Even though I owned a bike—a nth-hand Honda VTX Cruiser that my dad helped me buy and my best friend, Wayne, helped me rebuild—my dad drove me to school that first day. I wasn’t happy about that. My dad is the head cook at the Red Panda on Flatbush Avenue, and his only car is a delivery van he bought from the owner, Mr. Serizawa. I really can’t think of any worse way of starting your first day at a new high school than being driven to it by your old man in a delivery van, and being Japanese made it even more clichéd.
But if it made my dad happy, I’d deal. I figured if I could get through today, I could get through just about anything.
They call this neighborhood of Brooklyn, Japantown, yet there are as many Armenian, Chinese and Indian restaurants as there are Japanese, and those open-air grocers that you think only exist in Third World countries, or on Discovery Channel specials? They line the streets up and down, but Greek and Italian families own most of them. Sure, there are plenty of Japanese in the neighborhood—like us. Many had relocated as far away from the city formerly known as San Francisco as they could without falling into the Atlantic Ocean—but I don’t think the ethnic majority is in our favor. Basically, New York sucks tail.
I won’t go into the whys and wherefores, but unless you’ve been living in a cave, I’m sure you know the story already. Monsters. Kaiju, as the top scientists studying them in Japan call them. It’s all anyone wants to talk about, to study, to obsess over. You probably already have the science course at your own high school—or will, soon. Over the last few years, I’ve lost track of the books, magazines, and movie-of-the-week tearjerkers devoted solely to kaiju. Almost two years had passed since the day San Francisco was wiped off the map, and just like a natural disaster or a terrorist act, somehow, the horror had turned into excitement, entertainment, and science.
Me? I was there when Karkadon leveled San Francisco. I lived it. I remember every gruesome detail of the night that a monster shark ate enough polluted fish to grow a hundred times its natural size. It pulled itself from the ocean, learned to breathe air, and managed to destroy half the city before dying in a hail of military fire. Forget the blockbuster movies and sensational news reports, because I know what it was really like. I saw all the surreal nightmare stuff, the utter, crushing, finality of it all. I was going to a new school and living in a new city because of it.
Yet, if you ask anyone, they’ll tell you we were one of the lucky ones. Most of my friends wound up homeless. Some of my friends didn’t make it at all. I’d give anything to see them again. Hell, I’d love to see my enemies again—and they weren’t exactly a joyride, if you know what I mean.
Before you continue, you should know something about me. Prior to the disaster, I was that pudgy kid with glasses who sits all alone at lunch and actually reads the books assigned to him in English class. The one that you pity, but also try to avoid, because rubbing shoulders with someone like me is like contracting a social disease. If having a genuinely awkward, unpopular, and thoroughly unkissed sixteen-year-old geek for a hero bothers you, I suggest you close this book immediately and move on. I won’t be offended, promise. I just feel you ought to know the truth. You need to understand what I was before learning about what I’ve become.
A man needs to face his past before he can see his future. That’s Tao, just FYI.
It started the first day of kindergarten, during recess, when all of us kids were sitting around the lunch table, naively eating our Double Stuf Oreos and slurping from our milk cartons. This kid named Bryce—who, even at the tender age of five, was built like a side of beefalo—decided I didn’t look white enough. He came over and threw his milk all over me, which got a good laugh out of the rest of the kids at the table, let me tell you.
I should have slam-dunked his ass. Instead, I did the worst possible thing, the mistake that would haunt me to the end of my days in San Francisco: I told my dad. Afraid I was riding the bullet to being eternally bullied because I was only half-white, he told the principal, who immediately told Bryce’s parents. You see where this is going. By the time I was in grammar school, I was known as not only a half-chink, but also a snitch and a wimp, a fantabulous trifecta of fail if ever there was one.
So, yeah, I was that kid you love to hate, tripping over outstretched legs in aisles, laughing off the abuse, and basically crying over my chocolate Ding Dongs as I played Halo and hoped for better days ahead. Then reality reared its ugly brute head and I learned about the days ahead. I learned about reality. I learned that revenge, even served cold, tastes awful.
Bryce died the night Karkadon came ashore. So did a lot of other kids, not all of whom had been jerks. There was Raymond, who was an even bigger egghead than I was, Wayne, the harmless stoner dude from Venice Beach who got me into bikes, and Chance, a pre-op transsexual who attracted Bryce’s ire like a steel rod in a lightning storm. In fact, about half of the city’s population went, including my mom, who was driving across the Golden Gate Bridge when the monster pulled it down into the San Francisco Bay.
“Looks like the squash is coming out,” my dad said, looking out the window. As usual, he was thinking about the restaurant. By the way, you wouldn’t think we were related. My dad is short, and he has that soft, round baby face that some Asian men carry over with them from their youth. He cooks and eats way too much. I’m as tall as a giraffe, and recently, it seems that I can’t gain weight no matter how many wontons I eat.
“You know, Kevin,” he said after a moment, “you don’t have to go in today. Give it a few months…”
“I can’t sit home all day and watch KTV,” I said, then regretted it. I was being a jerk. Everyone watched the Kaiju Network these days, but hearing it run day and night at home was giving me a case of the crazies. I added, almost as an afterthought, “I’ve already lost almost two years of school.”
“You’ll make it up in no time.”
Probably. I’m not a mental slouch. I just play one on television. See, the year after the kindergarten debacle, I skipped not one, but two grades. Immediately after, my mom and dad took me to an institute where they give you all kinds of tests and measure your IQ. Mine came out somewhere between genius and freak of nature. At first, I thought that was the awesomeness, but after it got me a broken nose at the end of Bryce’s fist, I started to think otherwise. The obvious has never been my strong suit.
San Francisco was gone, and with it pudgy, soft, geeky, push-him-around, Kevin. In the last two years, I had grown a head taller than my dad was, and I had lost all the extra weight I’d been carrying around for years. More importantly, if you punch me, I’ll punch you back.
Dad was frowning. He was worried, as usual. He works in worrying like an artist works in clay or paints. He was afraid I was going to get pushed around like in the old days. My dad’s a good guy. He just didn’t know that I was turning into a punk. Let’s you and me keep it that way.
I reached up and fixed the shades I wear whenever I go out. I have a huge collection of them. It’s something my dad picks up for me whenever he sees them, like how some girls gain those ever-expanding unicorn collections (mostly parent-started), except I’m okay with the glasses. I used to wear them back in San Francisco to hide my mom’s electric blue Irish eyes in my dad’s Asian face, except that now they’d become a symbol of the reborn, impervious Kevin. The ones I had chosen today were artsy, round frames with rose-tinted lenses, like something Ozzy would have worn in his trippier days. They worked great with my ragged black jeans, leather jacket, and the crazy anime hair I have that needs trimming at least once every two weeks.
“Eh, I’ll be all right,” I said as we pulled into the parking lot behind Thomas Jefferson High, a boxy redbrick building that looked about as friendly as a penitentiary. “It’s a few fucking classes. I can handle it.”
Right after San Francisco, I had developed a swearing problem. At first, my dad let it go. Then he told me to cut it out, that I sounded like a punk. He didn’t say anything now. He just sat there in the parking lot, hands resting on the steering wheel of our idling, oh-so-clichéd delivery van, looking at me. He looked older, more shrunken somehow, like a turtle in a shell that wanted to draw in its head. He didn’t look like my dad anymore. “Do you want me coming in, or do you want to make up an excuse?”
He and I have always been close, able to read each other’s minds. He knew I wanted to go this alone, that it was important to me. But I was loathe to say that to him. He might think I didn’t need him anymore.
“If you want to come in…” I shrugged, leaving it at that.
“I really want to check out that squash,” he said.
He never uses squash in his stir-fry dishes.
“No problem. I’ll cover you.”
He slapped my knee.
I slid open the van door and jumped down with my backpack over a shoulder. “See you at four,” I said.
“Can you handle registration? Do you want me to pick you up?”
“Yes to one, no to two. I don’t know if there’ll be an orientation or if they’ll make me take tests or whatever, so lemme handle it, okay?” I shrugged. “I’ll catch the bus home.”
He smiled a little. “Good enough. See you at four, and good luck!”
I waved him off, feeling oddly like our roles had been reversed—like I was sending him off into unknown territory, never to return. It was a feeling that made me feel old. An old, bad fit to the school system, as if I didn’t belong here. Like I just ought to take off. Yet I was just practical (or maybe stupid) enough, to turn around and start toward the building anyway.
As things turned out, it was that great and wonderful practicality of mine which changed my life forever.
I felt a childish stab of nervous energy as I headed for the school.
Kids were climbing the steps, shoving each other, catcalling, referencing games I hadn’t seen and teams I didn’t know. They all looked like they fit together. They had that perfect cohesion you only see with kids who grew up together in the same neighborhood. New York kids. A tough crowd. I thought about metal detectors at the doors, cops in the hallways, guns in lockers. I wondered if all the horror stories I’d heard were true.
Gradually I picked out the various cliques: skinny jeans and reversible jackets on the skate guys, a few tough-looking pusher types at the fence, some stoner dudes trudging around in their own little circles, and the jocks jaunting around sans jackets to show off all their gym muscle. Geeks and Emos on the fringes. Don’t think generalizations stand true? You haven’t been in high school of late. The girls looked pretty normal in jeans and tees, or those short plaid skirts and funky jumper dresses that were all the rage—except, as usual, the cheerleaders had way more energy than anyone should at this ungodly hour.
I squinted at the bright sunshiny sky, hating it, wanting it to rain, feeling old, feeling like I needed more coffee, a cigarette, or something. For the hundredth time that morning, I wished I had my bike. At least, if I screwed up so badly I couldn’t show my face around here anymore, I’d have an escape route. As it was, I was stuck here till four. Can you say groan?
There were, of course, bullies. A couple of big ones in varsity jackets were loitering at the doors, doing what bullies do, eyeing up the girls like they were the daily specials and making obnoxious comments in the direction of the pansier-looking boys. No matter where you go, a bully is a bully, and they all came from the same Bryce-mold, it seems, created in the same alien Bryce-universe.
I realized I had to get up the stairs and through the front doors, and still, somehow, remain invisible, and the next few seconds were critical. I regretted wearing the shades. If the bullies spotted them, they might peg me as a hippie tree-hugger, which would probably get me killed in this school. So I lowered my head slightly, so that my jawcut hair flopped forward to either side of my face like a curtain, and started climbing the steps casual-fast.
A small group of kids in black fishnet and leather were going in ahead of me, making scary faces at everyone. Maybe, I thought, they would be enough of a distraction that the evil bully-force from the evil bully galactic empire would never notice me. I could dream, anyway. I slipped in ahead of the skate guys and took up my place behind the group in black. I saw funky short funeral dresses on the girls, and outrageous black poet shirts and chain jeans on the guys. What an eclectic mix, I thought. We even have Goths.
Well, it turns out that New York produces an even meaner bunch of kids than I was used to, because one of the bullies stuck out his foot, tripping up the Goth girl in the lead. That annoyed me. Not the foot-thing (that’s an ancient tactic that’s whispered around primitive fires on Planet Bully), but the fact that he was going after a girl. Even Bryce and his band of Troglodytes wouldn’t have tried that shit. I mean, come on, weren’t there any rules or codes of honor on Planet Bully, however unfair and haphazard?
I saw it happen. I didn’t think much about it. I dropped my pack, reached through the wall of taffeta and lace, and caught the girl at the elbow, steadying her on her monster plats. She was tiny and it was a long way down the school steps. She would have achieved freefall longer than a military paratrooper. She fell back against me, catching my toe under her heel, which hurt like hell, but right then, I was too pissed about the lack of rules to notice the pain.
“Dayum,” said the bully who had tripped the girl. He was huge, hulking, and fingering his football letter-jacket to emphasize his jockness, even though it had probably been bought on sale by his mommy. “Hey, Zack, man, look at this. The Goths are multiplying now.”
Zack, the other jerk blocking the door like a muscle-bound gargoyle, sniggered as if his friend was a regular cut-up. It never fails to amaze me what kinds of kindergarten humor amuses these types. I’m pretty sure most of them were deprived of oxygen at a critical point in their development, or dropped on their heads in the delivery room.
I stood there and glared at the first bully, the one I had mentally tagged “The Hulk.” “You wanna tell your brain dead buddy to move before I do some multiplication on his face?”
Yeah, it shocked me too. It just popped out of my big fat mouth, and I felt a strange commingling of pride, arrogance, sweating, and heart-rending fear. It was kind of like swatting a wasps’ nest with a stick, just to see if you can outrun the wasps. Except I wasn’t running.
“You little fuck!” The Hulk growled. “I’d like to see you fucking try it!”
Pro tip: Bullies use a lot of unnecessary swear words just to show you how big and tough they are, and often enough, they shout them, like you’re completely deaf. We eyed each other for a cold, brief moment, like gunslingers in a spaghetti western, waiting for the other one to go for his six-shooter. When his little show of testosterone garnered no reaction from me, he lunged forward and grabbed at the front of my jacket.
So I did what any normal, pissed-off punk would do. I punched him square in the nose.