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Don’t worry, you are still sixteen years old. Even if life has escorted you well beyond your college years, don’t worry, in your body you are still sixteen. Yes, you can still love life. Or: are able to. Your hand curls around an ambition in the shape of a Keroppi gel pen. And your gaze admires your desk set-up: covered in manga-style sketches and cheap Hello Kitty accessories, it is so far untainted by responsibility. You are bad at studying. You are good at dreaming. Out of Keroppi flows out an incredible number of adjectives — daunting, towering, loud, orgasmic, titillating. You want to share this list with your friends, giggling. No one has ever seen this group of words together, in this order, before. You are the first one. In the comments section of this lo-fi playlist, someone is writing a story. Something encouraging, something that anyone might read and feel heartened by, as chill beats pluck a hum inside their calm. Something like, you are in a safe place, not everything is about the here and now, sometimes it is about what we can’t yet see. Mom knocks on your door; you ignore her because you are in a fight with her. Arguments about college, about those insufferably gilded Ivies, or why can’t I just go to state school, I don’t have the grades. I am not some holy foundation of genius, I am barely holy. I am barely keeping it together. When I’m in class I want to cry. I don’t know what’s happening on the board. The teacher’s voice is a drone, so I try my best to discreetly look out the window and fly, fly away. I am good at dreaming. I am sixteen, and yet I cannot fathom what it would be like to be eighteen. Already I am stressed about money. Will I be able to support myself, I have no skills, I was never good at anything. How does one even go about finding a job, maintaining a job. There are already countless movies and TV shows about how everyone hates their job, so how will you survive one. It’ll be about ten years before someone lets you in on the secret that we don’t live to work, and in retrospect, you think it’s a little sad how early on you were inducted into the frantic lies of endless labor. Mom knocks on your door, says, “Is it okay to come in?” At least she asks. You grumble, sure, and the portal squeaks open. In that shadowed rectangle Mom is the only thing with a face. Her eyes are thin and weary. She doesn’t smile. But she does say, “Little one, I did everything wrong.” Ah, the impossible words. So this is a dream. You were always good at dreaming. She continues, “I did everything the wrong way, I realize this now. You don’t deserve this. One day you will be free. From me, binding my fate to yours, from burdening you before your birth. I didn’t know any better. I came from somewhere else, I came with very little—” Two hundred dollars and the clothes on your back, you interrupt, for how many times have you heard this story— “Yes, that, and my motorcycle too, my Black Betty, I named it after an American song I had only heard once, because I thought it would make me more American. But this country was cruel to me and carved its scars into my back. Its rage invaded me until I mistook it for myself. So instead of inventing no, I came up with new weapons for my rancor. My tongue into a whip. My fear into a razorblade. My artillery became ingenious in their poisons, but at what cost. You know the cost. Better than anyone. You share the shape of my scars, born of that burrowing, parasitic anger that had transformed me beyond your recognition. By my own hand, I fractured your innocence. Your vulnerability. Your willingness to open doors, especially in my direction. Years from now, when our bodies turn frail, the ensuing silence between us stretches for so long it becomes its own river. So I must tell you what I know, while you’re here, while I still can. Little one, I think one day you will be free. You have always been good at dreaming. Your life, though difficult, will not hinder you the way it has hindered me. Because of simply who you are. The word I know for freedom is 自由, made up of the words for ‘self’ and ‘reason.’ Isn’t that beautiful. You, my child, are the only thing in my life that’s ever determined its own truth. And, one day, when you’ve finally broken that ugly curse I myself laid across your back, you will come to love life, truly, openly, without compunction, and without conditions.”
You stand up. Keroppi rolls to the floor, beaming his happy grin in all directions. He, too, is dreaming of a free life. Reaching forward, you take your mother’s hand, which is so much smaller than you remember. Don’t worry, Mom, you tell her, I am doing okay now. I’m really doing okay. I am thinking of the future where we can be together again and laugh. I am thinking of brightness, and how to get you free too. My mom’s smile is a rarity, but it’s hers. It robs the room of all remaining shadow, and you are still sixteen years old in your body, you still have so much life to love.
jonah wu is a queer, non-binary Chinese American writer and filmmaker currently residing in Los Angeles, CA. Their work can be found in Longleaf Review, beestung, Jellyfish Review, Bright Wall/Dark Room, The Seventh Wave, smoke and mold, and the Los Suelos anthology. They are a three-time Pushcart nominee and winner of Brave New Weird: The Best New Weird Horror of 2022. You can follow them on Twitter or Instagram @rabblerouses.