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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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Bad Dog

Bad Dog

edition:Hardcover
also available: Hardcover
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The Dragon Thief
Excerpt

Kavita
 
 
“Thief!”
 
The word whistles through the air and pricks the back of my neck. I turn to find Aunty’s black eyes fixed on me. She was snoring loudly when I crept into her room just a moment ago. That gave me the courage to pull a chair over to the mountain of boxes and stuffed plastic bags she keeps in the corner. At the very top of the mound of junk is a wire birdcage that’s shaped sort of like the Taj Mahal. I need it--and I need it now.
 
I inch up on my tippy-toes and reach for the birdcage. My other hand sinks into the soft, squishy contents of a yellow plastic bag that’s wedged between two boxes. I don’t know what’s inside the bag, and I don’t care. Mummy would never let me keep my room like this, but no one ever criticizes Aunty--Papa won’t allow it. She’s the oldest person in our family and spends almost every day buried under the heavy, colorful quilt that covers her bed. Sometimes she hums to herself and stares out the window. Other times she watches game shows on the little black-and-white TV that sits next to her bed. Now I see her pointing a wrinkled brown finger at me.
 
“Thief!”
 
She says it louder this time. I feel my cheeks burn with shame.
 
“No, Aunty--I--I . . .” By pressing my hand deeper into the squishy plastic bag, I manage to steady myself and turn all the way around to face her. “I just need to borrow-- Whoa!”
 
I was so close to reaching my prize, but then I lose my balance. I fall off the chair, bounce off the foot of the bed, and land on the floor with a thud. My fall brings down an avalanche of boxes, and so I cover my head with my hands. When I open my eyes, the empty birdcage is rolling on its side next to me.
 
“Tut-tut-tut.” Aunty makes the strange sound without opening her mouth. “What a mess you’ve made.”
 
“Aunty? Is everything all right?”
 
My eyes open wide. If Mummy comes upstairs, she’ll want to know why I’m in Aunty’s room. And if I tell her the truth, she’ll want to know why I need an old birdcage. I can’t tell her that there’s a dragon in my bedroom. I can’t tell anyone that I’m a dragon thief!
 
Aunty watches me with a slight smile on her face. Against her dark skin, her black eyes sparkle with amusement. I don’t think she’s angry with me, so I decide to plead for help.
 
“Please don’t tell on me, Aunty! I’ll clean everything up--I promise.”
 
We both know Mummy’s standing at the foot of the stairs. Her hand is probably on the railing, and she’s wondering whether she needs to come upstairs to check on Aunty. My heart is pounding fast and hard, but I don’t yet hear Mummy’s slippered feet climbing the stairs. “Please, Aunty,” I whisper.
 
Aunty clears her throat and calls, “I’m fine, dear. I just knocked over some boxes. Kavita’s here to help me.”
 
We wait, frozen and silent, until we hear Mummy’s voice floating upstairs. “Okay, Aunty. I’ll be up soon with your lunch.”
 
Because she’s an elder, Aunty doesn’t have to do much around the house. She really only leaves her room to use the toilet and take two-hour baths. Aunty doesn’t even come downstairs to eat with us unless we have company over on special occasions. Mummy brings Aunty’s meals up on a tray. I scan the messy room for a clock and find one on the nightstand next to the bed. It’s a square digital clock that Vik and I gave to Aunty last Christmas. Its giant blue display reads 11:38.
 
I hop to my feet and scramble to pick up all the things I’ve just knocked down. Aunty waves her hand at me and says, “Leave it, child. It makes no difference to me whether they are up against the wall or on the floor. What is it you came to borrow?”
 
I feel guilty, so I set the chair back on its legs and stack a couple of boxes on its seat. Then I point to the pink wire cage and say, “I came to borrow your birdcage, Aunty.”
 
Her dark eyes narrow as she squints at me. “You don’t have a bird.”
 
My cheeks burn again, and I dig my toes into the thick green carpet. “No, Aunty.”
 
After studying me for a moment, she says, “Do you have some other kind of pet?”
 
I nod without looking up. How much should I tell her?
 
“I put it in a box, but . . .” I stop and decide not to tell Aunty that the dragon set the cardboard box on fire. “I need something stronger.”
 
Aunty leans back against her pillows and smooths the quilt with her hands. “I see. And your mother doesn’t know about this new pet of yours.”
 
It’s not a question. I nod again and dare to glance at Aunty’s face.
 
“Then you’d better take it,” Aunty says with a nod at the cage on the floor. “I had a songbird once, but I set it free before I left India. I only keep the cage to remind me. . . .”
 
I pick up the cage and hold it to my chest. “Remind you of what, Aunty?”
 
She sighs and closes her eyes. “That every living thing wants to be free.”
 
I look down at the cage in my arms. It might be shaped like the Taj Mahal, but it’s not a palace and certainly not a good home for a baby dragon. My cheeks burn again, and this time tears spill from my eyes.
 

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Dragons in a Bag
Excerpt

Mama strokes my cheek with her finger before pressing the doorbell. I feel tears pooling behind my eyes, but I will them not to fall. Mama has enough to worry about right now.

 

“It’s only for a little while, Jaxon. I’ll be back before you know it.”

 

I nod and look up at the peephole in the door. If I look down at my feet, the tears will fall and my nose will start to run and Mama will know I don’t want her to leave me here.

 

Mama’s biting her lip and tapping her toe nervously. She presses the doorbell again, letting it ring longer this time. We both hear someone stirring--and cursing--inside the apartment. Mama laughs nervously and says, “Ma curses like a sailor sometimes, but she’s a harmless old lady. She’s fun, too--you’ll like her, Jax.”

 

I never even knew I had a grandmother living in Brooklyn. Mama never mentioned her before. Sometimes Mama hides things from me--or that’s what I let her believe. Mama thinks I don’t know our landlord’s trying to get rid of us. She takes down the eviction notices he pins to our front door, but I still know what’s going on. Today Mama has to go to court. I want to go with her, but Mama wants to leave me here instead.

 

A heavy body shuffles toward the door. Mama and I wait patiently as at least three locks are turned. The chain stays on and lets the door open just a crack. I cringe as a raspy voice asks, “What you want?”

 

Mama smiles sweetly and places her palm against the door. She speaks slowly and politely. “It’s just us, Ma. I called this morning and told you we were coming. Remember?”

 

The woman behind the door barks at Mama, “Course I remember. You called and asked if you could leave the boy with me and I said NO!”

 

The sweet smile on Mama’s face doesn’t budge. If anything, it hardens. Mama tries to push the door open, but the chain’s still on and my mysterious grandmother doesn’t seem ready to move out of the way.

 

Mama puts her other hand on the doorframe and leans in so that the woman on the other side of the door can see and hear just how desperate she is. “It’s only for a few hours. Please, Ma. You’re all he has.”

 

I step back and wonder if that’s really true. I’m sure Vikram would let me stay at his house for a while. His parents like me and don’t mind having me around. Mrs. Patel calls me a good influence. That’s what the grown-ups who know me always say. But this mean lady won’t even open the door and give me a chance. If she doesn’t want me around, that’s fine by me.

 

But it’s not okay with Mama. She’s whispering to the woman behind the door, but her smile is gone now, and there are tears shining on her cheeks. I want to hold Mama’s hand, but instead I take another step back and hold on to the straps of my book bag. Mama’s saying one word over and over again: please.

 

I have never seen my mother beg anyone for anything. But it doesn’t work, because the door finally closes. Mama rests her forehead against it before wiping her eyes and turning to me. “Let’s go, Jax,” she says wearily.

 

I sigh with relief and take Mama’s hand. Just as we start to walk down the stairs, I hear the chain slide, and the door opens once more.

 

“One day. Give me your word, Alicia. One day.”

 

Mama says, “I promise, Ma.” Then she pulls me back over to my grandmother’s apartment. The door is open, but the lights are off and I can’t see anyone inside. Mama gives me a quick hug and pushes me through the doorway. Before I can ask her when she’ll be back, Mama rushes down the stairs and is gone.

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