These are the fruits of promises made. They bear the weight – so firm, feel it – of sworn oaths and crossed hearts.
At dusk they flourish, growing ripe and heavy and hot, like a new-born baby. They grow off spindly branches, half withered, amidst weeds and lone bushes, out of sight. Come sunset, it would be easy to pluck them. Warm as skin and heavy as a pheasant, yet only the size of a human palm, they snap clean off the branches without so much as a rustle.
You would be surprised at how many there are. It often takes me the whole night to pick my fill, and then some. People make promises too easily. And not too many last, which I am happy with, seeing as how I have no use for the un-spoilt fruits.
The bad ones, you see, are the best kind. The kind that you can gorge on, all the pleasure minus the guilt. Just one fruit alone, as big as a persimmon, could fill you up so you could barely move.
The beginning of the year is the best time for harvest. New Year resolutions, fresh starts and blank slates, all of them waiting to be broken and sullied. Unfortunately, that is also the time when competition is the toughest.
We are scavengers. Parasites, if you must. Names don’t bother me; I see it as Darwinism. We do what we must to survive, though there are those who think we don’t deserve to exist.
Every broken promise costs you your blood, whether you notice it or not. Often, you don’t. You just feel a little light-headed at the thought of that little act of rebellion, of defying expectations. That is when the fruits grow swollen with blood, so heavy they bend the branches, staining the soil scarlet.
Tonight, the branches will sag, the fruits ripe and oozing, ready for our taking. Tonight we will race to harvest.
My brother was late. And the weather was snappy. The first observation annoyed me more than the second. Wayne was late, when he specifically told me he wouldn’t be. He even promised.
I had just about worn out the pavement when I heard the sound of his sneakers scuffing towards me. In my hand-me-downs, he looked, as always, like a kid playing grown-up, but my little brother could never grow up, not when he was this absent-minded.
I folded my arms. “You’re late.”
He flicked his too-long hair out of his eyes and stared up at me. “I’m sorry. I got here as fast as I could.”
“If you don’t want to come, just say so.” I was being tougher on him than I had to, but he needed to know the importance of keeping promises or he’d end up like our parents.
His eyes widened. “I want to. Really. Come on, Sean.”
Wayne seemed different than the last time I’d seen him, even though it was only last week. He seemed to have grown more than I expected him to.
“Whatever.” I gave him a light shove and he punched me back.
The cemetery was deserted. Even the most valiant joggers had called it a day as the storm pressed closer down on us. But Wayne was bent on this. Ever since I showed him the fruit, the one stained with juice as sticky as blood, he had been eager to look for them himself.
“I don’t see it anywhere,” Wayne complained.
I took him down a dirt path flanked by untrimmed rows of hedges. “It’s not in plain sight.” Nothing was, on this island. Not tears or smiles or fruits. People here were a private bunch.
The clouds pressed down on us, making us quiet and breathless as we cut to the heart of the cemetery. My brother’s hair went wild in the wind, but his eyes were bright and focused.
It took me a while of squinting in the dark to finally locate the fruits. But there they were in the darkened bushes. Most of the leaves had fallen off, so the branches were bare and bent from the weight of the fruits. The fruits, though, with rivers of juice running down their sides, were fat and gleaming and red. There were a lot fewer than the last time I’d seen them, so I supposed I wasn’t the only who had discovered them.
“There.” I pointed. “See it?”
Wayne raced to the bush and pressed his face close to the fruit. The soil around his feet was damp and stained red. Wayne reached to pluck one off. It broke off from the branch easily.
He stared closely at it sitting on his palm.
“Is it edible?” he said.
“How do you know?”
“We’d find them in the supermarket if it were.”
“Still, that doesn’t mean it’s inedible.”
“Are you going to risk it?”
Wayne ignored me. He flung the fruit to the ground, so that it burst open at our feet. Red juice splattered everywhere, staining our shoes and jeans, my t-shirt, Wayne’s face, and the soil around it. Wayne laughed, then plucked another fruit off the branch and smashed it against the floor. More juice splattered. His sneakers looked like it was vomiting blood.
“Cut it out, Wayne,” I said, leaping back. There was a strong metallic smell coming from my stained t-shirt.
It was a familiar smell. It reminded me of the last time Wayne and I had gone cycling and I had suffered a nasty cut from skidding past a thorny bush. The cut had been deep. It took ages for the bleeding to stop.
I joined my brother, who had gathered a pile of those strange fruits and was trying to stuff as many as he could into his backpack. His hands were stained like a murderer’s hands.
“I wonder if people will buy these blood fruits,” he said.
“Blood fruits?” I picked out a particularly large one from the pile. It was heavy and warm in my hand, almost like a live, breathing thing.
“I mean, doesn’t this look like blood to you?” He showed me his palms.
It looked too much like blood, and smelled like it too. I reached out to touch a glistening pool of it on the ground.
There was no doubt about it.
The air is prickly tonight, a snarling creature with its hackles raised. I tread slowly but surely, my mind on the image of bloated fruits, my ears pricked for sounds of competition. My vision is useless here, so I focus on how the wind shifts around me, how the night creaks like a door loose on its hinges.
The cemetery may be quiet, but I know better than to trust the silence. Darkness breeds another world of monsters like us.
My brother has decided to gain a head-start and left before night settled in properly. As eager as I am to harvest, I am not as foolhardy. The best fruits are meant for the fiercest monsters.
I can spot their tracks in the soil, at least a one-metre radius beyond the roots. Sneakers. Boots. Regular footwear for creatures disguised as regular people.
A squeak. I still. Here, the ground is wet almost all year round because of the dense foliage. Apart from the noble kind, even the most fleet-footed find it hard to be stealthy.
Voices. Not one of my ilk, then. Scavengers would know to be quiet. They have to be Traders, the ones who think they have all the authority to be here picking fruit.
But most Traders will have gotten what they want by now. Few will linger to mingle amongst the likes of us.
I clutch the fruit in my hand. The weight of promises is comforting.
I am so hungry. The fruits are harder to come by these days, as Traders offer more of them to the noble kind. Soon, there will be nothing left for us.
From a distance comes a pair of voices – an older male and a boy. I keep within the shadows, where the air is musky and is unaffected by the imminent arrival of the storm.
“I can’t promise you that, kid,” the older one is saying.
My ears prick at the magic word.
“Why not?” the boy asks. “You’re old enough to take me with you.”
“It doesn’t work that way. Dad’s been given custody of you. There’s nothing I can do.”
“I hate it at Dad’s. He’s never around.”
“I know, kid. I know.”
“But we’ll all be together again, right? Dad says we will. He promised.”
The older boy snorts. “Unlike him, I don’t make promises I can’t keep.”
My stomach growls, so loudly I fear they must have heard me. I tuck myself into the bushes and dive into the fruit.
Warm juice explodes in my mouth and smears all over my lips. I am seized with the familiar rush of power, one that makes my body tremble and my head spin.
The fruit tastes sharp and bittersweet, and I feel the prickle of all those promises people failed to keep, the bite of disappointment and guilt. It fills me up like no other food can.
At times like this, it almost comforts me that I am not quite human.
When I saw the girl, crouched in the bushes, half-obscured by the branches, I thought I had to be running low on sleep. Ever since the relocation, there had just been so many things to do that sleep was a luxury.
But the girl wasn’t a product of my exhausted mind. She was right there, fruit in hand and a couple of stray leaves tangled in her hair. For the most part, though, she looked like a normal girl my age. Except that her lips were stained with the juice of the fruit. She closed her eyes as she licked her lips. Juice trailed down her hands in rivulets, and dripped onto the soil and the front of her navy-blue blouse.
I felt like I had walked in on a private, naked moment.
She was about to dive in for another mouthful when her gaze caught mine. The evening air hung like a sword above our heads. I lost count of how long we stayed this way, her crouched on the ground and cradling her fruit, and me in an awkward stance that I didn’t dare to shift out of. I couldn’t look away. She looked almost inhuman, like those feral children I’d seen on TV. Except she wasn’t a child – her eyes revealed that much.
We had both frozen in that long drawn out moment. Her hooded eyes on me, she seemed as incapable of movement as I was. She was waiting, just as I was. For what, I had no idea. But the air was still and buzzing, clear and foggy, all at once.
Then Wayne’s voice cut through the muggy night, startling both me and the girl.
The girl’s gaze snapped towards my brother, but mine remained on her. She took one final look at me, then scurried away into the browned bushes just as Wayne appeared next to me.
“Sean.” He trailed my gaze and peered into the bushes. “What are you looking at?”
I took a while to find my voice. “Nothing. Come on, let’s go home.” I took in his pregnant backpack, stuffed full with what we came to the cemetery for, and gave him a look. “Really?”
I shook my head. There was so sense in rationalising the things my brother did.
I know what it is like to be hunted.
But this does not remind me of one. There is no rush of wind at my feet, or the rustle of leaves or snap of twigs behind me. There is only my rapid, shallow breathing that takes up a space of its own.
I stop. Somewhere along the way, I have dropped the fruit. I am alone in the dark with my wild, thumping heart.
It feels almost disappointing, to be set up for a pursuit when none comes, until I remember I am the one being pursued. I always am.
A voice jolts me to attention. Michael says I startle too easily, and I suppose he’s right.
The voice I heard to my left, it sounds like him. But that’s impossible. The eastern corner of the cemetery is Traders’ territory. My brother would be stupid to venture near there, no matter how hungry he is.
But another cry makes me crash through the wizened bushes.
Beyond the row of bushes is a clearing, an unkempt patch of land that is meant to deter trespassers and thieves.
If I take one step further, I shall be one of the trespassers.
After my feet crosses the line, I hold still for a long moment before taking the next step. Nothing has beset me. My heartbeat is a wild, rampant thing.
I press on.
There are fewer Traders than I expect. But that shouldn’t be surprising. They have greater means to conceal themselves than we do. The lone Trader I see is a lanky man with an equine nose and pebbly eyes that gleam in the dark.
My brother sprawls on the ground in the middle of the clearing. His long, messy hair is plastered against his clammy face. When he spots me, his eyes widen.
He makes to call my name, but winces as though stunned by an invisible rod.
It is too late to hide now.
“Another of your kind, I see,” the Trader says. “I recognise the stench.”
“Let him go.” I can’t imagine how my voice is not shaking, given how hard my entire body is. “Please.”
“No scavenger can be spared who trespasses on our territory.” He points a finger at me. “You included. What more of this thief.” His upper lip curls as he glances down at Michael. “A changeling, yet so brazen.” He raises his hand.
“Wait!” I cry. “Let him go. I’ll give you whatever you want. Please.”
Michael shoots me a look. “April. Shut up.”
But I can’t shut up. He is the only family I have left.
The Trader throws his head back and laughs. “I have no use for your meagre offerings.”
And he’s right. He is a Trader, one who serves the fairies. What can I possibly give him that the fairies have not already given him?
“Again, what can you offer that I don’t already have?”
“A promise from someone who doesn’t make promises.” My heart drums hard and fast, though not as fast as the words are emerging from my mouth. “The fairies need never know.”
The Trader narrows his slit-like eyes at me. “I serve the fairies.”
“You serve yourself, and we all know that.”
Michael’s brows rise. I am just as surprised as he is at my audacity. The gloved hands of a Trader leave no room for second chances.
Finally he says, “One week.”
The Trader’s lips thin. “Do not push your luck, Scavenger. Two weeks. Or he dies.” He throws another look down at Michael.
I blink, and they are gone. The crook of the cemetary feels well and completely empty.