Tisha’s over-sized pink and purple Welcome card helped to ease Camille, and I watched her from the kitchen door as she spoke to Jay, his wife Anne, and Celia, one of Momma’s symbionts. Seeing other black symbionts eased Camille, as it had a few others, and seeing a married couple with a child let her know that our symbionts had their own lives. We didn’t control them. They needed our venom, and we needed their blood, but just as important, if not more, we needed their companionship. To control them would break that bond.
I turned as the front door opened, and Clint walked in. He was one of my guardians. They were posted around the city to protect us, and the guardians within our community were our symbionts. Clint was my “fangophile.” Many humans were obsessed with vampire lore. I met him late one night as I walked through the nearby town. When I told him what I really was and proved it with my first bite, I’d never seen someone so turned on. Sometimes, I still had to tell him he wasn’t dreaming.
He smiled, set down his duffle bag, and scooped me up with one arm. “How is my darling tonight?”
“Glad her darling is home.” I kissed him as he walked with me up the stairs.
I awoke the next morning to his lips nipping at my stomach. I smiled as he made his way up my sternum, ran my hands through his fluffy black hair as he suckled each breast—not that I really had any—and met his nickel gray eyes when he looked up. I joined him in the shower, then returned to bed wet and naked as he drew the curtains for me. The sun’s rays peeked up through the clouds on the horizon, and I didn’t like its kisses as much.
Near noon, I awoke to Tisha curled up against me in her pajamas. I had promised my mothers I would behave with her. Jay had come to me of his own free will, but I hadn’t inherited Tisha. She was six that year—her scent was hardly appealing, but I understood what they meant. She had to grow up and make her own decision. If she chose to stay in the community, she would also choose her bondmate. Our symbionts’ children needed their own lives as well. Although, I couldn’t help that Tisha liked my company. I smoothed back the thick tangles that were her hair and kissed her cheek before I climbed out of bed. My skin was still damp, but I crossed my room and slid on a pair of underwear and a dark blue T-shirt.
Beneath my room, Jay and Momma prepared for the arrival of my fathers and oldest brothers. We Ina are sexually territorial. In my mating ages, I wasn’t allowed to spend too much time with my male family, so I smiled at the thought of seeing them. Nicky and Andrew, my youngest brothers, had left to live with our fathers the year before and couldn’t come. To Ina, I reeked of being available to mate, and family wasn’t immune to the scent. My older brothers had learned to control their impulses and were coming with my fathers to meet my final suitors.
“This is all very weird, you know,” Camille said from the doorway.
I turned and smiled at her. “That’s a common opinion of newcomers.”
“I mean, vampires…Ina…you’ve been here all this time, and no one knows?”
“Can you imagine if they did? Humans aren’t known for their tolerance.”
She looked at Tisha and paused. “Kids grow up here thinking this is normal.”
“The white picket fence, the two-point-five children…the dog.”
“Even that is false, unless the wife is continually miscarrying to keep up the dream.”
She winced. “Do you have to talk like that?”
“I’m sorry. I’ve been told I’m too blunt…What were you running from?”
“I wasn’t running, I just…” Camille folded her arms. “I aged out of foster care. I was hoping to find a job up here that didn’t involve chasing and killing chickens.”
“Do you want to go to school?”
Camille hesitated. “I did.”
“My fathers will pay for it. I’ll talk to them about it tonight.”
She rubbed her eyes and yawned. I could tell she was up all night thinking about the situation she had been carried into. “Fathers…I have to get used to…everything.”
I crossed the room and put a hand on her shoulder. “Get some sleep. You don’t have to absorb everything in one day.”
Her next look was hesitant, and she bit her lip before she spoke. “Can you bite me again?”
I smiled and pulled her over to my bed, let her lie down before sitting beside her. She fixed her eyes on Tisha as I pressed my mouth to her neck and bit. Her blood came readily, and I lapped it up as she relaxed and closed her eyes.
On the stairs, I smelled Wright in the kitchen, though he hadn’t joined the conversation. He was Momma’s “first”, a large, protective hulk of a man who found her after she survived the first attack on her life. He hadn’t left her side since, and I thought of him as my home-father. He patted my head as I kissed his shoulder.
Momma approached me with a plate of raw lamb as I sat in Jay’s lap. I was still growing and needed the meat. She had been feeding me more of it for months to prepare me for mating, so she brushed off my immediate grimace. I picked at the bloody slabs with a knife and fork to pull them apart, smiled as Jay wrapped his arms around me. I forced a chunk of lamb between my lips and chewed. Its heavy, carnal sweetness annoyed my senses.
“I hope this is the last of the lamb.”
Momma pulled my hair back with a rubber band and walked away. “There will be a lot to complain about in this time. For everyone’s sake, decide what is worth voicing now.”
I cut my eyes at her but returned to my plate. “What time is everyone arriving?”
Jay glanced up at the laptop in front of us. Then, he massaged my shoulders as I fought to swallow. “Your fathers and brothers will be here around ten. The Bassanos will be here at midnight, the Vetrovs around one a.m. tomorrow, and the Sullivans at about midnight the night after.”
Normally, a house of Ina females mated with a house of Ina males, but in order to create more dark-skinned Ina, I would mate with a different male family than my sisters, birthed by my mother-Stacia and already bound to another male family. The genes of female Ina were dominant, and as the only other woman capable of naturally conceiving children with dark skin, I was a hot commodity. Fathers from around the world had visited and sent letters and proposals on their sons’ behalf because I was the face of our evolution. The Bassanos, Vetrovs, and Sullivans were the first three of nine families approved by my mothers, fathers, elderfathers, and my mother-Shori’s elderfathers. It was now my time to choose.
Wright stood and pulled his flannel shirt from the back of his chair. He slid into it, glanced at me, and nodded towards the den. I sighed with relief at a break from eating and followed him. He had built our houses, and everything about this room was him: the dark redwood walls and tables, the thick wool drapes, coffee-colored carpet, the overstuffed hunter green sofas and armchairs. He sat in one and pulled me down onto his lap. My second elderfathers estimated I would reach 5’9 in adulthood. Momma stopped growing at 5’7. I was already her height. Wright, however, was over 6’0, and I felt no matter how tall I grew, he would still put me on his knee like a little girl.
“How do you feel?”
“You aren’t being overwhelmed? I saw that look you gave her.”
I smiled. “She just wants me to be ready. I understand.”
“Don’t be afraid to say if it’s too much for you, though.”
Humans were cute in the way they thought we Ina handled things as they did. Still, I nodded. “Yes, Wright.” He smiled and kissed my forehead before sending me back to the kitchen.
When I finished choking down the lamb, I washed my face and hands and returned to my room. Tisha had snuggled up to Camille. I felt Camille wouldn’t mind something else to focus on while she adjusted to our life, and Tisha would help ease her into it. There were going to be so many different symbionts coming in the next few days that she would meet enough people to learn more as well. She might even make friends.
Before I finished getting dressed, I began the long, arduous process of applying sunscreen. I ran it through my hair to my scalp, rubbed it into my face, ears and neck, arms and legs, and feet. Then, I put on shorts, donned my sunglasses and walked downstairs, out through the front door. We had our guardians, but I liked to walk around our community for a quick surveillance. The sun was high, and the sky was clear. Beside my house on the north side, my sister Marta’s house was silent. On the south side, my sister Jessica’s house was the same. Everyone was asleep. My mother-Shori’s oldest symbiont Brook watered their garden down the street. Her hair had gone gray earlier than other symbionts her age, probably from stress. Momma inherited her from my elderfather Iosif after he was murdered, and Brook was in her 60s then. Though it saddened Momma to think about it, she knew Brook only had 10 or 20 years left to live.
She looked up and gave me a loving smile as I passed. I waved and continued on. My mother-Stacia’s house was silent across the street. I took one of her symbionts’ bikes and rode out to the nearest guardian house. Four men and women, diurnal and nocturnal, stayed in each house. We paid them very well, so they never wanted for anything, but sometimes I worried the ones who were our symbionts saw next to no life outside of our community. Many of them worked twelve hour shifts and slept for most of their time and days off. If they minded, they never complained.
Clint and Dale smiled as I walked inside. Dale and his wife were my newest symbionts before Camille. I had met them ten years prior, and they had taken the news of the existence of “vampires” about the same as Camille, with anger, fear, and confusion. When I told Clint and Dale about her, Clint made it his point to remind Dale just how scared he had been. The heat of the bullet going through my shoulder was something I never wanted to feel again.
“Aw, come on, I can’t be the only one who’s tried to kill one of y’all,” Dale grumbled.
“At least you were hunting,” Clint said, “so she had something to eat instead of you.”
“Do you know how many horror movies there are about little demon girls? You were a little girl alone in the woods! I wasn’t taking any chances.”
I kissed his scruffy cheek and wrapped my arms around his shoulders to let him know all was still forgiven. “Is there anything new to report?”
“No, we’re just tightening up for when the shuffling starts. I know I’ll be glad when we don’t have to escort a bunch of y’all like we’re Secret Service.”
“Maybe not once I choose my mates, but don’t forget I’ll have children.”
“I’ll be dead before they start breeding.” I smacked his shoulder.
After a nap, I showered and slid into the chaste, violet pencil dress Momma had lain out for me. It fell right above my knees and despite the slim fit didn’t provide any illusion that I had a shape.
My mother-Stacia came to make sure I was ready. She had the typical Ina look, nearly translucent white skin, light blonde hair, high cheekbones and thin lips. Her eyes were brown and soft, so she didn’t look too severe. She was the light-hearted one of the two Matthews women. She chuckled when she saw how I frowned at the dress.
“It looks great on you. It looked like a smock when Shori wore it.”
“So it’s a shapeless hand-me-down,” I murmured.
Stacia laughed and stood behind me. “She only tried it on. She wasn’t pleased with how it fit her, so she put it away for one of her daughters. You have more hips than she does--don’t give me that look; it’s true.” She ran her hands down my sides to show me what curves I had. “They’re small, but you’re Ina. Your mates will understand. How does Mark say it…We’re beautiful string beans.” I smiled, and she kissed my ear.
My mothers, sisters, and I met the Gordons and their accompanying symbionts at the guest house where they would be staying. Daniel, my birth father, gave me a warm, loving smile as I ran and jumped into his arms.
“I missed you, my jewel,” he said as he squeezed me. He turned to my mother-Shori and set me down. The longing in his eyes was still so strong. I hoped after 80 years my mates would look at me the same way. “And you, little mate.”
“Be welcome, Daniel,” my mother-Shori said to him, her voice filled with the same longing. I only ever saw Momma’s eyes shine when she looked at Poppa or Wright, who went to visit friends for the week. He still got a little jealous whenever Poppa visited. Poppa was her exclusive mate, as my father-Philip was to my mother-Stacia. They shared my other fathers for mating, and though they loved them all, it wasn’t uncommon for certain Ina to form a stronger bond beyond the mating process. My mothers never shared my father-Daniel or my father-Philip with one another.
Poppa and Momma shared a long embrace and a kiss while I greeted my other fathers and brothers. “Little Shori,” my father-Wayne said with a bright smile as he hugged me. “You look beautiful.”
“You’re kind, Wayne, thank you.” He moved off to embrace my mothers.
My other fathers and their symbionts all hugged me before reuniting with my mothers and sisters. I smiled at my brothers, Iosif, Jasper, and Peter, though we stood yards away from each other. Even that seemed too close for Peter. His nostrils flared as they did when he was trying to keep calm, and when he realized how hungrily he gazed at me, he tried to keep his eyes low.
“I’ve missed you all.”
“And we you, Ruby,” my oldest brother Iosif said gently. “Nicky and Andrew will call you later.”
I allowed my brothers to pass me. Peter gave me an apologetic look, and I nodded to him before I followed everyone into the family room. My father-Philip sent him to help the symbionts with their suitcases so that he could have a break from my scent.
“Lucas called me,” Philip told my mothers. “The Bassanos landed safely and will be here shortly.”
“Good,” Momma said. She turned to me. “Ruby, do you need to go over anything before they arrive?”
She had only briefed me every day since I turned 70. I would speak with each group of sons when they were settled, observe their behaviors as we traded questions. I was allowed to challenge anything I felt was insincere or untrue, and they would have to answer truthfully. Through that, I would make my decision.
“No, Momma, I remember,” I said, not hiding my annoyance but keeping my voice flat.
Her expression didn’t change, but I knew she wanted to hit me. “Ruby, this is a big decision you have to make, and we can’t help you make it.”
“Did you eat today?” Poppa intervened.
I nodded. “Yes, but I may feed later.”
“You’re growing. That’s expected. Why don’t we all relax until the others arrive? Ruby, I hear you have a new symbiont?” He held out his hand.
I welcomed the chance to be alone with Poppa for a while, and I took his hand to lead him up the back stairwell, to my room. He stopped me in the hall.
“How do you feel?”
I smiled. I was about to get the same speech Wright had given me. “I’m ready for this to be over, but I’m fine.”
“You are Shori’s daughter. It is so clear when you speak to each other. It’s all right to be annoyed by the attention. Your mother-Shori was already promised to us when it came time for her to mate. She doesn’t remember going through this process and how it irritated her.” Poppa smiled warmly at the memory. “She was the first of her kind, however, so she received a lot of attention. Sometimes, I don’t know if reminding her will hurt her, a past she can’t recall, so she can’t relate to her daughter right now.”
I sighed. It was a different speech. “You want me to be patient with her.”
“And try hard.” Poppa gave me another hug and kissed the top of my head. “Now, your new symbiont.”