Authors: David Yoon
The light is on inside the van.
Someone has clicked a key fob remote. Someone close by, getting closer by the second.
We spring apart and duck.
“Oh shit,” says Brit. Her eyes have tightened.
I’m still gasping for air. “Okay. Uh. I think we should probably go.”
In the far distance, voices.
“I think you’re probably right,” she says, and snorts.
Brit Means snorts!
I pull the door handle and slowly slide it open. We slink out into the street. As quietly as I can, I slide the door shut, but it needs one good shove to latch closed. Usually I can get
Q’s mom’s van to shut with barely a sound. But I guess it must be my heart dropping beats or the fact that my arms feel like they’re in zero-g, because the best I can manage is a crisp, clearly audible
“Ei,” says a voice. “Inch dzhokhk yek anum?”
“Go go go,” I hiss.
“Sorry, can’t understand you,” yells Brit.
We sprint into the darkness, leaving a trail of giggles behind us.
Just bad enough.
But so good.
I’m in class the next morning, struggling to keep my eyes forward. I know Brit is too. I can feel it. We are like two horse statues facing the same direction.
Q’s eyes rally between Brit and me. I smile back with derp teeth. He knows something is up.
What the hell is up with your stupid face?
say his eyebrows.
“Frank and Brit, nice work with the volumes,” says Mr. Soft. “Could you draw a little tinier next time?”
I am barely listening. I like hearing him say
Frank and Brit
like that. Like we’re officially
Brit smiles. She glances at me and bites her thumb, breaking the first Rule of Being a Person.
“Q and Paul, you turkeys ready?” says Mr. Soft.
Q gives me a parting eyeroll, gets into character, and stands. “Yes.”
He and Paul approach a lumpy cloth spread on a table and lift it to reveal six grapefruit-sized geometric forms done in KlayKreate.
“Behold,” says Q. “The new Platonics.”
For the first time in my short life, I want Calculus to never end. But it does, and after we leave the classroom I find myself doing something I never normally do: walk and text.
Meet me behind the greenhouse at lunch?
My phone buzzes back.
says Brit, with a little purple heart.
The day passes. AP Bio, AP English Lit, and finally my favorite, CompSci Music, where I get some serious time hammering out live beats on the flashing Dotpad made up of the samples I recorded at Lake Girlfriend. I think about the coins in the water there.
Thank you, Lake Girlfriend.
Physical performance is the future of electronic dance music, I believe. As good as my timing is, I am still human and therefore prone to being off by a few milliseconds here and there, which is why performed music will always have a warmth and intuition that perfectly sequencing computers can’t match. Next I want to try making electronic dance music with acoustic instruments, in a band with other people, no amplification. Call it
I’ve got the room nodding their heads. I’ve got Ms. Nobuyuki nodding her head.
But I feel phantom buzzes in my back pocket the whole time. It takes all my effort to stay focused until the final measure of the song.
Class ends and finallyfinallyfinally it’s lunch. Just gotta check in with Q before going off on my own.
I find Q waiting for me by the elephant tree: this big melted biomass of spiny leaves and branches oozing its way out of a rectangle in the concrete. Apparently it’s not a tree, but a giant yucca evolving along its own isolated vector.
Q’s already got his miniature hero figurines—a tiny wizard, elf, and paladin—standing in delta formation on a lunch table. His dice are lined up and waiting: a four-sided pyramid, a cube, an octahedron, dodecahedron, and finally the twenty-sided icosahedron. Paul Olmo’s sitting next to Q with his graph paper, ready to start mapping dungeons and marking the locations of dragons.
“Hey,” I say. “Just wanted to let you know I gotta go meet someone, so.”
Q dims his eyes. “Oh my god.”
“What?” says Paul. Paul Olmo looks exactly like his elven archer figurine.
“We’ll pick up the campaign tomorrow,” I say. I mean the Dungeons & Dragons game. “Sorry.”
“My god,” says Q.
I just nod. Yes, Q. Yes.
Q rises and hugs me like a father sending his son off to college.
“I’ll see you guys later,” I say.
“Oh my god,” shouts Q.
“What happened?” shouts Paul.
I walk the glossy hallways like an adventurer discovering a
cave full of crystals. Past the teachers’ lounge exuding coffee and microwave food. Through a seldom-used back door leading into the seldom-seen teachers’ section of the parking lot, at the end of which stands the almost-never-visited greenhouse.
I’m halfway across the parking lot when I realize I’ve left my lunch in my locker.
Because behind the greenhouse, among the hoes and wheelbarrows and bags of soil, there she sits. On a large upturned pot, like a magical creature. Just smiling now at my arrival. Hair blowing in the wind like a ribbon in water.
I glance behind me. No one there. I take a sidestep and put the greenhouse between me and the rest of the world.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hey,” says Brit Means.
She stands. She takes a step toward me.
And we just kiss.
Everything falls silent. The birds stop singing. The wind stops. Blades of grass release their bend and straighten in the motionless air. A flap of corrugated metal pauses its squeaking as a courtesy.
I long to feel those little muscles in the small of her back—and so I do, and I can’t believe I am allowed to do this. Even more unbelievable:
, too. As if she’s been longing, too.
When we stop for air, the wind around us resumes. The grass relaxes.
“Are you sure we won’t get caught back here?” she whispers.
“If we did, I guess that would make things official.”
“Last night didn’t make things official?”
“I guess it did, huh,” I say.
“Pretty sure we’re official.”
And we kiss some more. The sun, ignored, sprints around the earth and hurries back to its original position, just to see if it can sneak in a whole revolution without us noticing.
We don’t notice a thing.
I’m torn between wanting to kiss and wanting to stare at her face, so I decide to stare at her face for a minute. I can see myself actually reflected in her eyes, tiny bulbous Frank Li twins, and my gaze bounces back and forth between them. In the even tinier reflections of the eyes of those two reflected Frank Lis are in turn reflected two tiny Brit Means, and so on and so on infinity plus one.
“Whoa,” says a girl’s voice.
We freeze, as if freezing will make us somehow invisible.
Brit dares a glance to the side. “Oh, Joy.”
I turn, and there’s Joy Song standing there with a face like a lemur. She is tethered to a powerfully tracksuited Wu Tang, who gives me a chiseled smile like
We should spring apart, but I’m thrilled to find that Brit doesn’t move an inch; we stand there with both hands clasped, like defiant dancers interrupted.
“Hey,” I say to Joy.
“Awkward,” sings Joy after a moment, and finally we can all laugh a little.
“Is this like your guys’ spot or something?” I say.
“It’s all good,” says Wu Tang. Everything he says he turns into a little dance move. “We got other spots. Like the roof.” He does this little pointing maneuver.
“Oh, word?” I say.
“But Joy didn’t want to get her new skirt dirty.” He says it all stupid like
Wu Tang is so stupid that he loops it all the way around until stupid starts to seem kinda cool.
“Aha,” I say.
“Okay, well,” says Joy, and turns to leave.
Brit’s hands are getting sweaty in mine. I can feel my body cooling. I can feel the wind moving in the gap between us. The moment’s been cut short.
Joy mutters to herself. “Guess I’m not the only one with a problem.” She winces at her own words.
“Okay, bye,” I say loudly. I need Joy to go away, even though I know she’s right.
Brit Means is white.
“Problem?” says Brit. She’s irked, and she has every right to be. But how am I supposed to explain what the word
means here? Where do I even begin?
Chinese boy problems?
Me and Joy’s conversation at the last Gathering—hell, every conversation I’ve ever had at Gatherings—seems so divorced
from reality that it’s like we speak a different kind of English there, one that doesn’t translate to this dimensional plane. So I just say:
“It’s nothing, I’ll tell you later.”
“Big eyes, though,” mumbles Joy, and again winces at herself.
“Huh?” says Brit.
“Oh my god, shut up,” I tell Joy. I say it in my five-, six-, seven-year-old voice.
“I’ll shut up,” says Joy.
The air has changed. No doubt about it. It no longer feels quite like I’m here with Brit and Joy’s here with Wu. Right now it’s feeling strangely like
, and we’ve each brought our respective
Right now it feels like planes of reality crashing together. I have my reality, which Joy has never been a part of. Joy has hers, and I’ve never seen it either, aside from little glimpses of her closed room when it’s the Songs’ turn to host a Gathering. And there is the entirely separate reality of the Gatherings themselves, plowing right through the middle of everything like an armada of icebreaker ships.
Joy gives me a sad look:
You know I’m right, Frank.
My eyes drop to her shoes:
You are, Joy.
A buzzer bell razzes the silence. It’s like a signal for all of us to stop holding hands. So we do, and the two couples now become four people standing apart.
It’s Friday. Brit’s absent today to go on a trip with her parents. They’re designing some kickass private residence in wine country, so they’re making a little family vacation out of it. They’ll even let Brit taste a fine wine or two, like a 1984 Cabernet Merlot Pinot Somethingsomething.
When I try to picture sipping fine wine with Mom-n-Dad, I snort so hard that Q looks up from his game thing.
“What?” says Q.
“Is Brit Means a funny girl?”
“Huh? No. I mean yes.”
We’re sitting in front of the school, waiting for Q’s mom to pick us up. Q is tapping away, building some kind of sprawling miniature factory full of conveyor belts and automatons on an alien planet.
“Mom says Italian for dinner, by the way,” says Q.
“I love Italian.”
“Then why don’t you marry Italian?” says Q.
My phone buzzes. I always keep it on vibrate—Q and I find ringtones depressing and believe they are forlorn cries for validation in a noisy, jaded world. “I’ll laugh in a sec,” I say, and look at the screen.
At a rest stop now,
Already missing you super bad
The missing you part, not the rest stop part
lol my funny boy
Please say that one more time
My funny boy
I miss you too,
I miss you more
No I miss you more
No I miss you more
Ha we stoopid
“So this is how it ends,” says Q.
I look up from my fartphone. “What?”
Q gestures sadly at the screen. “Our friendship.”
“Shut up,” I say, and laugh, and Q laughs too.
But just to make doubly sure, I turn the phone off and make an unmistakable show of stuffing it deep into my backpack.
“To the left,” says Q. He passes a dish of olive oil.
“To the right,” I say, and pass the basket of bread.
“Now dip, baby, dip,” we say.
Q’s mom snaps her fingers in time to the music: a clean KidzRock! version of a racy booty-house classic that legend
says was once banned from the radio. Q’s mom looks forever pleasantly surprised, even when her face is at rest. Q’s dad gets up to bring waters, and performs the most perfect dad-dance along the way. Q’s house is always filled with music and dad-dances. Q’s mom-n-dad even
Dinner at my house is a goddamn wake by comparison.
Q’s sister, Evon, wanders in like a doe appearing in a wood, rose-gold headphones and all. She glances down with mild astonishment:
Dinner is happening? Oh my.
The Lees pray before dinner. But they do it quickly, with eyes open. They don’t even bother to turn the music down. They go to church on Sunday, but not if there’s a big game on. They’re
postseason Christ fans
, Q likes to say.
“Good Lord in heaven bless this food and bless this family and bless Frank for blessing this table and our house with his blessed presence,” says Q’s dad so quickly it sounds like he’s muttering to a sink yet again full of dirty dishes.
“Amen,” says Q.
“Amen,” say Q’s parents.
Evon is too hot for
s, and says nothing.
“Amen,” I say. Being Korean-American, I’m technically Presbyterian by default. But I couldn’t even tell you what a Presbyt is or what it tastes like, to be honest.
Another KidzRock! song comes on, scrubbed of any bad words. It’s cute how Q’s parents still play this music for us even though we’re technically adults at this point.
“Q says you have a girlfriend now,” says Q’s mom.
“Jesus christ almighty hang gliding up in heaven,” I say to Q.
“Do you deny it?” says Q.
“No, I supply it,” I sigh.
“Then what’s there to hide?”
“I’m happy for you,” says Q’s dad, chewing with alarming speed. His glasses slip, and he pushes them up, and chews and chews, making his glasses slip again. “Is she very dope?”
Q and I laugh so hard that a noodle comes poking out of one of Q’s nostrils.
“You’re so funny, Mr. Lee,” I say.
“Frank, come on,” he says. “Call me David.”
“Okay, Mr. David.”
“Oh, so, Dad,” says Q, “I need you to write to the teachers about next week.”
Next week is this geek trip Q is taking up north to Stanford—also known as The Harvard of the West—where his geek uncle is doing a PhD. Q’s plan is to get into Stanford and shoot lasers into live monkey brains to see how they react. This is called
“I bet you’re crunk for the trip,” says Q’s dad.
“Yes, Dad, I am extremely crunk,” says Q.
“Should be tight,” says Q’s dad.
“So tight,” says Q.
I cough into my noodles.
“Okay,” says Q’s mom. “Now you’ve got me laughing.”
Q’s dad simply sits and chews and feigns obliviousness. He excels at being king of the dorks; he is proudly aware of this particular genius of his.
“So do your parents like this Brit girl?” he says.
“Honey,” says Q’s mom.
“We haven’t set a date for the wedding yet,” I say.
That gets a nice laugh. Except for Evon, who’s still lost in her own private musical world. Q’s mom waves a hand in front of her face.
Evon takes off the headphones and takes a small bite. Meanwhile, Q scrambles to finish his food.
“Yesssss,” he says. “I win.”
“Win what?” says Evon.
“Yeah, I didn’t know this was a race,” I say. I share a quick look with Evon.
“Q is a baby,” she says.
“We’re literally the same age,” says Q.
“Body of a teen, mind of a baby,” says Evon.
“Although technically,” says Q, “I’m older since I emerged from the vagina three seconds before you did.”
“Lord, I beg you have mercy on me,” says Q’s mom.
“Come on,” says Q. “Let me show you my game.”
“Okay,” I say.
We bolt up from our seats and dash off, but a mighty
It’s Q’s dad, eyeing our dirty plates. “Ten years and I still have to remind you, Frank?”
“Holy cow, is it really ten?” I say.
“It is really ten,” says Q’s dad. He’s looking at us with gooey eyes, and I know he still sees us as little kids flinging our bikes down onto the front lawn.
Q and I look at each other and say, “Huh!” at the same time.
On the way into the kitchen I spot a photo of me and Q and
my parents from three years ago, at our junior high school graduation.
I point at the photo with my chin. “You still have that thing?”
“Yep,” says Q, putting our plates into the sink. “Do you?”
“Yep,” I say. But that’s not true. I have no idea where our copy of the photo is. There are no matching photos of Q in my house. The last time Q was at my house was months ago, when he came to drop off something I’d left at his house. I can’t actually remember the last time he stepped foot past the foyer.
“Game on,” says Q.
I’m watching a little homunculus run around a 2D landscape from a God-view perspective. Q clicks and pans with the speed of a card magician. It’s fast, but not incomprehensible. He’s mining resources and building an elaborate system of factories to bring his homunculus hero through the Stone Age, Iron Age, and beyond.
We’re in Q’s room. Q’s room is pretty small, with just a small desk, two narrow bookshelves, and a sofa (Q prefers sleeping on sofas, because they are dual-use). What Q’s room is is mostly screen. A tiny projector sits on a faux-marble cornice and throws the giant view of the game onto a blank wall that Q has painted with some kind of special projector screen paint for maximum image quality.
“The story is,” says Q, “you’ve crash-landed on this alien planet, and you have to build up an escape rocket from scratch using whatever’s on hand.”
My pocket buzzes, and I sneak a peek. There’s a picture of Brit looking with one big eye through a wine goblet like it’s a magnifying glass.
I single-thumb three hearts back and put it away.
“But the aliens don’t like me,” says Q. “Because I’m cutting down their forests and polluting their environment. So you also have to build weapons to kill them off.”
“Wow, that’s super amoral.”
“I know, it’s a bummer aspect of the game’s design. It’s called
“Also, since you’re the interloper here, shouldn’t
be considered the alien, not them?”
“It’s conflicting, right? Definitely a dude made this game.”
Q spots six warships approaching, and decimates them with a flurry of tiny missiles.
“Probably a white dude,” I say.
“Would explain the colonialist impulse,” says Q.
Another buzz, another photo from Brit, this time of a package of paper napkins named Napkins à la Maison de Beaujolais. Brit’s added her comment beneath:
J’adore French-for-no-reason branding.
I stifle a chuckle and stash the fartphone before Q can notice.
“Still, the game looks fun,” I say.
“It is,” says Q. “Open source, too. I coded these lift-sorters, right here.”
“Badass,” I say.
Yet another buzz. I want another peek. I want another hit of Brit.
But Q pauses the game. “Your phone’s really blowing up, huh.”
Q stares at me.
“Fine,” he says finally with an eyeroll. “Answer it.”
“Just one last one, I promise,” I say.
“The last one? Or the last-last one?”
We’re coming back Sunday night!
Frank Li, I frankly need to see you.
I feel my stomach wave hello. My ears grow warm. Gravity eases enough to loosen all the joints and nails and screws holding the world together until all its pieces are slowly tumbling free in a soft huge space lit only by the white rectangle beneath my thumbs. My
is texting me.
I Frank Li need to see you too.
Can I come to your house?
Impossible, I think. Just forming the words would be impossible:
Mom-n-Dad, this is Brit, and we’re going to lock ourselves in my room for hours like they do in teen movies.
I’m racking my brain for alternate venues optimized for romance, but then I do a mental facepalm. I’m not free Sunday night.
I type carefully.
Shit, Sunday night I gotta help Dad out at work,
I say, and add a sad face for extra sincerity. She must not think for a second that I’m blowing her off.
Q has paused the game. He’s making eyebrows: at me, at my fartphone, at me again.
“Almost done,” I say.
“Really, almost done.”
“Like our friendship.”
Q turns back to his game. He’s up against a huge sudden wave of attacking aliens (I mean indigenous peoples) and frantically clicks to defend himself (I mean commit genocide).
I’ll see you Monday,
I say finally.
I don’t know if I can wait that long,
“I’m dying,” says Q.
I stash my phone. I could text all night, but: enough.
“I’m dead,” says Q.
“Let me try.”
“That’s the guilt talking, right there.”
“If I exterminate the aboriginals, will you be a happy exploiting camper again?”
“It’s a game. I don’t make the rules.”
“I know,” I say. “I know.”