Story by Fadzlishah Johanabas
Illustrations by Ng Siow Foon
The problem with being a vampire in Kuala Lumpur is that there’s too much goddamn sun. Even behind these reinforced walls, where not a sliver can cause any damage, its heat oozes in. I don’t know if vampires are supposed to sweat, but I’m sweating, goddammit.
Oh. By the way, I can swear in God’s name. I even pray five times a day. On time. Kind of proud of that. I’m not dead. Or undead. Ya Rabbi, that’s gross. Sometimes, though, when the sun burns my skin crisp, I really wish I was dead.
Porphyria. That’s what my doctors call it. A genetic mutation that made my blood abnormal, with excess porphyrins; Google it. Use your cranial implants. Don’t be lazy – that makes my skin burn when sunlight touches it. It doesn’t take much. I have the scars to prove it, see. Porphyria. Of all people, why do I get to be a goddamn mutant? And why don’t I get cool powers?
So I chose the other word to describe what I have: vampirism. After all, they burn and turn to dust in sunlight, don’t they? If I call myself a vampire, I get to pretend I’m cool. I get to pretend that I’m dashing, mysterious. I can pretend I don’t have a reflection, so I don’t get to see myself.
I get to pretend I’m not so goddamn ugly.
You’d think, this year being 2063 and all, with the widespread usage of nanotechnology to cure anything viral, from flu to HIV, and to control anything cancerous, they’d finally discover the cure to porphyria – I mean, vampirism. But no. It’s a rare disease, they say. They’re still researching.
I guess today’s my lucky day. They’ve flown in a specialist from one of the American countries. They may no longer be united or anything, but the Mat Sallehs still have the decency to produce one medical miracle after another. Not like us. Just because we’re the world’s biggest supplier of palm oil fuel, the government wants to be more kiasu than Singapore. Other countries are using electric cars only, okay?
Fine. I’m ranting. They promised me a miracle cure two years ago and look where it led me: more scars on my face and hands from exposure to the sun because the experiment didn’t work as well as they expected. I smelled like burnt steak and peed purple blood for a whole month. Purple blood! I’m only 17 but I’ve been on the receiving end of all these medical trials. Mama keeps signing me up because they’re goddamn free, but I’m the one who suffers, goddammit.
Yeah, I’m scared as hell.
The car they sent me is pretty cool. Well, not really cool, since the sun still manages to bake us despite the air-conditioning, but pretty. Reinforced windows that let me see the outside world without letting the harmful rays of the sun in. Why didn’t they think of this sooner? It’s like an aquarium; I finally get to see for myself what finally made us famous. In a bid to out-kiasu everyone, some 20 years ago the government decided to make Kuala Lumpur the greenest city in the world – quite literally. With the endless supply of rain and sun, it wasn’t that hard. To get everyone to listen and comply, that was the tricky part, Mama told me once. They ended up making it mandatory for buildings constructed after 2045 to incorporate canopy trees in their designs. The result is impressive, really. Massive teak trees in the middle of towers arranged as a five-pointed star (Petronas-Guthrie headquarters), a mini-forest circling AirAsia headquarters, and even a cylindrical condominium lined with rows of colorful orchids.
I get excited, all right, but not even seeing the forested city for myself can keep my agitation at bay. Before I know it, we’re already at the hospital’s underground parking. This scene I’m familiar with. I’ve gone through the same procedure countless times since I was a kid. Even though we’re underground, they’d stuff me into a yellow hazmat suit – minus the visor to prevent sunlight-injury. When I was little I imagined myself as one of AirAsia’s commercial astronauts. Only, I doubt they sweat like no-one’s business in their suits.
Did I mention the hazmat suit is like an oven? It doesn’t help that my sweat stinks. It’s all the porphyrins in the system, my doctors say. Whatever.
Dr Calvin Ng greets me just as I shrug out of the suit in the operating theater whose only window is one level above, which is connected to an observation deck. Sometimes I feel like a lab rat, being observed by all these people in sterile white suits, fingers typing rapidly on their holo-keyboards like they have some sort of seizure. I can see Mama fidgeting at her usual corner, away from the group of doctors and students.
“Aryan,” Dr Calvin says. “I hope you’re as excited as I am.” And it really shows. I mean, the man’s ancient, without a single trace of black on his head, and wrinkles on his face that can put a turbulent pond to shame. But those wrinkles today are happy wrinkles, and the way his eyes twinkle makes me think he’s doing his best not to jump up and down.
“Is it going to hurt?” That’s my standard question.
“I sure hope not.” That’s his standard answer. Usually I don’t buy that crap, but even his voice seems to dance. “Oh. Where’s my manners. This is Professor Saladina Al-Bakhri,” he says, stepping aside to let me have a full view of the person who’s going to cure me.
I raise an eyebrow and cross my arms. “I thought you’re…”
“A man?” she says.
Professor Saladina laughs, dainty like the wind-chimes Mama hangs outside my windowless room. “United States of Carolina, to be exact. Third generation Arab-American.” Well, with such a thick Southern drawl, I don’t need further convincing.
“Is it going to hurt?” I ask her.
“The affliction is so rare that you’re our first human subject, to be honest.”
Affliction. I like the way she puts it. Not disease, not illness. She makes it sound cool. Like vampirism. “So will I be a real boy after this?”
Her eyes open wide, but her forehead barely shows any wrinkles. Her tudung hides her hair, so I can’t guess her age that well. She looks Mama’s age. I thought professors are supposed to be as old as Doctor Calvin. “I beg your pardon?” she says.
Doctor Calvin chuckles. He has to tilt his head upward to meet Professor Saladina’s eyes. “Aryan says he’s a vampire.”
The professor laughs. I really like the sound of it. “I know, right? Porphyria is such a boring name.”
Yep. I like this one. I glance up at Mama, and she gives me two-thumbs-up. She is so old-fashioned, I’d be mortified if I didn’t love her so much.
“So,” Professor Saladina says, “we’ll strap you on the operating table and hook you up with this fancy-looking machine over here so that we can administer the elixir directly into your bloodstream.” She walks over to a sleek chrome-and-white machine that looks like a planetary rover.
“Is it a robot?” I say, excited despite my wary self.
“Heavens, no,” she says, smiling. I like her American slang. “It’s not that fancy. It delivers nanoparticles into your bloodstream, and we’ll be able to see the reaction on the monitors.”
“What are the straps for?”
“Unfortunately, we have to keep you awake during the procedure. We have to keep you from moving.”
“So it’ll hurt?”
“We’ll be gentle as possible.”
“We’ll cure you,” Doctor Calvin says. He said the same thing the last time. I may have known him all my life, but sometimes he makes it hard for me to like him. All those empty promises. Plus, he smells funny.
I prepare myself for a world of pain. I don’t keep my hopes up. They always end in disappointment and new scars. I let them strap me on the bed tight – too tight, in fact. “Easy, there,” I tell the Mat Salleh assistant whom I’m sure Professor Saladina brought along with her. “It hurts.”
He doesn’t smile. In fact, he doesn’t look a bit friendly. I search for Mama’s face. She’s biting her nails. I hate it when she does that.
“You’re all right, there, Aryan?” the professor asks. Doctor Calvin has made his way to Mama’s side. I’m all alone with these strangers. Suddenly the professor doesn’t seem so charming.
I’m scared. That’s all. I’m scared.
“This is going to sting a little,” she says, spraying cold alcohol on both my forearms, which are already riddled with needleprick scars. She slides large needles into my veins.
I do my best to smile at her. My heart is fluttering in my ears, I can barely hear my own voice. “Doesn’t hurt, actually.”
“Not the needles,” she says. Where’s her easy smile? Where’s her laughter? “The elixir is thick, and may sting.”
Once I’m all set up, the professor and her assistant leave the operating theater and take a seat behind the monitors in the observation room.
Shit. I told myself not to panic. I told myself this is nothing new.
Why do I get the feeling that something’s not–
Burning, skin-wrenching pain that travels from the needle sites and spreads throughout my body. I scream, but I cannot hear my voice. My heartbeat is getting faster, louder. My chest hurts. My head hurts. My vision is tinted with red. Blood. Mama taught me to repeat the syahadah in times like this, but I can’t recall the words.
I scream I scream I scream I scream I scream
And then. Nothing.
The ringing in my ears slows down. I cannot hear anything. I cannot see anything. I cannot feel anything.
Heartbeat. Not mine. Mine has slowed into the background. Another heartbeat. I can make out ten distinct beats in the observation room. Mama’s just as fast as mine was. Doctor Calvin’s too, but the rhythm is different. In fact, his heartbeat, like the others’, is similar to Professor Saladina’s.
They are excited? Why?
It suddenly dawns on me that I’m no longer strapped onto the bed. I’m actually standing. I look behind me. The bed lies bent and crushed on the cracked floor, and the straps dangle limp and lifeless. The machine is just as dead and broken, with smoke drifting out of the cracked monitor. The needles are no longer attached to my arms.
The wounds close before my very eyes. The scars – they’re disappearing! All my scars are disappearing.
“What’s happening to me?”
“You have been cured,” the professor’s voice booms from the speakers on the ceiling.
I kneel down and clamp my ears shut. “Don’t shout!”
I lock eyes with Professor Saladina. She’s grinning. Triumphant. Smug. Then, patchy images invade my head. Children screaming. Children dying with blood coming out of their eyes, ears, mouth, nose, even fingertips. Children attached to the very machine I destroyed without even knowing it.
She rubs her temples and staggers. Her assistant catches her and props her up. When I look at him, I see flashes of the same nightmares.
No. Not nightmares. Memories.
“You lied,” I growl.
Mama’s gaze darts everywhere. I can smell her fear. It’s delicious.
“What do you mean?” the professor’s voice booms again.
“I’m not your first human subject. I’m your first successful one. How many kids have you killed?”
She backs a few steps, then holds her ground. “What nonsense are you talking about?”
I crouch and launch myself toward the window. I brace myself and break through the thick glass. It hurts, but the wounds close up fast, leaving my skin flawless. The room breaks into total chaos. Still crouching, I steal a quick peek into everyone’s head. I don’t know how I do it. I just do.
Except for Mama, they all know about the failed experiments.
Even Doctor Calvin.
“Calm down, Aryan,” he coos. His fear is thick; I can taste it at the tip of my tongue. “You’re cured. Isn’t that what’s important?”
“He’s not cured,” Professor Saladina says, standing next to Doctor Calvin. “He’s the next step in human evolution. His blood is the answer we’ve been looking for.”
“At what cost?” I roar. Her memories keep invading my mind. She didn’t even know their names. The children were just lab rats. “How many have you killed?”
“It’s worth it. Can’t you see? It’s worth it.”
I jump at her and pin her down. She splutters something, one of Allah’s ninety-nine names, maybe, but no one will know because I clamp my teeth on her face and bite it off. I crush her bones and slurp her brain. It’s soft and slightly stale.
Her blood, though. It’s delicious.
The whole room is a chaotic mess. Everyone’s screaming and scrambling to get away. Some of them are fighting to open the door, but I’m much faster. Much, much faster.
I am bathed in blood. I am light-headed from its taste, its nourishment.
Mama has shrunken into herself at the corner, her trembling hands flailing to keep me at bay. I cock my head and study her. The images that form in my head are jumbled up.
She fears me. She loves me. She fears me.
I’m her son.
I’m a monster.
I look at my hands. Blood is still dripping from my drenched fingers. The whole room is rich with the iron-aroma of blood. Bodies are littered everywhere. The alarm blares and I hear screams outside. More heartbeats.
I look at Mama one last time, and dart out of the room. I push everyone aside as I run.
I jump out the glass panel wall and land on my feet on the grass three floors down.
The sun burns my skin, but I heal just as fast. It hurts, but it’s a good kind of pain.
Pain means I’m alive.