The Misfit Pioneers

This piece first appeared in 1:1000, an online literary journal. Check out their excellent stories! 

Ming hauled the door open, her lips pressed together against the chill. Rubbing her hands, she dusted the white flakes off her coat and hurried inside.

She rarely came to this side of campus. Though it was a small university, the engineering students kept to their quarters and the art students to theirs. A quiet thrill shot through her at this minor act of defiance.

The art studio exhibited a curious architecture. Filmy drapes hung on black bars, almost like shower curtains. Bulging pipes peered from the ceiling. A string of lights crisscrossed overhead with no real symmetry. Concrete walls splattered with ash and paint. At least the low-rise tables and chairs appeared orderly and clean, gathered in blocks across the tiled, gray hardwood.

It was a very American studio, at least in Ming’s mind. Back home they would not tolerate such a design, even for a creative workshop. Ventilation pipes belonged behind walls and makeshift lights would be tossed in favor of unobtrusive ceiling fixtures.

Naked. That is how she would describe the room.

“Escaping the cold?”

She jumped at the voice. Turning, she found a lanky, raven-haired boy watching her with an amused expression. His hands were dark with charcoal dust.

“I wanted to wait for the snow to stop. I parked in the main lot.”

“You’ll be waiting awhile, then.”

Ming shrugged. She did not want to dwell on what prevented her from going home earlier, much less explain it to a stranger.

“Are you a student?” she asked instead.

He nodded. “Just transferred from art history to art. Drop a word from my major’s name and gain another year’s worth of work.” He grinned. “I’m Jonah.”

“I’m Ming, electrical engineering,” she said, knowing that was sufficient explanation for why they were not acquainted.

“Ming,” he repeated. “Cool name.” Jonah glanced at the dirty window, the edges frosted over with snow and ice. “It doesn’t look like the storm is letting up. I make a mean hot chocolate, if you want me to fix some up.”

She hesitated for a moment but agreed. The roads were dangerous, and the hot and humid weather of her hometown had not prepared her for the bitter winters here. Besides, Jesse would not call anymore and Ming did not want to be home alone with her thoughts.

Jonah had an easy, unaffected manner. He filled the silence with small talk about his life as he bustled around the kitchen area. Ming sat at a table nearby and listened. She learned that he switched majors late, so he spent frequent nights in the studio playing catch-up. Unlike most college students, he disliked coffee, but had an unhealthy addiction to hot chocolate.

“It’s my grandma’s recipe. No sugar,” he boasted, as he set two steaming mugs before her.

The warm, rich scent filled her nostrils. “Thank you,” she said.

He pulled out the chair opposite to her. “So, Ming. Does your name mean anything?”

“It’s the same word for ‘bright’ in Chinese. It’s quite common.” She paused. “What about Jonah?”

“The prophet, in the Bible.” He grinned at Ming’s blank look. “God sent him to preach to a wicked city, he disobeyed, and was swallowed by a fish for three days.”

She considered it for a moment. “It seems like bad luck,” she said finally.

Jonah laughed. “He made it out alive. It’s a great story, actually.”

Ming flushed and fell silent. Her family burned incense, prayed for health and prosperity, and tried to live good lives for karma’s sake. In her last two years in America, her circle of engineering friends rarely discussed religion, philosophy or literature. If Jesse worshiped anything, it was Bruce Willis movies, which he insisted were a sufficient lens into western culture and ideals.

“Do you plan to go back to China after school?”

“I wasn’t, but—” Ming stopped abruptly, a painful twinge in her chest. She met Jonah’s eyes, steady and kind. “My boyfriend is from here. He broke up with me today.” The words fell out in a rush.

Jonah’s eyes crinkled. “I’m sorry.” Then he added, “He’s a jerk.”

Surprised, Ming glanced at him. “You don’t know him.”

“Of course not. But he probably is.” He held up a hand to stop her interruption. “Here’s a rule for breakups. Get rid of that urge to defend him.” A crooked smile slid up his face. “I don’t know him. I know you. I’m on your side, alright?”

Ming suppressed the urge to tell him that his logic was convoluted and nonsensical. She had to admit it felt good to have someone on her side.

She and Jesse shared the same circle of friends. Or, more accurately, Jesse formed their circle of friends and drew her in when they began dating. Ming knew this was nonsensical too, that the loss of one relationship could make her feel so unanchored and lonely on a campus teeming with students.

“Thanks,” she said. “My friends were all Jesse’s friends, so…” she trailed off.

Jonah nodded in understanding. “Jesse is from the Bible too. Father of a king,” he murmured. “I’m guessing your ex isn’t that great.”

Ming couldn’t help but laugh. “I don’t think so. And how are you living up to your name?”

“I’m all for seeing the inside of a fish.” Jonah grinned. “I like a good adventure. I’m forming a campus club for explorers, actually. The Misfit Pioneers. Have you heard the rumors about this place?”

She had. The administration tried to check wild gossip, but students still whispered about secret passageways and treasure troves buried beneath the grounds. Ming could never decide if it was the typical American obsession with conspiracy, or if there was some truth wrapped in the stories.

Jonah was on the ground, wrestling with something in the tiles. “This is what happens when you spend too much time here,” he called up to her. She heard a crack and an entire tile came loose. A plume of dust rose as he heaved it aside.

Ming yelped and joined him, peering into the darkness.

“What’s—in there?” she asked.

“Not sure. I was going to check it out sometime, hopefully with a buddy.” He met her gaze. “So, interested in joining my club?”

“How many people are in it?” she asked, still distracted by the gaping hole in the floor.

“Well, now there are two of us.”


Photography by Anthony Delanoix. Story by me. Original publication here.

The Zephyr Christmas Files

Dear faithful readers, occasional stalkers, and you with the wrong link to another site:

I’ve posted very sporadically in recent months due to grad school consuming most my time and energy. Since I have a brief break, I’ve been inspired by various sources (the holidays, the weather, real life + fiction, etc.) to write a wintry tale in epistolary form for fun. I’ll post installments here on a hopefully-close-to-daily basis through the New Year. I’m really just flying by the seat of my pants (no plot outline, no particular ending in mind, no profound Point), but I hope it’ll bring you some laughter and cheer if you choose to follow along. If not, I’ll simply amuse myself.


Part I. Driving Tickets and Baristas

E-MAIL SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 12:03:44 AM
From Darby Chan to Avery Chan

Dear Avery,

It’s midnight, and I’m writing this beside some half-waxed, dying candlelight. I think I’ve found the eighteenth century. Curse your magnanimous spirit for spending winter break in a third world country with no wireless or data plan. I’m warning you, if I send more than three of these with no response, I’ll stop writing and start planning your funeral. Curse Jansen’s driving too. We were supposed to arrive hours ago if we weren’t pulled over on the way. $300 for going 15 mph over the limit. Margaret feels bad, so she promised to write a letter for him to contest it.

I told him he could work the resort coffee counter to scrape the cash together.

In other news—there is none. It’s freezing. If the heater ever goes out in this place, you’ll need to come haul my frozen carcass away. I wish we had picked Jamaica or somewhere tropical. It’s these unwavering, immigrant genetics we have that simply won’t allow me to pass up a good deal. I’m beginning to understand why this place offered us half price.

But I can’t complain (aloud, at least, so expect to get the brunt of it). I dragged M and J into this. I guess I can try skiing again?

I miss you. Sorry about this poor excuse for a first email. It’s late and this keyboard is starting to feel like a giant ice cube. I want to say something worthwhile, knowing you’ll only get to check in once in awhile. I’ll try to improve.

Please don’t die.


P.S. It’s not really terrible here. The current guy at the coffee counter isn’t bad looking. I’ll send you a picture sometime if I get a chance.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 7:13:22 AM
From Juki to D-Chan, Mags

Christmas Eve, kids!!! Hope you have your presents for me ready.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 7:20:45 AM
From D-Chan to Juki, Mags 

Coughed up your $300 yet?

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 7:21:13 AM
From Juki to D-Chan, Mags

 Remind me why I’m on vacation with you.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 7:21:57 AM
From D-Chan to Juki, Mags 

No one else wants you.
I’m going to breakfast. Meet you guys there.


Zephyr’s Black Diamond Breakfast
Two sausages, three eggs, and stack of buttermilk pancakes

Zephyr’s Blue Square Breakfast
Two eggs, chocolate chip or strawberry jam waffles

 Zephyr’s Bunny Slope Breakfast
Fruit and granola 

EMAIL SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 7:43:52 AM
From Darby Chan to Avery Chan 


Sent from iPhone

MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 8:05:12 AM
From Jansen to Margaret 

Overslept? Darby’s got a crush. Commence: Operation Love Story?

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 8:20:19 AM
From Mags to D-Chan, Juki

 Guys. This is an inhuman hour to be up during break.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 8:20:40 AM
From Margaret to Jansen 

Let me guess, the coffee guy. And no. Darby + men = Bad Things Happen.

E-MAIL SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 8:25:31 AM
From Margaret Lewis to Jen Lewis 

Hey Mom – Texts and calls can’t seem to get past the mountain range. But we’ve made it. We’ll probably go skiing, I’ll try to fit some writing in, and Darby and Jansen will probably want to pull a few crazy stunts (read: fun, adventurous, but decidedly not life-threatening).

It’s a nice, cozy cabin for a sweet deal Darby found. Sorry again to miss Christmas this year. But she adamantly refused to go home, and we couldn’t let her head into the mountains alone. Darby hasn’t said much about it still, and I’m not sure how to bring it up. Should I wait for her to say something?

People confuse the heck out of me.

Love to Dad, Laurie, and Grinchkins.


GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 8:29:21 AM
From Juki to Mags, D-Chan 

…I’m a man.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 8:29:53 AM
From D-Chan to Juki, Mags 

What else have you been keeping from us?

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 8:30:19 AM
From Juki to Mags, D-Chan

Wrong thread.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 8:31:20 AM
From Margaret to Jansen