For November, we're excited to bring you new fiction from Kevin T.S. Tang. We love the combination of the fantastical, absurdist, whimsical, poignant and humorous in this story, which includes a not-quite human cast of characters and yet dwells on very human emotions.
-- Karissa Chen, Fiction & Poetry Editor
We live in a town blighted by fireside chats and broad-minded tech conferences, where the local sushi bistros ring with harsh Holo and the corner bodegas teem with life-hackers and lizard men moaning for wheatless hoagies. Our mayor was voted in on an anti-kinkshaming platform. Point is, our town is fair beyond compare, and any creature shopping for jewelry on a Friday night should raise no eyebrows. The following story supports my point, I think, that it was not my fault at all.
Security footage will show you that at 9:54 PM, as our jewelry shop was shuttering, the creature walked in with his duffel bag. He was tall for his kind, with a long bristly rat-like face, skin glinting with scales — one could very safely call him cute, I thought. Before entering, he pretended to be pained by indecision over a shelf of rhinestone animals, regarding their sticker prices in great big hurt.
"Two Eiffels for a three fifty?" he said.
"Four forty's the best I can do," I shoved installment payment pamphlets at him.
But duffels are no good in front of jewelers. What else but a gun? He drew it gleamingly out of the bag and shot our windows by way of a cosmic shrug, to show that he was more agnostic than us about fuck-giving. Dad had installed the supposedly bulletproof windows two days ago, to showcase our only decent emerald. Glass rained down like ice giving up on being ice.
The creature had trouble holding the gun in his mushroom-colored claws. He stood ten paces from us, blocking the door, aiming up at my general lung-heart area. His face was too young to achieve anger proper. It was hard, initially, not to take his weapon as some toy prop, a thing from flippant entertainment. Any minute, I thought, he’d slip and squeeze the trigger.
We wanted to think this was impossible with people of his kind. Their children did extracurriculars, and weren’t allowed to date in high school. Nine times out of ten they bored you with their good manners, made themselves foolish with politeness, making jokes that wouldn’t tickle a priest.
“Be reasonable,” my giantess coworker, Sandra, said in her most reasonable voice.
Then she tried out some phrase of appeasement in a language I didn’t know.
“I am,” he said, tossing me his duffel. “Mon frère, You find me reasonable guy if you do right, but a man of moxie and derring-do if otherwise.”
“Moxie and derring-do,” I repeated, wondering where he’d gathered this language.
He appealed at us to be threatened. We felt embarrassed for him, more frightened by the volatility of his stage fright. You were not supposed to think this about his kind, that they look too young for their own good. His accent didn’t help him, either. It was either something south of the border, or just really chipper.
At the moment only Sandra and I were in the jewelry shop. Sandra’s an old flame of my less confident acne-burnt days. I’d begged dad to hire her at the height of our involvement. We were only moments prior opening our take-out boxes, sawing at bland root vegetables fucked out of their vital vitamins, both of us rathering to warm a pretty stranger’s bed by dawn. Sandra had just been watching, with some dismay, a TV show where another giantess in a tarnished bridal gown was swallowing an entire wedding cake for a paltry cash prize, which is no good for her mood, since she often broods — on a prime romantic hour like Friday night — about how she might be a sexual fly-over state. It made me think she never took my pining for her seriously, but then again I wasn’t that serious.
The creature tilted the gun at me to delegate the task of stuffing the bag. He tapped the glass case closest to the door, the shelf with the highest turnover. It glittered with tiny chipped diamonds, our most popular merchandise, sold to panicked men jamming wedding rings on knocked up girlfriends. He pointed at Sandra’s plastic take-out fork with his gun and said, “Down.” Anything in a giantess’ hands wouldn’t do. Standing at 7’10”, her head barely cleared our rhinestone chandelier. The creature stood only up to her knees.
Sandra gave him a look over, sweat shellacking her greenish hair.
“Type O blood, Fred,” she muttered not quietly enough. “Definitely a Type O. High strung. Awkward with children.”
“Now is not the time,” I said.
“Typo? High strung?” The designation confused him, made him defensive.
“My blood’s Type O too,” she persisted to say.
I dreaded where this suggestion led. It was supposed to be a gag gift, the book I bought her for Christmas — a token to say, hey, I still think of you sometimes, but don’t get the wrong idea. It was a book of famous gunmen by horoscope, zodiac, and blood type. Under her specs, Type O/Virgo/Snake, she found an island gunman who, In 1997, held a missionary family hostage til the youngest daughter (“Kristen Ayers of Taipei American School”) drew a chalk cross on the floor, hugged him, and converted him to God on the spot. Kristen’s sixth-grade classmate Kevin T.S. Tang was quoted, erroneously, as saying that they were descendents of desert saints. The gunman turned himself in and was sentenced to seven death penalties, of which he only endured one.
I had once adored her earth mother earnestness, her belief that all malice was just kindness curdled, misunderstanding manifest, but Sandra took this story dead serious, took it as a takeaway about gunmen’s hearts.
“My mate Fred and I,” she began to explain to the creature. “We once raised hare together in our backyard. We try to be mindful. We never overspent our budget—”
“Don’t,” I said at Sandra.
“We phone our parents every Sunday,” Sandra said. “We support our favorite Youtube musicians by not skipping their pre-roll ads. We never flake on our friends more than twice in a row.”
She opened her arms, her palms facing skyward, Christ-like, and took a slow step forward toward the creature. He blinked repeatedly. I had no time to grab her before a loud eruption of too-close thunder sent her to the floor.
From his face you could tell that he squeezed the trigger in fright, not out of any ill will towards Sandra’s very pretty feet. Amidst my immediate panic for her I listened for the bullet’s ricochet, worried about us. But now the important choices have been made for us. Now we could not mistake him for fucking around. Especially not Sandra, who yelled “Egads! You’re not fucking around!” before clutching her left foot. There was a queasy red like the runoff from grocery meat that now bloomed on our tiled floor.
“No funny business,” the creature said miserably. “I told you. Not a step closer to the panic button.”
He did not tell us that at all. The room was a china shop of invisible, fragile rules.
Sandra’s one of those New Sincerity people. On her raised left calf, now covered in blood, was tattooed that Dave Foster Wallace quote about irony being a prison that smelled of farts and cold Brussels sprouts. Above the DFW quote was a crucifix. She observed her heirloom faith with ardor and still somehow turned out to be a sweet non-judgmental woman who has no inclination whatsoever to tell you that an unhealthy adoration for her foot is not what Jesus had intended for you.
When we first met, she was fresh from another country. She took my admiration of her feet personally. Then she laughed too much at my jokes, brooded when I disliked her book suggestions, and invited me over for quiet dinners. Then we became embroiled for a year. Our bedsheet love toppled bookshelves, swayed jungles, spilt oceans. We bought oatmeal soap bars together, whittled them down into brittle tongues in my shower. I let her call me ginger head, firecrotch, Frodo, or whatever. Then, come mornings, I brimmed with contempt at her clumsy attempts to please. Athletics between friends is beauty enough on its own, I thought. I’d referred to us as friends repeatedly. She’d signed the waivers, I thought — caveat emptor, any injury sustained beyond this point is your fault. Do not wander into a cheap fast food joint and order a salad of carnations. That would be dumb.
She hurt herself anyway, wanting more love-words out of me than I had.
I found a gym, and jewelry marketing revealed to me whole worlds of banterable women. I downloaded a dating app called FuckDruthers, pawed at a griddled latticework of svelte women in sundresses, sent out a dozen winks per day, and found that my body type was in huge demand among the foot fetishist community. The world became a wholly erotic place. I began to decorate my daily conversation with frightening treatises on how monogamy was retrograde and deeply unnatural, how the internet liberates us all, and how optimizing for our physical preferences was the nadir of our beautiful freedoms.
Meanwhile, Sandra read more horoscopes, more movie reviews where they prefaced any praise for giantess actresses with a brief history of their famous undesirability, more think pieces on how her people have been made to hate themselves so much that they'd sooner talk to their houseplants than look at each other. I began to loathe these pundits who managed, daily, to make Sandra feel monstrous while pretending to adore her. Like a mantra, she'd often say that no one could be guilted into love.
“I did like you, Sandra,” I said on our last real date together. “Really.”
“I was the breadcrumbs you nibbled on while you waited for the porterhouse streak,” she said.
A heartsick jeweler didn’t deserve to be shot. This much I know.
So what I did with the guy in front of us was: I said “Hey!” really loudly once, so that the creature turned towards me with his stupid weapon, waddling in fright. The moment the gun’s horrid black nostril swept past me, I felt my heart seize up. This gave Sandra enough time to fish her defense darts from her purse, reach out with her incredible armspan, and stab it down hard. The little guy’s eyes went all gooey, but not before he reflexively squeezed the trigger again. Then he fell into the whitish afterglow still lingering in my vision.
The pain was everywhere. Sandra called out for me, trailing red ribbons across white tiles behind her. I touched my left ear, felt the chewed mess of my left earlobe, traced its new contours. My fingers came back an admirable red.
I could already see tomorrow’s papers hailing me a hero as Sandra sat cradling her ruined foot, uncredited for her work.
"Fred," she said.
"Hold your foot, Sandra. Christ. Put some good pressure on it."
Her face blotched over with a concern I can never hope to repay. I had to look away. It stung to accept any more doting, knowing what I owed.
The creature blinked quickly at the ceiling as barbituates purred through his veins. I dug through his duffel, sifted through a mire of expired credit cards and college tuition bills, and held the little gem he had come here to collect: a repossessed wedding ring, inscribed with an ancient unreadable script.
“You need an ambulance within ten minutes,” said the creature. “Else you go into shock. I am a no-good doctor but I don’t want any worse harm.”
“The creature has medical knowledge,” I said.
“Don’t call him that,” Sandra said. Then she grabbed his pistol, dumped out its clip, and flung it across the room like that hateful thing it was.
“Why did you?” Sandra screamed into the little guy’s face.
He was beyond questioning at this point. He would be sedated for a good half hour at least.
I dialed 911, enunciated aggressively into my phone to alert one of our city’s voice-recognition drone ambulances, which would cost us everything. The adrenaline wore down, the dread repainting itself mundane. We were all, in this shattered jewelry shop, wanting for someone we loved to come give us flowers in hospital beds, buy fragrant trophies for our wounds. But now there were mean messes to clean up, lonesome paperwork to be filled, joyless waits to be had. I wondered who would come for me.
We could hear, on the small TV we kept next to the cash register, miserable newscasters debating whether we’re an infantilized plus narcissistic plus emasculated generation.
Across the room, Sandra held the creature on her lap, her foot roughly wadded up with a torn mop. She slowly turned over the small wedding ring the creature had come here to collect, inspecting it in her big hands. Though unable to move, the creature’s eyes brined over as he watched the tiny chipped diamond glint above him in our wan light, blinking beadily, a sour pinch of wet. Sandra slowly slipped the ring into his duffel. Here she was again, a theater kid sobbing the seasons, making her loveliness and patience a gigantic showpiece. I looked away, and tried my best to pretend I didn’t see. The ring wasn’t worth much to our shop anyway.
There was once the mundane beauty of afternoons that used to pass us in a blink. There were entire weekends when we ate fistfuls of cereal straight from the box together, and never left her roomy bed. I had once heard the joy in her voice, as she described me — the new man she’d met — on the phone to her mother.
“Yes, mum,” she’d say. “He lives in a radical commune, plays the guitar. He has impeccable politics, you know.”
Lonely young, I’m a poor nail to hang your hungers on. We’re a town of free people, and the truly free are horrible. I don’t deserve to be on anyone’s speed dial. I will not talk you down your night terrors, nor my own. You trail a life's worth of slights behind you, speak languages from far beyond. I am just a collector of snobby DVDs, a listener of artisanal twee, a debater of film, a pale man anxious about authenticity.
We sat there waiting for the night to wail red and blue, for rescuers and disaster tourists to arrive, as Sandra began to comb the creature’s soft hair, and I thought: someday, maybe, we'll be more than just the holder of our own groceries.
Eddie H. Ahn is the writer/illustrator for "Sidewalk Empire," a webcomic published by Hyphen Magazine, and has been recognized as a cartoonist-in-residence by the Charles M. Schulz Museum. He is currently working on a new comic book series, "Wish the World," and his most recent illustration work can be enjoyed on either instagram or facebook (@ehacomics).