1 PROLOGUE 【序幕】

The family I was born into is not the family my sisters were born into. The world I entered is not the same world my sisters face. No one experiences life the same way as another person. In a world caught between two different cultures, life for me was like balancing on a tightrope. Too much of one side and I’d fall down.

My parents, both born in Malaysia, had it easier. Malaysia, being a Southeastern melting pot in its own right, has a major Chinese community. There was no need for them to assimilate into another culture, unlike my sisters and I who had to deal with the constant strain of adjusting to a culture that was not ours. And in a way, we’re still under the same strain. Chinese-American girls living with Chinese parents dancing around the American culture.

At least, that’s what it feels like to me.

Next Chapter →

Countdown

4… 3… 2… 1…

A countdown of numbers or at least that’s what it seems to be… A countdown of numbers or is it much more? Four has always been a favorite of mine. It connotes death in many of the Asian cultures but, to me, Four is very special. Four is the house I was born in and the month that had me. Four is the number of friends my heart holds dear and the number that signifies the children in my home. Four is the number that holds life for me, no matter if it’s the number that sounds like death in my native language.

3… 2… 1…

Another countdown, another countdown… But Three’s already special enough without my additions. Yet, Three is dear to me. Three is the number of sister I have. Three has doubled itself to be the roof over my head, and Three is the miles I have to walk until I reach my best friend’s abode. Three is a nurturing number.

2… 1…

It’s getting shorter, getting much shorter… Two is always coming in pairs, coming or going, but it still holds a power. Two is the parental guidance of my life, and Two is the number of families I have, both blood and sworn. Two is the light that shines my way.

1…

Hm… One… There’s not much to say about this One, sort of sad really, but it must get its mention. One is the one I hope to find. One is the one I hope will love me. One is my soul mate, and I’m determined to find One.

Written May 22nd, 2013

Love-Sick Fool

For some odd reason, he cannot hate her. Despite everything she’s done, he cannot hate her. He may very well just be foolish beyond rescue, either that or bewitched by her childish charisma and good looks, but he knows better. His careful watch over her, almost driven to the point of overprotectiveness, could not have been brought by lust alone or any dark magic spell.

He, with all his being, against his will, loves her. He loves her, and she knows, and he knows she’ll never pass up any opportunity to use his love to her advantage. Fate has dealt him a shit hand, but he does not care. He can’t bring himself to even mind.

He loves her.

Written October 1st, 2011

Rainy Day

You wait in the hard rain, waiting for just something, anything, or maybe just nothing. Usually, it would be just nothing. Once in a while, something out of the blue happens and, sometimes, you’d just find yourself dozing off. And occasionally, the clouds would disperse, and a bit of sunshine would brighten your day.

Today, however, you see something—someone standing in the cold—unfazed by the droplets falling from the sky. It’s a girl around your age but, as the girl turns her faze from the dark clouds above to staring at you who sits on the swing, you know the girl is way past her years. The sorrow in her eyes tell you everything you need to know.

Written October 1st, 2011

Chapter One 장 하나

In my mind, not only was I a late bloomer, I was also a failure. A year after I entered the world of the imugi, I still had not learned to control my powers. Lesson after lesson, exercise after exercise, I still had yet to use my powers at will. By the age of eleven, most imugi children already knew what their spirit guardians were while I was growing disheartened with each passing day that I couldn’t summon the form my powers would take.

I didn’t understand how my instructor had not given up on me during that first fruitless year. I was a disappointment and, as her first student, she must have been embarrassed at my slow progress. However, she continued her way of teaching, choosing instead to console me and tell me that I would learn in time. She told me that she believed it was because of my lack of concentration that I couldn’t conjure my spirit guardian, and so she had me practice jultagi.

My instructor was a younger teacher, the youngest at the time and probably in all of imugi history, and so her methods of teaching were different from the other instructors’. Of course, however, with a late bloomer like me whose control of her powers was beyond nothing, most of the other instructors turned a blind eye to her almost unorthodox methods. Having me learn jultagi, Korea’s art form of tightrope-walking and story-telling, when I didn’t even know how my powers worked almost seemed to me as her way of telling me to quit. However, her way of just shrugging off my doubts had me regretting thinking so badly of her.

And thus, I went to work on the concentration exercise she assigned me. And since this was to boost my concentration level, instead of making me tell a story while walking on a rope in air…

Kan-jang-kong-jang kong-jang-jang!”

…She assigned Jeong Hosae to annoy me.

“Stop that!” I had yelled. Despite being only three meters up in the air, my fear of heights had forbidden me from looking down at the far away ground.

“Stop what?” His voice came from behind me, and I had to go to the trouble of maneuvering my feet so that I could face him. Tightrope-walking came easy to Jeong Hosae. His spirit guardian was the monkey, a fitting guardian for a prankster like him…

“Playing around,” I answered. Just because he was my brother’s friend did not mean that I could tolerate him all the time.

“Sorry, kiddo,”—he had not looked remorseful at all; in fact, he was enjoying my misery—“Injung said that I had to keep bothering you or this concentration exercise wouldn’t work.”

“Since when did you listen to anyone?”

“Since she went and said, ‘Jerk, aren’t you the one always pretending to be the substitute teacher?’ And then she went and glared coldly at me.”

I could imagine that conversation, laughing at the awkward situation Hosae had been put in. It served him right for always messing around. Laughing was my mistake. As my body shook with the laughter, so did the rope I stood on. It took a lot of effort before I was able to steady myself once again. As the rope shook, my legs felt like the wobbling limbs of a newborn fawn. It was a miracle that I did not fall.

Hosae had his weird smile on again. “It’s a good thing you were able to balance yourself again,” he teased me, “because if you fell off then not only would you have failed this exercise but you’d also have cracked your head opened.”

“That’s not funny,” I retorted, puffing out my cheeks.

“You’re right…”

I found it hard to believe that he agreed with me so easily.

“It would have been funny if you did crack your head open.”

Seonbae!” I made my second mistake when I reached over to punch him. My half-lunge threw me completely off balance and, had I not grabbed the rope with my hands, I would have been laying injured on the ground below. Because I was short, I was less than half as tall as the distance between the rope and ground, so letting go of the rope would have been a problem.

“Tsk, tsk, trying to hit your elders is very disrespectful, you know…” Hosae wasn’t eye level with me. Instead, he was eye level with my stomach as he swung upside down, his bent legs holding onto the rope. “But even though I’m older than you, I don’t like being called seonbae at all… Why don’t you call me oppa?”

“Because…” I didn’t understand why he was ignoring my struggle. I had barely any upper body strength, and so just holding onto the rope was taxing for me. Even as I spoke, it was easy to hear that my breathing was labored. “Calling you oppa would mean one of two things: one, that we’re siblings which we’re not or, two, that we’re close friends which we are also not.” And we would stay being just acquaintances if he did not help me up!

“Oh, I’m so hurt…” He did not try to feign hurt as he pulled himself back onto the rope. “Aigu, aigu, what ever shall I do now?” he sang, acting as if he were a lonely old man. He pounded his chest with his fist. “Ah, you’ve hurt me so badly…” He sniffed loudly and dramatically before lowering his head as if he were going to cry.

I was rolling my eyes at his antics. If I wasn’t dangling like a freshly caught fish then I would have slapped him.

The rope shook.

That jerk! As if not helping me wasn’t enough! He was also trying to get me to fall!

“What are you doing?” I cried. I was only eleven then, and so his actions scared me.

He paused. “Well, you look like you’re in a bit of a predicament, so I thought of helping you.” And then his hands were at it again, shaking the rope once again as hard as he could.

The rope shook and shook. Its fibers burned against my tight grip.

“Stop it! Please!”

But he did not stop, and the rope continued its movements. My tears must have been leaking out of my closed eyes, my face turning wet as I screamed for him to stop. I did not know if he was laughing or not, but if he was then he stopped because I heard nothing when my grip loosened and my body fell. I know I must have screamed—I screamed even when I slid off the stairs, so how could I not scream when falling from so high up? But my ears couldn’t hear as my heart plunged. I wasn’t going to die, but just falling scared me to death. And the pain…

The pain didn’t come. The fall should have been short, and yet I was still in the air after a whole minute. How was that possible? My eyes, having been forcibly shut, took a while to open but, when they did open, I saw that I was floating in air. My eyes widened in shock. Had I finally found my ability?

“Hosae, can you stop trying to scare her?”

“Yeah, if Jihoon finds out about this, you’ll be as good as dead.”

That second voice had dashed my hopes. It was Hong Kwangseok, another one of my older brother’s friends. His presence made me realize how stupid I was to believe that my powers finally blessed me.

“Kwangseok-oppa, can you put me down now?”

“Oh, right… Sorry.”

I was on the ground within seconds. It felt nice to be back on solid concrete again. Though there were no trees and just dirt and sand on each side of the pathway, Changdeokgung’s courtyard looked so much better from the ground than from the air. Heights were never something great for me, and so I hoped that my ability would not have anything to do with flying.

“Well,”—there was a small thumping noise as Hosae jumped down from the rope—“I can’t say that you’ve passed. In fact, you did horrible.”

Ya!” I screamed at him, slapping his shoulder as hard as I could. “You kept shaking the rope! I fell off because of you!”

“Yea, but it was my job, Jisu. I was supposed to keep doing things to distract you, but you were supposed to keep focusing on making it to the other side of the rope.” He added a pained “ouch” at the end as he rubbed his throbbing arm.

“But . . . but you didn’t have to go so far…” I felt my cheeks reddening. When my hands were slipping off the rope, I had been so scared. The thought that it was just a concentration exercise had slipped my mind. In fact, I had completely forgotten that it was even an exercise.

“If Sangjun and Kwangseok hadn’t come and saved you, I wouldn’t have actually let you hit the ground,” Hosae protested, almost as if he were insulted. “If I did then your brother and Injung would kill me.”

I chewed the insides of my mouth. I was ashamed of myself. Even if Hosae was a troublemaker most of the time, he was still a nice guy, and he was my older brother’s friend. He wouldn’t have allowed me to get hurt.

“By the way, why are you guys here?” Hosae asked the two who entered the courtyard during my false crisis.

“Why isn’t my brother with you two?” I just realized that it was only the two of them. My brother, Sangjun, and Kwangseok usually stuck together like the three musketeers, so it was odd that my brother wasn’t with them. “Is Injung back?” My teacher would be the only reason why Jihoon would be separated from his two friends. She had been gone for two weeks already. It was about time for her to return.

“No, she’s not.” Sangjun answered, clearing his throat. “You know that, whenever she disappears, she’s gone for maybe weeks at a time. It’s very hard to predict when she’ll be back. Your brother is in his room sulking about it.”

Again.” Kwangseok added.

I laughed because it was true. My brother never liked it when Injung disappeared. At the time, I had thought it was because he missed her company. Never did I realize it was because he worried for her safety.

“Well, Injung does have Jihoon wrapped around her fingers,” Hosae said. “It’s natural that, when she’s not around, he suffers from withdrawal.”

I slapped him again. “Don’t talk about my brother like that.”

“What? You know it’s true!”

“Hosae, maybe it’s best if you kept quiet,” Kwangseok suggested. Unlike Hosae, Kwangseok was quiet and usually did not fool around. I did not know why Injung hadn’t chosen him to be her substitute. He would have been so much better than Jeong Hosae. “Jisu’s almost a mini version of her brother when she’s hyped up.”

“Good thing she doesn’t look like him or she’d be an ugly girl.” Sangjun, on the other hand, was almost as bad as Hosae. “What?” he asked when he saw me glaring at him. “It’s true, though. Jihoon may appeal to some girls, but I don’t think, if you looked like him, that you’d appeal to guys.”

“But I’m his sister,” I said, crossing my arms. “I’m supposed to look like him.”

“Not exactly, though,” Hosae added, pinching my cheek, “Or you’d be a boy. Good thing you inherited your mother’s looks.”

“Minus the fear that comes along with her mom,” Sangjun added. “That woman’s scary.”

The mention of my mother put an obvious frown on my face, obvious because Kwangseok immediately cleared his throat and led the conversation back to my earlier question.

“And speaking of her,” he said, “your mother’s handmaiden is here. We came to get you because she was asking for you.”

That wasn’t good. If Sukja was here then my mother wasn’t far behind. And if I knew my mother then Sukja wasn’t sent to just check up on me.

 

When I had first entered the imugi mirror world, I felt as though I had entered a historical drama. There were no cities or houses. All imugi children lived in one of four palaces: Changdeok, Changgyeong, Gyeongbok, and Gyeonghui. Each palace was a complex, each having its own large halls, temples, and other buildings. And each palace seemed like an ancient city, big enough to house hundreds or even thousands of imugi children. I had been placed in Changdeokgung only because of my mother’s insistence. Even though my brother had residence in Changdeok, imugi children were sorted into the different palaces based on their abilities and, had I gone through this process, I would have ended up in Gyeonghuigung with all the other imugi children who had yet to master their powers and abilities.

I did not know why my mother’s insistence was taken into heavy consideration—I had not known what being a state chancellor meant and had not known how high of a position my mother held—but I knew it had something to do with the rumors that flew around about her. She was a scary woman, always being called a gamble between a lady and a tiger. She was often compared to Medusa, the Greek Gorgon who could turn her victims into stone with one glance—I had been unaware at the time of how true this claim really was.

As I stood before my mother’s right hand lady, I wondered why my mother sent Sukja.

“It’s been a while,” she said. She greeted me with her hands together and bowed her head. Her greeting reflected her position. Sukja was a gungnyeo, a maid that worked in the palaces. The imugi world was not exactly a true mirrored image of the human world. Unlike the human world, the imugi world was stuck in the past where people like the gungnyeo still existed, where people still wore the traditional hanbok, and where there were no such things as electricity or technology.

“Have you been well?” she asked me.

I forgot how I answered or if I did answer her question—usually I told her that I was fine or that I have been well. But my mind was in turmoil. I had failed the concentration exercise Injung had assigned me and failed once again in trying to control my powers. Now I had to deal with whatever my mother had instructed Sukja to do.

“If my mother wants me to do something then she should come here herself.” I had said, jumping straight into the subject. There was no use beating around the bush. I felt bad about not properly greeting Sukja, but I was more angered at the fact that my mother had not visited me herself. I had not seen her since she left me in Injung’s care, and that had been more than a year ago.

Agassi…”—had she been addressing my mother, she would have used the honorific of manim, but my brother and I were not her masters and, as such, she addressed us as doryeonnim and agassi respectively—“Please understand,” she implored. “Your mother is a busy woman.” She was desperate because, two months ago, her last visit had not gone well. That time, I had not been in the best of moods just like now.

“Busy?” I asked in disbelief. “A mother should still be able to make time to visit her children!”

Agassi…”

I sighed. There was no use in arguing with Sukja. She was only the messenger. And I didn’t feel like attacking her when she had no choice but to do whatever my mother told her to. “What is it my mother wants?”

Sukja seemed grateful that I had given up my angry charade. “Your mother wants you to run an errand for her.”

I wanted to ask why my mother couldn’t have done it herself, but I held my tongue when Sukja handed me a piece of paper probably with instructions in case I forgot and a subway pass—this second item had me confused for a minute.

Although imugi children were removed from the human world once their powers awakened, many still passed through the portals that separated the two worlds. For some, it was because of duty—I would not know what these duties entailed for quite some time and, when I did find out, the world seemed more complicated to understand—while for many others, it was because of an attachment to the world they used to live in. For me, it was the latter. I could not bring myself to forget the world I was born and raised in, and thus I could recognize what the pass was for. However, I did not understand why my mother would want me to venture into the human world when she was so opposed to me doing so—the last time I had returned to the human world was a bit over half a year ago after which my mother had forbidden me to return.

“Her instructions are for you to take the subway to Gimpo International Airport and to wait.”

“To wait?” I asked. Those sure were vague instructions…

“Your mother did not say why. She said you will know when you see that person.”

So I was to pick someone up… What was my mother thinking? Sending an eleven year old to an airport as her lapdog… I didn’t understand whatever it was that she wanted me to do, but I was sure that whoever I was to meet would not like the fact that their welcoming party consisted of only a child. Yet, there was nothing for me to do but accept the chore. Besides, I wasn’t going to let this chance go. It may be the only time my mother would allow me to journey into the human world.

 

Living in the imugi mirror world greatly heightened my appreciation of the human world’s technology. Had humans stayed in the past like the imugi then reaching destinations would have taken up maybe a day’s worth of time, depending on the distance between start and end points. With an invention like the rapid transit, traveling great distances took only hours and maybe even less. But still, as I sat there riding to the airport, I found myself missing the beauty of nature. The subway, like many human inventions, was closed off from the natural world, and thus I would not have even noticed that I had crossed under the Han River.

Of course, during that ride to Gimpo Airport, I had been more preoccupied with the Choco Pies I had been stuffing in my mouth. Sweets held a great value to me and were of great temptation, and so anything with chocolate on it called my full attention. For imugi, most of the foods eaten were traditional foods that had roots in Korea for generations. Foods like chocolate or gimbap, a Korean version of sushi, were not eaten in the imugi world. Naturally, if I saw anything covered in chocolate anytime I ventured into the human world, I bought it in bulk. It’s a bit of an over-exaggeration, but I never kept track of how many sweets I ate each trip. I never got fat, so it didn’t occur to me to ever count my intake of calories. I was lucky that Injung had given me a large silk bag or I would have gone around Seoul with chocolate-covered biscuits in my hands.

By the time that there were only a few more minutes to Gimpo International Airport, I already had eaten two Choco Pies. With a bit more than five minutes left, I decided to reach into my bag for the box of Peppero I bought. Next to Choco Pies, these chocolate cookie sticks were my favorite snacks.

As I put one in my mouth, I had a strange feeling to look up. And when I did, straight across from me sat a creepy, old man. There was no other way to describe him. He was a short old man, possibly only as tall as me, with wrinkles that seemed to fold in on themselves and liver-spotted skin that stuck dangerously to his bones, making him appear mummified. His gray hair was like wires streaked with white. And there were times when he opened his mouth to wet his cracked and dry lips. During those times, I could see spaces where teeth had once been, and the yellow teeth that were still intact were pointed and sharp. He didn’t smile, but his lips curled at the end, splitting open some of the dried cracks on his lips. And he just stared at me with his beady little eyes that seemed black and watched me intently like I was his prey. He gave me goose bumps—if he had been an imugi then his spirit guardian may have been a snake of some sorts.

And he just sat there, staring at me. Just staring…

Last call for Gimpo International Airport. The doors will close in a minute.

I had not realized that I had arrived at the airport station, but I was glad to be able to shoot out of my seat without insulting the old man. Even if he was creepy, it would have been rude of me to just move my seat because of him. But as the doors to the transit closed, I could not help but look back to where he sat.

The old man wasn’t there.

As the glass doors between the station and transit closed, I looked around for him. If he had gotten off then I must have missed him in the crowd of people bustling to get to their designated terminals, but if he had stayed on the transit then he must have moved seats. That second thought calmed me, for that old man had given off a bad vibe. The thought that he was still watching me from somewhere in the crowd frightened me, and so I put another Peppero cookie stick in my mouth to comfort myself and ran off with the rest of the crowd.

I forced myself not to think of the old man as my sneakers squeaked through the halls of the airport, one of my hands on my bobble hat so that it wouldn’t fall off my head and the other hand holding my purse so that it wouldn’t slip off my shoulder. My scarf was supposed to keep the cold air from entering my mouth when I breathed, but my movements while rushing to the terminal rendered the scarf useless as cold air from the station entered my lungs. The large glasses I was forced to wear didn’t help either since they kept fogging up. If I had a choice then I wouldn’t have worn those glasses, but I had to mask my identity.

Because imugi seldom returned to the human world, imugi children were required to disguise themselves whenever they ventured into Seoul. It was a law that the yangban, the ruling class of imugi, had created only recently in order to guard against suspicious eyes. Usually imugi children were suddenly taken out of the human world, and so excuses had to be given for their sudden disappearances. There were other excuses, but the three main ones were boarding school, studying abroad, or even just gone missing. As a result, imugi children couldn’t just wander around. They had to be sure no one could recognize them or lie after lie would have be told and soon those lies would unravel. Disguising our identities was a precaution to protect the existence of the imugi and our mirror world. Other precautions included never going out during school hours and never using credit cards.

By the time I had reached the pick-up terminal, I was tired—I never did have great stamina, so even just a little run exhausted me. There were other people there waiting for their beloved ones to arrive, and I had yet to know who I was to meet, but I knew I would meet the person soon. The arrivals from the incoming plane were coming in, and so I waited for anyone whom I might recognize.

I stood on my toes, trying to see past the people in front of me, but, as more and more people began to arrive, more and more people obscured my view. I gave up after a few minutes, frustrated at the people standing in front of me. I wasn’t going to be able to find the person my mother wanted me to escort. I tried once more, going onto my tippy toes, but I could barely see past someone’s shoulder.

I was beginning to worry that I had missed my charge. There weren’t many people coming through the terminal gates anymore, and I was certain at this point that my mother sent me on a wild goose-chase because I could not recognize any of them. And if I couldn’t recognize the person then I doubt they would be able to recognize me either.

There was only one person who caught my attention. It wasn’t because I recognized her but because of the way she looked. She was a petite lady—maybe she was still just a girl, judging from how small she was. I would have missed her if it had not been for the fact that she only carried with her a black leather purse and nothing else, not even a luggage bag. Pretty was the word that went through my head when I saw her. Though a large black crochet beanie concealed the top portion of her face, her clear skin contrasted with her grey trench coat and matching black pashmina and hat. She was elegant-looking, but I wondered if she was cold. It was easy to tell that she had a black-and-grey-checkered dress underneath her coat, and she didn’t even wear long-length boots to help her black stockings protect her legs from the winter air.

In one fluid movement, her head turned my way—she was wearing sunglasses, and so I was disappointed I could not see her whole face—and her smile dropped. Her hand that had held her purse strap on her shoulder went limp, and her purse fell to her side with her hand, her knuckles becoming evident as her grip on her purse strap tightened.

What could have made her react that way? I turned around to find out, and I wished I hadn’t. I almost jumped when I saw the old man from the subway again.

In the airport’s bright lights, he looked even more ghastly, almost wraithlike. In comparison to the pulchritude I saw just now, the old man was the epitome of foul appearances. And he was still staring at me. I felt like I was in a horror movie. There was no doubt that he had followed me from the subway, but how? I had gotten off the transit just only a moment before the doors closed. Maybe he was a ghost… Maybe that’s how he got off the transit so quickly.

His beady black eyes were still fixated on me. He was only a bit taller than me, but the way he looked at me sent chills down my spine. I couldn’t tell if he was smiling, but his lips were pulled back, showing off his few remaining sharp yellow teeth—his already taut skin seemed as though it would rip at the mere motion, his wrinkles being pulled even tighter than before.

He took a step forward.

I took a step back.

He took another step forward, and I took another step back. I didn’t want to even be near him. It wasn’t because of his appearance but because of the bad feeling he gave me. He was about to take another step forward, but he stopped midway, returning to just standing still. He didn’t stare at me anymore—rather, he stared past me.

I was so focused on the old man in front of me that I jumped when a hand came to rest on my shoulder.

“Oh, maknaeya, have you come to pick me up?”

It was the girl from before. I was confused because of the way she addressed me. Only those living at Changdeok called me their maknae, the youngest of their group, so I wondered who she was. Up close, she looked familiar…

“You don’t recognize me, Jisu?” she asked with a chuckle. “Maybe it’s because of these sunglasses…” The moment she took them off, I felt so stupid for not knowing who she was.

Seonsaengnim!”

It was Injung.

“Jisu-ya, how many times have I told you not to call me your teacher when I’m not teaching you anything? It makes me sound so old…”

“Injung-eonni…” I corrected the honorific to her name. Eonni was the female form to oppa, either an older sister or a very close older female friend. Injung was both to me, a friend and a sister, but, even though I was glad to see her again after so long, my attention returned to the old man. My eyes shifted to look in front of me, but it was just like before on the subway. The old man had disappeared! My surprise had me turning my whole head around to make sure that he was gone this time and not hidden in the crowd.

“Have you lost something?”

“Oh, no, I was just…” I didn’t know if I should tell Injung or not. “It’s nothing…” And in the end, I decided not to. I didn’t want Injung to worry and, even if the old man was still there, I felt safer because Injung was with me. “Where have you been, eonni? Everyone’s been worrying about where you’ve gone off to this time.”

“Well . . . with all the clues my arrival has given you, you can probably answer that question yourself,” she averted my question, giving me a tap on my nose with her finger.

While she smiled, my smile quickly turned into a pout. “Eonni!” I whined. Even if this was our first meeting in two weeks, she still acted like a teacher, not giving me a straight answer and trying to evaluate my deduction skills.

She laughed at my antics. “You’re still so cute, Jisu, even with glasses.” She had a hand on my back, leading me away from the terminal. “Come on, let’s get going… By the time we return, it’ll almost be dinner time.”

Her words confused me. It was barely past twelve, and going back to Jongno District would not take very long. But I didn’t question her about it. Even if I hadn’t gotten an answer for my earlier question, I was glad to be going home. I didn’t feel like meeting up with that old man for a third time that day. How unlucky I would have been if I had…

 

We had gotten back on the subway, but we weren’t returning to Jongno District, already passing that stop. And yet, I just sat there quietly. I had already told Injung about my failure at mastering jultagi, so maybe she was going to take me somewhere to cheer me up. Injung always did that for me—every time I failed an exercise, she’d bring me a treat from the human world. When I look back, I realize that Injung spoiled me more than my brother and mother ever did, but I didn’t complain about it. Injung was as stubborn as she was spontaneous. There was no changing her mind once she set it to something. I had not realized it then, but her stubbornness would be a trait that I would inherit from her.

The ride with Injung had been more eventful than my ride to the airport. I guess I had looked much younger than I actually was because, when Injung had me recite a few classic Korean poems, a few older women sitting across from us began to gossip. I heard them call Injung a teen mom, but if Injung had heard then she ignored it. I had wanted to yell at them, but Injung stood up before I could say anything.

I quickly followed her out before the subway station’s doors closed and, to my surprise, we were at Yeongdeungpo Market Station. It took me a while to realize where we were—the last time I had been here was when my family had first moved to Seoul—but there was barely any time for reminiscing. Injung was going quickly, up exit three and onto street level. I wondered how she could walk so quickly even with heels on…

“What would you like for dinner, Jisu?”

“Dinner?” I asked in surprise. “Are you going to cook?”

She nodded once. “Why?” Amusement rang in her voice. “Did you think that I couldn’t cook? When you first arrived at Changdeok, I cooked all of your meals, you know. Breakfast too.”

Really?” This was the first I was hearing of it. Looking back, I had wondered how my brother ended up successfully cooking all of my favorite dishes. This explained it. Then again, had my brother prepared the food then it would have looked somewhat like a mess of stuff rather than almost restaurant quality…

“How about some kimchi jjigae for soup today?” she suggested, her finger tapping her chin. She was facing forward, but her eyes weren’t paying full attention to what was in front of her. “And maybe we’ll have omurice? Or do you want bibimbap? It doesn’t matter which you choose because I don’t have to make any side dishes with them.”

“Um, either is fine…” I stuttered a little, not knowing what to say. I didn’t want to sound ungrateful to her, but I liked both dishes, so it was hard for me to choose.

Bibimbap then. It’ll be a bit more nutritious. What do you think?”

Her bubbly personality overawed me like always and, like always, I could barely find the words to speak. I tried to nod instead, but my scarf immobilized part of the motion, and so my head just bobbed up and down.

“Great! Now, let’s see… We don’t want to be carrying eggs or rice around,”—she took out her cellphone and started texting—“so I’ll get Yuri to buy those… And we’ll have to tell her to get already prepared kimchi too…” She had already sent the text by the time she finished her sentence. “Hm… We’ll have to get the meat, vegetables, and seafood then…” Her phone was back in her purse, and her fingers were back to tapping her chin, Injung trying to figure out what else we needed to buy.

It wasn’t long before we reached the market, and it took even less time for Injung to find something that caught her eye.

“I want to have some beansprouts today,” she said as she surveyed the batch, making sure that the beansprouts at one of the stalls were really fresh. As she did this, she had begun to negotiate the price with the vendor.

I had hoped the price wouldn’t be lowered, just so I didn’t have to eat them later that night. Without my knowledge, my face had already contorted into something odd because Injung began to laugh when she looked towards me.

“Oh, come now, beansprouts aren’t that bad.”

My nose wrinkled even more. “But . . . I don’t like them.” I knew there was no point in arguing with Injung, so my response came out weak like a quiet whisper.

Her laughter stopped, but her smile remained. “My sisters didn’t like them either…” She hadn’t whispered this. Instead, it was a low murmur that I would have missed in the bustle of the market crowd if I hadn’t been paying attention. “Ajumma!” she said to the vendor. “Give me a quarter kilo. Make sure you give me the best ones. I need to convince this little one here that beansprouts aren’t so bad.”

But even as she smiled and joked around with the vendor, her eyes told a different story. It’s been said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Back then, Injung’s eyes were always so sad. The trip to the market place would not have been the first time I actually realized how sad her eyes seemed but, until then, I had never really noticed the depth of her sadness—it would take me a while longer to discover the reason behind her sorrow. Imugi eyes were always strange, always changing, but Injung’s eyes . . . they were different. They were beautiful. They only added to the mystery that was her. Certainly, there were girls prettier than her, but something drew me to her. Maybe it was the same thing that attracted my brother to her or maybe it was not. All I knew was that I wanted to help mend her soul, to give her something to smile about, and to see her eyes change.

Seon Injung was probably the most important person to me…

 

Once we were done at the market, Injung had hailed a taxi, and it had begun to snow. The streets were already beginning to turn a powdery white. Unlike the ride on the subway, we sat in silence, Injung giving me a small box of Pocky—it was a Japanese product similar to Peppero, but I loved both snacks equally and had begun eating the Pocky as soon as I opened the box. However, when I looked at the box, I realized the words weren’t in Korean.

Eonni, did you go to Japan?” I asked her once I finished swallowing my third Pocky. It would have made sense… Her long absence, her presence at the airport, and the unfamiliar wording on the Pocky box . . . it all pointed to her being in Japan.

“You’ve gotten better at guessing,” she said. It wasn’t an answer, but she didn’t deny it. “Hm… I better reinforce the strap on your bag or it’ll rip soon…” Her attention was suddenly turned to my silk purse. She leaned towards me, her fingers rubbing against where the strap beginning to pull away from the bag.

“Why did you go to Japan?” Though it was not unusual for imugi to return to the human world, I had never heard of any imugi leaving the country. I was pretty sure it wasn’t allowed, but I didn’t ask to get her in trouble—it was my curiosity that had me asking. I wondered why she would suddenly change the topic. The question was simple, so I didn’t understand why she didn’t want to answer.

Her hand was still on my bag, but her fingers froze in their place. She stared at me, probably wondering how serious I was. After a while, she sighed, realizing that I wouldn’t drop the topic so easily, and her hand left my bag, resting on her lap. “I’m part-Chinese, part-Japanese,” she explained.

I had no problem about what she said, but I had not known that. My surprise must have shown on my face because her smile returned, but it was smaller than before.

“Your brother never told you, huh? I guess he wanted to wait until I was comfortable telling you. How considerate of him…” She sat straight, her hands folded and her fingers fidgeted on her lap. “My mother was half-Japanese, one of only two daughters in her household, so her family cherished her. I visit them from time to time to pay my respects.”

“So . . . is that where you always disappear off to?”

Her fingers stopped fidgeting. “Not always…” She looked straight ahead when she answered, her face unreadable.

Her odd way of answering gave more fuel to my curiosity. I had thought she would tell me more on her own but, in the end, I had to prompt her to tell me even just a bit more. “Then do you visit family in China sometimes?”

She bit the inside of her mouth as if she were debating on how to word her response. “No.” It took her a while to answer, and the answer came out strained as if just thinking about that side of her family pained her. “We don’t get along.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but there had been a lot more to the story than a simple family fallout. But before I could ask her any more questions, the ride had ended, and the taxi had parked itself in front of a gated house. I got out of the taxi as Injung paid the driver.

My warm breath turned into white mist as I breathed, my body shivering as snowflakes kissed my face. Because Sangjun could make a snowstorm at will, I had forgotten exactly just how cold snow could really be when brought by the winter winds. Yet, despite the cold, I loved watching as the snow began to pile up and turn the black asphalt into white fleece. The snow was light, but there seemed to be no end to it. The sky was so black that it was hard to tell if the snowflakes came from the sky itself or from hidden clouds. The stars must have been buried behind those dark clouds because the sky was starless that night. Cold, dark, and starless . . . that’s how I remembered my first night back in the human world.

“Oh, maknaeya,” Injung’s call had awakened me from my daze. I hadn’t noticed the taxi had driven away. “I thought you had gone in already.” She must have realized her words only confused me—I made a note to myself to try and break the habit of tilting my head to the side; it just made me too easy to read—because she walked towards me and gestured to the house in front of us, asking me, “Don’t you recognize this place?”

I blinked once. Recognize this place? I wanted to ask what she meant. The neighborhood seemed like any other, each property being surrounded by a brick, stone, or concrete wall. Nothing really stood out, and the snow made it harder to find anything that did. The house itself didn’t have any outstanding features either—or at least, none that I could see unless it was behind the wall.

“Maybe, in addition to concentration, we should work on your memory, too.” Injung teased me as she walked towards the gate, all the grocery bags in one hand and the other hand nudging me forward. She pressed the doorbell, waiting for someone to answer through the intercom.

“Yes?” The answer came a few seconds later in a lackadaisical singsong voice. “Who is it?”

Injung clicked her tongue. “This girl still has to ask? Everyone else has already arrived…” She wasn’t exasperated, though—in fact, she was smiling, amused by her reception. She pressed the intercom. “Who else could it be?” she asked. “Open the door, Yuri!”

“I’ll only open the door if you have the food! You’ve been gone for two weeks. Don’t think I’d let you back with nothing in hand!”

It was just like Yuri to say that. Now it was no wonder why she was the one who had answered the door—she was only willing to ditch her laziness for either gifts or food, more usually for food—but I still wondered why she was there in the first place. Was it her family’s home?

I took a few steps backwards, trying to see the plate on the front side of the wall. It was customary for Korean families to put their surnames in front of their homes to indicate whose home it was, so I was sure I would be able to tell whose home it was from the plate. The name on it surprised me more than it should have. The character was written with the letters ieung, eu, and nieun. It was read Eun. It was my surname… After reading the name, I could only stare at the roof and what little of the house peeked out from behind the wall. Was it really my house?

Maknaeya!”

Again, Injung had to call me out of my daze. Yuri had finally opened the gate.

“Let’s go in before we catch a cold!”

I followed her in, closing the gate behind me. It was starting to come back to me now as I walked up the stone steps to the front door. I remembered running around the yard and pulling out the flowers the housekeeper had planted. I remembered slipping on ice on those exact stairs whenever a frost came after the snow had melted. The house—well, at least the yard—was exactly the same as I remembered. Except for some yard work, nothing had changed. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten. It really was the same house my mother, brother, and I lived in after we moved to Seoul. I felt stupid for forgetting.

When we had reached the front door, Yuri stood there, refusing to take the groceries. “It’s too much effort,” she said, staring at the four large bags in Injung’s hand. “Besides, I got the rice, eggs, and kimchi. I’ve done my fair share for the day.”

Injung rolled her eyes, placing the groceries on the floor and taking off her grey coat. “Yeah, right.” She already knew Yuri was half-telling the truth. “You mean, you got either Sangjun-ie or Kwangseok-oppa to do it for you.”

“Of course I did!” Yuri didn’t even try to deny it—in fact, she boasted about her exploit. “You know me. I’m definitely too lazy to get the groceries. Plus, it was hard enough to convince Sangjun-ie and Kwangseok to do it.”

“Yuri-ya, it’s fine if you belittle Sangjun, but Kwangseok is the oldest out of all of us. You should address him as such.” Injung said this while she helped me take off my winter apparel. Helping me with something as simple as clothes was one of the ways Injung pampered me, not that I minded—it was like being five years old again and playing a fun game of pretend. I twirled in place as Injung held one end of my fuzzy scarf, unwrapping it from my neck.

Yuri made a huffing noise as if what Injung said was beyond reason. “Oh, hush. I’m not ‘belittling’ anyone—I added a very informal honorific to his name. And you should speak for yourself. I’m older than you, and you don’t address me as such.” It was easy to tell she was mocking Injung because Yuri didn’t usually use words like address or as such.

“That’s because you don’t act like it.”

I didn’t realize Sangjun was in the room. His sudden appearance made me jump out of my unzipped jacket, my fake glasses falling from my face—I had hoped those glasses broke; I hated wearing them because they always blurred my vision when they fogged up.

Yuri stuck her tongue out at him. “And speaking of ‘belittling,’ if anyone’s doing that then it’s you,” she said to Injung. “Jisu is eleven years old, but you still treat her like she’s five.”

If anyone could bring out a childish side in Injung, it was Yuri. “Oh, like that matters…” Injung continued their banter as she picked up two of the four grocery bags and handed it to Yuri. “I’m her teacher, after all. I can treat her in any way I see fit.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever you say…” Yuri’s hand moved in a waving motion, signaling her desire to end the conversation. She took hold of the groceries, one bag in each hand, but then seemed to weigh each bag by moving her hands up and down. In the end, she handed the heavier bag to Sangjun. “Just get cooking, woman! I’m starving!”

“When are you not?” Injung just laughed. “Jisu-ya, why don’t you go upstairs and tell your brother you’re here?” she suggested, her eyes lingering on the stairs. “Knowing him, since he’s not down here to greet me then he’s with Kwangseok and Hosae playing that computer game again.”

“And don’t you wish you were playing with them?” Sangjun teased her, a coy smile on his face.

I didn’t pay attention to whether or not Injung retorted—I was gathering my outing attire, trying to decide which way was the better way to hold my large winter jacket, my inner sweater, and my long scarf without dropping them down the stairs. As I shifted the weight, I felt a light tap on my shoulder. It was a soft tap, much too soft to be the tap of a finger. And when I turned my head, I saw one of Yuri’s fox tails. It pointed in front of me, and another one of her tails appeared, my fake glasses in its grasp—they hadn’t broken when I had dropped them to my displeasure. I thanked her, and her tail placed my glasses on the top of my load of clothing.

The sudden appearance of Yuri’s tails didn’t surprise me. Her spirit guardian was the gumiho, a nine-tailed fox, who was almost just as lazy as Yuri because it didn’t appear completely; only its tails would appear behind Yuri, making it easy to forget that these tails belonged to Yuri’s spirit guardian and not to Yuri herself. At most times, Yuri would summon those tails to do menial chores for her, but I never had seen her use all nine tails at once—there would be only one event long after this peaceful calm that had demanded for Yuri to call upon all nine of her spirit guardian’s furry appendages.

I began my trek up the stairs with a sigh. Seeing the gumiho’s tails, I began to remember how my day had started—with failure. How long would it be until I discovered the identity of my spirit guardian? And how long afterwards would it be until I could control my powers? It seemed as though those questions would remain unanswered for quite some time, and I was growing more and more disappointed in myself with each passing day.

“Jisu-ssi!”

As soon as I reached the top of the staircase, I was knocked to the floor, my clothes scattered about—there was a slight cracking sound, so I knew that my glasses had broken this time. I couldn’t say I was surprised by the tackle, but I wished I had seen it coming. In fact, I should’ve known it was coming. After all, being oblivious to one’s own strength and being enthusiastic was a formula for creating unexpected situations, and Sowol had both aspects.

“You’re back!” she cheered after she released me from her hug. “How was your trip? What did your mother have you do? Did you like being back in the human world? What took you so long? I missed you! Did—”

I lost track of her questions after that.

Kim Sowol was Injung’s second student. She had entered the imugi world later than me, but she had already found her spirit guardian and had full control of her abilities. I tried to tell myself that her mastery of her imugi powers was because she was a couple of months older than me, but I felt ashamed of myself whenever I was near her. I just didn’t understand why I couldn’t discover my spirit guardian when all other imugi children my age had already done so. More so, I was ashamed for tarnishing Injung’s reputation. I was her first student. Why couldn’t I excel like Sowol?

“Jisu-ssi?” She was staring at me now, her cascade of questions having stopped. Sowol was the same height as me, so she had a habit of putting her face close to mine. “Is something the matter?” Her cerulean eyes bore into mine, trying to find an answer on their own.

“No, it’s nothing…” I told her. There had been times when jealousy got the better of me and when I would lash out at Sowol but, whenever I stared into her large blue eyes, my malicious sentiments would disappear. “I’m just tired…” I was lucky Sowol always took my excuses because I didn’t want to find out how much more shame I would feel if she ever discovered how I actually felt about her.

Looking back, there was a lot of things I never realized. Injung herself was a mystery, and most of my focus had been on either trying to find my spirit guardian or trying to find out more about my mentor. Yet, it would be Sowol that I would never really know. My jealousy had alienated her from me since I had first met her, and I never gave any thought as to why a Korean girl like her would have blue eyes. I took her for granted, but if I had known it would have been my last winter with her then I would have tried harder to be her friend.

← Previous Chapter

Prologue 프롤로그

 

“Showers of peach blossom patter on the door, shut all day.
Autumn is over at the moonlit pavilion; its jade screen desolate.
Frost encrusts the reed island; wild geese roost for the night.
I play upon the jasper lute. No one sees me.
Lotus flowers drop into the pond.”
 ~Heo Nanheoseon

Prologue

I was ten when my powers first awakened. Most imugi children got their powers at seven, but I had been a late bloomer, awakening my powers after a whole decade since my birth, three years after I was supposed to. Mother was not pleased when she heard. She believed that I would have been better had I just stayed a normal human. At the time, I had thought she had just been ashamed of me—after all, she was a state chancellor, and having a late bloomer as a child lost her face in the public’s eye. I had not known about the worries that had plagued her, not even when she had sent me off to Changdeokgung.

Once imugi children obtained their powers, they were taken out of the human world and into the mirror world our ancestors created. It was an incomplete world, but I had yet to find out. All I knew at the time was that imugi and humans could have only so much contact before the two worlds ripped each other apart.

In my lifetime, there has only been one event so far that has been so threatening—the other events were barely stepping stones in comparison. Remembering it now, I realize that I had been still a little girl, unable to prevent that horrible event from happening and unable to help in any way.

Had I known about the path my life would take, I would have wished to just stay human.

Next Chapter →

Dystopia: My Little Playground

Through the looking glass, Lady Dowager Xenia sees the sanguine orb rise from the eastern horizon once again to shine upon her sphere of influence and to shine upon her regime. She sees her crimson lips curl into a cruel grin on her faint reflection in the transparent wall. Her pale hand moves up, and her slender fingers with its long claw-like nails caress her mirrored cheek. The mirror lady does the exact same thing, and Xenia’s hand slides to move over her reflected palm that seems to reach out to her. She is still so young-looking, despite her five decades of life.

“Lady Dowager.”

From the corner of her eyes, she sees her lady-in-waiting with her head slightly bowed.

“What is it, Lucy?” Her voice carries a subtle hint of ire. Xenia does not like it―hates, loathes, despises―when something interrupts her tranquil morning routine, but she knows she cannot blame Lucy. It is how her handmaiden was programmed, after all, to warn her mistress of any coming visitors.

“Lady General Faye is on the premises.”

“This early?” Her eyebrow rises. Now what would her top soldier be here for? And at this hour? She has a suspicion, though, but she is not worried in the least.

“It appears as though she does not want her presence to be acknowledged.” This is Lucy’s way of saying that Faye was sneaking around, Xenia knows. “Shall I escort her in?”

It takes a moment for Xenia to decide whether or not to let the general know that she had been discovered. She wonders how her friend―was friend the correct word? Perhaps companion was better―would react. “Do so, won’t you?”

And Lucy was gone after a swift bow.

It almost scares Xenia how quick Lucy was, but Xenia knows she has nothing to fear. Despite her humanoid figure, Lucy is an android, an artificial life form. And in the end, all the androids are under the Lady Dowager’s command. Just as are the rest of her human race who could only live so long as they were supplied the elixir of life which Xenia had created. There is nothing to fear, Xenia reminds herself once more. Whoever controlled the doorway between life and death controlled the world, and that is her iron fist as the sole ruler of Earth with nobody but her soldiers by her side.

“Lady Dowager.” Lucy is back before she knows it.

“Milady.” And with their guest.

“At ease…” Xenia watches as Faye slowly straightens herself from her bend, but she drops her gaze after a second or so. There is no point in waiting for Faye to give herself away. If Faye were really that sloppy then she would not have been in the position she is in today. “How is the army?” Instead, Xenia brings out a topic that she knows they both enjoy.

“Well and disciplined as always,” Faye responds, her monotonously and passive voice sounding as always. “No one steps out of line, and there is no trouble. The women are all ready to move at your command.”

“Is that so?” Xenia inquiries. She also keeps her voice leveled before turning towards a touchy subject. “Then explain how, in the last upheaval, that there were some casualties.”

Faye is on her knees, her right hand wrapped around her left fist and her head bowed. “It was a mistake on my part, Milady,” she apologizes.

“A mistake, you say?” There is no doubt about the disbelief that colors Xenia’s shrill accusation. “I suspect something else. Is there not a weasel in your troop?”

“If someone did indeed leak information, I will personally deal with them myself,” Faye tells her, her heterochromatic eyes aimed at the floor. “But I assure you, Milady, I only underestimated the troublemakers. Please forgive me. It won’t happen again.”

Had Xenia been the same naïve child she was when she first came into the world then perhaps this would have been the right time for her to roll her eyes. But she is not a mere girl anymore. She is more experienced and practiced, and so her amethyst eyes are steady and unwavering.

She lets out a wry chuckle. “You make it sound as though I’m difficult. Are you afraid that I’d punish you, Faye?”

That did the trick. The Lady General is silent, her teeth grinding against her bottom lip. She does not know what to say. Both answers, yes and no, were offensive in this situation. And yet, Faye regains herself within the minute, and her composure is flawless. “It was my mistake,” she repeats. “If you, the Lady Dowager, sees me in err then I will take whatever punishment comes my way.”

Xenia allows herself a smirk. It would be a shame to be rid of such an asset, but there are many more to take her place. It would not be a total loss.

“Rise.”

The blonde stands, and she makes another miscalculation. She does not realize that Xenia has seen her hand reaching into her pocket.

“Lucy,” the dictator addresses the presence in the room she has almost forgotten about. “Bring up the cookies and tea, won’t you? I’m famished.”

Before the android bows, she gives a stiff nod only once, indicating she understood her mistress perfectly. Lucy is out the door by the time Xenia begins the conversation.

“Is it not the most beautiful picture?” The Lady Dowager gestures to the scene from her window to the city below. “A quiet and serene illusion amidst the sharp dangers of the Old World… Have I told you the story of my rise to power?”

Though Faye does not reply, Xenia knows the answer. She has repeated the anecdote many times before to ingrain a life lesson into her second-in-command’s mind. And again, she retells the tale.

“It was many years ago, almost six lustrums ago. I was fifteen, and the world was a much different place. So much more different than it is now…” Her hand touches the glass and, as her nails slide down, a high-pitched screech echoes through Xenia’s bedroom. “Back then, I was only the fourth wife of the brute who controlled half the continent. He was three decades older then I, but it mattered little to me. He was my ticket to ascension. Unlike his other wives, I was the perfect toy… Cute, charming, and cuddling…” She shudders, shivers going down her spine. “I hated him. He, who made me lose my innocence. He, who brought me into the world of his bogus political affairs. He, whose wives plotted my very downfall. I had to get out. I had no other choice.” Her gaze lowers, and her other hand rubs her stomach. “My son was the key.” Her miscarried son is the only thought that can bring tears to her eyes now. “I mourned his death, but that man never trusted his other wives ever again, and they fell into oblivion. It was his turn next, and he never suspected a thing. Even when he did realize his coming doom, he couldn’t even pull the trigger. He loved me, he said. He couldn’t hurt me, the way I was going to hurt him, and that . . . that was his weakness. That pitiful fool…” Xenia slams her fist into the glass, and a web-like design is etched into the translucent material. “I hated him to the end, and I regret not even his death as his lifeless eyes stared at me, accusing me of treason.” She turns back to the Lady General, waiting for an answer. “And the moral is…?”

And Faye does not disappoint. “Emotions are a human’s weaknesses, and weakness is never to be shown.”

And it is a shame that you do not follow it, Xenia muses.

“But, Milady…” Faye is hesitant, and Xenia knows this as she watches Faye’s hand slightly shake as it lies on the very weapon that could save the Lady General’s life at any moment. “Do you really not regret any of your acts?”

Xenia is back to facing the morning sky through the cracked glass. “I lament nothing, and I rejoice not. My son’s death was necessary, my co-wives’ deaths were necessary, and so was that man’s. Regret and joy . . . are like the rest… Only a delusion, a fantasy dreamt up by man. And I am done dreaming.”

A thundering noise ricochets from behind her, and she turns around and glares at the body on the floor, now staining the marble with blood.

“You would have done well,” Xenia continues as she kneels in front of the corpse, careful of her silk robe, “if you had followed my teachings and dropped your affair with that rebel. I would have forgiven you if you had, for all humans lust at least once in their lifetime. Instead, you allowed your feelings to get in the way. You stayed with him and plotted against me like my late husband’s other wives. And when the time came to, you hesitated at the last moment, unable to kill me like I’ve done to you. Perhaps if you were not like the original then you would not have asked me to atone for my past sins. If you hadn’t then perhaps you would be the one still standing here.”

Her gaze follows the trail the bullet had taken and she sees, besides her android, the woman responsible for the death of her Lady General. The woman’s hair color is radiant enough to be silver, and her blue and green eyes accent her oval face. The similarity does not spook Xenia. Instead, the Lady Dowager is pleased with the result.

“Lady Dowager, I have brought FAYE13,” Lucy announces. The cadaver does not receive a feedback from her because the android knows nothing but her mistress’s wellbeing.

Xenia mentally applauds her lady-in-waiting for her spectacular timing and stands. “The experiment is a success,” she congratulates the android. “The cybernetic organism bares no difference to this clone or the original. She’s also a much better shot. She will do well as our spy. You have outdone yourself, Lucy.”

The ebony-haired android does not utter a sound but bows in gratitude for the praise.

The cyborg next to her, however, lets the gun fall from her hand as she stares at the carcass.

Xenia scowls. “Perhaps excelling not as much as I’d like,” she is still speaking to her handmaiden. “Its human side seems to dominate its robotic mainframe.”

But the cyborg argues. “My only goal is to serve you, Milady. I was only watching to see if that letdown was really dead.”

Xenia does not return to euphoria. She steps on the corpse as she made her way to the door. “Lucy, make sure that’s cleaned up before I return this evening.”

“As you wish.”

“Oh, and Faye, if you value your life then you’d be wise as to not follow in your predecessors’ footprints.”

A Dozen Dreams

The week I dreamt about finding a long-lost ninth marble was the week Pluto was renamed a planet.

I’m not psychic. Definitely not psychic. If I were, my parents would have won the lottery by now. Sadly, my dreams are just cryptic coincidences. I’m pretty sure everyone has dreams like that, dreams that warn of something or another. At least, I hope everyone does. It’s fun and all, being able to say “I knew that was coming,” but truthfully, I’m tired of all the surprises in the world being taken away like that. I want normal dreams. Mother says I think too much. That’s why I get these dreams, she thinks. (But I blame my step-grandmother. She’s a shaman―you know, a person who does divination and talks to spirits―so she’s probably the reason why I have too many of these odd dreams.)

 

I dreamt of a thousand bugs huddled in the corner of my room last summer.

Days later, we had a bug infestation, most likely baby carpet beetles or larvae. We never found out what kind of bugs they were. We just knew they were a nuisance to have around. It definitely wasn’t a good surprise, but then again my mother should have listened to me. I did tell her about the bug dream, but she didn’t listen. She says my dreams are weird because I’m stressed. (No, I’m not. I’m stress-free most of the time.)

 

I’ve dreamt of tigers and lions and sharks in the house.

Mother says if I don’t think anything of it then the dreams mean nothing, but it’s fun picking out the symbolism in each dream especially because each of them are different. (The animal dreams are the most fun.) It’s like analyzing a book, except it’s a book you read at night to escape the boring reality of life. Maybe those dreams came to me because I was bored? I guess I will never know. But one thing’s for sure: waking up in the middle night, paranoid that there is a ferocious creature in the room, is not fun. Not fun at all.

 

On a random night, a pair of lionesses circled my bed, one decided to pounce me.

Mother was worried. Because we’re not Christian or Catholic, she didn’t make me go to church. Instead, she made me pray to Guanyin Pusa for safety and peace of mind. (I was just grateful we had the little shrine at home. I didn’t want to go to a priest and have him think I was nuts.) Sometime later, my mom and stay-at-home aunt had a fight, and my aunt hit me. The lioness was less painful…

 

The tiger was friendlier. It sat at the foot of my bed.

My mother was less worried, nevertheless she was worried, but she said that the dream could be interpreted in two ways. It was either I would tame a wild beast or I would come to have power. (I wanted to have power. I wanted to boss someone around.) At the beginning of sixth grade, I became friends with one of the toughest girls in school and, all throughout middle school and high school, she spoiled me. Basically, she gave me food, advice, and very happy memories.

 

I opened the bathroom door. It was filled with water. The shark just stared at me.

For once, that dream had no cryptic meaning. The following days, nothing came that seemed to be related to the dream. For once, the dream was just a random thought, so I never told Mother. (The dream wasn’t normal, but I felt normal because it wasn’t tied to anything.) After five days passed, I found out it was shark week. FML.

 

I was in the basement. A lion cub came to me. Its mother slashed my face.

Within the month, I hurt my back and couldn’t go to school for two full weeks. Perfect attendance was gone that second month of high school. It’s not like I cared about my attendance, but my back never got better. All my intermit absences meant that I missed out on a lot. I must have missed at least half of each school year. Looking back on high school is like trying to remember long-lost memories with blackouts in between. The doctors didn’t believe me. They all thought I wanted to play hooky. (In the span of four years, I took more medicine than in the fourteen years before ninth grade. Motrin, naproxen, ibuprofen, oxycodone, etc. If I really was just playing hooky, I would have sold every capsule I had and became rich. Instead, I had medical bills upon medical bills.) My reputation with New Jersey doctors and the school was marred.

 

I’ve dreamt of getting married to a guy whose face I couldn’t see.

I had crazy romantic dreams too just like everyone else. Or at least, I hope just like everyone else. I don’t want to be the only one with stupid dreams. I was too embarrassed to tell Mother about this dream. (I decided that dreams are stupid, and I should stop remembering them, but it’s so hard not to. Dreams are just too fun to not have and too fun to forget.)

 

A baby boy came to the house. He had the cutest smile, but then he disappeared.

I want to be a mother. I want to have children. At least four. At most ten. The baby boy in my dream seemed too real to be fake. In East Asia (not sure about anywhere else), dreams about babies are called conception dreams, and they foretell of an upcoming birth. (Conception dreams are very important. Some people actually buy other people’s conception dreams because these dreams mean a whole lot of good luck for the baby.) But the dream I had was a bad one, so I didn’t tell my mother about the dream, fearing that I would scare her. It didn’t help. She still miscarried. (I hope he comes back when I’m ready to be a mother. I’ll give him the life he should have gotten.) I cried for the brother I would never get to meet.

 

When my grandmother died, I dreamt of her in bed with an alligator.

I didn’t tell Mother about that one either. Alligators aren’t necessarily bad things, but I didn’t want her to worry when she had a funeral to keep track of. I guess I didn’t cry enough because seeing an alligator meant that I had repressed emotions and that I needed to see the situation in a different perspective. I really did try to cry, but the whole situation seemed unreal to me. My grandmother lived in Malaysia, far away from us. I still thought she was alive and well. (The denial stage lasted a while for me, so the alligator kept coming back, grinning an awful grin. It tried to climb onto my bed a few times. I had to kick it out more than once.) Her death couldn’t have worse timing. She died around Halloween and the Indian New Year so, while my friends were having a fun time, I had to watch a funeral through Skype. I cried when I saw the coffin.

 

I didn’t just dream of ferocious animals. I dreamt of turtles too…

The turtle dreams made me cry too, not because they were scary but because they were beautiful. In one, I was on the beach when suddenly baby turtles began popping their heads out of the sand. In another, I was swimming in a pool, and there were koi fish of different colors too, but the turtles were gold. Tiny ones but, nevertheless, golden ones swimming about. When I told Mother, she was ecstatic. They weren’t normal dreams but, at the very least, they weren’t bad ones. Dreaming about turtles (and koi fish) was unquestionably better than dreaming about lions and tigers. Mother says the dreams were about me coming into good fortune, but I believe those dreams were about me going to college. Sounds kinda clichéd and sappy, but it’s true. Everyone’s just starting their journeys, and everybody’s different, but they all are beautiful in their own ways. (Still haven’t met a golden turtle though… Met a few different koi fish but not a golden turtle yet.)

 

One night, my father died in a car accident, his blood splashing onto my face.

I cried when I woke up from that nightmare. (I cry a lot, don’t I? I’m definitely a crybaby. I try not to be, but I guess I’m too emotional.) Actually, a better description was: I was scared out of my mind, ran all the way down stairs into my parents’ room, and held onto my father for dear life as I sobbed hysterically. Needless to say, my parents didn’t know how to deal with me, so they just let me cry.

 

There are some people who say their dreams are their wishes for the future. I hate my dreams―well, just the scary ones. Mother says, in Chinese superstitions, dreaming of someone dying means they will live for a very long time. Well, fuck superstitions. I was scared. Period. A little girl should not have a dream like that, no matter what fortune it holds. (I just want normal dreams.)

Pixxa

“There’s magic in the world. But…there’s no such things as dragons, there’s no such things as wizards, and there’s no such things as fairies. However, there are pixies―well, there’s no such things as pixies, the tiny playful sprites creative minds made up. Rather, there are things called pixxa. P-I-X-X-A. Pixxa, they’re human, just like me and you. Only they’re different, not very different, but they’re different. They’re born just like humans (there’s a mommy and a daddy, neither are pixxa), they die just like humans (shoot them with a gun and they will bleed just like us), they grow just like humans (they need to wax and shave those annoying skin hairs just like us), and they need to eat just like humans (sometimes, they eat too much and need to lose weight just like some of us).

“There’s only two differences. A pixxa, male or female, will have only one special item. It’s a special item that found the pixxa, and only that pixxa can use that special item. And it is that special item that makes a pixxa magical. And without that item, well . . . a pixxa would only just be human. After all, a pixxa doesn’t have magic, and a pixxa is really no different from me and you. But…there’s only one more difference that sets pixxa apart from humans. You see, pixxa don’t die from old age. In fact, not many of them―maybe only a handful―live to see their sixtieth, fiftieth, or even their fortieth birthdays. They don’t grow old because many of them die between the ages of sixteen and thirty-two. They can die from illness, they can die from car crashes, and they can die from falling out of windows, but many of them die because their loneliness eats away at them until they’re nothing but bone and sunken skin. It’s slow, but it’s not painful―rather, it is painful; it’s just that a pixxa will become so sadden by their loneliness that their physical ache is nothing compared to their emotional agony. And once that loneliness sets in, it is close to impossible to reverse the effects. None have yet to survive even with the help of normal humans, but let it be known that a pixxa makes a lasting impression on a human it befriends. And that human will never be able to forget that pixxa, no matter how hard they try.”

This is the story your grandmother told you one day before she decided to take a nap and let her slumber erase the story from her memories. You can’t ask her anything further about pixxa because her amnesia has set in again, and she forgets even you, the kid she took in and raised for almost twenty years after your parents passed away in that plane accident. It is sad to see your grandmother this way, but you can only leave her there in the nursing home because of her old age. You wish your grandmother had a friend to talk to even if she cannot remember anyone for more than a few minutes. It’s too bad your grandmother’s only friend died when she was twenty-four. Your grandmother seems to remember only that one friend, so you suppose they must have been close. You recall the pixxa story and the fact that most pixxa die before they’re thirty-two, and you smile to yourself. Perhaps the story is something your grandmother made up after her friend’s death to cope with it.

But you know that isn’t the case. You’ve had an encounter with a pixxa too. You just don’t want to remember it.

It was during high school. It was an encounter that spanned all four years, and it was the only thing that made those four years interesting. You fell asleep in class whenever the teacher kept on talking about functions and fractions, and you were the kid who didn’t need to study because you naturally got A’s and B’s. There really wasn’t much for you to do and, since everything came to you so easily, you got bored of your classes, more so than any of your classmates. And so, one day, you decided to ditch school. And it was that one day that began it all.

It was a female pixxa. You don’t remember where you had been headed, but you do remember you first saw her alone in a corner, just standing there, content with just watching as people walked by her. You don’t know why you noticed her―she wasn’t beautiful, and she wore a plain t-shirt and jeans―but something drew you to her. At the time, you did not know she was a pixxa, but you knew there was something about her. And from that day forward, every day after school, you went back to the same spot and sat on a nearby bench watching as that pixxa watched the bustling crowd pass her.

You did not go home right away because you did not want to go back and face the harsh reality of your grandmother’s memory ripping away at its seams. You did not want to go home and pretend to be a part of your grandmother’s wonderland-ish world, a world she created that you were not supposed to be a part of. So instead, you sat at that bench watching the pixxa. It was irresponsible of you to leave your grandmother alone at home like that, but going home meant dealing with your broken heart, and you were not ready to have your heart be continuously ripped to shreds every time your grandmother asked who you were.

It was freshman year around Christmas that you stayed until the night was too cold for anyone else to be out. You stayed long enough for the pixxa to start heading home. And like the stalker you convinced yourself you weren’t, you followed her. It was the best decision you have ever made because you and that pixxa became the best of friends. You told each other everything, and you loved her but, at the same time, you pitied her. Before you came into her life, she was all alone. Her family had died in some tragic accident, and she was the only one left. She was left all alone with her magic mirror. The mirror wasn’t great company, though, because it wasn’t a magic mirror like in Snow White that told her she was the fairest one of all but a magic mirror that gave her a new look. You remember that, when you first saw it in action, you thought it was weird. You watched as her reflection changed. The first time you saw it, she had changed her brown hair to blonde and her grey eyes to green. You watched as she walked into the mirror, and you watched as she came out―the pixxa you watched for months was gone, and a new girl stood in front of you. Each time she changed something, you always thought of her as new. You could never understand why she wanted to keep changing herself. You thought she was fine the way she was. This was why you pitied her. You loved her for who she was, but she didn’t love herself.

But perhaps you didn’t pity her enough because you left her after senior year. You left her, and she was left all alone for five years as you built new relationships and fell in love with another. You left her, and she was heartbroken.

She died from loneliness. Maybe she died because she was so very heartbroken, but the thought made you feel even guiltier, so you keep telling yourself she died from loneliness. But you know you are to blame. She died because you were selfish. She died because you realized too late that you loved her. She died because you returned too late. She died because of you.

As years pass on, the guilt stays with you. You try to forget her, but the guilt eats at you―there’s something else too, but you cannot name it. Maybe it’s love, but it’s too unhealthy to be love anymore. Whatever it is, you cannot forget her, and you start to lose sight of everything else.

At first, you only lose track of the time. You think to yourself that it’s natural. Everyone forgets the time sometimes. But slowly, it becomes not only time that you forget about. You start becoming distracted from conversations, you forget about work, you forget about your friends, you even miss your own wedding and your grandmother’s funeral.

The only thing you remember is her, the pixxa.

When you realize this, it is already too late. You are already becoming just like your grandmother. You’re forgetting everything, everything but her. It’s painfully obvious as you sit in front of her magic mirror almost every day just watching her reflection, the only thing left of her you have. It’s like an obsession you have no control of, an addiction in which you only think of her when you already have a significant other.

It’s not love. It’s a curse.

When you realize this, you realize too late, but then again, when it came to her, you realize everything too late.

“There’s magic in the world. But there’s no such things as dragons, there’s no such things as wizards, and there’s no such things as fairies. But there are things called pixxa. They’re human, just like me and you. Only they’re different, not very different, but they’re different. They’re born, they die, they grow, and they need to eat just like humans.

There are only two differences between a human and a pixxa: one, they have a magic item that belongs only to them and, two, they die from loneliness. It’s a slow and painful death, and there’s collateral damage. Let it be known that a pixxa makes a lasting impression on a human it befriends. And that human will never be able to forget that pixxa, no matter how hard they try.”

Years later, you tell the same story your grandmother told you to some person willing to listen to you. However, you do not take a nap and forget the ending your grandmother wanted to tell. Instead, you continue the story and end it the way your grandmother never had a chance to.

“A human befriended by a pixxa will never forget that pixxa because a pixxa’s loneliness is like a virus, contagious and constantly reproducing. A pixxa’s loneliness will spread to that human but, once a pixxa’s loneliness latches onto the human, that loneliness transforms into a disease that eats away at that human’s memories until that human can remember nothing but the pixxa they abandoned.”