out into the black night.
The tendrils have rooted deeply into the soil just outside of the tent. Deep enough that they’ve displaced a small crater of soil around the hole they’ve formed. Shock keeps her still, forces her mind to search for sensation where her feet should be. Instead, her perception moves her past her toes and deep into the ground, a psychic taproot her mind can’t help but anchor itself to and follow. And in the depths, she feels something. An activity at the tips of her perception like frothing clouds of flies humming and twitching, infinite wingbeats battering at her mind for attention, for her to _hear_.
Kolea’s stomach goes cold and hollow, the tingling surge before her body urges her to vomit. If she didn’t uproot these now, her legs would be permanently paralyzed. By the next day, her entire body would give up movement and slowly slough away into nothingness.
No, not nothingness.
Into soil. The language of all flesh.
Can you hear me?_
No, no, no. Kolea dropped the lantern and scrambled for her machete. She arranged her feet as close together as the roots would allow and brought the blade to where the roots started, at the top of where her toes had been. Her breath scuttled in her chest, her grip sweaty and shaking.
_Are you listening?_
She could do this. She could do this because this wasn’t her arm or her feet or her legs. She wouldn’t feel a damn thing.
She drew her hand high, sweat trickling from her palm down her inner wrist.
_Please. Come to me_.
Ear-rending screams carried up into canopies, echoing among the birds and bats and bugs, clotting the air with agony. With each choking howl, each stuttered chop, the voice calling Kolea—the voice that couldn’t be—began to quiet.
1. nvs. Mania, delusion, craziness; deranged; somewhat crazy, sometimes believed due to possession by a spirit_.
It had been bitterly fun for Kolea to watch the falling spiral of her sister. Nakana had begun to hang out with Beacon and her growing entourage of haole tourists, going so far as to miss classes, come home late, and then, eventually staying away from home for days at a time. It had been tolerable until their parents began blaming Kolea for being a bad influence on Nakana because she was older and the family fuckup. What other rationale was there for her sister’s corruption? It was delicious watching her butt up against their authority for the first time. For once, Kolea had almost felt a kinship with her sister.
Then, once they’d finally sat down and spoken to Nakana, they’d realized she was simply following her own pursuits, a path that had nothing to do with getting into college or planning for her career, and no matter how their parents pleaded or threatened, she gave them that high-beam smile in place of assent. And they had shied back, at a loss. Short of keeping her under lock and key, they had no way to stop her. Besides, what Nakana wanted, she got. Why would that change now?
“You’re really into this whole hippie stuff, huh?” Kolea asked after the blowout with their parents, bitterness edging her voice. Leaning on the doorframe, she watched her sister change from a bathing suit into dry clothes. Her back was darkly tanned and flecked with deeper freckles and a criss-cross paleness where the straps of her bikini had blocked out a pattern.
“I guess you could call it that,” Nakana said, neither offended nor pleased as she stripped down.
Kolea snorted. “So you really buy all of that SOUL shit? Even you said it was bull.”
“No. I’m much more interested in them as a group. They’re so sure of themselves, you know? And loyal to Beacon. There’s so much you could do with people like that.” Nakana turned as she pulled a blue t-shirt over her head, flashing the band of her belly quickly, but not quick enough.
“Kans! What the hell is that?”
“Nothing, just a sunburn. I’m peeling,” she said with a chuckle, half-moon smile in place, placid. She smoothed her t-shirt down and grabbed her mini backpack, walking past Kolea. “I’ll be back tomorrow night.”
Kolea should have stopped her. Should have looked again. Should have trusted in what she thought she saw. But it couldn’t have been real, right? Because what she’d seen had been red like a sunburn, shiny like blistered skin, but the shape of it…
She’d seen flowers. Flowers on her sister’s belly. Fleshy red petals blistering around her belly button.
But she didn’t stop her. Didn’t look.
Days later, a scent wafted in from the backyard through their bedroom window. An edged putridity. Following her nose, Kolea found the source; behind the old unused shed, in an ivy-covered plastic drum, a horde of headless goat fish floated dead. Needle-like ribs and spines littered the ground around it. On a rock, a paring knife and a spoon sat, stained with rust.
Beacon was turning Nakana into an addict.
If there was anything worse than Nakana being the perfect poster child, it was her being a druggie. Because what would happen? Her parents would start doting on her, send her to rehab, start spoiling her as she advanced through the program—another little success to lord over Kolea.
Furious, she drove to Beacon’s rental where her sister surely was, fingers burning around the driving wheel. Idiots, fucking idiots, all of them. She’d chew out Beacon and her freak followers for seducing a teenager into their cult and then she’d drag Nakana away kicking and screaming if she had to. It had been fun at first, but now Nakana’s little rebel scheme was pissing her off.
But when she arrived, it was to darkness. Curtains were drawn tight and no light bloomed in the windows or under the rim of doorways. Kolea skulked around the property, looking for an unlocked door or window, but found no entry. What she did find was a gap in a curtain, into a living room. No light except candles to cast them in orange contours. The SOULs were all kneeling on the floor, heads tilted up, palms cupped as if they might catch a rare indoor rain. Some held an object in their hands, a mound of some sort. Others were eating from what they held.
And at the center of them all, stood Nakana, bare as the day she was born, arms extended slightly to her sides. This shocked Kolea for a moment, the intimacy of it jarring her twofold—she hadn’t seen her sister naked since she was a toddler, and now she was a woman among adults. A sexual being, Kolea’s mind supplied. Her nakedness, the darkness of the room, kept Kolea from noticing what was truly different. But, finally, with a straining eye, she saw it.
Shiny red fruit dangled from under her sister’s breasts like perfect opaque blisters. A large one hung from her belly and smaller ones necklaced her pubis. Fruit, small as figs and large as pomegranates, sprouted from thick vines which in turn sprouted from…_her_. Kolea knuckled her eyes, her mind refusing to process what her eyes were telling her. Around Nakana, more supplicants knee-walked toward her and plucked the smaller fruit from her body, bowing their heads repeatedly in thanks. Dark moisture shone from the broken stalks, deep as blood.
Kolea clamped a hand over her mouth, a knot of disgust tangling acidic in her belly. It had to be a costume. Make-up. Some fucked up performance or ritual. But it looked so real; the vines smoothing neatly into Nakana’s chest, green to brown, into the soft folds of her belly. Kolea’s eyes watered from refusing to blink and her mouth had gone gravelly and dry. She watched as Nakana lifted a heavy fruit from her body and brought it slowly overhead. The fleshy stalk connected to her belly pulled tight, tugging the flesh until it wrinkled over her abdominal muscles before snapping. Nakana didn’t flinch. The fruit was tender enough to rip in half, which she did with a little laborious twist. It popped apart, pulp fibers hanging between the two halves.
And in the air, glistening in the candlelight, pollen danced like fireflies.
2. nvi. Overgrowth; to grow wild and lush; bushy_.
Kolea drags her belly across the broken asphalt now, down on all fours. Sweat pools inside her respirator, fogging her lens. The entirety of her feet are bursting with fresh roots; pale white and searching, stretching for purchase. Thinner roots fur her body under her clothes, pulling painfully against the ground. The road is better to move on even with all the debris and shrapnel from combusted cars, fires started by people in the throes of infection. It’s safer here, too. At least, she thought it would be. With the soil walled off by asphalt, the roots seem to sense there’s nothing for them to dig into, no place to anchor. But still, her body pulses with new growth, angry roots shooting out from her forehead, her belly, seeking and grasping at the rubble around her.
Rebar scrapes under her gut, glass shards jam into her elbows as she crawls on. The skeletal remains of buildings loom over her, burned cars tar-black and half-melted funneling wind through their empty windows. Nakana’s followers had wandered into every small and large structure on the island and released the spores they’d been gestating like suicide bombers. The hotels, reservoirs, hospitals, the airport, the cruise port, even the supermarkets.
Groaning, Kolea crawls around a corner of detritus and stops.
The air is thick with pollen. Pollen from one of Nakana’s people. It’s been awhile since she’s found one. Most were burned in panic or dragged away to hospitals. But some survived, like this one, contaminating the air, making anyone who breathed them in agonizingly ill if they fought it or lulling them down into the soil where they were meant to be.
“Damn it. Fuck!” Of course when she needed refuge the most, one of these red, rotting corpses makes an appearance. Kolea feels for the machete strapped to her back then crawls forward. She finds them—it, _it_, they’re not human anymore—anchored to a spot between a mound of ash and concrete rubble. What were arms and legs are all roots now, thick as cables, stabbing into the ground below. From head to chest, they are flayed open, as if someone peeled them perfectly from the top of the skull down to their belly button, undressing flesh from muscle. And from within the cage of broken ribs and withered skin: flowers.
A whole bouquet of healthy blooms with pink petals thick as a finger, bigger than Kolea’s entire upper body. Where a head should be, a pollen-dense stamen waves in the wind, an obscene crimson, bleeding its seed into the air, collecting in the crevices of her respirator. Kolea snorts at the sight then cackles, her eyes pricking hot with each unwilling laugh.
Of course. Of course, there was no stopping it. There was no end in sight. What Nakana wanted, she got.
What was the point in fighting?
Mucus muffles Kolea’s airway as she begins to cry, the heat from her sobbing choking her. Fuck it. Fuck Nakana. She rips off her respirator with a ragged scream, pulls the machete from her back. Cuts her hands on shattered asphalt as she hauls herself up onto her feet then falls. No feet, not anymore, just a cluster of roots around exposed tibia and fibula, the seams of new vines beginning to fissure up her calves. Screaming, enraged, she drags herself forward and begins hacking at the base roots of the human flower, saliva flying, her voice raw and breaking with every screech. Blood floods from the cut roots and pools around her arms, her chest. Pollen clots in her nostrils, turns into a paste in her mouth, but she doesn’t stop chopping, not until the stalk begins to bend under the weight of its bloom.
The vine crunches, the human stalk snapping and keeling over.
_It’s all right now_.
“Shut up! I fucking hate you!” Kolea sobs, coughing through the pollen, hacking away at the plant with fury. Maybe it was all right now. But this was how it was meant to be. Maybe it was better for everyone, everything. But she was done living in her sister’s wants, in her dreams.
_There is no you, Kolea_.
The machete falls from Kolea’s hand, grip too blood-slick to keep hold of it. Tears drip into the paste of floral blood and pollen. Her legs spasm and begin to tingle. The roots have found somewhere to descend, between the rubble, following the path of draining blood for purchase on stone and silt.
_Come with me_.
Rooting tendrils weave through the red coagulate, taking on the contours of a face, eyes and nose, lips moving in time with the voice Kolea hears in her head.
_This is where we belong_.
“No.” Kolea tries to smear the tendrils away but they only reform, the rough outlines of her sister’s face in blood and blossom. Her legs are limp now, fully numb. Her arms follow and then her neck, leaving her prone on the blood-wrecked ground. “I don’t want this…this future…this world…I don’t want you! Let me go, Nakana, please…”
_Someone was always going to choose how it ended_.
Nakana’s voice is loud as a shout in Kolea’s ear, louder than the beat of her stuttering heart, than the rasping breaths. She tries to open her mouth to scream, to curse her sister, anything. But now she is completely paralyzed, the tingling spread fully throughout her every cell.
_I just made sure it was me_.
Kolea’s body is forfeit now, unraveling into red roots, squirming back into the soil. Her arm, bent limp by her head, bristles with vines, snaking past rubble to the ground below. Tears collect in her root-throttled eyes, faceting the world with her hate, her fear, and regret until the last thing she can see is the emerald glow of an empty world.
Perfect, silent and green.