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When I was seven, my mom taught me how to write my name in Chinese.
"The first character is our last name, Chiu," she said, her hand dwarfing mine as she guided me through the strokes.
"The second character, Lok," she continued, writing slowly "is the start of your first name. It stands for happiness."
"And the last character, Ji, means child," she said, finishing my name with a long hook.
"Lok Ji. Happy Child. Above all, I want you to live a happy life, you know?" She hugged me close, smiling. "Because you'll always be my darling little daughter."
No home, nothing to eat, and not a cent to their name; one can say that everyday must be rough for the two siblings, but ask them and they'll tell you that by far rainy days are the worst. It pours here in Miscanten so once the first few drops hit, they have to scramble out of their alley, finding shelter two blocks down beneath a backdoor awning. Shivering they huddle close together, and wait.
"When will the rain stop?" she asks, sleepy-eyed after an hour of silence.
Slowly, he looks up at the grey sky. "Eventually," he says.
If a plushie could run, I would run, but unfortunately I've no choice but stand my ground, quivering before the shadow that looms over me.
"Don't you dare," I hiss as her hands draw closer.
"Don't you dare put that thing on me!"
Julie steps back, smiling. "I made this top hat for you today, Mr. Bunbun!" she says. "What do you think?"
I'm too shocked to answer.
"Hmm," Julie mumbles. "There's something wrong ..."
"You mean how it doesn't match my fur at all?" I grumble.
"Oh, I know! You're missing a cane to go with it!"
... Oh, hell no.
He asked on a forum one day: "Why should I care about people I don't know?"
He got many different answers.
"'Cause one day, you might want others to care for you."
A practical answer. He likes it.
"Because it's just human nature to empathize with others."
He doesn't feel that way though. Is he not human then?
"It's scum like you that's bringing down our society."
Maybe so. But that begs the question: what is "our" society? With a society that rejects him like this, why would he want to be a part of it?
I wouldn't, he thinks.
"Why should I care about people I don't know?" He asked this yesterday online and returns to find more answers.
"It's a good thing to do. You can make people happy just by caring."
'Good' is such a subjective word. He can't stand it. He can't stand this thinking either.
make people happy?
"Because it's boring not to."
Fair enough. People are pretty interesting, enough to even care sometimes.
"So as long as it looks like you care, it doesn't matter why."
Briefly he wonders what kind of person wrote this, and how he might talk to them more.
"Why should I care about people I don't know?" Against his better judgment, he returns to the question he asked two days ago on a net forum and finds among the replies this answer:
"Just by asking this question, doesn't it show that you already care? Therefore, we should be the ones to ask you: why you care enough to ask?"
He stops there, feeling somehow embarrassed, put on the spot. Because everyone wants me to care, he argues.
Why do you care about what they want, would logically be the next following question.
Why do I care, he wonders.
Arietta Fiedler is a high school student by day and a magical girl by night. Her schedule is like this: she wakes up at seven, goes to school from eight to three, has orchestra until five, goes home to do homework until dinner at seven, then she wraps up her homework by eight before sneaking out to patrol the streets. That takes about five hours, so she gets back home at three, barely managing to change out of her uniform before collapsing on her bed. When she wakes up just four hours later, her body feels heavy, unresponsive. She's tired.
Arietta Fiedler lives a double-life. By day, she's a high school junior with AP exams and SATs and college applications dawning upon her. By night, she's a magical girl, a vigilante keeping nearby criminals in check. She sleeps about four hours a day because of her schedule and it shows. She’s got bags under her eyes, dropping grades, wounds she struggles to keep hidden with long-sleeved shirts and stockings even in the heat of the summer. Sweating as she is in her classroom now, dizzy and barely able to concentrate, she briefly wonders if it's worth it.
Arietta's halfway out the auditorium door from band practice when her classmates call out to her.
"Arietta, let's go the mall today, since it's Friday and all!"
"Ahh, I'm sorry! I've got some stuff to take care of at home today, so ..." She's thinking of that one robber who's on the loose, targeting kids from their school.
"Oh. We haven't hung out in a long while already though ..."
"Sorry," Arietta says with a bleak smile. "Life's just hectic right now. I'll make it up to you guys soon, okay?" There's a twinge of guilt but she ignores it, and runs.
One particularly violent battle leaves Arietta with a limp she can't hide the next morning.
"Arietta!" her mother exclaims when she sees her trudging into the kitchen. "Are you okay? What happened?"
"I'm fine! I think I just sprained my ankle or something while sleeping."
"Can you get to school like this? You've been looking so sick recently too ..."
"No, I'm fine!" she says but ends up yelping when she moves too quickly. Her mom sends her right back to bed after that, and though Arietta thinks it's unnecessary, she later wakes up more refreshed than she's been for weeks.
Arietta knows she's messed up today. She's lying in a pool of her own blood in some alleyway, barely able to process the fading hisses of the fleeing thugs. "You've really done it this time," they're saying, "you've really gone and killed another person."
Is that what happened to her? She fades to the sound of approaching footsteps, and when she wakes up, she's not in heaven but in a bed in someone's room.
There's a boy standing by, bandages in his arms.
"So you're that vigilante girl everyone's been talking about?"
She's really messed up this time.
Arietta's savior is a boy from her high school, from her grade even. She's only heard about him though: Caesar Wong, that aloof, top-ranking kid admired for his smarts yet feared at the same time. It's that deep cold in those blue eyes, an odd maturity that extends beyond his age.
All the shoujo manga she's read tells her that this is a picturesque situation right here. She's the heroine saved by her love and he's the hero with a cold heart to be thawed. But looking at him now with his glare, the thought feels suddenly very stupid.
"Feeling better?" Caesar asks, twirling a pen in his hand. Arietta nods, ducking slightly under the covers to avoid his stare. "Good. Then perhaps you can answer a few questions for me."
"About my identity, right?" Her voice is muffled under the blanket.
"No." He stops twirling the pen. "I want to know why."
"Huh?" She peeks out, but his expression hasn't changed. "But isn't it obvious? Once I realized I had these powers, I thought for sure I'd use them to help other people."
"Why help other people?"
She's staring now, but he's clear he's serious.
"If I had powers like yours, I think I'd just want to study them," Caesar says, twirling his pen again.
"You wouldn't use them for good?" Arietta asks, surprised.
"'Good' is subjective," he replies, irritated. "Besides, wouldn't studying and sharing what you've discovered be a 'good' thing?"
"But," she cuts in, "but you could be out there helping people! Especially with the crime rate increasing! Wouldn't you want to do something about it?"
"Well look where that got you."
She's quiet, biting her lip. There's a silence, then quietly he says,
"I'm sorry. I went too far."
She doesn't reply.
"How'd you, uh," Arietta skirts around the word 'save', "get me here anyway?"
"I carried you," Caesar says simply.
"No one questioned you carrying around a bleeding, costumed girl?" she asks, raising a brow.
"I live right around the corner. No one's out at eleven anyway."
"Except for you?"
"It was my turn to take out the trash that night."
"How'd you fix my wounds?" she asks, growing red.
"Mom knows a thing or two about patching people up." She covers her blush, feeling stupid.
"That's a lot of coincidences, isn't it," Arietta says, trailing off.
"You're lucky you're alive."
"Did you tell your mom about me?" Arietta asks. "About my identity and all."
"I think we both realized you were the vigilante the moment we saw you," Caesar says.
"You're not going to tell anyone else, right?" Her heart is racing.
"Given how panicky you seem now, I suppose not." He looks thoughtful. "I still think it's a waste keeping it a secret, but I guess I can understand why.
"However," he continues, dampening her growing smile, "I of course have my own demands, simply out of curiosity. The first: take me with you on one of your rounds."
"Are you serious?" Arietta can't help but ask despite already knowing his answer. "I can't take a defenseless civilian with me on my rounds!"
"I can take care of myself," Caesar says. "I'm just interested in seeing how you use your powers, is all."
"I can just tell you now, you know? If you're so curious."
"Okay. Go for it."
"Well," Arietta starts, looking thoughtful, "I can punch people real hard."
"Shush!" she says, reddening. "And I think I heal faster or something like that ..."
"Just bring me along," he says and though she pouts, she doesn't protest.
"So in general your physical capabilities have been boosted," Caesar tells Arietta as they walk down the streets to his house. It's three in the morning, just after one of her rounds, and she's barely awake enough to nod idly.
"You hinted toward super strength and enhanced regeneration, but it's more than just that. That's how you were able to catch those that tried to run."
"I always thought it was just me giving my all," she yawns.
"Clearly not." He frowns, watching her as they reach his doorstep. "Go home and get some sleep. It's the weekend. Good night."
It's just Arietta's luck to fall asleep again in class the next day and get sent to detention for her lunch break. She bumps into Caesar on her way there.
"Not going to the cafeteria?" he asks, stopping to talk.
"Detention," she says, red.
"Really," he says. "Odd. You didn't seem the type."
"I've been falling asleep a lot in class recently, so ..."
"Because of your patrols?"
"Maybe," she mutters.
"It's clear you're not planning on stopping, but have you at least thought about getting some help from other people with powers?"
"There are others?" She hadn't considered the possibility.
She's strong, he's not, and that's the way it's always been since the day they first met. He was ten years old and couldn't run fast like the others, couldn't play rough like the others, couldn't pitch or play ball because everything he did left him tired and out of breath. He thought then, "It's okay to be on the sidelines," and stayed in his own little corner until she, the girl who ran faster than the others, played rougher than the others, pitched and played ball better than everyone else; came right up to him with her hand extended.
She's strong, he's not, and that's why he thinks it's okay that he's the one changing himself for her. She does things however she wants, always looks straight ahead onto her own path and that's fine with him; it just means he'll be the one trying to get her to turn his way.
So he tries. He reads up on all the latest fashion trends, because girls dig fashionable guys, right? New hair, new clothes, new attitude; he doesn't quite feel himself, but seeing her glance his way, noticing at the very least that he's changed -- that's enough for him.
He's strong, she's not, and that's why she admires him so much. He's always changing himself, from his hair to his clothes to his attitude, and she thinks it's admirable that he can play around with his identity so much. Is he looking for himself, just like she is? Has he gotten anywhere, though she hasn't? Has he already become who he wants to be? He's bolder now, and though she can always see within him traces of that same shy boy she met years ago, she can also see that he's grown and wonders if she's done the same.
You see him first by his hair, because there's no way anyone could have this odd lock of hair just naturally sticking out of their head like that. It's either gel or wind, and you conclude it's the former because from his height (around five-four, maybe?) and his babyface, he's probably just one of those high school kids who gel their hair to look cool. He'll grow out of it.
What you don't know is that alongside the gel, he also has heel inserts inside his shoes. He's nineteen, barely five feet, and desperate for growth he won't get.
He exudes confidence, is the first impression you get. It's the way he walks, arms at his sides, his back straight and strides wide. It's the way he smiles as he walks, as if wordlessly greeting everyone he passes. It's the way he stops to glance at the sky in a city where people look only at the ground.
The truth is, he walks this way because he knows how people rush. He knows that no one bothers to look at each another, much less the sky. The rush dampens his style; he'll take as much time as he wants.
You see her first reading a book in the library and it suits her entirely. She's slim and petite, with glasses and a monochrome outfit that gives the impression of a strict student representative, vest and tie and all. Standing with her back to the wall, a textbook held close to her face, you conclude that she must be studying very hard.
You're right. She's studying, but there is instead a children's coloring book held hidden behind the textbook. She's colorblind and trying to learn the different colors of the world, but even now at eighteen, she forgets them sometimes.
He's a teenager but his clothes are surprisingly classy -- a jacket over a dress shirt and a matching black tie -- until you realize how messy they are. His tie is loose, his sleeves are pulled up to his elbows, and his shirt is untucked, but he doesn't bother fixing them. He walks instead with apathetic confidence, headphones on over styled hair, not noticing nor caring about the world around him until he stumbles over a crack in the ground. He's red now, hands in pockets and slouching, walking quickly away; he won't know you witnessed that chip in his image.
Aidan doesn't remember it now, but back when he was a child, he was always clinging to his big brother Arden. I still remember when the two of them were little, visiting my deli everyday after school. Arden would run into the store, coming right up to the counter to say, "Hey mister, gimme a Sprite!" Then Aidan would trail in behind him, tippy-toeing to whisper into his ear. "Why don't you get it yourself?" Arden would ask, but seeing Aidan shaking his head, he'd shrug and say to me, "Alright, throw in a bottle of apple juice too!"
Apples are usually red, but there are some that are green or yellow or even a mixture of all these colors. Those are easy to differentiate though; it's the green ones and the yellow ones that she has to watch out for, and to practice, she's bought a basket of different kinds of apples. Hidden in her room, she lays them all out on a table, finding the light ones immediately. One is a Golden Delicious and the other is Granny Smith; she examines them, takes five minutes to decide which is which, and even then she gets it wrong.
"Hey Amber," Edmund calls one day at school, "notice anything different about me today?" He leans against the wall in a practiced manner, wondering how cool he must look.
"Uh," Amber starts, biting her lip. He asks her this same question every week, and honestly she can never really tell what's changed. "Is it your hair, maybe?"
"Yep! I trimmed my bangs a bit. What do you think?"
"It looks nice! I like it." She gives him a sheepish smile, but judging from how much he's grinning now, she figures he hasn't realized that she doesn't really care either way.
There is something off about his smile. His lips are curved and his eyes are twinkling, but it still feels fabricated, as if he's practiced again and again in front of a mirror. You watch him listen to a friend ramble about her crush rejecting her.
"I'm sorry to hear that," he says.
She pauses. "You don't have to lie to me," she says. "I know, it was stupid of me to have ever liked him." He's clearly confused, so she continues, "Well, you're smiling about it and everything."
His practiced image falters, and there is bitterness in his eyes.
And so 2012 comes to an end. I think this year was a pretty good year, although maybe more drama-filled than I would've liked. Finished my sophomore year of college this spring, studied abroad in Shanghai this summer, started my junior year this autumn, and confirmed my study abroad plans for Japan this winter. It was one heck of a roller coaster waiting for that study abroad decision to come in (waited 'til the end of fall semester, which is way too close for my liking), but at least my plans are set now! Here's to a new year!
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