Short Stories

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.

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Poetry

Magnolia

I loved her once, this girl who fell through Time:
She laughed at princes but blushed a ruby sky.
In dusk’s last glimmer, I saw her yearning
for a home that soothed her soul’s burning,
as she wore the panoply of stars in her eyes.

Magnolia, magnolia
the autumn winds are fair and mornings bright
Magnolia, magnolia
yours is the distant hope, mine a futile life.

I loved her once, this girl who longed to die:
Yet strange, I ne’er found such wit and fervent fire.
She spoke against monarchs and befriended slaves,
called the golden palace naught but a cage.
If only I could give her wings to fly.

Magnolia, magnolia
the branches strip bare before winter’s might
Magnolia, magnolia
yours is the truest heart, mine the cruelest fight.

I loved her once, this girl I would make a queen:
But an empire carved in bones and wrath
casts the longest shadow and loneliest path.
I loved her still, this girl who only asked for peace:
My fragile flower, my faraway dream.

Magnolia, magnolia
your once sweet fragrance has turned bitter
Magnolia, magnolia
still my heart cannot bear to see you wither.

Magnolia, magnolia
what agony, what ecstasy, brought your world to mine?
Magnolia, magnolia
Time ‘tis but a fleeting breath for two lives entwined.

 

(Not-so-loosely inspired by this series.)

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Drabbles & Scribbles, Life Reflections

The Truth About Your Fairytale

Yesterday, you told me about a boy who wears a crooked grin and plays with hearts like they’re poker cards. We sat in a rundown coffee shop, our piping hot cappuccinos blowing smoke into your tired eyes. Like Han Solo, you said, and a ghost of a smile reached your lips. I wasn’t sure if it came from a memory or the knowledge that I’d appreciate the reference.

I’m sorry, I said, before you even told me the story. Because you are like me—not a Princess Leia, who looks stunning in white and inspires men to die for good causes. No, we are Meg Ryan from Sleepless in Seattle, closet romantics until our idealism gets stomped all over. We are the ones who believe in soulmates, first love, and forever. We are from a generation raised on a diet of fairytales, and the first broken heart we meet is our own.

Yesterday, I told you about a boy whose antics could put Nora Ephron to shame. He wasted gas, sleep, and dreams on me. He made August nights perpetually sound like Ed Sheeran and my apartment smell like Calvin Klein. But it’s not like the books, I murmured. The sweetness comes with scars, and the idea of having eternity in one moment is a myth. If we could, why do we always want more? How absurdly helpless we are to squeeze the infinite into a flickering breath.

Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? Yes, you whispered, adamant, but I know that’s your romanticism battling down your grief. That was always my response too—almost born more out of principle than conviction. Almost, but not quite. Because I think I would have loved him anyway, knowing it would end. I might have judged you, but for that realization, I ached with you instead. We are all fools in love, I offered, drawing upon the inimitable wisdom of Jane Austen.

Young, innocent, and a little heartbroken: it makes a cocktail of daring and desperation.

Yesterday, you told me you were waiting. Waiting for the pain to pass, waiting to be the Cinderella in your fairytale. Waiting for the one who would sweep in and make all the past a distant thing. It’s like I’m holding onto a single glass slipper, waiting for someone to knock on my door with the other one. I don’t know if he’s lost, stuck in traffic, or nonexistent. We laughed, and sometimes I think that is our greatest answer to agony.

The coffee burned in my throat going down. I don’t think he’s coming, I said.

Perhaps it is better to have loved and lost, but it is best to love and never lose. I think that’s what we’re made for, and that’s what our fairytales are grasping for. We are not created for tragic romances and hurting hearts. Romeo and Juliet sagas romanticize a broken reality, but Cinderella stories reach for Eden-like eternity. We don’t have the words that follow happily ever after because we haven’t lived that tale yet.

Someone who will cover all your scars and never leave you with another one—he isn’t coming.

He’s been knocking on your door for a long time already.

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