We are Ina. I had heard those words so many times as I grew up that I didn’t know we were considered different until Momma explained her past. Before her, the darkest Ina had been her brother Stefan. His skin was light brown like my brother Nicky’s. Before him, our people had only been white. No Ina were able to open their eyes to the day, and none of them had the sun, its rays deadly fire against their pale skin. Then, my eldermothers began the experiments. They extracted the dark-skinned gene from one of their symbionts, humans with whom thy coexist and from whom they feed regularly. Because of that, this symbiont became one of my eldermothers as well. I never met any of them.
Despite the many families who came to see Momma in awe and excitement of the prospect of our evolution, a few disagreed with the mixing of human and Ina genes. So much so, that they killed my eldermothers, elderfathers, all of Momma’s siblings, and all of the symbionts who had been with them at the time. Nearly two hundred Ina and humans died because my mother-Shori was created. They failed to kill her but left such a deep injury in her brain that she doesn’t remember most of her families. She was 53 years old, a child to our people, when she had to begin anew. She collected new symbionts and reintroduced herself to the men who would be my fathers and elderfathers, the Gordons. They helped her conduct the Council of Judgment which rightfully judged the Silk family guilty of the crimes.
Momma moved on and rebuilt her life afterwards. She visited distant relatives to reeducate herself on Ina ways, then adopted a sister to please my future elderfathers, and moved across the country to start her life in a place far removed from her erased past. When my mothers became of age to mate, they had eight children: five boys and three girls. Of my mother-Shori’s birth children, I am the only girl. For as long as I can remember, Ina from across the world came to see me and my birth brothers as we grew. Three of us were as dark as Momma. Before my brothers left to live with our fathers, as the male Ina do when they turn 60, we used to douse ourselves in sunscreen and sit, play, and hunt outside. Our eldermothers had given us the sun. We needed to appreciate it.
And now that it was just Momma and me during the day, we continued the tradition. I laid my head in her lap as the sun peeked into my sunglasses. My features were hers: sharp angles, large and observant eyes, thick, curly hair. Momma kept her hair short, to remember when she started over. I let mine grow long, and she ran her hands through my curls as we watched the sun peek its head up over the ocean. Early morning passersby only saw a young woman and her teenaged sister enjoying the sunrise. If they saw a mother and daughter, they would never know that Momma was 147 years old, that it was my 71st year. It was the year I would choose my mates, the fathers of my children.
I closed my eyes to the sun’s heat and let it bathe me. The air smelled of wind, water, and salt, of copper and skin. Seagulls called to each other in the sky before they landed and plucked up whatever scraps of fries and bread lay around. As the sun started to lift away from the water, Momma patted my arm, and we headed back to the car. It was a thirty minute drive home from Slaughter Beach, at least the way Momma drove. We liked to get into our homes before the sunscreen wore off.
I rolled down my window and watched the many trees and little shops rush by. Milford was all a blur but for a girl on the side of the road with a large patchwork purse and a duffle bag criss-crossed around her body. She looked up and met my eyes when we passed her.
My mother-Shori slowed the car and came to a stop. The northbound roads were always clear in the morning; everyone was heading down to the beaches. In the side mirror, the girl hesitated, stopped for a moment, then approached the car.
“Hi,” I said when she came to my window.
“Where are you walking?” She paused, then shrugged. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Ruby. This is Shori. You don’t have anywhere to go?” Camille shook her head and adjusted her straps. “Do you know you’re burning?”
Camille looked down at her shoulders and arms. She had a head full of sun-dyed brown hair, brown skin tanned darker and peeling in places from being outside too long. “I didn’t think I could.”
That was a common notion among black humans, so I smiled. “We have an extra room, if you need a place to stay.”
She turned her eyes back to me and looked skeptical. “Are you Jehovah’s Witnesses?” Momma chuckled, but I shook my head. Camille stared at us for a few more moments before she finally said, “Okay.”
She climbed into the backseat, pulled her bags off of her shoulders, and five minutes into the drive, she was asleep.
My symbiont Jay stood outside when we pulled into our community. He was as dark as Momma and I, partially why I chose him, and from a long line of symbionts, the other reason. His eyes were round, his nose long and angular. His smile was a bright white, and he had deep dimples in his cheeks. Humans were interesting, the way their bodies had little quirks like that. His wife, though only a shade or two lighter than us, had freckles on her face and shoulders.
He peeked into the backseat and smirked. “Found a stray on the shore, did you?”
I climbed out and kissed his cheek. He smelled like his wife on top of the fusion of my scent. They were trying to have another baby. “She was walking and burning. She probably would’ve been picked up by worse or died of heat stroke.”
Jay nodded and opened the backdoor. He carefully pulled Camille out and cradled her. “Where do you want her?”
I took her bags and closed the door. “The room beside mine.”
Momma drove down the road to her house, and I followed Jay into mine. His daughter Tisha lay on the floor eating cereal and watching cartoons in the den. When she saw us, she hurried after us on the stairs.
“Who’s your new friend?” she asked. That was what she called symbionts.
“Camille,” I said. “But remember, it’s her choice.”
“I’m going to go make a card for her!” She bounced back down the stairs and opened the front door.
“Wait for me,” Jay ordered at her back. She made a disappointed whiny sound but closed the door.
Jay carried Camille into the guest room beside my room and laid her on the bed. She couldn’t have been more than 19 years old, but she was tall enough for me to keep. As I neared mating age, I would need more symbionts, for once I hit my growth spurt, and especially once I became pregnant, the frequency at which I would need to feed would be fatal to my initially small number of symbionts. If Camille agreed, she would be the first of at least two more symbionts for me.
I set her bags at the door and pulled a bottle of aloe gel from my cargo pocket. She must have walked for hours. She didn’t stir when I climbed onto the bed. I sat beside her and smoothed the gel onto her face, arms, and shoulders. Then, I lay down and closed my eyes to sleep for a while.
The bed bouncing beneath me woke me near sunset. I sat up and lifted my glasses from my face. Camille stood pressed against the door, her dark eyes wide.
“Why were you sleeping with me?”
“Don’t panic,” I said.
“I thought you said there was a room for me.”
“This is the room, but I need to talk to you first.”
“But you were sleeping with me!” Her face was wrenched with disgust.
“I don’t swing that way.”
I smiled. “That’s fine.”
“Is this a whore house?”
Camille shuffled back and forth, wrapped her arms around herself. Her eyes watered. “I have nowhere else to go.”
I sighed. “I’m going to approach you, okay?” She stared at me for a long time in silence. Her eyes were full of hate, fear, and confusion, hopelessness, helplessness. “I just need you to calm down. I will explain.”
When Camille finally nodded, I crawled off the side of the bed, stood and approached her. “You’re not going to understand, but you will, and I won’t make you do anything you don’t want to do.”
Some Ina preferred that humans were a little less alert the first time they bit them, but I had no choice. I needed to show Camille what I was, or she wouldn’t believe me. I took her hand, and she watched me warily, ready to draw it back at any moment. My grip would be strong enough that she couldn’t. I locked eyes with her as I brought her hand to my mouth, and her eyes widened even more when I bore my teeth—the canines straighter, longer, and sharper than her own—and bit into her hand. Camille almost screamed. The scent of her pain rolled over her skin, but when I immediately ran my tongue over the bite, she went silent. Her racing heartbeat pumped a scent of pleasure into the air, and she continued to watch with a furrowed brow, parted lips and shallow breaths. I drank her blood and licked at the wound until it stopped bleeding.
Camille frowned at me and held her hand to her chest. “You’re a vampire.”
Clint, Heidi, and April had said the same thing. “I am Ina.”
“Does that mean vampire?”
“It means Ina.”
She wanted to panic, but she felt too good. “Vampires are real?”
I could see she was the kind who needed to be right. “Come sit down.” The venom in my saliva left her no choice but to obey me, but I took her hand gently and pulled her back to the bed to sit.
“I don’t like feeling so…good with a girl.”
I nodded. “We don’t have to have a sexual relationship…”
“So we’re in a relationship now?!”
“Camille, if you want me to explain, you’re going to have to stay quiet.” Camille huffed, drew her lips tight, and stared down at her hand. The skin was already beginning to close, so she focused on that. “It’s called a symbiotic relationship. I am Ina. There are many theories as to where my kind comes from, and yes, you can call us vampires, but we don’t turn into bats; we don’t kill people; and most of us can never see the sun. We do drink blood to survive, but we mainly feed from those who say we can. They live with us so we can feed regularly, and our venom keeps them healthy and helps them to age more slowly.”
“Why does it feel so good?” she asked quietly.
“I guess if it hurt, we’d never keep a symbiont.”
“Is that what you call us? Is that what I am now?”
“I’ve only bitten you once, so you can still leave if you want. If you choose to stay, yes, you will be one of my symbionts.”
“How old are you?”
“Jesus. Wait…Shori…is she one, too? A va…an Ina?”
“She’s my mother.”
Camille’s eyes widened again. “So you’re the kind that can get pregnant?”
“We’re the only kind there is. We can’t turn you into one of us. That’s just another myth.”
“I need a drink.” I smiled. Dale had said that, too. “You were out in the sun.”
“Because of my skin. I still need sunscreen and good sunglasses. Otherwise I blister really badly.”
“How many black Ina are there?”
“Five. My mother-Shori, me, and three of my brothers.”
“Momma was the second. She was part of an experiment.”
Out of everything I had told her, somehow that made sense to Camille. “Oh.” She sat there quietly for a minute, absorbing everything.
“There’s still a lot to explain, but it’ll help to have a few of the symbionts around to help you understand, too.”
She nodded, then sat still for another minute. “If I stay…are other Ina gonna bite me?”
I shook my head. “They’re not allowed to. You’ll be mine.”
“And I’ll get used to you biting me?”
“You’ll eventually need me to.”
Camille brushed the spot I had bitten, and she hesitated. She had liked it, but I understood that she was uncomfortable with liking it. At the same time, I knew she had run away from somewhere and desired the change of scenery.