DBZ Fanfic because why not

The final saiyan, his clothes tattered from ki blasts, long-distance long-nailed grappling, and a plummet from the edges of the atmosphere where air was thin and he’d been held till the last puff of breath squeezed out of his lungs, had been defeated. The entire planet celebrated. There hadn’t been a single victim but the dirty ape who died with every bone in his body broken save for the ones in his ears. He’d fought hard, but New Namek was once again clean of his kind and the people prayed at the festival that night that it’d stay like that.

 

The warriors had contests to chug barrels of water, letting even youngsters join in just so they could tip up the jug a bit too much for the kids who would then get soaked, crying as the adults laughed. The day the kids stopped crying at this little joke, the day they laughed at their own misfortune, the day they did it to their younger siblings was the festival they were accepted into the group and never had their water spilled again. Elders sang songs passed down, always slightly altered, by the great elder who brought them from the real Namek. He was the only survivor of that great tragedy. He was still young. Or he was young relative to the grand elder before him. But he never smiled like his grand elder. He rarely spoke to anyone but the warriors. It took many drinks to get him singing folk songs during these festivals, and though the songs had once been happy, he sang them bitterly between tears and the children knew not to tease. No one had ever told them, but they knew not to stare. They knew not to look at him at all.

 

But tonight, he told what happened on Namek. He told about the saiyan invasion.

 

How he saw his people wiped out for the dragon balls.

 

How the villages and villagers burned. That smell. Those sounds.

 

How the grand elder had died, passing on nothing to him but the burden of keeping his people alive.

 

And he told his people how proud he was of them for defeating that saiyan.

 

~

 

Months later, it’d been a year since the dragon balls on New Namek had been used. For the same wishes as they always were in Universe 9. They were happy months for the Namekians between the time they needed to be used and could be used, but after they were available, after the wishes were made, there was a general ire in the air.

 

“I cannot,” Porunga bellowed beneath the only night sky Namekians ever saw.

 

“You’ll let the boy die?”

 

“Death should be the end of all things. You cannot flout it for your purposes. Not again.”

 

“You’ll do as I say or you’ll be locked in limbo. This is your only purpose. The defense of our people.”

 

His miracle pierced the air and in other world, the boy’s halo disappeared, as did his grin. He went to hug King Kai of the North Quadrant before the next wish and though it lasted a minute, it wasn’t long enough. It never was.

 

“Now teleport him to this spot.”

 

King Kai’s stubby arms closed in on themselves as the boy vanished, returning to New Namek once again.

 

He was 16. Tall. Lean. His hair pointed back with a slight curve. Two bangs drooped over his ears. And his eyes, the eyes of a warrior scarred so badly he wished to never fight, were soft. And a tail.

 

“Welcome home,” the great elder said seeing the boy. His arms were still out from the hug and the Namekian gave him one more. He was much shorter than the boy. Thicker. Softer at the core but still very rough to touch. Scaly. His people weren’t, but somehow, despite fathering people of every degree of kindness, he was like a lizard.

 

The boy leaned over for his Namekian father.

 

The clothes King Kai had given him for training with his symbol on the back were singed off him by a ki blast filled with killing intent.

 

The boy collapsed, seizing from the electric blast he should’ve known to expect. “Throw me a healer,” the great elder called to his warrior posse. Someone lobbed the little runt inside the circle of reptilian demons. He was cursed with a natural talent and when the great elder awakened it further, he was assigned to this slave labor. Healing the boy.

 

The boy pulsed with power—zenkai boost.

 

 

~

 

 

“I wish you’d die,” the Saiyan Tate muttered to the little Namekian healer when they were left to their hut.

 

“Too bad the old man already wasted the wishes on you.”

 

“Yeah, what about the third one?”

 

“Made himself taller.”

 

The boy pictured how tall the elder had been before—about chin-level on the boy, and now, he was chest-level. “Porunga really blew it on that one.”

 

“Probably revenge. Wasn’t specific enough. Also you can’t measure against yourself--you grew like another foot, you dirty monkey!”

 

“Shut up, iguana breath.”

 

The two friends laughed in smiles because they couldn’t audibly or one of the warrior guards would come in and there’d be trouble.

 

“How was it this time?”

 

“He taught me math.”

 

“Math?”

 

“Counting.”

 

“Counting?”

 

“Hold out your hand. Fingers!” Tate did too. He counted them all. Then counted them again. “18! Wait. There should be more. I can go higher. Why aren’t I…?” He didn’t realize his healer had only 4 fingers per hand and that neither of them had taken shoes off yet like King Kai had done.

 

“That’s pretty neat.”

 

“I guess. Why do I have the day off?” He normally wouldn’t. Normally when he was wished back (this was his 9th time), the warriors had been so long rested that it was right back to sparring, lately group battles which was why things went so wrong before and he got that vacation with King Kai.

 

The Namek flicked his antennae and winced a little. They weren’t as sensitive as the Saiyan’s tail but still not exactly durable. “You’ll be busy soon. Waiting for them to land. Three small ships. No more than ten passengers and they’re coming. Fast.”

 

“And no one thought to bring me some fish?”

 

“Don’t be spoiled.”

 

 

~

 

 

The first fireball crashed through the cliffs like Tate’s ship had so long ago, but his was a single pod that quickly lost momentum and these new invaders were housed in the newest, sturdiest technology that only stopped when it hit the water, washing waves upon the shore that uprooted trees and farms and a door floated out with the ebbing. When the spaceship lifted from the water, its boosters boiling the fish, the tides landed more gently upon the local farms.

 

Three invaders stepped out.

 

Tate was waiting.

 

One stretched his neck, shoulders, legs, and looked right over the boy. He was massive. Purple. Vascular even in his shins so there was just a constant rope of veins wrapping his muscular form. His joints were covered by katchin pads, almost like turtle shells or protection pads for kids. He strode toward Tate.

 

“Please leave,” Tate asked.

 

The purple alien tapped his scouter to get a reading but his was an older model. It needed a baseline before it could read Tate’s. He pointed it elsewhere to adjust to the planet’s natural energy and that zeroed it out. So when he looked at Tate, it seemed to also say zero.

 

~

 

The second ship landed. The disc-like design was more refined and gentler on the environment. It kicked up dust and left claw prints in the landscape, but no major trauma that’d scar the planet. Not yet. The captain looked out the bubble windows with his assistant, who asked, “What’s that wildfire in the distance? It seems spread across the continent.”

 

His furry tail uncoiled from his waist. “Tell me this isn’t the first time you’ve sensed an aura,” the captain said in a way that sounded like a gleeful threat. It felt familiar.

 

~

 

The purple alien, Wurtle, the sort of fighter who could quickly gather energy in his fingertip and fire a beam that’d incinerate the usual ilk that asked him to leave, pointed at Tate. It took him a second to muster a response because it wasn’t his default tongue but he knew it. Distantly. Not even enough to have a dialect. He croaked, “Soon.”

 

A few Namekians landed behind Tate. The warriors. There seemed an army to fight these three aliens.

 

“Now,” Tate asked.

 

The warriors were waiting for violence, savoring whoever might lose. To be free of the saiyan for another year or to defend their home from more invaders with nefarious ideas about the precious resources. They would become the stuff of legends that the great elder might one day pass on. They wouldn’t let it be a tragic tale.

 

Tate turned so he had an eye on each group: Wurtle and his two and the warriors. He was ready to fight either.

 

So to Wurtle, he saw a native people defending their land and a ruthless savage with a tail that could have been on the other competing ships his sensors had picked up.

 

His finger, still pointing, blasted the third unwelcome party without warning. It wouldn’t take much, he knew, and so he held back so as not to hurt the natives. He wouldn’t want to interfere with their natural evolution, biological or technological and perhaps one of these were the future of that. The beam should have pierced Tate’s eye. It was direct and fast and potent and right on target, but it fizzled in the air. It seemed consumed by the aura of the planet itself, which felt off. The planet’s gravity wasn’t significantly different. It had very little life on it, maybe a few hundred sentient powers and a few dozen notable powers. He’d scouted it out before coming. And yet, when he fired again, stronger now, the blast dispersed to nothing.

 

“This is all the warning I’m giving you,” Tate announced.

 

One of Wurtle’s companion’s rushed from the shadows of the ship. It was a young human girl, Fea, who had been staying back to let Wurtle handle the invaders. She was—back up. She was gentle. She was scared. “Please stop! We just need the dragon balls.”

 

“Return to your ship and never return to my planet.”

 

“Your planet? How could you?” she demanded of him.

 

“The dragon balls have already been used. There’s nothing left for you here.”

 

“And now that you’ve had your wish, what will you do? Huh? Destroy it? Enslave it? You selfish--” She charged past Wurtle before he could stop her. The atmosphere felt thick. Her moves heavy. The air suffocating. Wasn’t there enough oxygen?

 

The sweeping kick was too slow to hit Tate who swayed back. Her toe just grazed his nose.

 

But the next kick came right after. Hit his cheek. She landed on her hands, coiling like a spring, before bouncing up with her into his gut which sent him flying back toward the clouds. She chased him. As he arced downward she dragged him faster toward the water, letting him rocket the final meters and a big ki bomb trailing him so when he flopped into the water, the bomb hit him, exploded, and the water lapped the farm worse than when their ship had landed. She wouldn’t let him or his people hurt anymore Namekians.

 

But when the water rushed back, filling the void evaporated by Fea, Tate was lying atop the water, wet but unharmed. He was at greater risk of defeat by drowning than from that.

 

It was all Fea had had. That and a spirit that refused to break. So she launched more bombs until the ocean rained down upon them all and she only paused to suck in a rasping breath. She’d lost sight of her target. She couldn’t sense him either. Was he dead?

 

Of course not.

 

When the waves stopped toppling him, he just lay there, looking over at the warriors and the invading ship and the girl hovering above him, sinking back to her ally. If he could, he would’ve just stayed there. But he could not. The great elder would hear from the warriors and his healer would be punished, replaced if he died, never wished back. And so he rocked to his feet. Then launched at the girl.

 

He’d finish it in one hit.

 

She blinked and he was gone.

 

But Wurtle saw his trajectory and jumped in the way.

 

That was all Fea saw. Wurtle’s back. Then Tate’s blast burning through till it also caught Fea. And they both fell into the sea.

 

“Perfect,” the captain said. He was a speck high in the green sky against one of the suns and as he lowered with his squad, the warriors readied themselves. The captain’s jet black hair, slicked back, covering his ears, fell into his eyes and he pushed it back. His tail, the same tail Tate has though slightly darker color, swayed in the breeze. His whole squadron, save for one fishy alien, had the same tails. “We’re here to save you.”

 

“I have it covered,” Tate said.

 

The captain looked to the victims, just dark figures sinking below the glistening waves, and then to Tate. “Not them. Them.” The warriors. The Namekians.

 

Chapter Four

The phone lay horizontally across three-fourths of the toaster slots, leaning against a spiral light bulb pack, aimed so the camera framed me from crotch to curls.

 

A royal tie limp about my neck. Leather belt looped but unbuckled. The sateen shirt, hemmed for last year's waistline, showed hints of the work I'd done this last week in the basement with barbells and a punching bag, but that was just a tease. The rest was in tonight's photos. I buttoned myself. Looped the tie. Did the cuffs. Tucked it all. Threw on the sport coat.

 

The final touch for our date, an olfactory tease to draw her in: cologne.

 

I spritzed a cloud.

 

Then dashed through before it settled too heavily.

 

It was four hours till our date.

 

#

 

A black loose-weaved cardigan cinched Priya’s lean curves with the camera angled strategically to cover where other clothes should’ve been. I saw her like never before.

 

Vulnerable. 

 

We hadn’t started the call. Video wouldn’t work. We always tried but it never did. Not Tanzania to US. Tanzania to South Korea. South Korea to Saudi Arabia. This would be the first attempt at Saudi to US, but it wouldn’t work. 

 

“Can we try?” I pleaded over IMs. “Are you ready?” 

 

Her previews were pixel-painted across the 72-inch flat-screen, cycling through the three she’d sent, every transition more tantalizing. Wireless keyboard across my lap, a bottle of KY in the crease of the recliner. Blinds closed. An abstinent week of build-up except in my dreams. My mouse hovered over the call button. I was ready.

 

“Can we wait?”

 

I zipped up my pants. “Is your family still there?”

 

“They’ve gone till 5:00. That’s when they said to start dinner anyway.” She was 8 hours ahead and it was 9:00 am her time. Plenty of time. “You’ll probably fall asleep before then. How’s Lady?”

 

“Snoring on my parents’ bed haha She’s been a lapdog since I got back, but she weighs almost as much as you except with claws that sink in when she hugs.”

 

“She’s missed her boy. Lucky girl.”

 

“You’re nervous.”

 

“A little,” she admitted.

 

“If you’re not ready, we can wait.”

 

“I already made you wait.” 

 

“And I’m fine waiting another year. Two. Ten. Forever if you’re never ready.”

 

“I suggested this.”

 

“We can have a normal call. A date without expectations. The furthest we’ll venture is that trembling, furtive moment as my hand slides towards yours for the first time.”

 

“I want to. For you,” she insisted. “Why me?”

 

“What?”

 

“That’s what I always come back to. You could have anyone.”

 

“We both know that’s not true. I’ve had one prior girlfriend. For two weeks. This is my longest, most stable relationship.”

 

“If you’d just talk to strangers. You’re very charming. And we like your golden curls. You know all these amazing people: a pro boxer, a pilot, other writers, people who have traveled and held jobs and can give you a normal life, but you’re stuck with a nobody.”

 

“You know how special Lady is to me? I locked her away for the night after 20 months apart while you and I have talked nearly every day. I’d still rather spend tonight with you. You’re everything to me.”

 

“Why? Why me?”

 

“I haven’t told you about the prophecy that old blind woman told me in Korea? You’re the chosen one. Destined to change the world.”

 

“No, you’ve never told me this blind Korean woman story.”

 

“She’s actually Dutch-Irish. I just met her in Korea.”

 

“Really. Why?”

“I don’t have a satisfying answer. The standard compliments. You’re smart, caring; you have the straightest face when teasing me so I’m about to have a heart attack before you let me in on the joke.

 

“It’s not just that you have a nice butt, either,” I continued. “You do, evident by the preview. But mostly you let me be me, even if I’m scared to. While I was playing photographer earlier, I saw myself puffing out the waistband of my athletic shorts, but it’s no more than last time and you seemed like you liked those. You asked for more. So I ignored my self-scrutiny to take 12 photos for you.”

 

“12? I don’t have 12. I had 7 and you’ve already seen 3!”

 

“Hey, it’s okay. Those 3 are better than all of mine. They’re each beautiful, distinct stories. Mine are just one story, slowly unfolding. It’s just a boy and his towel and while you’ll love the ending, they can’t compare to even your previews.”

 

“I want to do this.”

 

“We will. When you’re ready. Maybe a regular call will loosen you up, but if it doesn’t, we can just talk.”

 

I clicked the call button. It dialed. The video didn’t work, but even the audio was never secure. The connection often mechanized our voices or she’d hear me but I wouldn’t hear her or she’d be seconds behind or it’d connect for a greeting but drop before the pleasantries. That was why I always started with “I love you.”

 

“I love you too,” she said. There was a happy lilt to her accent. “I think this is the first time I’ve been this nervous with you.” When she got excited, her words rolled like in her Arabic. It was contagious excitement. “It’s always so simple. Never any pressure.”

 

“Not even now?”

 

“I’m only nervous because I want it to be perfect. It won’t be. I know that, but I want it anyway. I’m sorry.”

 

“Please don’t be.”

 

“It’s just that I tried with James for his sake. I never liked it so it wasn’t often and even those previews are more than he ever saw. You like them, right?”

 

“Love them,” I said as the next flicked across the screen. 

 

“You better. When it was over, I had given him all these personal moments that I wanted back. And I trust you, but I trusted him too.”

 

The connection buzzed during our silence. 

“What if I tell you something that has me shaking just thinking about admitting for the first time?” I asked, adjusting myself in the leather chair so it squeaked under me. “Maybe by trusting you with this, it’ll open you up too. 

 

“Please don’t say anything till the end.”

 

#

 

Thinking back, it happened during a few months between 2nd and 3rd grade, but it felt like years.

 

Derek had moved into the brick house catty-cornerfrom mine. I'd just gotten turtle rimmed glasses. Still had my platinum blonde bowl cut and Mom dressed me in sweater vests. I was making progress with Dr. Hannah, my speech therapist. We played this game where we rolled plastic pigs and got points if they landed on their feet or were touching another. If one was on top of each other from behind, I had to yell "Sooie!" I just realized why that was worth the most points.

 

Anyway, Evan and I were staying at Derek's. He was a year older but held back in kindergarten but a big kid regardless--his head was too big for our Little League helmets. But he was scared of spending the night away from home. He'd cry. So we stayed at his house. There were two water beds and a small TV with a built-in VCR sitting on a wooden stool.

 

In those days, everyone had cable or static. Satellite wasn’t really a thing yet. 45 was Cartoon Network: Johnny Bravo, Dexter's Lab, Cow & Chicken. 34 was Nickelodeon: Angry Beavers, Rugrats, AHH! Real Monsters.

 

For most families, 25 and 26 were ants. Snow, fuzz, whatever you called it. But Derek got them. HBO and Cinemax. They played movies with swears. One night, according to the TV Guide channel, Cinemax was finishing Terminator. We were obsessed because our parents didn't want us seeing parts and fast forwarded most. That night we caught the credits.

 

Then a warning came on: TV-MA.

Adult language.

Adult situations.

Nudity.

 

The girl was kissing the guy. Down there. On his thing. He liked it.

 

We knew we shouldn't watch and had the sound low. Evan put his ear to the speaker. “That's silly,” he said. “Why's he so happy?”

 

Derek and I just watched. We didn't understand, maybe we almost did, but we definitely wanted to.

 

We got naked like they did. Derek made me try it on him first as he watched. We'd been running all evening playing ghost in the graveyard till dark. It was salty. Then he made Evan.

 

“Evan's better,” he said like it was soccer and he was picking teams.

 

Then he made me do it to Evan then Evan to me. We didn't understand.

 

Next time Derek had chigger bites there. Red marks from grass bugs. His mom had seen when giving him a bath and that's how he knew what they were. He made me do it again anyway.

 

Sometimes we stood in a circle in the back yard with our pants down and everything touching.

 

Then he told an older boy, Blair, 6th grade. He didn't believe Derek so he made me show him. It was different with him. It was bigger and he made noises and moved his hips and it was wet and salty at the end and I didn't want to anymore. But I had to. They made me. Not forced, but coerced. Teased.

 

When my mom took me to register for 3rd grade. We saw Mrs. Wagner and Derek there. “You're with my Derek this year!” she said.

 

When we got to the car, I cried to my mom. “I don't like Derek anymore.”

 

Kids are like that. One day friends, one day not. Over little things. So she called the school and my test scores put me in the gifted program.

 

#

 

“Derek's parents found out and yelled and swore and threatened to tell Evan’s parents and I wondered if they did or if my parents knew or know now. I've never told anyone. I just buried it and cried after I saw him at school even in high school when he was a baseball and football star, still close with Evan, slinging ‘Fag’ around at any kid with a haircut he didn’t like. Even me. Think that moron even remembered?”

 

The poor connection’s static listened closely and I thought the call might’ve dropped and I’d have to say it again and I wondered if I could without throwing up.

 

“I love you,” she said.

 

 

“There's more but I don't want to burden you with too much."

 

"There's no such thing as too much between us. We can survive anything so please, when you're ready, you can tell me anything."

 

"It wasn't just my mouth.

 

"And this next part is really messed up in a way so please don't judge me, but when I was a teenager, angsty and hormonal, jerking off was the easiest way to cope and when it got really bad, when I was in bed crying that no one liked me despite having a lunch table-worth of friends that disproved that, I felt that old life creeping back like self-destructive pleasure. So that makes me a masochist or something. I was just so far gone, submissive which no man should be, right? And I thought I was secretly gay, which in high school, everyone used that as an insult so I felt shame when I did that and shame when they said it, especially Derek or Evan who were in my gym classes with gym lockers right by mine, and I still carry it with me but sometimes I'm feeling so low that I need that taboo pleasure."

 

Reclaiming an old trauma as a current fetish might seem fucked up but it was therapy, a release I'd never gotten. She was intuitive enough to know that. Kind enough not to judge. I hope you will be too.

 

"I love you," she said again because what else was there to say in this situation?

 

"It's dealt with. I don't cry over it much. Just shake. A little. But I don't want it buried from you.”

 

She said, “I’ve sent you four emails. You can’t open them until I tell you and you can’t touch till I tell you and you definitely can’t finish until I tell you. I’ll tease you like you like and make you beg until you’re mine.”

 

“Yes, my goddess.”

Chapter Two

“Crash and die?

lol

please don’t actually

Could you message me when you land?.

I love you

I’m going to lie down and pretend to sleep before my aunt comes in but message me still

Harrison??

i love you very much

Always

x”

 

Hunched over the power outlet by a trash can without a bag because the custodian who had her vacuum in the plug below mine was sweeping bread crumbs that had fallen from the ripped corner, I turned on my phone to a swarm of messages from Miri. The phone didn’t stop vibrating. I sat between the bathrooms to send my reply because after thirty hours in airplanes or airports from Seoul to Shanghai (where a two-hour layover almost wasn’t enough thanks to Chicago-Chinese relations and added pat downs) then to Chicago to Springfield and the whole time I drained the battery with the only two albums on my phone which weren’t even by my favorite band—I was almost home. A fifteen-minute drive away. But I needed enough of a charge to text.

 

“Crashed, died, total ghost now and I’m haunting your shower. I can wash your back!”

 

“What took you so long!!”

 

No Wi-Fi or time in Shanghai. Too many businessmen hogging the plugs with their laptops in Chicago. “I might’ve caused an international incident in China. Could you maybe come rescue me?”

 

“Be there shortly”

 

Texting while charging kept an equilibrium on my battery meter. If only it were powered by love and friendship. The custodian left after filling the bag and I kept sitting there probably while my parents watched my luggage go round the carousel.

 

“I have to get breakfast started

We’ll talk later?”

 

“I’ll be up.”

 

“No, sleep. Tell me all about your flight in the morning

Unless there was turbulence

Don’t tell me if there was a lot of turbulence

Or any at all

I’ll retro-actively worry.

I think this is the longest I’ve gone without being able to contact you.”

 

“I love you.”

 

“Love you too,” she sent then signed off.

 

Half the crew was Chinese and half American, though the passengers skewed more Chinese, so the English-only crew attended to the few of us they could communicate with, and yet the Chinese flight attendants, entirely pretty women, were much more hospitable, giving us slippers and explaining the meals and even closing that awful AC nozzle that the guy next to me opened full blast pointed right at my shoulder then fell asleep. About an hour into the flight from Shanghai to Chicago, after a few bumps, an American flight attendant got on the speaker and said, “Please, please” in a desperate voice “Please buckle up for—OH GOD—turbulence. It’ll be okay. (capital H) He’ll get us through this. It’ll be okay.” I think even the Chinese passengers who didn’t understand her words (I’d guess about three-fourths) were starting to panic from her tone. Another flight attendant rushed down the aisle and we never saw that panicked one again, not even serving ice.

 

The turbulence got a lot worse after that and a hatch popped open, but most people were asleep so an attendant came by, stored the fallen backpack, and closed the hatch before asking me if I’d like something to drink.

 

I had a lot of stories from the flight. The kid next to me on his iPad watching plane explosion movies without headphones. The gradient layers at sunset and how they were different than sunrise. All the photos I took with a wing taking up half the frame but I just wanted a view of the oculus in the clouds to the ocean below. The literal fiction I wrote in an email draft to myself because my Africa notebook that Miri had sent was above and the farting man next to me was asleep, his AC nozzle still blasting my shoulder. So much to tell Miri that wouldn’t make her panic.
 

In the low-security Abraham Lincoln International Airport in Springfield, Illinois, servicing four destinations from a single gate, anyone could walk up to the baggage claim and claim baggage that wasn’t theirs. There wasn’t even a carousel (as I found out) and the security guard who doubled as a baggage handler wheeled in a cart of everyone’s smashed possessions before piling them on the stained carpet. But when I finally got there, the floor was empty of unclaimed baggage.

 

My parents had grabbed mine.

 

My mom was all red-faced and watery eyed and shaking with the same nervous hummingbird energy that I had and my dad smiled so big the corner of his lips curled to either side of his caterpillar mustache that he hadn’t shaved off since he was my age.

 

It was just us in the big room. Over a year since we’d seen each other.

 

“How was the flight?” Mom asked.

 

“Long. Fine.”

 

“Good.”

 

Just us. A hug would’ve been embarrassing. I made it a quick one.

 

Photos of kids in tears as we did princess poses (peace signs at the cheeks, hand hearts, palms cradling the chin) because to them the departure of their favorite teacher seemed sudden but it was actually four months planned and one delayed. Principal, owner, and director Katherine-teacher walked into our office while the teachers were gathered around a box of spicy chicken, eating with toothpicks. 

 

"Are you happy here?" 

 

"Yeah," I said mid-chew. 

 

"Okay." She left. 

 

"That was weird." 

 

Jisoo, the head teacher and my noona after I'd won a drunken (her, not me) arm wrestling match she challenged me to on Halloween, explained, "She was asking if you want to sign on for another year."

 

I ran out of the room. 

Dailies

Not that anyone cares but I haven’t kept up with my dailies. I’m an inconsistent worker as a teacher, resorting to easy lessons I find online when I can’t be bothered to connect with students that don’t want to be there regardless of how I try, and as a writer, canceling projects with friends due to personal problems that they probably won’t ever blame me for but that I will because it’s just another ripple I have to recover from, and even as a person, refusing to stream because I don’t want attention on me or to be the only voice in the room. Just thinking about that last one has me antsy lately.

 

So when doing my daily writings and posting them, I feel pressure to write well. Or even complete writings. No one watches the daily workouts of Olympians, instead opting for games with maybe a montage of their training to see how they’re so great at the sport. I haven’t had that greatness moment for most people so my practice isn’t going to be interesting. It was an experiment.

 

I’m also a nervous person by nature, which maybe no one really realizes. It hasn’t been bad since 2013 because I was with someone who told me whenever I was nervous that it’d be okay. My first month teaching, I was meeting all these new people from Korea and Australia and Canada and I kept hearing my hellos and thinking those are awful. I go up a few octaves. It doesn’t even sound like me. Not just the recording of it played back, but when I heard it as I said it, I’d wonder where that came from. And it really bothered me one night. What an absurd thing to get anxious over, right? No one ever cares about a hello or how it sounds. No one cares about half the shit I used to worry about or that I worry about now. If I run, people assume I’m out there everyday or if they’re local to the area and see that I’m not there everyday, they’re thinking “Good for him. I should really start running,” but while I’m running and passing pedestrians, I think they’re thinking “Look at that jiggle. Look at how red his face is. He’s probably only been going for a block and he’s out of breath,” and it’s easy to get discouraged. The same with typing in chat or getting in voice chat with new people or just too many people. I’ll be a little quieter. I’ll type something out so I can say it just right and I’ll start typing and erase it. A lot. And these are popcorn personality moments that people consume, laugh at, then move on, never thinking of again unless I really screw up. Or really delight someone.

 

So I’m already nervous about those, and writing is supposed to be more considered, and it’s actually judgment worthy. When a story fails, or seems to fail based on analytics, it’s more pressure than I’m already feeling and my well of storytelling gets emptied—I’ve used “mess” too much; what’s a different word? Or I’ve already told a sad story; let’s try a happy one?--so I’m just filling that bucket with dirt. Or what I think is dirt. I only have so many life experiences and to tell a story is to use that up. I can’t write a weekly story about the first time I lost a dog so unless I make it a regular series that goes on for too long, then I have to get it right that first time I publish it. Which then cordons off a lot of my life that is worth telling a story about and I go for little moments that come out trivial.

 

You should have known me back 2012. I wrote so much. A lot shook me up after that. Now I have so many ideas that you’d see if I only had the courage.  

Somebody Save Me (fiction)

Before my neighbor and I shared the affection of anonymity, but now that he’s yelled at me in my apartment for longer than it takes to nail a hammered mind into semi-consciousness, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t like me.

 

I was in a great dream that I wanted to get back into—maybe there were Pokemon? Yeah, and I had 1.3 gigabytes of international data charged to my phone and I owed $30, which I had in Korean won, but not in my US Bank checking account so I had to transfer money from my Korean bank—why was I trying to get back into that nightmare? It was better though. But Prickle Butt had woken me up by burrowing through the newspaper to get away from the intense breeze of the air conditioning and then she kept scratching the bottom of her pink box and I’d been up late crying with a friend about my problems and his so I’m ashamed to admit I yelled at the little hedgie, “Please be quiet,” before trying to get back into that dream.

 

But maybe I’d been yelling at another noise. I heard an alarm get incorporated into the dream. You know how it happens. And dream-me recognized it as a transcendental alarm and like an adult, I ignored it.

 

It was a piercing two-tone beep that came with persistent rage then disappeared among muttering before returning with some door rattling as they knocked then tried the handle.

 

Ding-dong.

 

I was (ding-dong) naked. Jumped into shorts, struggled to find a (ding-dong) shirt as I was before the peep hole—which worked both ways for some (ding-dong) reason. It’s definitely a tiny blurred version of me (ding-dong) they’d be seeing but hopefully the horror of my happy trail scared patience into them. Ding-dong.

 

The grumpy old man so desperately trying to reach me dropped his rage to behold a foreigner, then he unleashed his prepared assault on me. I was listening very intently to this old guy with gold teeth but I’d just woken up and he didn’t seem to be saying handsome, cute, trash, or candy—my nine-year-olds only taught me so much.

 

My apartment had leaks when I ran the boiler or used it to turn the floor into a big radiator during the winter, so I thought maybe that again. “Mul?” I asked miming water trickling from the ceiling.

 

Instead of lessening his rage as I understood his plight, he seemed angrier as he yelled, “Ne! Ne ne ne!” and he barged past me, polite enough to leave his leather strappy sandals at the door.

 

He checked my living room, a mess of water bottles and coins spilled from a glass, but a dry mess. He flicked on the light to my bathroom where the dry shower head rested in the sink and a hard water line marked the toilet bowl. And finally my bedroom, which wasn’t that big, but he inspected several parts like when he kicked through the dirty clothes pile at the foot of the bed, swung open the door to peer at the wood shavings behind, and then he spread his venom to the culprit--my air conditioning unit.

 

AC in Korea worked a little differently than I was used to in the States. They were wall-mounted units instead of centralized vents. In my last apartment, its hose fed into a bucket that I’d empty every morning. This apartment’s hose dripped out the window. To seal the window from heat and bugs, they caulked it up so that sliding pane no longer slid.

 

That angry old dude didn’t care. He took his frail liver spotted fingers and yanked at the edge, his shirt jostling around his saggy arms as it was three sizes too big like his mom bought it in preparation for growth spurts, and I was looking for my phone amid the mess of books, comforters, and cereal boxes I slept next to, and when he yielded to the power of the caulk, he slapped the glass pane. I dialed Not-Mom Boss’s number.

 

And he left.

 

The phone was still ringing my savior as he stomped out, putting on his leather strappy sandals, complaining in Korean so loud I could hear him even three floors down.

 

Maybe Not-Mom was asleep too and I was waking her because it took her a minute to understand.

 

“Not the air conditioner repairman, but a neighbor complaining? I think? It’s leaking? Maybe?” I relayed what I understood but it was too surreal so I was turning everything into questions like “Did that really happen?”

 

“But your neighbors are a woman with her sister.”

 

I didn’t have an answer for her.

 

The guy came back with reinforcements of a guy even older so his hair wasn’t just streaked like the gold-toothed man but full silver and they just opened the door and came in. The gold-toothed man was still yelling, seemingly at whomever he aimed including his friend, me, the A/C, the bowl of coins I’d spilled last month that were still sprawled across the floor. But neither would yell into the phone where Not-Mom was. I was even saying “Hanguk-eo” (Korean language) as I pointed at the landline attached to the curly cord. But they seemed as confused as I had been when all this started and took a minute standing in the midst of my messy living room as I threw the phone their way before the new guy said anything.

 

Not-Mom and new guy talked. The first guy kept going into my room where the AC was turned off. He even kicked aside Prickle Butt’s box from under the AC where I heard her go boosh! into spikey bean mode. (Immediately after they left, I put her in the laundry room where she’d be hidden.) He yelled, “… jeongmal… jeongmal…” The only bit I understood was “… very… very...” as in “Naneun jeongmal gwiyomi” which is “I am so very cute.” I know I should bone up on useful vocabulary, but my practice partners up to this point only wanted to laugh at the silly things I’d say.

 

New guy and Not-Mom worked it out. She explained to me while the friend told the gold-toothed man that it’d all be fixed soon.

 

“It’ll take too long to get the repairman back so I’ll send my brother to fix.”

 

I worked with her brother. He was a bus driver until another teacher quit and then he got a promotion. His English was great, but he was quiet and neither of us had much reason to leave the classroom except for water or bathroom breaks and the halls were so narrow that meeting there was a lot of backing up to let the other through. We said “Hello” and “Good night” most days and he’d poke his head in to drop off vocab tests for a few of my classes but wordlessly. I might’ve taught one of his daughters, but Not-Mom had five siblings and all I knew was that Vivian was a niece, not whose exactly. Once her brother, Kevin, and I ran into each other on the street. I was coming back from GS25 with candy. It was midnight. I’d already slept for the night, immediately passing out after work, and when I got up I just wanted something sweet to remind me of the comfort of childhood. He asked if I had dinner in my black plastic bag and I said yes and I asked if he was just getting off and he said yes like it was nothing because that was his schedule. I went home at 8, maybe 9 if Not-Mom asked me to cover a listening class for her so she could see her daughter who lived in Seoul, and he got off most nights at midnight after cleaning the school for the next day. We hardly knew each other.

 

He definitely didn’t know my apartment was wrecked.

 

But I had cleaned for earlier this week with the AC guy. Cleaned to the point that I could politely say, “Sorry for the mess. I haven’t had time to clean,” which was just all kinds of lies.

 

“It’s okay,” Kevin said.

 

He inspected the window and the air conditioner and tried to pull the sliding pane open but more gently than the angry guy before him. He couldn’t get a good view of it. “Maybe from the balcony?”

 

The balcony was the shame most people hid in their basements. When I first arrived, I didn’t know where to put the water bottles for recycling and whenever I went, the boxes for glass, plastic, food waste, cardboard, and something I still don’t know seemed mixed up and I didn’t want to contribute to it. This lasted over a month and each week I went through 6 two-liter bottles so I had about 30. I lived on the fourth floor. It took some effort to make that trip down. I started out great! Taking four at a time, two trips a night, but then lost the motivation as I saw progress, and the bottles kept coming each week. There were still twenty out there. And boxes that had the same issue. So it wasn’t dirty; I always got the trash out, but it was a mess that the few who visited ever had a reason to see—until now.

 

As he stepped out, tentatively, on a WiiU box from Christmas, crushing Mario’s face then stepping onto the Amazon box for my new laptop, which he expected to sink but instead held and wine bottles inside clinked together, I cringed. “Oh god, I’m so sorry for this mess.”

 

He put his shoes on. “It’s okay.” Kevin had such a soft voice. Timid almost. As timid as I feel most days, but I don’t think I ever sound it. Maybe rushed and garbled from old speech impediments coming back during panic but I was an ESL teacher. I had to talk clearly. He did his lessons in Korean. Students didn’t get the discipline of learning English through English and often they couldn’t experiment or hold a conversation beyond the fill-in-the-blank sentences they knew. They also just didn’t feel the need to use English in class, but still they showed a marked improvement week to week with vocabulary and the most I was good for with beginners was showing them to put their tongue to the front teeth, slightly sticking out, as they made the th sounds, which we practiced daily but still they said “Bassroom.” “Do you have a knife?”

 

How many bad months had blurred together since last doing dishes? I started running scissors stuck together by old, hard pork grease under the sink when I saw the frying pan on the drying rack, clean if dusty, and beneath a butcher knife, nicked by a stubborn pepper seed. The first miracle of the day.

 

He scored the edge of the weather stripping, peeling off some caulk and letting it fall into the corner, then tugged at it, getting both hands on so he had to set the knife down but the only surface within reach was the window sill. It was a large window sill because the window had three layers of sliding panes. The screen, the window, and a semi-transparent privacy pane. It rested flat. But he yanked so near it and so hard, I thought an elbow might bump it. It’d dagger down. Go into his foot. I saw that happen once in Boy Scouts. Guy didn’t feel as it cut a nerve. The tip was both bloody and muddy.

 

The knife didn’t go into his foot. As the window popped free, he slid it open all the way and leaned out to look at the hose and electrical wires taped together in a white goopy mess of melted adhesive and as he leaned out, his chest bumped the knife handle. And it fell. Four stories. I only heard it clunk as Kevin peered down. “Sorry,” he said.

 

“That’s okay.”

 

I actually hadn’t seen what had happened. I was standing in the doorway, unsure where to be that was useful without looming or being in the way. With a professional, I could return to my day, albeit clothed, and get on the laptop where I put on a headset covering only one so if the repairman needed me, he didn’t have to poke me. But I had no idea where to be here and I wanted to shrink away.

 

“I need to get a longer hose.”

 

He left and I went to retrieve the knife from the patch of grass behind my apartment where luckily no one had been playing or walking or even just looking but I saw a student in the parking lot and rushed inside before they saw me outside wielding a warped butcher knife.

 

I hadn’t showered at this point. Or brushed my teeth. Or eaten. And it was 1:00 and I worked at 2:00 or 2:30 and I wasn’t sure how far away he’d gone for this hose, if he’d walked or driven, if he’d even be back today. I started cleaning. Specifically the coins in my living room.

 

I feel I need to take a paragraph on these coins. I had filled a stein for Cass beer, stolen by the previous tenant from a local pub, with coins. 500 won and 100 won pieces. Everyday lately I’d stop into the GS25 and get 2+1 coffees for 4,200 won. So that was 800 won back or four to eight coins that I never had on me when necessary so they kept piling up for months of sleepless misery remedy and late night McDonald’s deliveries and it was the same delivery guy, old and sad who’d usually fumble a coin down the stairwell and go to fetch it with a flashlight because the motion activated lights never stayed on long enough and I couldn’t tell him it was okay to leave it because I didn’t need anymore and I didn’t understand numbers enough via a phone call to prepare the exact change. What was I going to do? Make him wait at the door wanting me to ba-leun, hurry as other drunk customers’ fries went soggy? And that was the mug I kicked over months ago and since I’d piled up many more coins that were scattered about everywhere. You were literally walking on money in my apartment.

 

When Kevin got back, I had half the glass filled. It looked more suspicious like this.

 

He cut off the end of the old gray hose with snippers and attached the new bright blue hose then sealed it with electrical tape. It was as ugly as neapolitan ice cream. He threw the other end of the hose to my balcony and walked around going from my bedroom to the living room to the disgusting balcony that I needed a month to clean or else I’d have tried while he was out. I followed him, unsure where to be, until he asked, “Will you hold the other side?”

 

I never felt like more of a gopher as he asked me to hand him extra zip ties as he secured the hose to the railing. Like when I worked on my car with my dad as a teenager, I did stuff. I was the strongman in a cut-off tanktop loosening things my dad couldn’t but I was also the rail thin kid that could get in where he couldn’t. There were few hold-the-light moments. When I worked maintenance, cleaning air conditioners or heaters around the college campus, Bill, my boss, showed me how to do one then left me alone. Kevin caulked up the window, everything in a good place now, and there was excess so he dragged a plastic zip tie bag across to smooth it out and that was the finesse I wouldn’t know to do, but everything Kevin was doing, I could’ve done—but I never would have.

 

If my Not-Mom boss had told me the hose was too short so it was dripping into the downstairs apartment, I would’ve turned off that AC and suffered heat stroke before any of this.

 

As Kevin packed up the supplies, the caulk nozzle punching a hole in the bottom of the bag, he looked around my bedroom. I had my TV and nearby a PS4 with the WiiU on top and controllers and a 3DS on my bed and the old gaming laptop and the new, both with meaty power bricks and aggressive case aesthetics. He asked, “You like games? Me too.”

 

And finally we were connecting! After months! I’d already said thank you about 10 times before he did anything and another few since he declared the problem solved but it was awkward till now. I had no snack or drink to offer him. I didn’t know any gift idea to repay him, but I knew food was the Korean way, but I had nothing now and he’d probably eaten, hopefully not skipping a meal for my sake, and I’d already finished my coffees from last night, so what? What did he like? He liked games! “Really?” I asked.

 

“Yeah.” He put his shoes on and got ready to go.

 

I had meant my response to be like “Please tell me more,” but maybe it had come out wrong tone or language barrier or just personality differences.

 

By the door was a mostly finished bottle of the $10 house wine from the Koreyo Mart just a minute away that I had used up all the combinations of their offered ingredients and now they were ice cream and cheap wine to me. “I don’t like this brand either.”

 

That wasn’t why I hadn’t finished it. It was awful, but effective, like soju. I hadn’t needed it all though. So many months of this later and I was still a lightweight that needed to sleep it off and I hadn’t gotten that today, but no one could tell. I took a speed shower though so no one would smell it.     

The Corner Woman and the Kkangpae (fiction)

Every man in Korea smokes.

There are no drugs in Korea.

Only the kkangpae have tattoos.

 

None of these were precisely true, but they were in a general way.

 

On my walk from my apartment directly behind work, there were no straight paths so either I took the trash route, good for when I had pizza the night before or for Mondays after Prickle Butt had her newspapers changed, or I went toward the busy crotch that was between my quiet neighborhood and businesses I generally needed to live: bank, grocery store, sunglasses shops. Though it was the longer route, I usually headed that way before work for GS25, a convenience store which always had 2+1 deals on everything from coffee to single-serving ramen bowls. The place was great for 4 am Skittle runs since nothing else was open. They even sold single malt scotch, a rarity in Korea, for 200,000 won or that disinfectant soju, potent enough that one bottle for 1,000 was fun or sad night. I should’ve really stopped wrecking my teeth with their deals on candy and soda.

 

On my path toward the bank for my weekly 100K, there were five people, separate instances, smoking.

 

It couldn’t have been more than a minute walk with five minutes waiting at the light since I was permanently getting there just past the signal change. It’d probably been five years in America between seeing smokers, so seeing a line of them here was always a novelty. They were inside and out at all hours of the day and only restaurants, if they weren’t also bars, made them do it leaning out the front door.

 

One guy was smoking from the stoop of a restaurant and the glass door swung open too hard by a kid refueled after seven hours at middle school so he was now ready for the next five in various academies. Not one of my students.

 

The next two were at the grocery store. Maybe stores. Maybe separate owners but friends over rivals. The bigger store, family-owned like so much in this country, didn’t carry fresh meat, fruits, or vegetables. It was mostly a well-stocked convenience store with two aisles dedicated to potato chip flavors and no deals, just deceptive square footage that the man looked upon as he watched his little TV and smoked over the scanner. Ashes fell. The other store was roughly large enough for the owner, not too short, to lie down at every angle and he only had fresh fruit and vegetables, bruised or with a fly wrapped in the center of lettuce, and he smoked from his recliner under a pergola covered in a rag to provide shade in the squelching heat.

 

It was one of those oppressively hot days, the kind that soaked my collar and took away good moods so everyone grimaced at the sidewalk like it’d done them wrong when the culprit was really up high. The kind I had to worry about more because Korean sweat didn’t stink. Mine did. Sorry.

 

The fourth smoker was working construction from the street with a ladder going from the fourth floor of scaffolding above a dentist to the edge of the sidewalk and I had to get seven years of bad luck as he waved me under, cigarette in hand, leaving a stink trail but the smoke was invisible in the haze coming off the pavement. He yelled up to another guy who was probably smoking too, but I couldn’t confirm so I didn’t count him in my estimate and there were other men smoking beyond windows and on the other side of the road and in cars, but these were the four I noticed and the store owners, not doing anything but smoking, only because they often invited me to play horseshoes with a coffee tin and obec won (they only used 100 won coins). I could now refuse them in Korean instead of mime.

 

I said five smokers and those were four guys. The last one was odd. Not for me, but for Korea.

 

It was a woman.

 

There was a totally different mentality to smoking here. The men did it brazenly on the streets and often a guy waiting for a bus would do it on the doorstep of my academy as six-year-old kids entered with a fresh book of bear stickers and they’d all say annyeong to each other, thinking nothing of second hand smoke or influencing the kid, while Western men, or at least the two I knew, tried to hide the habit around students. Gavin Michael, the guy I replaced back in 2013, went up to the sixth floor balcony when the school was on the second and he once saw Cole, a kindergartner, headed home with his dad when they stopped to piss on the back of the school. Then Mike Gavin, who I replaced in 2016, went to the back alley between the academy and the church where there was just a drain for air conditioner run-off with their hoses out the windows. They chose to hide it. 

 

The women in Korea had to hide it. I spent a year after replacing Gavin Michael not noticing that I never saw a woman smoke and only hearing rumors of my boss being back on it when a coworker related how our boss would meet him at the sixth-floor balcony where he smoked, as was now custom, and she’d shake his hand, expecting him to slip her a cigarette for her to go up to the roof and unwind. She hid the act from the person who gave her the cigarette!

 

I only noticed that I hadn’t noticed when Kayce Gavin, Mike’s sister, also a teacher here and the first person I met in town over the age of 15, was smoking at a crosswalk as we returned from getting spicy soup that made me cry. A Korean man yelled at her. It was 11 at night. There weren’t any kids around, though a few high schoolers just getting back from academies were further down the road going the other way. But regardless, no one seemed to care about that here. I definitely noticed that. I’d seen guys smoking all the time, anywhere. And as he yelled at her in Korean, she shook her and rolled her eyes and spat, “Mol-la-yo,” which I guess meant “I don’t know you!” and if said in the right tone, a rather silly tone like when you’re losing an argument so you repeat whatever the person said back at them in a dumb voice, them was fighting words here.

 

But the old guy wandered off, muttering, “Leo-she-a-een” (Russian).

 

Kayce shaking off the common experience looked at how confused I was and said, “He thinks I’m a prostitute.”

 

“Does he think that I paid?”

 

And then she explained that it was unseemly for women to be seen smoking so unless they were old and had earned it, women were discouraged, often like we’d seen, from smoking in public being told what whores they were and how awful a mother they were, even if they weren’t old enough to reasonably be one. Somehow, these men found their own behavior less repugnant than a woman smoking.

 

So this woman on the corner outside GS25 was a rebel.

 

She wore a loose army jacket and distressed jean shorts that looked shredded by a wood chipper but maybe she bought them like that because who in Korea, so many without yards, without trees and their fallen branches, had a wood chipper? The shorts were short, enjoyably so, but not a scandal in Korea; however, the shirt was. It shouldn’t have been. It was a halter top that showed some clavicle, not even cleavage, but that was Korea.

 

And she was scowling, even more than the rest of us in this heat.

 

Till she saw me.

 

I knew this neighborhood and the rotation of three clerks at GS25 and the store owners that wanted me to play horseshoe and the bank tellers and the old ladies living in my building that grew peppers in the community plot and sold them to other tenants but not to me because the peppers were shriveled worse than the ladies from their devilish flavor and us foreigners couldn’t handle that. I didn’t know this woman. She wasn’t a butcher, not a teacher, not a baker or cinema ticket taker. Ours wasn’t an area for cutting through to save time and it wasn’t anywhere with droves of office workers that I didn’t know because they were locked up from sunrise to set doing… what do salarymen do?

 

Maybe it sounds odd, but I knew everyone in my outskirts. I didn’t know her.

 

She distracted me so much that instead of going by GS25, I went in.

 

The transition to AC was instant and seemed to blast cool air out the door instead of letting any hot stuff in. The dangling bell on the door didn’t jingle as I let it swing behind me because someone else was coming in.

 

The clerk, a short girl with quarter-inch plugs that usually worked mornings so I didn’t know her too well, said hello to me in her most polite, practiced school-girl voice and then casually annyeong to the person behind me. The smoking corner woman.

 

While I went for a deal on orange Fanta in the back fridge, the corner woman balanced on the swing gate leading behind the counter. She and the clerk chatted but not for long. A few words as the corner woman raised a bare foot up to the counter. To her, that was cleaner than her shoes which were all over the streets. Her foot only felt the clean apartment linoleum or hardwood in restaurants. It made a certain sort of sense. And maybe it was on the counter, where everyone put their food, but all that was packaged so what did it really matter? And her long leg was so smooth…

 

The clerk didn’t say much about it and what she said didn’t deter corner woman. She just kept picking her toenail paint, a pink or red. It was hard to tell in this light. There was just enough left that she couldn’t paint them again but she wanted to.

 

A kid, maybe small for his age, maybe still middle school, went to the counter with a roll of saekobaeko, sweet and sour Starburst-type candies, and a small voice as he asked for cigarettes. The clerk asked him what kind, which he had to check a text message to be sure of.

 

Corner woman asked, “A-ppa haeyo? Oh-ppa haeyo?” She drew the normally sharp syllables out, teasing the kid with that condescendingly polite please suffix, looking real serious till she had an epiphany gasp. “Noona?” She grinned.

 

That was father, brother, and finally older sister.

 

Outside was smog and boiling humidity so bad that I left dry and now my hair dripped from how everyone’s sweat hung in the air. I couldn’t smell any of the smoke outside unless I walked through it and being so used to it, I’d forget if I kept walking. But inside GS25, the dishwasher air was filtered out so the shattered bottle of soju from earlier’s unpacking mishap and the microwave, dirty with boiled over instant ramen water from the nurses on their lunch who were currently eating on the floor, didn’t even reek. It wafted out after some time. Only when the door open did a distinct outside flavor sit at the door. Normally.

 

Today’s scent was different from the sterile chill.

 

And the hospital employees eating on the tile and the kid getting teased for running an errand—they all knew it was a different though not altogether unpleasant smell, sniffing and looking because they couldn’t tell what it was. Not right away. Not after time. Not after discussion.

 

I knew it though.

 

I remember meeting my roommate on the Saturday after freshers week. He liked to ink out tattoo ideas, trying for symmetrical sleeves but he was a better artist with his dominant hand and also poor so they stayed ideas at least until graduation when I never saw him again. He was a year older than me. He had taken a gap year in order to travel but actually spent it working at Dillard’s for minimum wage until he had to dip into birthday checks from grandma to afford rent. He seemed so worldly having paid rent.

 

And since he was a week late, when he got to our room that first night, he saw me unpacked and settled already, having washed the sheets and scrubbed the floors trying to get out that lived-in stench. He asked, “That yours?”

 

He hadn’t pointed to anything. Just sniffed.

 

“No.”

 

Then he went to the stairs where he went up and when he came back at 3 am, he was in a great mood.

 

I later put it together. During our first dorm meeting, the Indian RA warned us this was a dry campus. My roommate yelled, “You don’t drink pot.” He didn’t know everything.

 

After that first year, I moved dorms to a single, actually a building full of singles with shy, shut-ins like me. I only smelled it on the occasional desk-neighbor during winter calc classes when students went a week convinced their sweatshirts were clean enough to wear daily. But even now, even years away from that memory, I recognized the smell.

 

And Koreans didn’t, generally because there weren’t drugs in Korea. There was meth, cooked at home. I guess the club scene had ecstasy and other happy pills. Ritalin for the pro-gamers. And yes, this story is revealing weed in Korea, but it was something so associated with the West that friends had to go to the super international Seoul for Burning Man to get their skunkweed fix, 300,000 won (about $270) for an ounce. I don’t even know what that means but I’m told it was high price and low quality.

 

The other source of weed was the kkangpae. The Korean mafia.

 

Literally it translated to bully or gangster, but they were organized, smart, and closer to extortionary businessmen with the occasional violence but usually between rival crews. Tattoos skirted legality in Korea because the only person who can legally apply a tattoo to anyone was a medical doctor with a license to cut your heart and to prescribe antidepressants and with a year of training in America so their English was good too. That was not the case for most tattoo artists. They were like anywhere else in the world, just people with inky needles. The law didn’t get enforced because the kkangpae used the tattoo parlors as a somewhat legal front for their other dealings.

 

And I know this because I boxed with them.

 

The gym was owned by a Canadian woman married to a Korean man, both champions here (and they hit like it) before losing internationally and then training others. Kim Yong Bin actually spent six months in prison where he got his shoulder done in a black swirl that he covered to make the high school girls trying to lose weight feel more comfortable—or at least their parents would feel comfortable not knowing about the tattoo.

 

That was the first tattoo I saw in Korea and so when these other muscular, pierced men came in with varying sleeve lengths, I didn’t think much of it.

 

That was just boxing culture. Tough men trying to knock my teeth out before patting me on the back and jumping rope for the length of that Shakira song that makes your hips go real slow.

 

Then, as a bonding experience, the gym went camping in Dangjin by the beach.

 

We took three cars. I was with the Mouse Doctor, a flyweight that liked race cars so much he bought one. White, like half the cars in Korea, the rest being black or gray. He had this special GPS that alerted him to cameras on the highway so he’d fly down the road at bullet train speeds, getting on the horn for anyone in front that needed to move to another lane because he wasn’t slowing down for them even if it meant ramming their license plate, and then his GPS would beep-beep-beep like the White House was under attack and he’d let off the gas so we’d coast to the camera, and it’d be a long coast, then once past, back on the throttle till we were making great time.

 

Even if Yong Bin hadn’t gotten run off the road by a bus driver with so much government and union protection that he was legally untouchable (but not physically, and maybe there was a shove. Into a windshield. That wound up shattered at some point—but you didn’t hear it from me), the Mouse Doctor and I still would’ve gotten there an hour before them.

 

At the beach, Mouse Doctor flipped his shirt off and I saw how far his tattoo went, basically to the elbow but with some strands at his wrist, which I later learned meant he was quite up the chain in the kkangpae. But he was so nice. Always laughing loud. Usually at his own joke.

 

Like so many Koreans, his English wasn’t great but most kkangpae dealt with foreigners; they liked us thanks to our movies. That was why he always said “Yo” instead of “Hello.” We managed communication. He taught me to play this game. With a ball. There were other rules. It was a lot like 500 meets Sumo. We didn’t talk much though.

 

Our car had all the pots for cooking and the stove but none of the food so he led me to the river where it was brackish water. We followed it up and he’d stop and stoop every so often and I just held the bucket, not knowing why until he reached into this hole with the speed you’d expect from a boxer so light. In his hand, dead from the grip, was a crawdad. He found a lot more. He’d chuck them over his shoulder and cackle if I missed one or slipped into the water since I’d forgotten a bathing suit for this beach trip—I know.

 

By the time Yong Bin and Amy arrived, we had cooked up a nice meal in the woods next to the beach big enough for everyone.

 

And he stayed up all night talking with Yong Bin about the bus and I picked out the occasional word at first and then just listened, letting the language flow over me and hopefully seep in. It didn’t. They kept talking until there was movement down the beach but it was too far to see because it was low tide and still not daybreak. The locals were out clamming. We went too.

 

I walked with Amy, the Canadian boxer and former Korean champ. “I had a talk with Mouse Doctor. He can be reckless, I'm sure you've seen, and I’ve warned him for his own sake but with you there too, he really can’t be doing that.” We didn’t find any clams.

 

Then Mouse Doctor’s signature cackle rang out in the first tinges of the morning. Yong Bin had dived for a giant octopus headed for its hole no bigger than a fist. We ate it for breakfast. I’ll never forget how they threw it in the boiling water still alive, keeping it down with chopsticks and a ladle, and that murky purple head turning orange and two of its tentacles gripping the handle so tight trying to survive we had to cut them.

 

Mouse Doctor only drove about a hundred on the way back and Yong Bin didn’t get into any more bus fights.

 

The gym opened at 2 pm. I worked from 10 till 8. The taxis cost too much. The bus took too long. I was tired. I was lazy. Each time I went, I saw more kids than gangsters as the gym had paid its debts to the kkangpae, parting on good terms since we had celebratory dinners at their booking club that also had hookers. The new respectability came after a local businessman that owned Taipei or something put up funds to pay rent for at least ten years. He even attended and paid dues like a regular member. My coworker that slipped our boss the cigarette on the sixth-floor balcony had me put him in touch with a few of my old boxing buddies for weed, but memories of the Mouse Doctor faded. It’s really down to that one.

 

Until about three months after I stopped boxing. Amy messaged me on Facebook along with her other adult members that maybe knew Mouse Doctor but most didn’t and Amy just had a bad memory. Mouse Doctor was in the hospital. Shot, I figured. Or knifed. Busted up from a fight. Maybe hurt fleeing the police.

 

No, he’d been in a car accident. Just him. Hydroplaned sometime after midnight and hit a traffic light going 120, supposedly.

 

He survived, luckily, but that was all I really found out.

 

Anyway, the corner woman that smelled like weed watched me come up with my three Fantas, looking for 2,000 won in all my pockets before the bar codes were even scanned and I didn’t have the cash because I hadn’t been to the bank so I used my debit card on basically $1.80 of soda, and she looked away, uninterested but peeking over to catch me peeking at her smooth legs and the halter top under the army jacket.

 

The clerk, I guess something of my friend, said to me after struggling to remember how, “Long time no see.”

 

“Yeah, it has been! How are you?”

 

And like one of my students, she recited, “I’m fine, thank you, and you?” without a clue what she’d said beyond it was the correct answer to a question posed by so many teachers, foreign and Korean, so often that she still remembered the exact intonation they drilled into her. There wasn’t much light in her eyes when she said it.

 

After I paid and left, I had to go back to the apartment for a notebook I’d left on the bed and now I wanted to write a few things down before work started. I had time.

 

For some reason, I went the long way around the block, not the trash way, but the crotch way. On the corner, there was the woman again, smoking, jacket off.

 

I had to be sure. “Hey,” I said.

 

“Hey.”

 

“Nice tattoo.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

###

 

~Doesn't work as a short story, but maybe a character introduction. 

~Describes culture and narrator more than her character

~Does the third act work? Feels like the interest dips at the start and then it gets it back only to end abruptly

~too trivial? Little conflict

~Where would this work? escape cops, rival, the life. "corrupting" the more straight laced narrator. A connection to deal with a problem. Horrible love triangle. A strange companionship while in a new land because this "bad person" by Korean standards is most familiar to an American. 

Crotch Crosswalk

Tonight, I was getting dinner from the crotch—it’s not as dirty as it sounds, so please stick with me. The crotch was a notoriously busy Y-intersection with crosswalk signals that sometimes took so long that the ice cream I bought on the right leg would melt by the time I got home on an oppressive summer day. Most people preferred to detour over a block into the hospital where the cardiology unit had a bridge with fingerprinted plexiglass over the left leg and it was debatably faster, seconds if at all, and often nurses would yell at me for pungent carryout so I’d rather wait.

 

The crotch was also central to several bus routes with stops on the knees, love handles, pits, and ears. I like to give the drivers the benefit of the doubt; the traffic lights turned red without any yellow so unless they wanted to skid through the zebra paint (they didn’t), the intersections were busy even when I had the right-of-way. I was always tentatively stepping off the curve as if testing the bath water and often finding it too full of sharks.

 

When it was clear, I had to frogger across, dodging delivery guys on their mopeds who seemed brave like diplomats with immunity so what did a few manslaughter charges matter?

 

It always seemed busy too. Like America had rush hour where the guy leaving at 4 got home in time to take his kids back into the clog for McDonald’s, but the guy leaving at 4:30 was stuck crawling along till he was a vestige of road rage and the guy getting off at 6 was getting home at about the same time so the economically minded should have stayed till 6 to get that extra bit of pay, if they were on wages. But Korea had a different work flow. It seemed staggered so there was never a block of traffic getting so acquainted with their neighbor’s bumper that it felt a bit lewd. Instead it flowed throughout the day and the pedestrians were the only ones waiting long stretches for things to clear up since occasionally a car, not even the city bus, would blow through the light and, not wanting to feel left out, so would those behind him and that’d take up the entire WALK signal.

 

~setting to create plot

~possible plots: car accident, late for whatever, (cute-)meet at crosswalk, others

Quick Character Desc

Her expression ranged from bewildered to content with confusion.

 

His hair was a low frequency wave till it got cut, maybe permed.

 

The punk was always throwing her chin my way, before apologizing, “Okay, okay!”

 

She always came in, sat at the desk nearest me which wasn’t assigned but she claimed it by being the first one in, and after unpacking for class, her pencil case and notebooks, she folded her hands, waiting, smiling my way and answering how she was with a proper and rote, “I’m fine, thank you, and you?” before she looked around in the silence and noticed the clock tick by slowly.

 

The sweaty mess came in late but too drenched from his failed sprint here to really be upset.

 

When I asked the new student how he was, he put in a lot of thought trying to answer it honestly. “Seven.” He was six.

 

Daily, his hair was styled for a yearbook photo in the 50s and his mom dressed him in polo shirts with the top button undone, folded over to the side with an ironed-in crease, and he was just the cutest little guy. Till he smiled. His front two teeth were missing. The ones on either side were rotting. He was used to people wincing so he didn’t smile much.

 

Her friend came in first to pump me up about the majesty I was about to see. Her mouth in an accepting smile of mature embarrassment pointed down, giving me a clear look at the scalp at the part of her new straw-colored hair, and I remember being horrified with my sister’s reaction the first time her strawberry tint went bad and she ended up looking like a squirt of food coloring. “He-Won! Are you going to be a K-pop star?” I asked, holding out a sign pen and notebook.

 

Naturally, she had a country look but it lightened up after she got to middle school and gave up sports and her friend taught her about makeup. She just didn’t know how to blend it into the neck.

 

His head had gone through a growth spurt, but his body was still waiting to shoot up.

 

He came up to me, excitedly showing off something new, but his new glasses were identical so I gave him a piece of candy, lest he leave disappointed.

 

 

Pizza and a Haircut (fiction)

Mom told me to get pizza and a haircut before coming home so at the stylist, I waited for the girl with scissors to come to the computer desk where I was waiting patiently surrounded by people with very nice hair who were also waiting patiently but seated on this long, crowded bench and she asked if I wanted anyone in particular to do my hair.

 

“Someone who works here preferably.”

 

The people with very nice hair on the bench shuffled and tried to make room for me but I had to stand pretending to read the ingredient on the shampoo bottles until someone got called and then everyone spread out a little, relaxing, and so I waited again for another someone to get called but a new customer had walked in and everyone shuffled together for him like they had for me until that second guy got called and then they spread out a little so their elbows weren’t all touching and it just kept on like that, but all the people with very nice hair seemed quite nice regardless and as the cycle continued, some of the people leaving the stylist’s chair were people who I’d seen get off the bench with very nice hair and when they left, tipping the stylist, their hair wasn’t so nice, just sort of wet and if it were a guy, then maybe also short. None of the girls’ hair seemed shorter.

 

But I didn’t mind standing by the shampoo shelves. I just hated that it was so cold in the place. It felt nice since outside was hot and had me sweating and all that whisked off when the oscillating fan that blew the AC’s chill around, but I think it would’ve been better if it’d been hot in there since I was waiting for so long.

 

The girl with the scissors that came to the computer desk before was not the girl with the scissors that asked me how I wanted my hair done and if I wanted it washed before or after the cut and I told her I washed it before school so she led me back with a towel around my neck and she leaned me back and ran water near my ear so cold droplets tickled me until they weren’t so cold and might’ve even been too hot, but I didn’t want to complain so when she asked if it was too hot, I said I didn’t think so, and she told me I had a naturally ruddy scalp like it was a compliment so I said thank you. As she scrubbed my ruddy scalp, I was leaning back for so long getting scratched by her long nails that the snot started draining into my throat but I never ate dinner at this angle so it was hard to swallow. I suffered through not really breathing much if I could avoid it till she tilted me upright and I got a big gulp of a very bad drink that even if it slid past my tongue and taste buds and them had a poor taste.

 

She cut my hair pretty well for as deep in conversation as she was with the woman in the other chair--about nothing, I think. Most of the time she was on my right side so she could look over my head and talk to the other woman and the few times she got to my left side, her neck was twisted so she could keep looking where she was talking, and at the end, I saw why people with very nice hair left with wet and maybe shorter hair, but I tipped her anyway, more than I had tipped the pizza guy because I wasn’t sure how much to tip for carryout.

 

At home, Mom asked why the pizza was cold.

Unintentional Following

Walking back from my burger adventure, the streets were pretty empty. Everyone in hell is a shut-in since it got air conditioning and for good reason. The back sweat against the cushions in the Lemon Tree booth was so uncomfortable that I kept fanning it dry with the back of my shirt. But the few adventurous sorts like myself would gather at the crosswalks as cars dragged hot breezes by and I didn’t pay much attention to the people around me because as the walk signal lit green, they went left to the other crosswalk wait or right down a new street or into coffee shops or wherever until it was just me and this young woman in a burgundy shirt.

 

She zoomed across the street so she was ahead of me but then slowed to a pace that matched mine and we just happened to be going the same way.

 

Then we got to a building with a rounded black glass corner where I checked my hair to see if it was wind-styled or wind-messed because days like today it could be luxurious twists feathered by the breeze into a mane befitting the king of the jungle, but today was actually a mix of banana curls and frizz. And in the reflection, I caught her face for the first time. Her eyes were looking for me.

 

She then stopped at the door to GS25, a convenience store, as if deciding whether to go in for a can of Coke or maybe some candy, and she waited until I was down the street before continuing. I got to another crosswalk, just missing my chance, and as I waited, she walked by, to the other end of the slope between pavement and street.

 

I’m aware of why this probably played out. It’s something I’ve always noticed because I’m a chicken and, while horror story monsters do little to get me nervous, a stranger walking behind me always makes me jumpy, more so in America than here. And so, sharing that concern (irrationally for me, but probably not for others), I’ve often noticed old ladies will peek over their shoulders when they hear my footsteps and then a few more times to see if I’m still there and often the older woman will meander the night in the middle of the sidewalk and I’m not Korean enough to blow past them if I think I’ll bump shoulders so I’m often watching intently for them to drift to one side so I can safely skirt past but they look back and see me staring and I imagine it unsettles them further. The same happens with schoolgirls just getting out of academy for dinner when they should be getting to sleep, still in their uniforms, on empty sidewalks with all the shops closed and dark, and they see me. They’re generally in groups and hopefully feel safer for it, but I don’t want anyone to be uncomfortable by my presence. I like to think I have a friendly or at least harmless look, but I’m also foreign and a guy and who knows how they see me? 

Confession: I'm not okay

Drop any self-centricity while you read this because it’s not an accusation, just hard truth that I hate giving.

 

In the last week, you’ve heard more from me. I’m more lively, tweeting about butts and burgers and my daily writing exercises on my website and I’m rampant in Twitch chats, sometimes dropping the filter and refusing to feel bad but sometimes going quiet so I don’t permanently damage too many relationships. I’m already lonely enough. It’s hard to say who I am at this point, because if what I think and what I say are who I am then how does that balance with the past? At some point, it stops being a rough patch. Some of you know why I’m erratic. Things are not okay. And they won’t be ever again.

 

That’s nihilistic and narrow, but while easy to scoff at as overdramatic, I lost everything when I lost her. You don’t recover from that.

 

Now it sounds like a dependent relationship, and living in a world of hyper-individualism and self-reliance, it’s hard for some people to understand how permanent loss can be. You get used to it, learn to function with a limp, and stop talking about it, but it’s still there. This bad mood is permanent and I navigate it via figurative anesthetics and I manage to get through the nights and workdays where students annoy me into a compartmentalized, distracted state, but the lonely weekends are really hard.

 

I don’t have anyone to tell about little moments, because dreams are boring. Daily activity is boring. And it’s only because she cared so much about me that she found it interesting to listen to my neurosis about a bad hello or my fascination with how it feels to vomit or just my general mood and whatever.

 

The Dutch messenger app, used by Pakistan and us essentially, still has our conversation history stretching all the way back to September 2014 when Skype shut off servers for her Symbian phone so we desperately looked for an inauspicious app that wouldn’t send an alert to everyone in her contacts that she was now using it too because that’d raise questions with her family and they already hated that she had a phone that could make calls because who did she need to call? She could use the landline for her parents. And the app shows the last time and date that a contact’s been online and it’s been so long that it gave up. It’s blank. It ditched her username and her photo.

 

But I have to keep checking, daily, hourly, in case she gets on and is considering contacting me. She’s still alive. There’s still hope—technically. Lottery hope. One in trillions? That pesky hope saying that maybe she’ll change her mind. That awful hope that drives me to check first thing when I wake up for a message or email, which leaves me disappointed every time.

 

After months of being irritable, lashing out at people over jokes I wasn’t in the mood for—and honestly that extends years back but the community and friendships were fresh and I had more patience for people because you didn’t know—I’ve paved over this permanent bad mood with a veneer of normalcy so people stop helping.

 

I’m tired of hearing that it’ll be okay. That sometimes these things are for the best. That there’s still fucking hope.

 

The sentiments are from a well-meaning place, but they undercut everything to cheer up not me, but the person saying them, and I think I’ve been through enough that I don’t need to be pricked by ignorance all so you can shrug off bad news.

 

I stopped talking about it, but that doesn’t mean the pain’s gone away. What fills my days are little consolation and most days I am very unhappy and annoyed with everyone before they say anything.  

On Being an Editor

I quit my editing career after the first book. Which I didn’t even finish.

 

The small press paid proofreaders $25 to rush through and say everything looked great and paid editors $50 as an advance for essentially the same task, but that was half upfront and half when you finished sucking the writer off plus a 20% royalty which I’m actually a big fan of royalties in creative works because it encourages good work—of course, this publication was vanity to the author so my work went wasted and after making the first $25 and splitting duties with a second editors and thus splitting the royalties, I never saw another payment.

 

Let me reiterate. I was paid a $25 advance for months of work, spending more time per chapter than the author seemingly did on the whole so that we’d both make some sweet royalty loot and I never saw another dollar.

 

The book was a dark fantasy with vampires and time travel to the Victorian era, according to the author, but he described every lord as living in great castles with great walls made of great stone (his vocabulary was not great) and he clearly had never read literature of the time because his idea of England in the 1800s felt a lot like the way Malory described Arthurian legends which generally are seen as a reflection of the 1500s, but even more so, his setting was like the parody Futurama did of the 20th-century museum where everything from distinct eras in the past blended together seamlessly so the hippies in the 1970s were right beside Shakespeare. And regardless of era-accuracy, his book had assault rifles that only showed up for the climax of the second act, much to the surprise of all readers, though they weren’t an intended twist, just poor world building. He was a terrible, amateur writer, relying on cliches and the love interest being characterized as “a woman”--of course beautiful and of course immediately in love with the main character because one woman was the same as any other to him. For everything, he reached for the mass-produced stock on the shelf at language-equivalent of Walmart so mud was caked on a weary traveler’s boots as the leaves danced in the howling wind on the dark and stormy night that was raining cats and dogs on the rolling hills, and it was so much that he basically just plagiarized culture.

 

I pointed all this out. I generally had notes longer than his actual chapters that started as pointing to faults and slowly became lectures on how to write effectively using color, word economy, freshness, and simplicity, four virtues in all great literature that shouldn’t be confining in any way. I’d often make suggestions in a variety of styles from light-hearted, poppy writing to grand Gothic that showcased the baroque, letting him enjoy the way poetic language felt when read. I rarely changed the meaning of sentence, only added detail, or suggested moments that might individualize a character.

 

I gave him so many suggestions I had basically rewritten a few chapters.

 

The thing with editing is you have to be certain you’re not just changing it to your taste, essentially making it different instead of making it better, and I made sure I wasn’t. His were bland, empty sentences with as much original thought as a sneeze. However, he didn’t see that. He contacted my boss who sent me a very polite email saying, “They’re all fantastic notes. I agree on just about all of them, but he feels maybe there are too many.”

 

I responded, “I wish he wrote better so I didn’t have to make so many.”

 

What also showed up about the same time as the guns was pedophilia.

 

After sending in 5 or 10 edited chapters a week for a month, there’d been uncomfortable hints of this seeing as the main character was a 30-year-old dude lusted after by the vampire queen who had been young when she was turned, forever frozen in a newly pubescent body, which is making me cringe now remembering how the author demanded the cover girl in video game babe-armor look even younger, but in the story, she’d given her age as 57 and also 300 and a few other numbers well beyond the MC’s age and there was an interesting concept that he called a social age, the only interesting concept in the story, that changed to give herself more respect than her body allowed. If as a queen you looked young forever, you wouldn’t want anyone doubting your adulthood forever because of that. But then her actual story came out. She was raped when she was 9 until she was 13 when she was turned into a vampire and that had only happened 2 years prior to the main plot. She was 15. I hope somewhere in his poor storytelling was intended to be a sympathetic, gut-wrenching event but the way he relished the details more than other points in the story--I told you the problem of the default earlier and how everything was great meaning big, but his depiction of her suffering was graphic, and it disturbed me.

 

I wrote him about two pages of notes on that one scene. I’d given up on style in that chapter and just told him to cut this section because he sounded like a fucking pedophile.

 

And in a chapter immediately following the reveal that this young looking girl was actually 15 and sexually traumatized, he delved into a sex scene with her and the 30-year-old MC that turned out to be a demon revealing MC’s inner most desires in a dream sequence, which doesn’t excuse the underage depiction of sex, but he then went on to excuse the pedophilia, saying it was natural and so long as he didn’t act on such desires, he was still a man of God-- because among all the other faults, the story was also preachy about being a good Catholic.

 

I wrote another two-page note and shortly thereafter, I was emailed informing me I was off the manuscript “due to time constraints” and would I like my name expunged from the copyright page? Yes. Regardless, I’d still receive a 10% royalty payment after it went to publication. Again, never saw anything but that $25 advance.

 

This is uncomfortable to write about, but it was one fucked up creep fulfilling his fantasies and demanding publication to legitimize his philosophy on being a pedophile, and that one bad experience shouldn’t turn me off to editing, not when I’m so good at it. And it didn’t, but I also proofread a lot of books at this press and saw how untouched they were, like the editor had gone through for the typos, but little else, and there were enough editors on enough books that I realized the whole treatment of editing is flawed because of the first email. Being told there were too many notes.

 

Some of the notes were probably bad or unnecessary, but it’s the hardest thing to relate to non-writers that there is such a thing as good writing. It’s a plurality where there are many correct paths, but like I said earlier, there are four virtues to all good writing that apply across languages, genres, audience age, and any other factor that you want to hold up. Simplicity is the most malleable because if you’re writing for professionals in a scientific field, you need jargon the average reader won’t know, but simplicity is just relative at that point. Sentence structure should still be easy to follow and so on. But bad writers don’t understand that “kicking swiftly” is bad. It’s not even that they don’t understand why; they just don’t see it as bad.

 

It is though.

 

Not because adverbs are bad, but can you kick slowly? Can you kick anything but swiftly? A kick is the swift movement of the leg to hit something. It’s verbiage to include the extra word and oh no, one extra word, big deal. Except it becomes a big deal when every noun gets an unnecessary adjective tacked on and every verb an adverb and stock phrases and cliches and those are the just easy things for fresh eyes to fix in bad composition, to say nothing of the burden of creativity. Interesting characters requiring conflict to forge them in the reader’s mind, how to create micro-memories so the reader can relate to what’s happening, when to be visually appealing and when to let the story play out in dialogue. That’s the hard stuff! Creating something fresh we haven’t read a hundred times already and each previous experience already a better version than the latest. We have to find new perspectives or new characters, or to polish it beyond what anyone else has done before. That’s why we need diversity in characters and creators. Cultural backgrounds can highlight struggles that let us empathize better because sexism in the US is different between all regions and races and classes and even more different than sexism in Saudi Arabia or Korea, but those are still recognizably wrong, and maybe in seeing the complexity of other worlds, we realize new solutions to faults in ours.

 

And this has been a roundabout way of getting to this point, but writers, trust your editors. They’re not personally attacking you when they point to a bad sentence; they want to let the reader see it as brilliantly as it existed in your mind. Editors are worrying about how to best express a thought so that you can focus on creating.   

Dogs and Death (fiction)

My first dog died just after I turned 18.

 

There were other dogs that I have names for and photos of but I don’t recognize my baby self so I definitely don’t remember Rosie, Frankenstein, and Beau. There was Clover, too, a hunting dog too mean to be left on the chain in the front yard because our house was a bus stop for the local schools. We kept her in back, tied to the wooden playhouse—two floors with a plastic steering wheel, gymnast rings, and this blue, yellow, and green tarpaulin roof. We gave up Clover to a work friend of my dad’s who passed her on, and on and on she went until Bill, a guy I interned with the summer after Lucky died. He said Clover settled down a lot after being re-homed so often. She needed the right person to love her and we weren’t that for her. I remember she was cute and that I was scared before she ever bit me, but little else.

 

With Clover in mind, I don’t know why we kept Lucky. He was a pound puppy two days past execution due to a clog in the euthanizer, thus the name. And if Clover was mean, Lucky was vicious.

 

He bit me so many times my fingers should be all scar. The little mutt, maybe up to my knees as a kid, would leap with a snarl and get my nose. That left a mark. He got Beverly, my sister’s best friend. And Kevin, the idiot neighbor boy who my parents, his father, and I all warned not to stick his fingers through the fence and I’d say Lucky growling and snapping his alligator jaw at the kid was warning too. Only the cat and my mom seemed unafraid while my dad, a giant to me as a kindergartner, left the room whenever Lucky sauntered in after devouring his kibble.

 

But he wasn’t bad, I guess. Just broken in the way dogs from the pound sometimes are.

 

He still had his doggy desires, like chasing the tennis ball—once. Then he’d wrap it up in his paws as he tore off the fuzz. When I’d reach in, you know, to throw it and give him that primitive joy of the chase for another 20 feet, he’d growl.

 

He’d rev louder as I got close and it became a game—no, a test of courage. To go as close as possible without getting the fur on his spine spiked and his lips curled so his crooked teeth showed how they’d lean into the gap where too intense tug-of-war had torn out teeth. The trick was to go low and slow. Stop if he got agitated. Start when he went back to balding the ball. So the game relied on courage, know-how, and patience, and even so I’d sometimes lose.

 

My friend Dirk lost a lot. He’d get so very close that Lucky went silent.

 

And Dirk thought that meant he’d won. He had made the beast submit. And so, he’d reach in further.

 

Lucky seemed to go quieter.

 

Then strike with a bark and snap and he’d keep gnashing till his neck was as far as it’d stretch.

 

We’d run or cry or just bleed from a mangled fingernail on the carpet. Really, there were no winners. Only losers of the brave and of the stupid variety.

 

So even while playing, Lucky was wild, but it wasn’t a sudden switch. There were tells and a lead-up that I knew, but in my insensitive youth, testing myself against the beast, I probably wasn’t what he needed to heal.

 

Every morning I’d take him from the chain in back and chase him with a leather leash dragging (knotted together where he had chewed through thrice) down the stairs to the basement and he, the king of this house, ran because if I caught the leash, I’d lash it like an Iditarod racer I’d read about, not realizing the memories of abuse it might scare up or the strength even a child had over a dog. I was young and unsupervised and now I’m very sorry for it.

 

As I got older and better about caring for him and big enough to take him for walks without getting yanked and scabbed—and, really, that was a big part of his good behavior. My size. He was to my thighs standing on end and his outbursts no longer swayed anyone but my dad. But it was a complex evolution for us all and it’s hard to say if it my treatment or just our relative size or his age, but eventually he became a good boy that I still miss.

 

~

 

When his age got to double digits, I was crying into my blue middle school locker while speeding through last night’s reading homework because my parents had talked about “sleep,” the least effective euphemism of our time.

 

Lucky’d been sick from some passing thing and they’d put him on the steroid Prednisone to treat it. The dosage was toxic. His liver was failing. His first blood tests said so, and my parents had to promise to get a second opinion just to get my sister and I to even eat our dessert without crying. We were getting a lot of ice cream that week. The swirly kind in that giant Prairie Farms tub with the flimsy handle that went into the freezer see-through so we could inspect for a lode of chocolate, but after two years on the shelf (not even half eaten), it was spoon-bendingly frozen and the container seemed made entirely of frost.

 

If I’d been older, I might’ve been less horrified by the discussion about “sleep” because everyone hated that, but what got me was the money factor. As a kid, I couldn’t understand why we didn’t just dump vacation funds and mortgage payments into a dog liver transplant or whatever luxury treatment might save him. To be fair to my parents, there was no guarantee that the costly options would work, but—again, as a kid—I couldn’t understand how the vet could charge us if Lucky died. We were paying them to save his life! Weren’t we?

 

Anyway, that period was a blur of feeling mixed up and that was the first time Missy Penderghast said anything to me. “Sorry ‘bout your dog,” and I knew then that this compassionate, intelligent, wonderful human being and I were destined for a lifelong friendship and love—except I was too shy, even in my misery, to do more than nod.

 

I don’t really remember how, but Lucky survived the liver failure.

 

The rumor mill that’d spread my locker crying to Missy P didn’t carry the good news with the same fervor and I failed to make clear to classmates that had asked about Lucky during the crisis that he had lived. So during a family tree project, complete with poster board, Lucky got his own branch next to Cupcake, our cat, and my sister got nothing, and as I presented photos of grandparents no one would ever meet, I was already trembling about being in front of the class and having to talk. Then I pointed to Lucky, announcing to everyone I’d taken the photo that morning (a model of preparedness).

 

Missy P interrupted to ask, “Didn’t it die?”

 

~

 

A few years later, I had my permit and Missy had moved or died or just had a locker on the other side of the high school. An announcement from the office pulled me out of Chem class while we were learning about electron orbits and spin. My grandpa was dead, I thought.

 

My parents had just visited Indiana last week after he collapsed in a Kroger’s parking lot, everyone thinking it another heart attack, which it was, but now the doctors knew he had lung cancer too and his ETD was a year. The ETD was wrong.

 

At home, Mom had piled fresh laundry into her suitcase for everyone and she was trying to close it without even spreading the clothes into an even layer so she violently shook the bag till enough socks fell onto the floor that she could close it. She was also shouting the whole time. About how she’d been working nights at the hospital so she was asleep when Grandma had called and she used a sound machine that drowned out the ringer, so Grandma called my dad who tried Mom again on the landline and her cell, but again, not loud enough, so he called Pam, the mother of the idiot neighbor boy Kevin, to wake up Mom. She tried the doorbell, then the doorknob, before finally stomping through the garden that surrounded the house to bang on the screen of my mom’s bedroom window, scaring her half to death.

 

“Is Grandpa dead?”

 

“No, he’s fi--” She stopped giving me that bullshit from last week that was to protect either me or herself from the reality. “You’ll get to say goodbye.”

 

This was my first real experience with death. I guess there were a couple funerals for my great grandparents but I only remember being told about those—I also remember their wiener dog. I was of no help to Mom. Everyone was a mess of tears or uncertain on what to do or say, but Mom was strong. She made me drive though. She needed to sleep.

 

Back then, GPS wasn’t really a thing. Smart phones either. And I’d never driven to Indiana before. It should’ve taken two hours, but I got lost. Imagine if--

 

Lucky was in the backseat. There’d been no time to book a dogsitter or the dog hotel so we brought him and in the flurry of grabbing things, we forgot his food. We left the garage door up, too, and contractors came by to fix the boiler in the basement and they rung the doorbell then just came on in through the garage and then went looking for either us or a check on the counter when they were finished and finally had to call my dad, who read them his credit card number over the phone while we were in the hospital waiting room. Dad drove up separately. He was at work at the time and he was going to meet my sister at home, who was off at her first year of Ole Miss, but for some reason they arrived separately and so did my uncle and his wife because they were now separated and I think by the end, we had seven cars at my grandma’s house. It could’ve been—some say should’ve been—one more, but my aunt never met up with us. I still don’t know that history. I hope she’s okay. Everyone was angry at her but they were just looking for someone to blame. She did visit my grandpa at like 3 am, the nurse told us, but she skipped the family support group and later the funeral.

 

We all saw him for a few days. My sister cried and my dad too and my uncle and his soon-to-be ex-wife, and my little cousin, maybe 6 at the time, but only because he wasn’t allowed to wear his Spider-Man pajamas at the hospital and he was too young to understand death so he didn’t cry about that.

 

Me neither.

 

I don’t think I ever cried.

 

Not even after we left with Grandpa still alive and my sister came back home for a day before the long trip back to Mississippi and it was the weekend, morning, when I got a call on my cell from my sister telling me that Grandpa had died. “Could you tell Mom?” I don’t know how she heard the news first.

 

We went back, bringing Lucky again, and had the funeral with just the eight of us, plus his body I guess, and we all gave eulogies. Mine made everyone laugh.

 

Mom asked if I was okay and I felt my eyes but they were dry and hers weren’t and I don’t remember, I really don’t, but I hoped I hugged her.

 

~

 

Lucky held on through several bouts of vet visits where they brought up euthanasia as the best option based on his comfort levels. Lucky had gone blind, his eyes milky, and he was deaf, getting surprised whenever he bumped into a chair leg or my leg, and sometimes he’d just stop, feeling the house shake as someone walked around and he’d look so pathetic trying to see them, hear them, or just smell them but nothing seemed to work anymore. We put a gate up to the stairs—sometimes. The gate was a hassle to climb over and whenever a tractor drove by, it fell, smacking onto the hardwood of the foyer, scuffing it, or it’d knock over a decorative basket of pine cones we kept on the stairs. Everyone hated the gated and Lucky was smart enough not to go up—right?

 

He was a sad old man, wandering the first floor looking for affection he spurned as a youth or looking for kibble he had dropped from his jaw mid-meal when a senile thought made him wander. Mom had to help him up onto the bed. We walked him in the back yard because he might fall in the pool, but also, we hated yelling for him in the dark corners, looking for the sheen of his cataracts in moonlight, or he might be tangled in the ivy behind the retaining wall. The leash was easier.

 

At Thanksgivings, the topic of sleep came up again because he might not survive the kennel during Christmas visits to Grandma.

 

But he did. They shaved him and when we left, they mistakenly gave him another dog’s toy, this long plush-covered tube with a dog head and wherever he squeezed, it’d squeak. With all that moppish fur gone, he felt peppy. Like he was 15 again. We’d throw the new toy and he’d run as much his arthritis let him and he’d stop halfway, forgetting, to lie on the cool hardwood, but he’d be smiling. First time we saw that in years.

 

So we thought he’d see me graduate in the Spring at least and I was worried he’d die while I was off at college because that’d be awful for him to go without one last cuddle from his best bud.

 

December 27, I was out with Dirk, my friend; Elle, my on-and-off lover girl person friend (it was very confusing what we were), and Elle’s friend whose name I never knew. We sat together at a late movie, Elle and I, and secretly held hands and shared popcorn and sometimes she’d miss the bag to give me a cheeky tease on the lap.

 

My phone kept buzzing.

 

The only two people who’d call were on either side of me so it had to be a parent and I was a rebellious teen who knew to be home by midnight. I ignored it.

 

We were watching I Am Legend, that Will Smith movie where he snapped his German Shepherd’s neck after the zombie infected it. I cried so much Elle reached over to comfort me and then realized that wasn’t appropriate for my mood so she just took my hand.

 

Afterward, we went to Steak n Shake for pancakes and french fries we’d dip in milkshakes and when I went to the bathroom, Dirk tossed his straw wrapper in mine. It was mostly gone already so I only pretended I was mad when I dumped half a bottle of pepper in his untouched strawberry shortshake, and then he—well, we maybe made a bit of a mess and left a sizable tip for the entire third shift. We were so loud inside that I had missed my phone buzzing up a storm.

 

Dirk couldn’t ignore it rattling against my knee on the drive home so he reached around the shift for my lower pocket of my cargo pants and lingered long enough to say, “I’m in your pants.”

 

I told him to stop. “What if it’s Elle?”

 

“Then I hope she sent a photo.”

 

I slammed to a stop at the traffic light by Mansion Road that I might’ve rolled through but last summer I’d gotten my first ticket so I was extra cautious even on this barren road between cornfields that’d just been sold to the city for a new subdivision. But for now it was empty. Just us in the dark. The music cranked too loud. I’m guessing here, but knowing how I was back then, it was probably Fuck It by Seether. This light was notorious for taking a minute and we’d gotten to it just after the switch so we had a wait.

 

Looking back, I wonder what Dirk would’ve done if I hadn’t been stopped.

 

He handed me the flip phone and said, “Call your dad.”

 

Instead I read the texts.

 

Lucky had gone up the stairs to the balcony overlooking the first floor. He was fat but managed to squeeze through the banister slats. He fell. He slammed onto the hardwood outside the office where my dad had been in his boxers doing the year’s taxes already. Lucky broke his back. My dad was home alone and took Lucky to the vet and saved him from any further agony.

 

I got out of the car.

 

I left my car parked at the paint, still running, lights on, and Dirk hit the hazards, as I paced around the car wanting to kick a tire but remembering how much it hurt last time and that wasn’t even about anything I can remember now.

 

“You okay?”

 

“He left the fucking gate down!” I yelled into the night and I felt my voice roll over on itself in a wounded growl. “I mean… I did. But I was leaving! Late! And Lucky was in back. He should’ve put it back up!”

 

Dirk didn’t have pets. He didn’t understand. “Sorry, man.”

 

Headlights with their brights shining through the jagged corn stalks came up to the street we’d be turning down and Dirk pulled me into the passenger seat and drove me home then walked the ten blocks to his house.

 

Lucky was in a box in the garage, wrapped in a towel. It was like looking at a photo. Like it was him, but not really, and it made me so sad.

 

Dad was back in his boxers in his stupid creaking swivel chair. He offered a hug, or wanted one for himself, but I just stomped up to my bathroom where I slept on the shag bathmat till 8 am the next morning. It was winter break and Mom had just come home from her night shift.

 

“When are we burying Lucky?”

 

“Oh,” she said, flipping through yesterday’s mail. “Dad already did before work.”
 

Lucky’s new toy was in the family room, outside his wicker basket of frayed ropes, rubber-only tennis balls, Frisbees, and a slew of plushies he never slobbered on so the fur was still soft. I hid the basket in my closet.

 

~

 

A few months later, my sister had rescued her second dog, Copper, an abused vizsla that almost had its legs shot off by the her previous owner. She’d brought the poor girl to visit. Copper was terrified of men, especially in baseball caps, and she leaned against my sister when possible; otherwise it was against the bathroom door, or if my sister was out, against a wall—always trembling. I tried to give her space.

 

But I still had to exist in the house, grabbing lunch, going to the bathroom, or putting the dog out, and when I tried to bring Copper back in, she just kept running the perimeter of the fence, no matter how slow or gently I moved, and it had started to rain which Copper loved but I didn’t want her to get muddier or sick. It was only February. So I chased her inside, and I guess I scared her too much, because she darted through the house faster than I could follow with a mud towel, but she left a clear trail of print and fear urine. It was easy enough to avoid on the carpet, where the sprinkles darkened, but on the wood floors—I thought I was doing a good job straddling the stream until my sock soaked up something warm.

 

Copper’s mud prints had faded as the grime got wiped onto the carpet. I tried cleaning as I went so the muck didn’t set in.

 

When I found Copper, she had overturned the wicker basket in my closet and was hiding among the plushies, already asleep, her head between her paws, using a ball as a chin pillow.

The Classic Fight (fiction)

The Captain—or rather, since the reboot, The Classic slammed the cyborg through a 73-story glass monolith’s ground floor where customers begged for extensions on loans. A wrist-mounted vulcan cannon caught a pen for signing checks, ripping it midway up the beads so they scattered among the marble floors before the entire tower shattered to dangerous rain of crystal that tore The Classic’s red spandex but couldn’t even shave his arm hair.

 

It was a dry, clear day with the sun hitting the city battlefield hard and a stream of blood squirted in a puddle as glass struck it.

 

The Classic stood in the parking lot amid the cars, now dusty and scraped and many with windshields caved in from the debris of mahogany desks and steel girders and the occasional picture frame with a smiling family. He waited for the breeze to clear his view.

 

But a laser cannon traced the circuitry from reactor to barrel in a purple light, all flash and no function, and vents clanked open to disperse superheated air from overloaded heat sinks. The cannon screeched its danger. The firepower would be enough to melt the desert around the town into a glass half-pipe and the cyborg trained it on the brightest heat signature, the one radiating with rage.

 

He aimed. Charged. Just another few seconds.

 

Fixed on the purple beacon charging within the smoke, The Classic dashed over a hedge fence to face-palm his target, carrying the metal man back into the twists of collapsed steel with all the ease of anger, not even tensing the bulk in his back, despite hauling the self-installed concrete shielding around the fission reactor in Cy-Cy the Sci Guy’s gut.

 

The Classic slammed his opponent into a jagged steel beam.

 

Shrapnel of concrete, metal, and the last vestiges of humanity exploded from Cy’s gut. The last spark of life triggered the cannon, pointed by the rage monster into the air, burning the atmosphere with a light that probably cut beyond the satellites and then died.

 

#

 

When Slip gathered up her streams from the cracks of the crater she’d been splashed into, her face reformed into something akin to a bookworm snuggling up to the crisp pages of a new love. Blood streaked her cheeks but never got to her jawline; it just sank back into her complexion that was suddenly smooth, calm, like a pond.

 

Then she saw the destruction around her. 

 

Her sorrow and her rage launched her straight into a losing battle, and she was mist in the air before she could even touch The Classic.  

Daily Practice

I wanted to do a lot with this site in preparation for my book but couldn't.

 

For now, I'll post daily writing exercises whether they're converting Marvel fight scenes to prose, scene setting paragraphs, the multitude of actions for a poker chip, character portraits, short stories, whatever I'm working on for the day but at the moment, there's no through-thread to my projects.

 

These'll be short. They'll be rough. They'll be experimental or even bad but they're practice so that's okay.  Feel free to skip them. 

 

Blank Walls in Books

A wall should never be blank. In writing.

 

Obviously in real life, our eyes cast over the designs or aesthetic accidents without note, but if you're mentioning a wall in a book, it cannot be blank. That's not interesting. I'm in my basement now and my walls are 'blank' but really, they're unpainted drywall with spackling so thin I can see the seams. It gives a sense of an unfinished basement, and contrast it to the walls behind me that are painted with a backscratching texture and the floors tiled in a pattern my dad copied from the local mall but there aren't any materials freshly laid out—no, those are in the back covered in dust—and you get this sense that the basement should be finished. It could be something tragic like the dad working on this project died midway and some closure or at least acceptance comes when a related character: wife, son, daughter takes up the project, maybe leaving old cracked tiles as their reminder. That's plot. Or it could be something minor, no real reason it's finished, but laziness. Dad started, got halfway through, ran out of paint then mortar so some of the tiles were left with space for crumbs to fall in and he kept putting off the errand as the project had gotten boring or too hard and he started up another with fresh vigor. That's character. That's what happened in reality. But it could be tension building, foreshadowing the true struggle of home-owner because it's financially motivated. He couldn't afford more tiles. He'd gone over budget.

 

Even when a blank wall works because it's the important detail, not the sheen of the wall showing imperfections if you get at the right angle, but the fact that it's empty. It tells a story through negative space and subtext that someone has just moved in or hasn't felt like decorating due to the home being so often empty or due to depression or a search for self.

 

But this guy! He's got a castle that he wants to look regal and historic and gothic and he describes the outer walls as blank.

 

No lines on the sandstone marking the tide as seen on coastal castles.

 

No vertical streaks from hot tar poured on invaders to showcase the brutality of the ruler or the unrest in his population.

 

No slits for archers.

 

No disparity between bricks of the walls that have been repaired so the coloring is new like in Edinburgh where the older buildings are darkened because the yellow sandstone they built with had oil deposits that slowly rose to the surface.

 

It's like this writer has never seen a fucking castle before. A blank castle wall is not showing anything. And if this were his first draft, I'd understand but I've told him three times now with explanation and examples and I practically rewrote his entire book to be decent on a stylistic level, but he leaves the verbiage, two-dimensional bland characters, the cultural plagiarism of clichés and default language. It's laziness. And after months of my hard work, my pay is dependent on royalties so I'm a little annoyed, but even more annoyed because I'm a writer and forget the pedophilia, I find the bad writing most offensive.

 

I've put all this thought into every line he's written and how to improve it. I've put it into every line I write, every diction choice, every character and plot moment, and whether readers notice the motivation or not, the book is better for it. But he can't be bothered.

 

He's content with publishing for the sake of vanity.

 

It's masturbation and he wants everyone to watch.

 

His book is a dick pic.