When Bree read the nutrition label, she cussed out loud. Eight in the morning. Middle of the vitamin aisle. Couldn’t help it. She cussed and startled a lady browsing insoles.
Twenty grams of fiber, twenty grams of protein, two hundred calories? Maybe that wouldn’t raise most eyebrows, but Bree, girth balanced on cane and booted broken ankle at the ripe old age of twenty-six, was looking for a miracle. Sweat threaded down the back of her neck. Just standing there made her bones groan. Her fat strained her heart and her dignity but she hadn’t found a way to get free of it.
Sure, she’d squirreled away $3000 for gastric bypass, but she was afraid she’d just botch it like she had everything else: whole boxes of graham crackers on WeightWatchers, whole roast chickens on South Beach. Atkins and veganism two months apart. Nothing worked more than a month. The eating was part of her, like strawberry hair and fragile ankles.
She just needed the right thing to eat.
So what was in these things? The ingredients were surprisingly few: some oligo-fructo fiber substrate, some crumbled nuts and something Hawaiian-sounding she didn’t recognize.
The flavor was “Maui Bliss,” illustrated with coconuts on a black sand beach. From the corner of the wrapper smiled a surfer-Santa type: sixties, bald, bushy silver beard, lean muscle in folded forearms. It gave Bree a pang. Her own arm muscles hadn’t been seen in ages, her weight “adding twenty years” despite a “perfectly good face,” in her mother’s words. Bree, with her freckled face and drawn-on eyebrows. They say men are crazy for redheads; she’d never seen it herself.
Bree took two.
At checkout, the slender teenage clerk held one up and asked, in Dixie drawl, “Are these any good?”
“If they are,” said Bree. “I’ll never buy anything else.”
At work, she hobbled to her desk, mopping sweat and fishing for the first Maui Bliss. Then the “Team Meeting” alert popped onto her monitor. She knew better than to eat something strange in public. Instead, she made breakfast of scalding coffee and half a bagel, eaten slowly, pining for more.
Roger announced the new project. The team’s men argued over what device, what network security, what long-delayed database overhauls. Bree zoned in and out. From across the table, developer Shanti got in something about a new web framework she’d just read, but Edgar interrupted her with the same idea. It was Edgar that Roger told, “Sounds good. Let’s investigate that further.”
Bree saw it all happen, but she didn’t dare interfere.
So Bree left the meeting, hungry and irritable, to discuss the new feature set with Jack, the easygoing internal customer with the year-round tan and curly hair. She mellowed under his warm gaze and his chuckle when she called herself his “bug zapper.” A good office crush could be sustaining as steak.
For lunch, the company ordered in clammy sandwiches from Bernie’s. She was desperately sleepy an hour later, hungry an hour after that. A granola bar did nothing to improve either, but she white-knuckled, committed this time. It sapped her. She didn’t accomplish much else.
At home, she settled down for Greek salad dinner, beyond reproach. Then her mother called, opening, per usual, with “I want you to do something for me, if you lo-o-ove me.” Computer problem, natch. Bree agreed to look into it, and with no transition her mother launched into the tale of her workday (“that woman is a sociopath”), her date the previous Friday (“he’s a law professor”), and her upstairs plumbing (“never buy a house, Bree.”)
At last her mother asked, “So, what are you up to?”
“I’ve been drawing again.”
“Oh? Drawing what?”
“A comic book.”
“Ugh,” said her mother. “Like the world needs another one of those.”
Here Bree zoned again, pushing salad around the plate. Her mother concluded in sing-song soprano: “It’s so nice to talk to you! I wish you called me more often!” Click.
Bree felt rattled. The beast in her was alive – wrapped in damp newspaper and buried deep, but alive. She lasted three minutes. Then, methodic as a wood-chipper, she annihilated a whole box of packet oatmeal, dry; four shriveled burger buns with jam; half a cereal box. It took mere minutes. The beast was still at large. There had to be something else in the house with the power to put it back down.
The Shaka Bars!
To the handbag – she tore open the first one, biting bar and wrapper together. It was sweet, sure, and buttery, with a pinch of salt. It crunched like real sugar. Just a food bar, like all the rest.
She felt a chemical change. An easy feeling flowed through her, like wine on an empty stomach. The Shaka Bar gave her a feeling she couldn’t put her finger on. The beast? Asleep. The frenzy? Over. Bree turned her full attention to the bar.
The second bite confirmed findings. Maui Bliss molecules streamed through her blood. Her world turned warm, sharp, panoramic, like a high-speed photo of a flame.
She put the remaining bar back in her bag. Saved it. Unprecedented. She didn’t eat anything else.
In the morning, Bree shot to work early, bought four more Shaka Bars and got a jump on her assignments. The work seemed so easy! She researched. She tested. She switched her database admin tool from the dog of an app she’d been using since 2009.
While running tests, Bree pulled up the Shaka Bar website. Between cartoon palm trees reappeared Surfer Santa (Shaka Bob, founder and “Chief Tasting Officer”) and more flavors. Mai Tai! Bananas Foster! Pineapple Upside-Down Cake! Bree ordered two sample boxes and splurged on expedited shipping.
She searched through “Shaka Bob’s Story” and “Who We Are,” looking for the catch, the pucker factor, the inevitable dolphin foie gras and children’s tears. But Shaka Bars boasted American labor, an “innovative Community Worx™ program” and a “Top 25 Green Companies” mention from Wired. She wondered if the company took visitors. Alas their mailing address was in Hawaii and a PO Box besides.
She hunted for details about the Hawaiian-sounding ingredient: a natural sweetener, as it turned out. If it bothered her that the results for “momokeleki extract” were limited to science journals (initial studies optimistic) and Shaka Bars (press releases), or that the sidebar ads suddenly bristled with private investigators, she gave no indication.
The company ordered Mexican. Bree opted out. Her mother called, but Bree was mid-Maui-Bliss, so she let voicemail take it.
In the afternoon meeting, while the men with groaning belts languished in post-burrito stupor, Bree shared her progress in a commanding voice and deliberately ceded the floor to her staff sister: “Shanti, what do you recommend?”
Next morning found Bree back at the drugstore. Six more bars would see her through until her order arrived. Her ankle felt much better, so she went without the cane. Not even the boot bothered her today.
She rounded the aisle to find a shaggy, pear-shaped man in sandals approaching from the other end. Quickly they sighted their shared objective – the last carton. Bree got there first. She took it.
The pear-shaped man froze, but as she strode away he asked, “May I have some of those?”
“There aren’t enough,” she said.
“Looks like six,” he said. Bree looked him over. His T-shirt draped from his shoulders to the protruding end of a newly-notched belt. Bree’s own slacks felt a bit loose. She hitched them up.
“I need them,” she said.
“I need them as much as you.”
The chemical warmth seeped through her again. Dread dissolved. She hardly knew her voice as she said, “How many?”
“All right.” She gave him three. Their hands brushed and made her arm hairs stiffen. “You should order some from their website.”
“I did,” he said. “They haven’t come yet.”
“You, too.” said Bree.
She went to check out, marveling at her bars. She’d never talked to a stranger like that – never stuck up for herself, never bargained. What just happened?
Suddenly she realized what the Shaka Bars were blocking: fear.
How funny! Was that dangerous?
At the register, the slender Dixie clerk saw the bars and shook her head.
“Did you try them?” asked Bree.
“Not my thing,” said the clerk. “It was like sand and chewing gum.”
Bree laughed. “More for us, then!”
After a few new features and one bug report, Bree signed up for the Shaka Bars forum. There she learned the number of stores in her three-mile radius (five), what Shaka Bob was like (“Soooo nice! Met him at the 2012 Natural Products Expo!”), and what flavors people preferred (“Strawberry Smoothie Hands Down!”)
Her belly growled at exactly 1:00 PM, and she fed it Shaka Bars.
Bree arrived home to find a box on her front step. Palm tree silhouettes flanked her address. Record delivery time for sure! Her hands shook. Out spilled glittering wrappers with vector art berries, infinite beaches and Shaka Bob. Underneath: a 15% off coupon and an invitation to the end-of-month “Loyalty Picnic” at her local distributor! Bree recognized Banberry Street from an industrial area nearby – only a twenty minute drive.
Shaka Bob’s speech bubble said, “Bring this flyer!” He wore a BBQ apron, but the only food depicted was new Shaka Bar flavors. She kissed the Fudge Ripple and Blackberry Jam.
After a two-bar dinner, Bree tried to settle down for TV. Her muscles twitched. She dared stand up and try to touch her toes, and her ankle didn’t complain. She took off the boot. Suddenly she had a desire to go for a walk, sundown be damned.
Half a mile in, limping carefully up her neighborhood’s only hill, her mother rang her with another tech problem. “This damn printer!” said her mother. “When can you come over and fix this for me?”
Something bizarre came out of Bree’s mouth. “You might try an Internet search for the error code,” she said. “That’s all I’d know to do.”
Her mother’s tone rose. The word “shitty” was deployed, as was King Lear: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!”
But Bree’s heart rate stayed stable, her knees steady. She said, “Do your best,” and hung up.
The rest of her walk was delightful. She even took off the boot.
Dawn found Bree in the parking lot of the Banberry Street distributor, noshing a Shaka Bar (Pineapple Upside-Down Cake). If the single-story, smog-orange warehouse disappointed her, the eight-foot partitions with vinyl palm trees and “You’ll Be Shaka!” on the sides promised greater things. Two identical white hybrid hatchbacks sat near the door. As Bree ate, studying the freshly-turned earth and cobalt glass roof, a tall, athletic woman in a suit sauntered by.
Normally Bree would have kept her head down, but this time, for some reason, she waved. The tall woman smiled and approached. She had short black hair and an egret neck. Bree rolled down her window.
The woman asked, “Can I help you?”
“Oh, I… I just really like y’all’s bars. I wanted to see where they get sent out.”
The woman smiled a red carpet smile. “Have you been invited to our Loyalty Picnic?”
“I wouldn’t miss it!”
“Wonderful! You really are a fan, aren’t you?”
“They changed my life.”
The woman narrowed one eye. “Say, I’m not supposed to do this, but…” She reached in her bag and pulled out a Shaka Bar with a cream-colored wrapper. “Would you like a sneak peek of Peach Cobbler?”
“Oh, thank you!” said Bree. The wrapper crackled like fire.
The woman raised an eyebrow. “Forgive me. This is sort of a rude question, but your hair is so beautiful! Is it naturally red?”
Bree laughed and blushed. “Oh, thank you! It is.”
“That’s wonderful. So unusual! Well, see you on the thirtieth.” The tall woman headed off. “Bring your flyer!”
“I wouldn’t miss it!” called Bree.
After three weeks eating out of silver wrappers – fruit and chocolate and cream – Bree was thrilled with the results on the scale, in her complexion, of her walking speed. Her thighs didn’t chafe like they used to. She sweated less. Before sleep she lay on her back in bed and palpated her emerging hip bones with amazement.
But when her mother, forever fifty-eight in four-inch heels and deliberately chestnut hair, remarked on her reduced physique (“What are you eating? You’re not throwing up again, are you?”), Bree began to worry. It really was strange, wasn’t it? It wasn’t fear that said so. It was a still small voice. An intuition. It got her attention.
For one day she revisited her usual habits: bagel, salad, oily sandwich. Back came the implacable 2:00 PM sleepies and the granola bar that just made them worse. Back came the unyielding fog: Roger had to remind her about a vendor meeting, and she was late to it. In it, handsome Jack made a joke but she missed it. She felt too slow and dim to say anything to anyone, so she didn’t.
All the while Shaka Bob called to her from her handbag.
That night, for no reason she could tell, Bree brought home Oreos and a half-gallon of Moose Tracks and destroyed them both by 10:00 PM. The volume of it gave her a sore throat and a belly too full to sleep on. She had experience with this. She stuck a toothbrush handle down her throat and puked it all up, still cold. Afterward she sat by the toilet and cried. Never again. Never, ever again.
The next time her mother brought it up, Bree said, “You may be right,” and changed the subject. To give up Shaka Bars was to give up sanity. There was no other way.
One morning, Jack told Bree, “You’re looking well! Are you training for something?” She held a whole conversation about half-marathons with him without once giggling or daydreaming about his blunt, well-manicured fingers walking up her spine.
At home Bree’s cupboards sat empty, all non-Shaka food triaged into garbage, neighbors and food bank. Her kitchen trash? Nothing but palm-tree-printed cardboard boxes and a bin of silver wrappers like tinsel.
Bree began responding to her mother by email only. The freedom was fantastic. Each screened call was better, so much better, a tablet of Paxil every time.
The Loyalty Picnic saw Bree back at the rust-orange warehouse. A fit man in a polo shirt collected flyers at the door. Inside, Bree found a grassy courtyard and two dozen others dressed in the uniform of the formerly fat: stretch fabrics, colors three years out-of-date, little exposed skin.
She made relaxed conversation with the strangers, doling safe compliments (“Cute shoes!”) and asking provocative questions (“Strawberry Smoothie or Bananas Foster?”). She joined the buffet queue, and, although there sat token burgers and BBQ beans, all that interested her were the bars. She took two to start.
Bree spotted the Peach Cobbler woman holding a boxy lucite clipboard and chatting up guests. Before Bree could approach she heard a gentle voice say, “Excuse me.”
She turned and there was the Pear-Shaped Man. He wasn’t pear-shaped anymore. He had a shaved face, short hair and round baby seal eyes. He seemed transformed in spirit, too.
“I didn’t thank you,” he said. “For splitting them.”
“It was no problem.”
“I’m Luis,” he said, shaking her hand. He smelled phenomenal.
Peach Cobbler woman approached with a giant smile. “Howdy,” she said, joining the handshakes. “I’m Erica Durant. I work in Community Development for Shaka Bob. Are you having a good time?”
“Oh, yes,” said Bree.
“Definitely,” said Luis.
“That’s so good,” said Erica, looking them both over. “We want all our guests to feel like family. Now.” She turned the clipboard to show them a Hawaiian vacation brochure. “I’m excited to tell you Shaka Bob is offering ten trips for two to visit the Big Island and the Shaka Bar factory. Six days, seven nights. Would either of you like to sign up?”
Of course! They ooh-ed over the brochure. Beach! Jungle! Volcano! As Bree, then Luis, filled out their slips, the thick plastic clipboard vibrated. It felt warm, even.
“What is that?” asked Bree.
“Oh, must be my phone,” said Erica, waving a hand. “I’ll get to it later. So… do you enjoy travel?”
“I do,” said Bree.
“I wish I could do more of it,” said Luis.
Erica smiled and nodded as if these were wonderful answers, really the best answers anyone could ask for.
When she left, tapping her heavy clipboard with satisfaction, Luis muttered, “A trip for two implies you have someone to take.”
Bree smiled. “Surely there’s someone to split it with, when the time comes.”
They exchanged phone numbers.
They staggered through the first few dates, all hot cheeks and untried wings, neither frightening easily. They ate only Shaka Bars together, laughing at their obsession. They exercised to the point of competition. After three weeks, on the threshold of her apartment, Luis landed the first tentative kiss. This led to a rigorous course of “taking it slow” and doffing shirts in total darkness, reduced weight notwithstanding. She embraced his transforming frame and marveled at the echo of her body in his.
The Shaka Bars brought them time and disposable income. They hiked hills and took up krav maga. They swapped modest art – her cartoons, his novella – and plotted ways to take them public.
When Luis received notice he’d won a trip to the Shaka Bar factory, they agreed it was a terrible idea to go on vacation together so early in their courtship. But they agreed to do it anyway. He returned his confirmation packet – twenty pages of questions, some skimmable fine print, the palm tree logo throughout – with both their names.
Their tickets arrived with a sheet of instructions. “Arrive two hours before departure! Pack for all weather! Shaka Bars aplenty!” A redeye would take them six hours cross-country, a brief stop in Long Beach and another five hours to the islands. Thus the sheet’s parting advice: “Sleep as much as you can!”
In the intervening month, Bree hustled her project to a point where work could spare her. She consoled handsome Jack on his separation from his wife (“In North Carolina you have to be separated a year for no-fault!”) and gently declined the invitation to dinner he described as “just friends… to talk.”
Even Shanti commented, “You look so well. You deserve it. You must be working really hard.”
“Thank you,” said Bree. “But it doesn’t feel like work at all.”
At last she and Luis made love, and although it wasn’t Bree’s first time, it was so free of shame and fear it was alien as Orion.
When her mother called her a “fool” for planning a week off with her “little boyfriend,” Bree didn’t bother emailing back.
By taxi, she and Luis arrived at the airport the recommended two hours early. After a brief hold-up at security, where their bag of foil-wrapped Shaka Bars raised TSA eyebrows, they settled at the Pele Airlines gate, holding hands, making chit-chat with faces they recognized from the Loyalty Picnic. Interesting that they were all young couples, like themselves.
As they boarded, they marveled at the teal and silver craft interior, so glossy it seemed like parts should still have plastic on them.
“Have you ever had so much legroom?” asked Bree.
“And so clean!” said Luis.
They buckled in. They shared a Shaka Bar. The took Tylenol PM, kissed goodnight and dozed to the thrum of wheels on runway.
Bree woke first. Her sinuses were painfully dry and her mouth tasted horrific. A respectful distance down the aisle stood what must be a flight attendant, distinct in teal uniform, black ponytail and pinned plumeria. Something about her face was slippery; Bree’s eyes couldn’t get traction. Information about this person’s appearance was not arriving.
“Did you have a good rest?” asked the flight attendant. The voice sounded canned.
“Did I sleep the whole way?” asked Bree.
“Sure did,” said the attendant, opening the overhead compartment to pull their luggage.
Bree turned to Luis, rousing slowly. Hadn’t he shaved before they left? The plane was empty but for the dozen Shaka Bar passengers. There was a flight attendant for every couple, standing at their elbow, holding their bags.
“You’ll probably want to use the bathroom,” said their ponytailed attendant. Bree helped Luis collect himself. The passengers followed their guides through the aisle in a speechless file.
In the very small outdoor terminal, about thirty other “passengers” waited. Slender and quiet, they assumed likely activities – reading, shopping, studying devices. But they didn’t mill around. They didn’t eat or drink. There were no children. Bree wanted to understand why they seemed so strange, but when she tried to look one in the face her eyes promptly slid off. It made her feel tired. It made her not want to try again.
The attendants brought the passengers to bright, empty, unnaturally clean bathrooms. Bree passed a startling amount of urine.
Afterward, the attendants offered them bottled water and Shaka Bars in a new flavor: Mocha Chocolate Chip! The passengers tore into them as the attendants watched.
“Oh my God!” gasped Bree between mouthfuls. “These are amazing!”
“I know!” said the woman next to her.
By the time the pack boarded the swaying open-air shuttle to the hotel, they were clear-eyed, straight-backed, utterly restored. The shuttle played Liszt and glided over the blacktop as if on rails. The driver – gray uniform, another slippery face – called out points of interest in a radio-announcer’s voice. To the right: bare volcanic-looking rock and infinite sapphire ocean. To the left: a steep grade lush with palm, fern, and elephant ear. Farms and parks studded the hill.
Bree squeezed Luis’s hand. They smiled at each other.
Soon the resort emerged from the trees. Passengers gasped. The staggered oceanside floors jutted over the water like the prow of a cruise liner. Tiled glass walls, clear and smoke, reflected the surrounding greenscape. The vehicle turned into a driveway paved with creamy teal stone.
On the steps stood a man they recognized: Shaka Bob! Bald and bearded, he was fully real and fully flesh. The passengers bounded out of the shuttle to greet him.
“Welcome!” called Shaka Bob. “Look at you fine specimens!”
Most shook his hand. Some hugged him! They clustered around, hungry for instruction.
“I’m so happy to have you join us,” he said. “I’m sure you’ll feel at home.” He turned to guide them through the lobby. “I’m pleased to report that, thanks to the success of Shaka Bars – success you helped build – you’re welcome to stay as long as you like! How does that sound?”
Gasps. A smattering of applause. Bree and Luis gaped at each other.
“Can you believe it?” she whispered.
“I’m gonna try!” he replied.
Shaka Bob led them through the resort: fitness center, hiking trails, hot tubs, pool. He described the golf course and cultural enrichment programs. He introduced them to staff members whose faces Bree could not hold in memory.
“Everything’s so clean!” said Bree.
At last Shaka Bob brought them to the elevators and told them, “What I’m sure you’re most excited to know: breakfast is at eight, lunch is at one and dinner is at seven. If there are any other questions, I’m happy to answer them. Now go have some Shaka fun!”
Bree considered asking if they had Wi-Fi – she was due to check her email – but the look in Luis’s eye and his hand on the small of her back made her postpone it.
In broad daylight, before the bare glass windows, Bree lay across Luis’s chest in a disaster of sheets. Bree rolled away and collected her clothing.
“What do you want to do tonight?” she asked, pulling on a shirt.
“I’m up for anything,” said Luis.
She picked through a stack of cartoon pages and put her two favorites in the blue plastic “out” box with Shaka Bob’s face on it. Nearby sat Shaka Bar wrappers (naturally), a pile of books and Luis’s laptop, open to his burgeoning manuscript. (Shaka Bob was supportive of things the guests created, eager to collect them.)
She opened the balcony door and stepped out. Luis joined her and put an arm around her tapered waist. They gazed below at high tide and its bizarre animals: needlefish with tentacled faces, turtles with fronded burgundy shells, and giant jeweled eels, all nibbling on sprays of kelp.
“We could go rock-climbing at Mauna Kai,” Bree offered.
“We went there last night,” said Luis.
“I thought last night we hiked Kikue to visit the momokeleki farm.”
“No, no. That was night before last.”
“Oh!” laughed Bree. “I’m so mixed up! Have we been here five days or four?”
“Five,” said Luis. He stroked her muscled back. “I think.”
“The days are just longer here.”
“You might be right.”
They looked across the ocean. Fifty yards away hung the strange thing in the sky – an architectural marvel, a bridge spanning impossible distance. On it milled dozens of some unknown being, slender and swift. They wore soft blue masks and loose suits that made them look like a trick of the light. They came. They stopped a while, long faces glinting. They moved on. Bree’s eyes usually slipped right off of them, but when they crowded they were unmistakable. Being watched was unsettling but not intolerable.
Aside from them, the place was truly paradise.
They couldn’t stay too long, of course. They had friends, family, responsibility – didn’t they? It was hard to remember.
“You wanna go snorkeling?” asked Bree.
“Sounds good,” said Luis. “As long as we’re back for dinner.”