If there's one thing I've never been able to do, it's blend in.
Take my stint playing Christmas Tree 7 in my fourth-grade holiday pageant. Prior to this tragic bit of casting, I was positively elated at the very idea of a holiday pageant. I am one of those people who unabashedly loves the many festive markers of winter: gingerbread and cozy sweaters, mulled cider and mistletoe, jaunty snowpeople and jingle bells. Every time a movie starring multiple Christmassy Vanessa Hudgenses pops up in my Netflix queue, my heart sings just a little bit louder.
My big sister Evie thinks this is because there's so much spectacle associated with the holiday season, so much pomp and circumstance, so many of those famed silver bells jangling their way into people's ears in the most ostentatious way imaginable. It is true that I never miss a chance to be as extra as possible . . . and I suppose the holiday pageant ended up being a prime example of that.
I was pissed because Clara Montrose was cast as the lead-the Sugar Plum Fairy who dances in front of the shuffling line of boring Christmas trees, blessing them with her sparkly magic wand. Our teacher, Mrs. Sasser, claimed it was because she was the best dancer in class, a notion I protested mightily. Clara had taken all of three beginning ballet lessons when she was six, but to hear her tell it, you'd think she was a principal with the Joffrey or some shit.
I later overheard Mrs. Sasser admit to another teacher that she'd actually cast Clara because she "looked the part," being blonde and blue-eyed and teeny-tiny. Whereas I, with my snarl of unruly dark hair, my gangly limbs that were already too long for my body, and (let's be real) my Asian face . . . apparently did not.
So I resigned myself to being a tree, but could never quite manage the one bit of direction I was given, which was-you guessed it!-blend in.
First, I got a little too into the costuming, sprucing up my blah cardboard tree outfit with not just one but three different shades of green paint, superglued tinsel accents, and a metric fuckton of glitter. Then, at the actual performance, my little tree self danced so aggressively in the background that I totally upstaged Clara, who just kind of swayed around and unenthusiastically waved that magic wand while I twirled, leaped, and emoted like my heart depended on it.
My performance was all the other parents could talk about for weeks.
That Bea Tanaka . . . she's going to be trouble.
I can't say they were wrong.
But now that I was on the cusp of full-fledged adultdom, I was trying really hard to be more of a proper grown-up, and it had actually been many, many days since I'd gotten into any kind of trouble-a new record for me! Six months ago, I'd made the very mature and responsible decision to up and move from my San Francisco home to the beautiful Hawai'ian island of Maui, catapulting myself across an entire ocean to take an exciting new job with the area's fledgling Demonology Research Group. This meant leaving Team Tanaka/Jupiter, the superheroing outfit my aforementioned sister Evie ran with her best friend and partner in all things world-saving, Aveda Jupiter (aka Annie Chang).
I know ditching my entire family and a plum superheroing gig might not sound mature and responsible on the face of it, but I'd hoped to find purpose, independence, and myself. After my supernatural adventures had led me to a way-too-intense flirtation with villaindom, I'd realized I needed to figure out who I was apart from my overbearing, overprotective family-where I was always Evie's tempestuous little sister, the forever baby of the team. And then this potentially thrilling new job had come along, promising actual demon-hunting and the kind of on-the-ground research I adore-not to mention the chance to work with Dr. Kai Alana, founder of the DRG and owner of one of the biggest, coolest brains in the demonology field (and honestly, in the world).
At last, I'd be on my own for the first time in my entire life, doing stimulating work that spoke to my very soul, and figuring out what kind of superheroine I wanted to be.
"You've got this, Bebe," my best friend Leah Kim had said right before the move. "Like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, Bea Tanaka 2.0 is going to be epic: confident in her abilities of emotional projection, kicking ass in her scintillating new job, and definitely not heading down the nefarious evil villain path at all!"
I appreciated her vote of confidence. And thus far, my efforts hadn't been going too badly. Unlike my little Christmas-tree self, I was doing my best to not make a scene everywhere I went-to finally blend in.
Of course, there were still moments wherein this was an epic challenge.
Take today, which started off as a gloriously peaceful morning, then quickly devolved into the kind of chaos I'm generally known for.
I popped out of bed at my customary 9 a.m., admired the ridiculously blue Maui sky, and wandered down the street from my teeny bungalow to K Okamoto Bakery, a legendary establishment that concocted fresh malasadas and other delectable pastries every morning and stayed open until they sold out (usually a matter of hours). The bakery was the kind of no-frills, no-nonsense joint that always felt just a little bit magical to me-the lighting was dim, the decorations were minimal, and the faded letterboard menu behind the counter hadn't changed in decades. No need for extra bells and whistles, because the sweets were the absolute stars, and the bakery's dedication to craft and sheer passion for pastry provided all the flair required.
I was waiting patiently in line with my friend Keala, like I did every morning. Said line was already out the door, but no one was in any hurry-the comforting buzz of idle chatter filled the space as customers meandered forward, everyone stoked to attain their morning sugar rush. The humidity in the air was already strong enough to make my untamable snarl of hair cling to the back of my neck, but I barely noticed. I was fully entranced by the parade of sugary treats jostling for attention in the massive glass case that took up most of the front of the store. Yes, I saw it every morning, but I never failed to be warmed by its welcoming glow.
"Ahhh, the cream puff," I breathed reverently, studying the pile of fluffy golden-brown delicacies that had been placed front and center this morning. "Why have I never considered the potential majesty of the cream puff? Maybe I'll try that."
"You had one guava malasada the day you arrived and never looked back-you were all pau!" Keala countered, her eyebrows disappearing under her fall of choppy reddish-brown bangs. She gestured to the glass case, which led to a battered old-school cash register perched on a small square of counterspace jammed with gum and dusty trinkets for sale. "So many of these treats are still waiting for Bea Tanaka to pronounce them so 'ono, but that malasada will always be your one true queen."
"Facts," I said, gazing mournfully at the untasted cream puff. "Sorry, cream puff, but the contrast between donut-y sweetness and that signature tang of guava jelly is an unreal level of perfection, and I must pay tribute whenever I can."
"Your expression is sooo dreamy right now," Keala teased, her impish dark eyes sparkling with amusement. "I love that you've maintained a passion for the guava malasada, even after ingesting approximately five million of them."
"You know how people say 'absence makes the heart grow fonder'?" I said, as we shuffled forward in line. "For me, it's the opposite: excess makes the heart grow fonder. I can't wait to eat at least five million more."
"This explains so much!" Keala exclaimed. "Like how you've purchased enough of my rings for your fingers, toes, and possibly other appendages even though you've lived here for less than a year."
"You're complaining about me being a super regular customer?" I protested, brandishing my hands-which were fully festooned with Keala's beautiful creations, rings constructed from raw pearls and shattered bits of shells woven into complicated twists of gold and bronze wires. She sold her jewelry at the outdoor market a few doors down from the bakery, and we'd met because I'd been drawn to her table full of shiny things like the little magpie I am.
Keala had been intrigued by my very Californian magical goth girl aesthetic-messy blue-and-purple-streaked waves of hair swirling around me, black slip dress soaking up all that sun, eyeliner just shy of "human raccoon" status. In turn, I'd complimented her obvious sartorial panache-she was always wearing the most casually perfect vintage Levi's cut-offs, which she paired with an array of loudly patterned silk blouses, an armful of her own jewelry, and a rainbow of pastel eye shadows that popped against her glowing bronze skin. We'd ended up talking for hours about our shared love of romance novels and Sailor Moon, and my first real friendship in Maui was born.
"Not complaining, eh?" Keala said, her mouth quirking into a crooked smile. The eclectic pile of bangles gracing her right arm jangled as she wagged a teasing finger at me. "On the contrary, I-"
Keala and I whipped around to see a very loud white lady tourist crashing her way through the bakery's charming wooden doors, her eyes overbright and slightly unfocused, her plastic tiara askew. Judging from the rumpled, bedazzled sash twisting itself across her chest and proclaiming her a BRIDE TO BE in glittery silver letters, I was guessing she was doing a whole destination bachelorette thing.
"Excuse me!" she called again, snapping her fingers. "Me and my girlsh . . . girlshes . . . have been partying alllllll night! We need breakfassssshhhhhht!"
"Yeah!" another belligerent voice rang out-and then a cavalcade of similarly disheveled white blonde women crashed in behind The Bride like a topple of dominos, their BRIDESMAID sashes a Pepto-worthy shade of pink. "We saw on TikTok that this is one of Maui's most foodielicious hidden gems," the bellowing bridesmaid continued. "And we just had to try it!"
"Jennifer B. is gonna be pissed!" another, even blonder bridesmaid gloated. "That's what she gets for missing out on the bach of the century to stay home with her gross old dying cat!"
"Hiss," Keala grumbled, and I covered my hand with my mouth, transforming an errant giggle into a fake cough. One of the things I loved about Keala was that she always said things like "hiss" or "snort" instead of, you know, doing the actual action. "'Hidden gem,' my ass, this place is a fucking hundred-year-old institution and therefore always swarming with dedicated locals and lolo tourists."
"As evidenced by the very long line they all just bypassed," I agreed. "But hey, if it's on TikTok, it must be true."
"Tell us about your shh-secret menu items!" The Bride demanded, ignoring the rest of the line to stumble her way up to the counter. A vaguely disapproving murmur ran through the line-not a scandalized or surprised murmur, however, given that rude tourists were part of life round these parts. The Bride, of course, took no notice of any kind of murmur. The bridesmaids followed her lead, shuffling behind her in an unruly parade of pink sashes, hairspray, and entitlement.
"We want only the most exclusive tastes of aloha, with the most exotic ingredients!" The Bride continued, slamming a hand down on the counter hard enough to make one of the dusty gum displays jump, as if surprised to be disturbed after all these years of just sitting there.
"We heard you have a guava mass . . . mal . . . pastry donut thingy!" yelped the bridesmaid who hated Jennifer B. "That sounds, like, sooo authentically Hawai'ian."
"Guavaaaa," agreed another bridesmaid, her eyes widening into big blue saucers. "I'm gonna grow my own in the community garden when I get home! I can probably buy, like, some seeds while we're here, right?"
Auntie Iris, the stone-faced elder who worked the counter nearly every day, gave The Bride and her entourage a blank look. "Out of guava malasadas," she said, slicing a definitive arm through the air. "You need come earlier."
"Don't worry, she's got a couple for us stashed behind the counter," I murmured to Keala. "We could make do with a donut stick, which is awesome, but as I just established: nothing is quite as awesome as a guava malasada."
"You've got that dreamy look again," Keala said, giving me finger guns. "And I can't believe you got Auntie Iris to accept you into her inner circle so quickly. It's usually a decade-long process involving passionate statements of fealty and elaborate tokens of appreciation."
"What can I say, I have a gift," I said, offering a faux-modest shrug. "Senior Aunties love me the most."
"What do you mean you're out?! Make sh-some mooorrre!" The Bride slurred, drunkenly stabbing a finger in the air.
Auntie Iris gave her the stink-eye. Given that so many tourists who wandered off the fancy resort grounds expected locals to drop whatever they were doing and play friendly-faced tour guide, that stink-eye had been honed into a razor-sharp blade of devastation.
"And where's that beautiful aloha spirit I keep hearing so much about?!" The Bride bleated.
"God," I muttered, rolling my eyes at Keala. "Do you think she can hear the actual words she's saying, or . . . ?"
"I think she can, and I think she fucking loves it," Keala said, her eyes narrowing and transforming her elfin appearance into something more malevolent. "Major colonizer energy, eh? Like those of us who live here are smiley animatronics that only come alive to cater to these lolos' every whim. Like I always say: eat, pray, shove it up your ass!"
I twisted my pearl rings around my fingers, trying to ignore the prickle of anger in my gut, the hum of irritation running over my skin-and the whisper of darkness that told me to go unleash unholy hell on The Bride and her minions.
That was, after all, what Past Bea would have done.
"Growl," Keala huffed, shaking her head at the standoff that was now happening between Auntie Iris and the bridal crew. "Speaking of gifts, though, why not use your actual superpower on Girl Boss and her squad?"
"Nah," I deflected, even as that hum of irritation grew louder, like a swarm of mosquitos was suddenly crawling all over me. "Auntie Iris has so got this."
Copyright © 2022 by Sarah Kuhn. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.