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Chaotic Good
Excerpt

1

 

 

The girl section.

 

 

“Your boyfriend won’t like that one.” He smiles at me through his patchy, barely grown-in beard, leaning against the wall of shelved comic books. I hang my head. This is exactly what I was afraid of. I knew I shouldn’t have come here. I knew I wouldn’t be welcome. With a jerk of his neck, he flicks his greasy brown bangs out of his eyes. He looks me over, his arms folded tightly in front of his puffed-out chest. He hovers close by, waiting for my response, dying for me to acknowledge him, not taking silence for an answer. His name spelled out inside a bat-signal pin: brody.

 

“I’m sorry, what?” I ask, not daring to look directly at his face. I knew better; I knew better and I came into the shop anyway. I read the reviews online: five stars from the guys, two stars from the girls. I don’t need his advice; I don’t need a debate. Right now I need inspiration. And this guy’s killin’ my vibe.

 

“It’s super girly. He probably won’t like it. When’s his birthday?”

 

“I--I don’t have a boyfriend. It’s, you know, for me.” Dingbat. My fingers squeak against the cover of the latest The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, holding on tight. I’m kicking myself for painting my nails sparkly pink and curling the rat’s nest out of my hair this morning. I brace myself for what’s coming next. All I wanted was a few new cosplay ideas without having to pass the geek-girl quiz.

 

“Oh! No wonder!” Brody laughs, and his expression softens. “You should check out the girl section.”

 

“The .?.?. girl section?” I scowl, feeling my dark brown eyes turn black.

 

“No worries, tiger. You’ll love it.” He ushers me, hand on my back, toward one narrow shelf in the corner. I step away from his touch as soon as I can, but I can still feel his phantom palm resting there. The shelf is in disarray, with a few pastel-covered graphic novels and some very kawaii manga.

 

“Here you go,” he lilts, eyes lighting up his pallid face. “All your comics lined up just for you. That way you don’t need to get lost in the big-boy stuff.” Another patron snorts from the board game section. This is humiliating. I’m trying not to flush, not to show a reaction. I can’t let him know he’s getting to me, but I don’t think it’s working. What year am I in? What kind of backwater wasteland is this? I swallow hard.

 

“Welp, I am a big boy, so, if you don’t mind.” I sidestep him on my way out of the “girl section.” I try to stomp my feet as I go, but I’m wearing ballet flats, so I hardly make a sound. Brody’s black leather boots echo through the shop as he follows me. Why is he following me? Leave me alone.

 

“Big boy in a pink dress, huh?” Why, oh why, did I wear the doughnut dress today?

 

“Yep.” I try to sound preoccupied as I flip through an old issue of X-Men, looking for Jubilee. I’ve been dying to replicate that yellow coat of hers.

 

“So you like X-Men?” Brody stands over me, reeking of arrogance and body spray.

 

“Sure.”

 

“Gen X, First Class, ’92? What’re we talkin’ here?” He combs through the comics, pretending to help. I don’t want to answer him, but the way he reaches over my head is a little intimidating. Maybe if I answer, he’ll leave me alone.

 

“Whichever one Jubilee is in.”

 

“Jubilee? Jesus.” He pinches the bridge of his nose and winces.

 

“Jubilee is awesome.”

 

“Jubes is the worst X-Men of all time. The worst. Worse than Dazzler.”

 

“Who?” Crap. And with that one little word, I know I’ve screwed up. One little word out of my big mouth and I’ve sealed my fate. Again. Why should it matter if I know who Dazzler is? How am I supposed to learn without buying the comics first? I pivot over to the next shelf and cough, hoping he didn’t hear me.

 

“I knew it! I knew you didn’t know anything about X-Men. What are you really looking for? Attention? A boyfriend?”

 

“I’m looking for comics!” I snap at him. My black hair flies in front of my face. I brush it away. I try to channel Liv, who would know exactly what to say. She would put him in his place. “Is my girl cash not worth as much as your boy bucks?” I feel myself shrinking; he laughs at me while I try to remove the gold ballet flat from my stupid mouth. “Who said I have to be an expert to like something, or to shop here?” I wave the comics in his grinning face, trying to distract from the awkwardness. I’m a thousand percent done. I wish I were She-Hulk. I’d have smashed him and the entire “girl section” to bits by now.

 

“You don’t have to get all snippy. Just hoping you can explain,” he starts, “why you’re buying comics if you don’t even read them.” Brody doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t even look annoyed. He talks to me like I’m six years old. Like he knows better. He doesn’t.

 

“Excuse you--I read comics. I love comics,” I say under my breath. I’m scared to raise my voice despite how angry I am. From now on I’ll be doing all my shopping online, that’s for sure.

 

“But you don’t even know who--”

 

“I know enough. Okay?” I snap. “I know all their costumes by heart, and one day I’ll be making--”

 

“Costumes?! That’s what you’re into, their outfits? Oh God .?.?. you’re not one of those cosplay chicks, are you?” Brody reels back, face scrunched up as if he caught a whiff of something more rotten than his body spray. He looks me over again from my shoes to my shoulders, not bothering to look me in the eyes, disgusted. Every second I stand here is excruciating. I wish I had never come in. I should have waited to go back to Portland. I should have saved up to buy an iPad so I’d never have to leave the house to buy a comic again. I can’t bring myself to say anything else. There’s nothing I can actually say. Nothing that would make a difference. I’m ready to run--screw inspiration--when the staff door bangs open. Another employee stands in the doorway, balancing six boxes in his dark brown arms. Great, now he’s got backup.

 

“Ayo, Brody! New Dark Horse shipment came in,” he says, nodding toward the back room. Brody takes his cue and leaves us with one last laugh.

 

“Come on, I’ll ring you up.” I follow without questioning, keeping my eyes focused on his red Vans and rolled-up cuffs.

 

“Oh! Nice choice. Let’s kick some butts and eat some nuts!” he chants while typing into the staff computer. I nearly choke on the spearmint gum I’m chewing.

 

“What?!”

 

“You’ll see.” He smiles. He’s younger than Brody, with a short golden-bleached Afro. His name tag only says why. “It’s one of my faves.”

 

“Yeah? You shop in the girl section?” I growl back at him under my breath. Just ring me up so I can get out of here. The attention is getting to me. I start peeling the polish off my nails; the glittery flakes fall to the ground.

 

“Ugh. He brought that up? I’ve been trying to talk him out of that girl section since I started here--it’s hella annoying.” Embarrassed, Why pushes his red frames up onto the bridge of his nose. The lenses are covered in so many fingerprints and smudges I’m surprised he can see me at all.

 

“Sure.”

 

“No, really. I know it’s stupid, right? But his uncle owns the shop. Brody pretty much acts like he runs the place.”

 

“Good for him.” I hand Why my debit card, no receipt, and rush to the door.

 

“Hey, wait! Do you want to enter a raffle? It’s for--”

 

“No thanks!” I cut him off, and get the hell out of there.

 

 

 

Atomix Comix is the only decent place left to buy comics in Eugene after Vanishing Planet vanished. Apparently, they went under without the extra income from selling board games, toys, and knickknacks. I never even got a chance to shop there. Now I’m stuck buying comics from grody Brody and the He-Man Woman-Haters Club.

 

I squint into the summer sun. The main drag is all washed out and white as my eyes adjust to the light. I try not to think about Liv getting to work at Books with Pictures this summer. How she’d never have her comics-cred questioned because she works behind the counter. Liv gets to be on the inside. I wonder if she kept the Lightning cosplay I made her. After all, it was her idea to dress as Final Fantasy characters. And yeah, I don’t know who any of them are, but I liked the designs. I had no idea I was going to get called out. Not like that, anyway.

 

I need thread. I need buttons. Hot glue. Sequins. Armature wire. A new thimble for my ever-growing collection. I list out all the things I’ll buy at the craft store to soothe my sore ego. I wish it were a longer walk; I don’t want to taint the one place I like in this town with the bad vibes from down the street. The bells on the door at Kozy Corner jingle quietly as I step into the shop. The air is heady with the smell of dust and fake flowers.

 

I’m home. I pace the aisles, tracing my fingers along stacks of folded fabric. My mind races through the possibilities. This vinyl could be Black Canary’s corset, and that intricate weblike brocade could be the lining for Spider-Gwen’s hood.

 

And then I spot it. A summer-night-blue fabric, a blue the deepest depths of the oceans, an almost-black blue that practically glows under the shine of the fluorescent lights overhead. This bolt of midnight-blue satin calls to me, crammed in the wrong spot between some yellow and green felt.

 

“Who put you here?” I ask the satin as I pull it out. I feel like fainting from just the sight of its cerulean perfection. I want to spray it with bleach and create a pattern of nebulas and galaxies. Hand-paint in stars, wire it up using fiber-optic strands so it twinkles, and, damn, what a gown it would be.

 

I would wear it to the premiere of my first summer blockbuster. And everyone would know that’s Cameron Birch; she’s the girl who designed the costumes. I fabricated them too, but I forgive their ignorance this time because I’m too busy posing with Chris Pratt for the press. I’ll buy five yards of it.

 

“Don’t you just look lovely today?” Dotty with the lilac-gray hair sighs as she rings me up.

 

“Thanks.” I hope when I’m her age, great-grandma age, I look as cool as Dotty. She dresses sharp, severe. Slick black capes and pounds of pearls and baubles. I’ve never seen her wear the same pair of earrings twice.

 

“All pink and poofy and perfect.” She kisses her thumb, her own personal gesture of approval.

 

“Sure.”

 

“What’s wrong? You’ve got a face like a wet weekend.” She folds the satin carefully before slipping it into the plastic bag.

 

“Maybe too pink,” I tell her as she swipes my debit card. I look over my pink doughnut-printed dress, the one I spent last weekend sewing after a serious bout of homesickness. I never liked the doughnuts at Voodoo Doughnut, but I loved seeing tourists with their pink boxes. I even sewed on little beads that look like sprinkles. Now I wish I had made something more normal. Maybe I should just start buying clothes at the mall again.

 

“No such thing as too pink.” Dotty hands me my fabric while the printer screeches out my receipt.

 

“Thanks, Dot. See you round, I’m sure.”

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Safe Harbour
Excerpt

Chapter 1

Most people think cumulus nimbus are the best cloud-watching clouds, but Dad and I prefer cirrus spissatus. If you ask me, the whole cumulus family of clouds is too obvious. It’s like they shout danger when anyone can tell they mean trouble at first glance.

But cirrus spissatus clouds are hypnotic. They promise mystery and hope: a thin veil between earth and heaven that might dissolve at any moment. We most often see Mom in the long, thin cover of the cirrus spissatus clouds. We seek her out every day, unless it’s cloudless, of course, which means she’s giving us the all clear. It’s like a contest to see who can find her first. Maybe her face is our good luck charm or the act of looking is our prayer for the coming day.

When I was little Dad used to beat me to her, but now I find her first. When I do, when I point her out in some distant cloud formation, he sighs and, with a dreamy distant look in his eyes, says: “She’s the most beautiful woman in the world.”

And not until then, not until one of us sees her face in the clouds, do we start our day.

I lie back in the sun with my hands behind my head and scan the sky above me while Tuff dozes in a patch of dappled sunlight farther up the slope. The leaves overhead sift the sunlight across his body in a trembling pattern. His legs jerk slightly and I wonder if he’s chasing a dream squirrel or a rabbit or maybe a raccoon. There’re so many critters to chase and new places to explore in the ravine, I don’t think he misses the boat at all. But I do. I miss the slap of the waves on the hull and rocking in a half-doze on the glinting sea. I miss Dad, too. But never mind.

I slip the last soda cracker into my mouth and chase it with a mouthful of water from the Tropicana jug. Then I empty crumbs from the plastic sleeve into the palm of my hand and eat those, too. I expect the rustling to wake up Tuff, but he’s oblivious to me, whining in his sleep.

When I finish scouring the northern horizon, my eyes drift east. I split the sky into quadrants and search for her that way. North, east, west, and last of all, south. Dad prefers to let his eyes wander across the sky randomly, following her clues from thought to thought. But my way’s faster.

“There she is, Tuff.” I point out her face near the edge of the eastern horizon, beyond the overpass. “She’s smiling today and her hair is streaming in the wind. She sure looks beautiful.” I say it for Dad and then stand up.

Finally Tuff raises his head and assesses me from his patch of sunshine and green grass.

“Well, c’mon. Up you get. We can’t lie around here all day. We’ve got stuff to do.”

Tuff devours a bowl of kibble while I pack the tent and zip it closed. Then I pull the branches over the front door until it’s completely hidden. It would take a psychic, or maybe a U.S. Marine, to find our campsite.

I pat my front pocket for my phone and charger. Then check for the lump in my back pocket, which is a small fold of twenty-dollar bills and the credit card.

“Everything’s in order. Let’s go!”

Tuff follows me out to the trail and up the side of the ravine, sniffing at every stalk of grass and tree trunk like he’s met them all before and has to say hello to a long-lost friend.

“Don’t get too used to living on land.”

He tilts his head and barks once.

“Of course, I’ll always take you for walks so you can chase squirrels.”

As if to demonstrate his joy, Tuff races up the side of the ravine and stops at the base of a stately maple tree. He stares into the branches and dances around the trunk, trying to get a sightline on whatever he chased up there. When I get too far ahead, he abandons the tree and runs to catch up.

It’s a glorious summer day. The sun is warm and bright without making the day oppressively hot. It’s the air quality in Toronto that surprises me most. Even though it’s July, the clarity of the air makes me feel optimistic and it’s easy to breathe. It’s never like that in the Keys, or even farther north in Tampa. No, the air in Florida is thick and heavy, and you can’t ever forget that you need your lungs to survive. The summer air in Miami could sear your throat if you inhaled too deep.

When we get to the cemetery, I clip the leash onto Tuff ’s collar and head toward Bloor Street. I haven’t been in Toronto long, but I already know the major intersections and basic landmarks downtown. I know the names of some of the neighbourhoods and can find my way to a few places.

There are even a couple of people I see day after day. Like the girl who sits on a square of cardboard near the intersection of Yonge and Bloor, her legs folded like a pretzel and her back as straight as the wall she melts into. She sits on the same block, though not always in the exact same place. Today she’s on the northeast corner. As I turn onto Yonge Street, I look at her and nod. Tuff sniffs at her cup of change and I tug lightly on his leash.

“It’s okay. He’s cute,” she says and reaches out to ruffle the fur behind his ears. I let Tuff introduce himself.

“Sorry. I don’t have any change,” I say apologetically.

“No worries. I’m happy meeting your dog. What’s his name?”

“Tuff Stuff.”

She wrinkles up her nose. “What sort of name is that?”

“My mom named him when he was a puppy because he was always trying to show the bigger dogs that he was boss.”

“Is he?” She leans close and wraps her arms around Tuff ’s neck. He sits down, happy to be adored by a pretty girl. And she is pretty, despite the layers of dark clothing hiding her petite frame and the rings of black eyeliner that make her look like she’s scowling. It’s obvious she wants people to think she’s badass, even though I can tell she isn’t. Not even her black dreads or eyebrow rings can camouflage her perfect smile.

“Is he what? Tough?”

“Yeah, and the boss?”

“Not really. He’s a pushover.”

The girl unknots her legs and stands up. She reaches out her hand. “Lise Roberts,” she says.

I hesitate and Lise chuckles.

“It’s okay. I don’t bite and I wash every day. With soap.”

A hot blush washes over my cheeks and I take her hand.

“Harbour Mandrayke. Nice to meet you.”

“You should stop and talk sometime, when you have a few minutes,” Lise suggests. “I think Tuff would like it.”

Tuff leans against her leg with a hopeful expression and points his muzzle up at her like a wolf getting ready to howl at the moon.

“I will,” I say and pull Tuff down the street after me.

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Bonjour Shanghai
Excerpt

Prologue

I made it.

Well, barely.

I ran down the airline ramp all sweaty and winded, my bags swinging from side to side, including the canvas bag Jake gave me as a goodbye present that reads Smart Women Don’t Kiss Ass, They Kick It in bold pink.

I almost missed my flight because deep down inside, I still wasn’t sure I should leave. It was no surprise that leaving Jonathan behind was heart-wrenching. We stood there holding each other in the middle of the busy JFK terminal for what felt like forever, with Jake looking on.

Even though I was trying to be fully present in Jonathan’s arms, I could see and feel Jake’s anxiety in the distance. He kept checking his phone. I wish I could have helped resolve all his problems before I left, but I just couldn’t.

We all came together for a group hug, and I promised to video-call them daily on WeChat, then I kissed them both and just ran and didn’t look back until I got to the security gate. That’s probably why I’d chosen to wear sneakers — so I could run. Maybe I’d known that if I slowed down, I might lose my resolve in an instant, change my plans, and never get on that plane. Love and friendship can open your heart wide and make you do foolish things.

But I just couldn’t do that to Maddie, to my parents, or, more importantly, to myself. I need to prove that I can kick ass on my own. That I really can make it.

I rushed through security and dashed off to the gate with my visa, passport, and boarding pass in hand, and now here I am at the plane. I don’t look anything like a Parsons or Condé Nast fashion student at the moment, with sweat dripping from my forehead and my hair in a messy bun, but who cares?

When I board, the flight attendants don’t look too thrilled about my tardiness. But their mood shifts when I compliment them on their uniforms: impeccable red dresses and delicate silk scarves tied around their necks. They look impossibly chic.

Some of the passengers shoot me evil stares, maybe because I’m late, but more likely because of the pink-sloganed bag I keep shoving in their faces as I awkwardly manoeuvre to my seat. Jake would be immensely proud.

I pull out my magazines, the two paperbacks Jonathan gave me to read, and my bottled water. I also have a box of cupcakes baked for me by Jake’s mom. I actually teared up when he handed them to me. The fact that Jake’s mom has no clue about her son’s predicament breaks my heart.

I look around. Thankfully, my seat neighbour is a mature-looking Chinese woman who’s already got her nose in a book. I like my travel companions to be quiet so I can read and write.

I’m hoping to finally write another blog post for Bonjour Girl, one that resonates with my values, now that I have the time, space, and energy to do it.

After the emergency protocols have been duly explained and we’ve taken off, I pull out my laptop. I open a bag of roasted almonds and think about what to write. This feels good. Taking refuge in my writing will help me to have a more positive outlook on my upcoming adventure. I’m going to Shanghai!

Someone taps me on the shoulder.

“Clementine? Clementine Liu?”

I look up to see a handsome young Asian man standing next to me in the aisle.

“I have a note for you from a close friend of mine,” he says, handing me a folded piece of paper. “Enjoy your flight, okay?”

“Thanks.”

I sit up straight, curious about this mysterious note.

I open it and my eyes nearly pop out of their sockets when I see who it’s from.

Welcome to Shanghai.

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