From the author: Vanilla Rice is the birth story for the "Bitter Suites" universe. The rundown apartments where Yoshiko and Killian live for a year (in "Bitter Suites") happens to be around the corner from the suicide hotel. You’ll note some similarities between the stories—mention of certain residents and painted over windows, among other things. "Bitter Suites" is available on Amazon.
Meiko stared at the choices on the kiosk in front of her, hovered her finger over Caucasian and touched. New choices slid onto the screen. One hand cradled her rounded belly. With the other she selected Blue eyes and then Blonde. She reached up to touch her own thick, straight hair. It was so dark it shone nearly blue in the sunlight. She hated it. Her daughter would not be so Asian. She selected Curly on a sub menu. When she had finished making her selections she slid in her stolen credit. A warning popped up on the screen.
The Attribute Chip is permanent and removal may cause a breakdown in DNA. Please use the Attribute Chip sparingly and with caution. The Attribute Chip is a safe, effective way to manipulate native DNA for desired physical effects but is for appearance only. It is illegal to modify your chip to alter intelligence or other non-physical attributes. Once installed, it is advised to leave the Attribute Chip in place for the duration of the life span or risk DNA instability. To accept these risks, click and sign.
She bit her lip nervously. She knew what a DNA breakdown looked like. Two doors away in her building there was a man with no nose. His flesh had destabilized and fallen off in gooey pieces. Just when his degeneration seemed finished his skin would get that gummy quality again, like fresh mochi, and he would hide in his apartment and order take out for weeks. Sometimes, when she walked past his door, she imagined she heard him sobbing.
This wouldn't happen to her daughter. She wouldn't try to modify her chip for intelligence--she assumed that's why his malfunctioned--and she was no genetic engineer anyway. The physical attributes would be enough. Meiko had hidden herself in a neighborhood where she blended in, but her daughter would stand out like an angel of light so bright it would even illuminate Meiko's shadowed existence. Her daughter would have every suitor and marry a rich, kind man. Her daughter would be a princess like she had seen in cartoons.
She had hated her childhood. Cartoons had been an escape from a father that screamed instead of talked. In her memory, his face was always flushed red beneath thinning orange hair. By contrast, her mother had been a colorless shadow, cowering and almost nonexistent--an internet purchase her father had tried to return. Meiko had already been growing in her mother's belly by then, making her mother non-refundable. Because of Meiko, her mother was defective.
She would sneak away to see the cartoons in the downstairs lobby, and the attendants would let her sit behind the counter and watch. Sometimes her father would call down and ask if they had seen her leave the the building, and the attendants always told him no, careful not to look down at her when they lied. They hardly looked at her at all, but they let her hide and watch the cartoons on their television.
She never saw Asian princesses on television. The television princesses all had bright, wavy locks and pale skin. Her hair was just black and it hung straight as if gravity was trying to pull her into the ground. On TV their eyes were always large, round and usually blue. Her eyes were squinty, dark and small. No one she knew growing up had squinty, small eyes like hers. That's how you know defective goods, her father always said, by the squinty eyes. But that was in the past, thought Meiko, and she had left all that behind. She hovered her finger over the Accept icon, hesitated and then selected it. She scrawled her name.
The kiosk gave her a friendly bell tone to let her know her payment had been accepted, and the image of a chip appeared on the screen. Small animated robots worked on the chip using old-fashioned screwdrivers and hammers.Congratulations! The words popped up on the screen. Your Attribute Chip is finished. Please have a professional install within 24 hours of your baby's birth. Do not unseal your Attribute Chip until ready to install. There was a click, and a small plastic sleeve dropped into the tray in front of her. She carefully picked it up and held it to her heart.
Meiko hadn't planned to have a baby, but when she found out she was having a daughter, she became obsessed with making her child everything she couldn't be. She had grown up an olive-skinned alien in a world full of bright people with hair in all shades of red, gold and chestnut. Her daughter would be one of them, the most beautiful of them all. Her princess daughter could open the doors of that world to Meiko. She tucked her chip away safely and walked home.
Three months later her baby was born in a medical time-share cubicle during her lunch hour. Meiko named her Katsue. The medical tech had tried to change her mind about installing an Attribute Chip in her daughter, droning on about DNA risks, but Meiko couldn't hear him. In her mind she was designing dresses for a tiny angel. No matter how he tried to caution her, Meiko had just asked for the legals to sign. After signing, they wheeled her daughter away to install the chip while her genetic build was still malleable. Meiko had used all the time she could afford in the medical cubical and prepared to leave. She would pick up her baby when finished.
The baby was a disappointment at first sight. Meiko asked if the chip had malfunctioned. The baby she had given them had a thick shock of dark hair that stood straight out at all angles like kitten fuzz. The baby they returned was bald, pink and ugly. They assured Meiko the chip had been properly installed and had synced to the native DNA perfectly. The baldness was a genetic side effect and would be replaced by the blonde ringlets she had requested.
"She will remain groggy for about a week but it's normal," said the medical tech and he wished her luck with a sigh before handing over her baby--her golden Katsue--still swaddled in the sterile bindings, receipt and paperwork attached.
It took a full year for Katsue to actually become golden. Every morning Meiko would rub at the child's scalp to see if the yellow fuzz would appear. When it finally did, Meiko would twist the sparse tufts of yellow into tiny bows to show them off. When she dropped her daughter off every morning before work the caregivers would all vie to hold her and coo over the baby. She grew from the ugly, bald baby with pink skin into a bouncy toddler with ringlet curls as a crown. As a toddler, Katsue stood out from all the other children and was always the center of attention just as her mother had hoped. The other children were fascinated by Katsue's differences, but by the time they were adolescents entering their vocational training phase, being the center of attention was not as pleasant.
Katsue's body had become awkward as she began to transition into a woman. The other students grouped together, leaving Katsue and her ostentatious curls and bright blue eyes alone. They teased her and called her Vanilla Rice--white on the outside and yellow within. Friendless, she tried to bring up her unhappiness to her mother but Meiko brushed it off as jealousy.
"I don't care if they're jealous," Katsue said to her mother during one of these discussions. "I still don't have any friends." Meiko's answer was always the same. She held her princess daughter close and stroked her golden curls, taking pleasure in how they gleamed in the twilight.
"I don't want to be different," Katsue said, face buried in her mother's arm. "Why can't we go where people look like me?"
"Because we need credit for that." Meiko pulled her credit from her pocket and held it out. "That world costs and this credit is almost empty! It takes all I can do just to have enough to keep us fed here." She threw the credit on the floor next to her mattress. "And... I don't belong there." The last came out of Meiko as a whisper, and she bit it short along with the memories that threatened to resurface.
"I want the chip out," said Katsue. Breath caught in the back of Meiko's throat and stayed there, hiding.
"You can never take the chip out," she finally said. "You would become a monster." The room had grown completely dark and only a faint gleam from the city lights bled through scratches in their painted window. In her mother's embrace, Katsue started sobbing again. She pushed her mother away and groped through the dark to find her low bed against the wall.
"I'm already a monster," she said. Her voice, rough with tears, snagged across Meiko's heart and tore it. She said nothing and only lay down in her own bed. For the first time she wondered if she had made the right choice for her daughter. Sleep came to her slowly and with a heavy tread that bruised her eyes.
Morning exploded in Meiko's ears with the alarm. She looked across the room to see her daughter's bed empty. She sat up and saw the curtain to the bathroom pulled open. Meiko was alone. Worry squirmed in her stomach and she reached for her phone.
"Where is Katsue?" she asked it. The screen lit up and a map of their apartment appeared. A pin dropped down where Katsue's bed was outlined. Meiko rushed over to the bed and pulled the covers back. Katsue's phone slid from beneath the pillow and dropped to Meiko's feet. She knelt, cradling it very much like she had held her daughter the night before and felt every bright and good thing in her life slip away. Meiko buried her face into her daughter's mattress and cried. There was no one to call for help. She had no family and no money for the authorities. She could only pray and hope.
Meiko hadn't left the apartment when three days later when there was a hesitant tap at the door. It opened a crack, and Katsue's voice crept in softly.
"Mother?" Meiko was at the door, pulling Katsue through it to embrace her. They both cried in the open doorway, falling to their knees. Katsue's face was wrapped in a thin scarf, and hesitantly Meiko pulled it away. Her beautiful princess was gone. In her place was a girl with patchy skin that had a slick, damp look. Short tufts of black hair stuck out randomly from unexpected places like kitten fur. The blonde hair was almost gone and the remaining strands were caught in the sticky skin. Her eyes were patchwork also--flecks of blue and black pooled into warring factions that expressed the conflict inside the girl.
"I had to do it," Katsue said finally when she could speak.
"But we can't fix this," Meiko said. "I can't undo this. Now you don't belong in either world." She held her hands against her daughter's damp skin and kissed her forehead. A strand of gold stuck to Meiko's lips as she pulled away.
"I want to belong in my world, not someone else's," Katsue put her hands on her mother's face, mimicking her. " No one loves a lie—not really. I want to be real even if it's not pretty."
Meiko had no reply. She could only hold her daughter close and think of all she had wasted by pinning her hopes up in shining, yellow hair.
This story originally appeared in Where the Stars Rise: Asian Science Fiction and Fantasy by Laksa Media Groups Inc. (March 27, 2017) Winner of Alberta Book Publishing’s Speculative Fiction Book of the Year 2018.