The citizens of Sawtelle live a meager existence, finding joy where they can in an authoritarian world where nearly everything is illegal. Guava Summer follows one private detective who has always managed to stay out of trouble, despite the ever-watching Supreme Leader. When Sebastian Black, a corrupt mobster-turned-politician and former client emerges as the leading presidential candidate, the detective prepares for another sham election. But with the summer heat comes the unexpected.
by Vera Kurian
By the time the guavas started appearing, I had been living with an android for slightly over two years in what sometimes felt like a relationship. I never intended for it to happen, but nevertheless, there she was. A self-aware android lounging on our couch in her robe, using a clickable nail pen with thirty different colors preloaded to polish her toenails a dusty shade of lavender. We weren’t a couple, but we were. And here I was, hurrying home with the sort of small outrage that you share with your significant other on a daily basis.
“Look at this!” I said, throwing a sack of flour into her arms. “That’s a pound of flour.”
Grace cradled it like a baby. “Feels like less than that.”
“Same price for three-quarters of a pound, plus you have to buy four of these,” I said, pulling one of the guavas from my pocket. “Two dollars apiece.” She was as confused as I had been at the market. “I said to the guy, I want a pound of flour, and he says, you can only have three-quarters, and four of these for two dollars each. And I said, I don’t want those, and he said, you can’t buy flour, then.”
She took a guava and sniffed it suspiciously. We were used to the sudden and sometimes strange machinations of Big G. Abrupt requests to ration electricity. Demands that we vote in the upcoming election to ensure an orderly and democratic process. Polite but constant requests that we buy something, or not buy something, because it was our patriotic duty to do so, or to not do so.
Suddenly, Grace laughed, exclaiming, “That explains it!” She began to flip through the TV channels before settling on a public service announcement. It consisted of cartoon fruit dancing and singing an infectious little song:
Guava guava guava, my favorite thing to eat!
Guava guava guava, it’s such a special treat!
The commercial ended with a fading image of the Supreme Leader with a halo drawn around his head. His benign, round face but ever-watching eyes. She flipped through a few more channels; the PSA was playing on all of them. “Now I have a craving for a certain fruit,” I said.
She looked at me with wide, pretending-to-be-innocent eyes. “It is our civic duty.”
Strange to think of an android as having a sense of humor, and probably a better one than mine. She was the most advanced piece of technology I had ever seen, and we were still years away from figuring out how she had been programmed to be so human. So similar to the real woman she had been based on.
I set the groceries down and started to prep for dinner. Grace was a lounge singer and sang at two different clubs in the city—Sawtelle, that is—and didn’t have to go to work until later that night. My investigative jobs required more erratic hours: I often spent the night following someone through the dark to take photos, wasting the daylight sitting in front of my computer dig, dig, digging. Add to that the minor things I did for free to curry favor, like electronically deleting people’s overdue bills, or giving an occasional bump in food rations. I couldn’t tell if it was the upcoming election that was making me more paranoid lately, but the work that took me away from our apartment for long stints left me preoccupied with Grace’s safety. Her very existence was illegal, as androids had been banned more than a century ago. I didn’t know what they’d do to her if they found out the truth. I didn’t know what they’d do to me.
I wasn’t a stranger to breaking the law, but who is when just about everything is illegal? For years, I had been making a decent income installing a chip that blocked the little eye at the top of the TV—the TV that was required to be on for three hours a day, an eye that could see when it wanted to. Sometimes it didn’t watch, but sometimes it did. Sometimes Big G came for you, but sometimes it didn’t.
“Look, your buddy,” Grace said, gesturing to the TV where a campaign ad for Sebastian Black was playing. “He’s sort of handsome. Is he handsome in real life?”
I concentrated on the mushrooms I was rehydrating. They were cheap and plentiful, something that could almost be mistaken for meat. Grace knew that I worked for Sebastian Black sometimes. She did not know that he was her ex because I had erased her memory.
The airtrain from Sawtelle to Delanee City, where I was meeting Sebastian Black, was only four seconds. I knew Black from when he had been campaigning for mayor two years ago. He had originally hired me to figure out what happened to his girlfriend, a woman named Grace. What happened to his girlfriend is that she had been murdered and replaced with an android made in her image. He kept hiring me for other jobs even after I left Delanee— although I wasn’t sure if it was because I did good work, or because I was the link to his dead girlfriend.
Delanee was, as always, cloudy and dreary. As I got off at the airtrain station, I shoved my hands into my overcoat and headed for Delanee Park. If someone told me five years ago that I could have a meeting after sundown in that park, I would have laughed in their face. But damned if Sebastian Black wasn’t a decent mayor, as “decent” as a corrupt oligarch could be. Right around the time I started ferrying my belongings back and forth between Delanee and Sawtelle, more or less resolving to move in with Grace 2.0, the murder rate in Delanee went down, the long-delayed construction project at the docks broke ground, and a bevy of small loans allowed a proliferation of small businesses to crop up.
Delanee Park used to be a place to buy a hundred different types of drugs or get yourself stabbed. Now it had a functioning fountain and bright green sod, bushes trimmed to neat rows. I stared incredulously at a fox as it looked at me before sitting to chew its own foot dismissively. “What the hell?” I said to myself.
“They eat the vermin,” said a voice behind me. I turned to see Black holding two ice cream cones. His pre-mayoral fortune, or at least the money laundering operation that served as a front, was a chain of ice cream shops. He handed me the chocolate chip cone and gestured to the fox’s bushy tail. “I had them imported to take care of the rats. Public loves them, everyone’s always taking pictures and posting them on social media.”
“You’re a clever bastard, aren’t you?” I took a large envelope from under my arm and handed it to him. It’s weird when you know someone in real life and then you see them on TV. It’s true TV never quite gets it right, but they must have been airbrushing him. Making him softer. Big G wanted the perfect candidate to win the presidency. Someone greedy enough to do whatever they said for money, smart enough not to get caught in some stupid scandal, and attractive enough to be appealing. Obedient enough to always say yes G, no G, of course not. Photogenic mobster come mayor—Black was the perfect candidate.
We sat on a park bench and he handed me his cone so he could look through the packet. He had asked me to vet six people currently serving on his campaign to see if he could trust them to serve in his administration if he were to win. “Aren’t there G guys who do this for you?” I asked, slurping my ice cream.
“I trust you.”
“You don’t trust G?”
He cut his eyes at me, an amused smile curving his lips. “I trust my gut.”
“How does it feel to be the favorite son?”
“Lots of pressure,” he murmured, flipping through the pages. He was smart not to send electronic documents—guys like me could intercept that stuff, let alone the government. He read some more, then shoved the documents back into the envelope. “Good work.” He took back the cone and we started walking.
“Do you know what the hell is going on with these guavas?” I asked.
He laughed, then took a bite of his ice cream. “Big G made a bad investment on Kleas.” Kleas was the sixth planet in our solar system. “It has a great climate for growing guava, so they thought, hey, let’s turn all the farmland into a guava crop to grow the highest yield with the greatest efficiency. Now half the population doesn’t have enough basic staples to eat.”
“Food prices aren’t too hot here, either. Of course,” I added, “once you’re president, all that will change.” Our planet was composed of one large continent; if he became president he would be the “democratic” leader of the entire planet. Above him, and above all the elected presidents who existed to make us think we had a political voice, the Supreme Leader ruled over the entire galaxy. Our precious leader, the all-seeing eye, he who must never be questioned.
Black didn’t laugh at the joke. We rounded a corner and began to weave through what looked like a community garden. Again I was taken aback—that people in Delanee were growing their own potatoes and peas was absurd. “When I was a boy the same thing happened with starfruit,” he said. “We had too many of them, and my older brother got the great idea to try and ferment them into alcohol. He didn’t really know what he was doing, but he smashed up the fruit and mixed it with sugar and put it in an airtight jar. He didn’t realize that the fermentation process creates gas. The bottle exploded and we got into trouble because of all the mess.”
We walked a bit more and I crunched the end of my cone. The man was good at ice cream—the bottom of every cone had chocolate melted into it. “Delanee will be sad to see you go when you win. Things almost look nice here.”
“I’m planning to install loyalists where I can—including here.”
“Already got the playbook, huh?”
“Funny where life takes you. Come, I’ll take you to the car.”
“Car?” Turned out he had a second job for me—to courier some documents to Midway, a city on the way back to Sawtelle. I would take one of his undetectable cars and leave it with one of his lackeys. Sending a person he trusted was always safer.
“How is she?” he asked finally.
“She’s good,” I said. “She’s happy.” I didn’t know if that was entirely true, but the bitter part of me wanted to make a jab at him. That Grace, or some permutation of her, could be happy without him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vera Kurian is a writer, psychologist, and longtime resident of Washington DC. She writes literary and speculative fiction and is currently working on a thriller. Vera’s fiction has been published in magazines such as Glimmer Train, Day One, and The Pinch.
See more of her work at verakurian.com.