New Fiction By Alice Sola Kim: "Successor, Usurper, Replacement"
In this story for our Almost Famous series, four friends have literary ambitions that threaten to ruin them all.
There was no question of going home that night. The streets below Lee’s high-rise apartment had flooded, and everyone had received an alert that the beast had been sighted near their area. If they went out, their safety could not be guaranteed. The wording of the alert troubled everyone, even though of course this was always the case — the non-guarantee of anyone’s safety ever — but still the warnings were alarmingly pushy and made your phone buzz and compelled you to look immediately at the message from the city telling you hi, just a reminder that we’re all going to die someday, especially you, and it might even happen sooner than expected. Hiiiiiiiii!
When Wong had lifted his phone to check if it had been damaged by the rain, it buzzed with the alert; then each of theirs did, one after another. Lee ran to the windows and drew the blinds shut. It was superstition, she knew, but they had all heard rumors that even seeing the beast could be dangerous. That night, half of the group was missing, having canceled earlier with many exclamation points. Sick! Headache! Forgot! In utter terror of going outside! Only Huynh, Kim, and Wong had made it. Not everyone in the group was Asian, but only the Asians were present tonight, which made them feel a little self-conscious.
Lee was glad to see them. The group was not small enough to feel awkward, like that time when it was only Lee and someone else facing Kim like a parent and a principal as they were going to town on his writing. As was customary, Lee was hosting, since her writing was up for discussion by the group tonight. Another custom: the consumption of alcohol.
Huynh had brought a box of pinot grigio that had a picture of an actual bottle of wine on the front, which seemed like an unintuitive marketing choice, to remind you so baldly of what you weren’t getting. But Huynh didn’t care if something was gross, as long as there was a lot of it. She ate like she’d recently emerged from a nuclear bunker.
Kim had brought a six-pack of gruesomely hoppy IPA, which gave one’s tongue a post-diarrhea sensation, desiccated and sour. Lee still had three bottles in her fridge from the last time the group had met at her place, about five rounds ago.
Finally, Wong had brought a bottle of whiskey less than half-full, an extremely irritating offering which would only be appreciated later in the evening.
The restaurants in the area had stopped delivering, so Lee set a pot of pasta bubbling on the stove. Everyone kept glancing at it resentfully, knowing that it would make them feel fat immediately and ravenous half an hour later. They still wanted it, very much.
Wong tried to call couch for the night and Huynh smiled at him. “You can try,” she said.
Lee dragged a dusty air mattress from the closet and told Wong and Kim they could sleep on it tonight. This was a cursed air mattress; those who lay upon it were flush with the floor before dawn and beset with prehistorically brutal colds by morning, but no one had to know that.
Though their friendships were no less potent across genders, something old-fashioned and un-chill, an Asian, non-huggy thing, kept them from sharing physical boy-girl space too closely. Huynh, in fact, was terrible at physical contact in general; Huynh hugged like a haunted porcelain doll that had come to life. One summer during college, Lee, Wong, and Kim had sublet an apartment in the city together, and without any argument or question Lee had taken the king bed in the master bedroom, while Wong and Kim had shared the tiny guest bedroom and its twin floor mattress, where essentially Kim slept curled by Wong’s feet every night, sprawled half on the mattress and half on a pile of clothes on the floor.
Of course, no one had thought to give Lee the tiny guest bedroom. But that was usual: Lee got things, occasionally (it seemed like) more things than any one person deserved, but she worked hard enough to deserve many of them. Like her apartment. She made enough money to buy everything that the store had told her went with the items she had picked out; her home was beautiful in a way that wouldn’t necessarily make you compliment the owner, since it was clear that some giant hand with impeccable corporate catalog taste had set down each element in her home like a chess piece, only letting go when everything was just right. But her friends were hers, and her friends she surveyed in satisfaction, draped over her furniture, pinned in here for the night. Everyone, the older they got, slipped away, was harder to hold to real plans or, once the plans were made and honored, harder to keep for long enough, as if death and the way objects got colder and spun out further and further from each other was a process that began long, long, long before the actual dying and heat loss, so subtly that no one knew to be scared enough to stop it.
Lee loved her friends, and she loved that they couldn’t leave tonight. Could there be something like taxidermy, but without anything dying? she wondered. If she could do something like killing her friends (but not killing, of course not killing) but a kind of killing of their lives and outside worlds that would force them to stay here and have fun, except they wouldn’t even know they were being forced, it’s just that staying here and having fun would be all that they wanted to do and could imagine doing, would she do it?
On the intercom Lee saw a long-haired girl standing still, head hanging, blurred by the rain.
The intercom beeped. Lee was startled, for no one else had been expected. On the intercom she saw a long-haired girl standing still, head hanging, blurred by the rain. It was — well, Lee had forgotten the girl’s name, but she did know that the girl was a new member of the group, a person someone else had invited.
Lee buzzed her in. She heard the distant shunk of the elevator below, then the doors slid open. The elevator opened directly into Lee’s apartment, as it did for every unit in the building, which was supposed to be a fancy amenity but felt more like having a giant hole that led right into your guts. Not that kind of hole.
So, right away the girl was in Lee’s apartment. No time to think about whether it was the right choice or not to let her in, although, why wouldn’t it be? The rain had reduced the girl to the purest essence of herself, hair plasticked to her head, clothes and even skin seeming to adhere more tightly to her skeleton. She had long, thick bangs. Although the rain had separated them into chunks, the bangs covered her eyes so perfectly that you only knew she had eyes because you assumed she had eyes, why wouldn’t she have eyes, but —
— did she have eyes?
The girl swiped at her forehead with the back of her hand like a cat, revealing her eyes, which of course she did have. They were small and very white and very black like dominoes. “Sorry I’m late!” she said.
“Sorry you got caught out there,” said Lee. “Did you get the alert?”
The girl shook her head. “I don’t have a phone.”
Lee reminded herself that lots and lots and lots of people didn’t have phones. Among the people she knew, how many of them did not have a phone? Even if the answer was zero, it didn’t mean it was wrong to not have a phone.
The girl did not have a phone, and it did not look like she brought alcohol. She only brought her wet hair and disappearing eyes. Lee brought her a clean towel from the bathroom and the girl accepted it, smiling. Everyone said hi with disturbing and transparent vigor to make up for the fact that no one knew her name. Still, they found her familiar, and each knew for certain that one of them had invited the girl into the group.
Of course, no one had invited the girl here, at least not on purpose. This was one of those things that someone else, perhaps some unseen observer, could figure out in two seconds, but it would take everyone who was in the room much longer, which was really too bad.
“Thanks for having me, guys,” said the girl. She sat down and twisted her legs together, the towel draped over her shoulders.
They ate the pasta with butter, salt, soy sauce, hot sauce, peanut butter, back of the fridge parmesan that had gone the texture of Comet, and anchovy paste. Many of those ingredients were on the list only because of Huynh. Outside the sky boomed and the rain sounded swarming and continuous, which made the food taste better. The girl wasn’t eating. Instead, she sipped a beer and asked everyone questions about themselves. People new to the group were either shy and watchful, embarrassed to admit what they didn’t know, or they were loud and bossy about it, forcing others to explain themselves in the simplest terms possible. Basically, did they see the world from the orientation I am new to you, or were they more of a you are new to me person? The girl was very much the latter.
What are you working on right now? And you and you and you and you?
Where did you all meet? How did you all meet? How come you all like each other?
What are you doing in this city?
It was nice enough, certainly, to be asked questions, until it was clear she was being an avid robot debutante of an interrogator who despite not seeming super interested in the answers would not quit with the goddamn questions, which was much worse than someone just talking a lot and being boring because this way it turned you into the boring one, it shanghaied you into boringosity and from inside the prison of your voice brayed autobiographically on and on as you were helpless to stop it.
Lee, who was working on a gruesome fantasy trilogy, watched Kim’s (short stories featuring a guy much like himself, also named Kim, always) nascent sexual interest in the girl wither and die, while Wong’s (boarding school memoir full of lies) nonsexual interest in the girl as a potential subject of later shit-talking grew, his spare body leaning ever closer to her. Wong gave Lee a look so blankly innocent that it was obviously horrifically rude, and Lee was glad the girl hadn’t noticed. Huynh (long short stories often about people grappling with philosophical conundrums who inevitably ended up committing sudden acts of violence) looked up from her phone.
“Guess whose birthday it is today,” she said.
“Who?” said Kim.
“It’s mine,” said Huynh.
“Your birthday! How old are you, exactly?” said Wong. They’d been friends with Huynh for years, maybe three, but since they hadn’t gone to college with her, they weren’t clear on her exact age. They only knew that she existed in the same category of melty sameishness which they had all descended into after college.
“2_!” Huynh smiled rectangularly, all teeth, no eyes, and let out a cute, strangled scream. “Aaagh!”
2_! Quite an age. The age to start getting serious. A nasty-ass terrifying age. If they were honest, it was the age to already be a little serious, so you could be ready to have your life be perfect by the time you were 3_ or thereabouts, right? Huynh was not serious. She wore hoodies that had draggy ape-arm sleeves and scissor-holes for her thumbs. For the past year and a half, she had been living on an insurance payout from a car accident she’d been in. Unfortunately Huynh had not grown up with money and so was unable to do anything with hers but lose it quickly and clumsily. She only ate bad impulse delivery — franchise pizzas and gummy Thai — and was always rebuying headphones and power cords and ordering unrealistic dresses she’d neither wear nor return and always, always paying the late fees on anything capable of accruing them. Though she either seemed horny or had the ability to become so, Huynh had never dated anyone, as far as they knew. Of Huynh but never, ever to Huynh, Wong said that he wished he could hire her a life coach, or even be her life coach, because her life was such a mess that you could make a huge difference in it just by telling her to eat one vegetable a week, or to write down her appointments somewhere.
Though she either seemed horny or had the ability to become so, Huynh had never dated anyone, as far as they knew.
That said, the rest of them were also 2_ or about to be, and if you looked past the relationships, the good jobs, the minor artistic plaudits and encouragements, it wasn’t like they were doing so hot either.
“So young,” said the girl.
“Really?” said Kim. He looked at her, age indeterminate à la one of their people: Girlish bangs. Pink tank top. Pale, springy cheeks that could look resplendent with baby fat or slack and jowly depending on how tired she was, or how much water she’d drunk. A long, long, very long, too long neck trisected by deep horizontal wrinkles. Sometimes people got those from reading too much. Even kids.
“Of course very young,” she said. “Happy birthday, Huynh.”
Then Lee, Kim, and Wong remembered to shout, “Happy birthday!” at Huynh. They had been friends for so long that it was too easy for strangers to out-polite them. “I wish we had a cake for you,” said the girl, smiling at Huynh.
Hmm! Mighty presumptuous, what with the girl having just met Huynh and the rest of them. Although, then again, the girl was here because she was supposed to know one of them. And now the girl had learned too much about them, and they nothing at all about her. Of course, at this point it would be completely impossible for them to ask her for her name.
Joke was on the girl. Lee had a slice of cake in the freezer. It was too bad, she had just managed to successfully forget that the cake was in her fridge, but at least she would immediately be able to get rid of it. She microwaved the cake for a few minutes, imagining wiggly rays — invisible on this wavelength but blaring red and deadly merely one level over — shooting into and through her guts.
When she brought the cake over to Huynh, they screamed. Wong hovered his hands above the cake, a movement that landed somewhere between doing Reiki and preparing to strangle someone.
“Are you sure?” said Huynh.
“I want to get rid of it,” said Lee. “It’s a cursed cake. But you eating it on your birthday will reverse the curse.”
“Reverse the curse,” said the girl.
“It was her wedding cake,” said Wong. “You can tell because the frosting looks like a couch.”
“And now it’s passing into another state of matter,” said Kim. “Moment of silence, please.”
Huynh put a fist delicately over her mouth. “I — mmplgh! I declare the curse reversed.”
“Yeah,” said Kim. “Fuck that guy.”
They were quiet for a moment. Then, as the girl said, “Why don’t we get started,” the power blinked out.
At first all was chaos and panic; at first it was as if without their noticing the outside had bled and dripped into the inside until the inside had been fully painted over by the outside and now the beast was here with them, the inside that was the outside; the lights in the street and the surrounding buildings had gone out too, and all was darkness as the girl sat there smiling, which no one could see.
Then everyone remembered that they had their phones and one by one they appeared in the dark as busts glowing delicately blue in a far-future museum, the unspecified museum they were trying to make it into with their writing, as stupid as that sounded and whether they admitted it to themselves or not, because it wasn’t as if their jobs or families or stations in life or beauty or kindness or cruelty would get them there. They were investing their current happiness against future gain, except the cause-and-effect was screwy and some of them weren’t doing this on purpose — some of them were very, very unhappy so their main consolation was that their eventual glorious future would stretch backward in time. So they dug in, burrowed tight foxholes where they could be surrounded by their unhappiness, nurtured sweet little gardens made up of and inside their unhappiness.
Hey! Holy fuck. Are we still alive or are we dead right now? Oh my god. Hiiiiiiiii! they said to each other, laughing. Kim took a photo of everyone in their tiny blue islands. Lee found a flashlight, and the girl produced candles and a bottle from a backpack they hadn’t noticed.
“They said there would be a storm tonight,” she said, laughing as she laid out the candles for Lee to light. “I came prepared!” Her teeth glinted. Lee noticed that her hair hadn’t dried at all, not one bit. Dark ropes of it clung to her shoulders and chest, and a few strands were wrapped around her throat; Lee had the urge to brush them out of the way.
The girl said, “I want you guys to be happy.”
“We’ve been talking a lot,” said Lee. “What about you? What do you write? What are you doing in the city?
“Look, I brought alcohol,” said the girl. “Bourbon.” She sprang up and scampered to Lee’s kitchen, where she pulled out the first cup-like objects her hands touched — mugs, a highball glass, a soup bowl. “You guys drink bourbon, right? Writers. All you writers. Bourbon is a thing writers are supposed to drink. Drink up.” They felt both flirted with and completely humiliated.
Somehow, they had ended up in a circle sitting on the floor. It felt safer that way. Once the lights went out, it was best to preemptively cut your ties to other so-called necessities, like furniture.
“Let’s do shots,” said the girl.
You couldn't always predict who would yell for more shots the way a child might scream for a story and would literally not stop with the shots until something bad and un-fun happened.
They drank. The girl’s arm snaked out, long and white, and poured more. “Another!” she shouted. That was certainly a kind of person, the person who demanded that everyone do shots. Or, given that you couldn’t always predict who would get that antic gleam, who would yell for more shots the way a child might scream for another story and would literally not stop with the shots until something bad and un-fun happened — the shots-monster was more like a demon that roamed bars and colleges and work holiday parties to possess the susceptible.
Lee’s face never got red but too much alcohol still begrimed her on a cellular level; her drunks felt dark and deeply allergic, but at least they didn’t fuck up her countenance. Unlike Kim, whose eyes always went an itchy highlighter pink in the presence of even a drop of a beer, though there was something manly and endearing and almost bruised-looking about his inflamed face.
“You’re being so guarded around me,” the girl whispered sadly.
When are we going to talk about my writing? Lee wanted to say but didn’t. Who cared, anyway. It was a particularly gnarly excerpt from book two of her fantasy trilogy, the kind of piece that would drag the group into unhelpful arguments about blood spatter patterns and what kinds of plausible damage could be done to a person via broadsword, unicorn horn, mace. They did not respect her. Just wait, she thought. I will be rich and respected. I will not have to choose, the way you all think you’re choosing.
The shots-monster changed form and the girl lit up. “I know!” she said. “Drinking game!”
The girl made everyone write down nouns on little scraps of paper, torn from a small notebook she produced from her backpack. The paper scraps were folded and piled in the middle of the circle. The girl took a die out of her pocket and told them that when it was your turn, you would pick a scrap of paper, before rolling the die — making sure no one else could see the number you got.
If you got an even number, you had to tell a true story that involved the thing that was written on the paper scrap you picked. If the number was odd, you would make a story up. Then everyone would go around the circle and guess if the story was true or false. Whoever is wrong drinks. For each person who guesses right, the storyteller has to take a drink.
“Because you’re all writers,” said the girl. They felt embarrassed again.
Kim said, “Let’s do this.” He selected a piece of paper and turned away from the circle and rolled. “Okay,” he said. “I can work with this.”
The paper said NAME.
“My last name — there’s a shit-ton of us,” Kim said. “But my first name is less common.” The first time he got a story published, he thought about changing things up, maybe throwing in a middle name. But he decided to use his regular name, as is, since he wanted all the glory and acclaim (“such as there was”) for himself, the normal everyday self with whom he was already familiar. Why should some artificial new construct — some guy who hadn’t even been there through the hard work — take all the credit?
Years passed, he got a few more things published, and one day something strange happened. Kim received an email from a prestigious literary journal accepting a short story of his. Great! Except Kim didn’t recognize the title of the story, because he hadn’t written it. He let the journal know that they had gotten him mixed up with someone else. Now, if it had ended there, it would have been a funny little blip, a cute story he could tell about the time he got something he really wanted but it turned out to have been a terrible mistake and was thus immediately wrested from him, talk about impostor syndrome, I’ll tell you about impostor syndrome.
But that incident begat others, in which he started receiving both acceptances and rejections for things he hadn’t written. “A lose-lose situation. The acceptances didn’t feel good and the rejections still felt terrible.” Kim started thinking again about using another name, except now he’d racked up a few publications and it would be a giant ass-pain to start all over again. But nor could he let the current situation stand. What to do?
Just the other day, the other Kim contacted Kim. The other Kim’s email was neutral in tone, very direct. He stated that he had been getting mistaken for Kim off and on over the past few years, and surmised that this must also be happening to Kim in the other direction. So he made a proposal: Since it was apparent that they both worked slowly, why not pool their resources and combine themselves into one Kim? The other Kim wrote, “I have read your work and though it is quite different from my own, I believe we would complement each other well. Please also keep in mind that half of something is better than all of — as it stands right now, for both of us — absolutely nothing.”
“We complete each other,” said Kim. This whole time, he had kept himself from reading the other Kim’s stories. He had this irrational idea that if he were to do so, something awful would happen — he might learn something it would be much better for him not to know. So he hadn’t decided yet. Although, of course, he was definitely going to say no.
“True,” said Wong.
“False,” said Lee.
“False,” said Huynh.
“True,” said the girl.
Kim pointed at Lee and Huynh. “Drink,” he said.
“Why would you never tell us this?” said Huynh.
Kim shrugged. “It just happened.”
“No, dick, I know you said the other Kim just wrote to you, but I’m talking about the earlier stuff.”
“I didn’t know you then.”
Huynh glowered at him. The girl threw her head back and laughed. “Love it. I’m getting so much out of this. I’m so glad we’re doing this.” She refilled their cups. The level of liquid in the bottle appeared unchanged.
Wong was next. The paper said SCHOOLBOY. He blanched.
“I got a bad one,” Wong said, making a face. He thought for a moment, then began.
"My friend was not gay. Or perhaps a little, just for me. There was this one time in Paris–"
When Wong talked at length, he was hypnotic. Which could be bad at times, since his clipped accent, the precision of his speech, and the rich perverted sweet-rot depth of his voice all combined to make it sound like he really meant everything he said. One learned very quickly that this was not the case, but when confronted with that voice, one had a little trouble remembering that, now didn’t one. He could be intimidating, especially for Huynh, who was already continually shoulder-chipped by the fact that she hadn’t gone to the same fancy college as the rest of them. He hurt feelings often, but he didn’t mean to — a dumb joke from another person would sound like a blithe yet piercing condemnation from the president of the 1% from Wong. That voice!
Wong told of a friendship he had had while in boarding school in Switzerland. This was a close friendship, childish because it was so obsessive, but adult because they seemingly saw each other clearly; they were fully mutually admiring of each other. Though Wong and the friend resembled each other physically and had similar tastes and personalities and aptitudes for school and sport, they treasured in the other the things that were different: Wong’s easy, conversational manner with teachers and fellow students alike; the friend’s single-minded ability to complete a paper or problem set from start to finish without interruption; one’s thick, fashionable glasses; the other’s adorably decorative smattering of acne. “It was very gay, as I can see you thinking, but my friend was not gay. Or perhaps a little, just for me. There was this one time in Paris—”
“Anyway, I was extremely popular,” Wong said, as only Wong could say. But this friend gave Wong something no other friend could. Wong, who had been orphaned when he was a small child, knew no one else and was known by no one else to such a comforting extent. The friend knew Wong so well partially because they were so similar, which then made the differences all the more apparent, something to be mapped and delineated and treasured.
One winter break, they lied to various parties and spent break unsupervised in one of the Wong family properties in Paris. Toward the end of break the friend received news that his parents had been killed in an accident. And after the funeral, the friend would be moved to another school, closer to his relatives.
The friend did not want to go to a strange new school, to leave Wong and his other friends behind. So they came up with a plan. Wong would go to the new school in his friend’s stead, while the friend would stay at their school, where he could impersonate both Wong and himself. “When you feel bad, be me,” Wong had told him. It would help. And if the friend missed himself, felt the need for a small pocket of space-time in which to grieve, then he could always return to himself. It was only supposed to be temporary. So it was that Wong left their school in his friend’s place.
“For a whole season, I pretended to be him,” said Wong. He blinked slow and smoothed his hair back. “The end.” he said.
Kim made a farting noise. “When did you guys switch back again?” he asked.
“Yeah, what happened? Did anyone ever find out?” said Huynh.
Wong said, “Time’s up. Make your guesses.”
“False,” said Lee.
“False,” said Huynh.
“True,” said the girl.
“Falsest horseshit I’ve ever heard,” said Kim.
“You’ll all have to drink,” said Wong. “All of you!” As the rest of them complained, he cackled and drained his glass.
“I’ll allow it,” said the girl. She and Wong clinked glasses.
It was Lee’s turn. The paper said SUCCESSOR. “Pass,” said Lee.
The next slip of paper said USURPER. Well, if she didn’t want SUCCESSOR, she definitely didn’t want USURPER. “Pass on this, too,” said Lee.
The next slip said REPLACEMENT.
Lee yelled, “I’m not doing any of these, you assholes,” and against her will she remembered finding the pictures of her ex-husband’s old girlfriends, the new girlfriend who had usurped Lee’s position, the one who had replaced that one, and the other one, or was it two, after — it was hard to remember exactly because the photos had been in some kind of circular book with no covers, no clear end or beginning, you could easily have flipped through all the women and gone back around to the beginning without even noticing; that was what they looked like.
Huynh was looking at her calmly. Lee remembered how perfect Huynh had been, matter-of-fact yet merciless. “Don’t dwell. Just another yellow fever cracker-ass white guy,” Huynh had said. “Throw him back.”
Huynh pushed a square of paper toward Lee. “Here, try one more.” Her face was unreadable.
Lee unfolded the paper. Printed in tiny block letters was the word SHART.
Lee unfolded the paper. Printed on it in tiny block letters was the word SHART. She hung her head, then began to shake with laughter — something about the careful, meek handwriting, more than the word itself even. “Noooooo,” she moaned. “That does it. I’m skipping my turn.” Huynh raised her glass to Lee. Wong and Kim looked relieved and drank. The girl refilled everyone’s cups. The bottle remained nearly full.
“You humans,” murmured the girl. She grinned at them, tilting her head. “I mean, us. Us humans. We’re just such a blast.”
Huynh got MATTRESS. She nodded as though she had been expecting it. Years ago, before all of them had met, Huynh had been going through a rough time. There was no money. She was living in an expensive city, but was too poor and depressed to move anywhere else and could not stomach the thought of going back home — her dad was mentally ill and homeless, and her mom had left for Vietnam a while back. “I guess with all the people over the years telling her to go back to her own country, she was finally like, ‘Huh, you know what, that’s actually like not a bad idea!’” said Huynh. “You fuckers.”
Huynh had signed up with a temp agency, who immediately found her an assignment with amazingly inconvenient hours that paid terribly, but she took it, afraid that if she turned this one down she would not be placed elsewhere. During the final days before she had to move out of her current apartment, she searched through the classifieds and found exactly two apartments she could afford. One was so affordable because it was free — she would only have one roommate and would have to refrain from wearing clothing while in the apartment (“no sex no touching,” the ad had said, “i’m not some CREEP”).
Huynh took the other apartment. It was a room in a two-bedroom apartment, clean and empty except for a mattress and a suitcase. She had a roommate who she would never see. The roommate slept on the mattress from about 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Normal-people stuff. Huynh slept on the mattress during the day. At night, she worked as an admin in a warehouse where they made and sent out copies of X-rays to hospitals. The schedule did not feel so good. She slept when she was supposed to, and presumably for the right number of hours, but waking up always felt cruel, as if she had just closed her eyes and hours passed in seconds, an evil trick.
Her roommate communicated with her through notes. Like: Please wash the sheets. I did it last time. We will trade off on this. I hope you understand. Best, A.M. Huynh wrote back: No problem! Thank you. Best, P.M.
This could not go on forever, but it went on for a while, until the night that Huynh, wracked with a flu and three canker sores, slept through her two alarms, slept through the sinking of the sun and the rising of the sun, and sat up midday, horrified that she had stolen her roommate’s bed time. Huynh lay back down, sweaty and weak, figuring that when her roommate came back she could apologize. Maybe the roommate would take pity on her when she saw how ill she was, since she seemed very reasonable in her notes.
But the roommate never returned. No notes, no nothing. Huynh stayed in bed for three melty days, alternately dozing off and listening fearfully for the turn of the doorknob. And then: “Then I got in that accident and became the woman you see before you today,” said Huynh.
“True,” everyone said in unison. Huynh nodded again and drank once, twice, thrice, four times. She didn’t seem drunk. Lee wondered just what was in the bottle that the girl had brought.
“My turn,” said the girl. She leaned forward and plucked one of the slips of paper out of the pile. Her hair, still soaking wet, spattered the floor.
BARGAIN, it said on the paper. The girl sat up straight. She suddenly seemed very tall, and not only tall, but big.
“I really liked hearing your stories,” she said. “I really like that kind of thing. I had a good feeling about you guys. Not just the one who drew me here — all of you. Such great need.” She stood in one swift motion, unswiveling herself from the ground like a ballerina, walked over to the window, and yanked the blinds open. Lee shouted.
The girl said, “Don’t worry. There’s something I want you to see. It can’t hurt you.”
The slight emphasis on “it” clearly bothered everyone, but they got up and stood next to the girl by the window.
Outside it was still raining, though not as hard as before. Some people must have had generators, because they could see scattered lights on in some of the apartments across the way and in the bodega on the corner. There was the beast, ambling down the street. It raised its arm and waved at the girl. The girl waved back. “You see?” she said gently, not looking away from the beast. As quietly as possible, Huynh puked up the wedding cake. Finally the girl glanced behind her, annoyed, and snapped her fingers. The candles went out.
In the dark, they ran scared and huddled together in a corner. Lee thought, I let it in. I let it in!
No: Somebody called it here. And, also, this is true: We all kept it here.
"In the morning I'll be gone and you won't remember a thing. Won't that be nice? Doesn't that make you less scared now?"
Their knees buckled; they all became sleepy at once. “Shh,” said the girl somewhere in the dark, and they slowly slumped to the ground. “Let’s end it nice,” she said. “Like a slumber party. We’ll lie down, and just talk until we sleep. In the morning I’ll be gone and you won’t remember a thing. Won’t that be nice? Doesn’t that make you less scared now?”
They had spread out around the living room, lying flat and exhausted and finding themselves already drifting off to sleep, despite the hard wooden floors and the fears that one of them would encounter Huynh’s puke puddle. Each of them felt the girl pressing against them, her body huge and warm and firm, snaking and coiling around the room.
“It’s a bad time for you,” the girl said. “There’s so much water, but it’s bad. Sour. You’re running out of time to be noticed even though it’s all you’ve ever wanted. Your lives are running out, the world’s life running out—” She sounded like she was about to cry. “I wish I could help you all.”
The girl’s coils wrapped around Lee, Huynh, Kim, and Wong, and tightened ferociously. “I can’t. You know it can only be one,” she said. Her eyes were the size of books, laptops, pillows, getting larger by the second. For a moment they welled up again. She wanted to console them by letting them know that the one who had called her here — well, that person just wanted it more, didn’t they? But all of them wanted it! They wanted the face that would be their face and theirs only; they all were so tired of appearing and immediately receding like a finger painting made in the sea, they wanted to be carved as stone into the minds of their friends and family and loved ones and hated ones and people worldwide who’d never meet them in the flesh, whether they were the one who was obsessed, or the one who didn't feel good about anything else, or the one who was naturally talented and too lazy to find praise elsewhere, or the one who wanted to be famous and loved in a way that didn’t require talking or looking good. It was too bad! The girl lifted her face to the ceiling in a silent cry and wept for a minute. Then she bent her head and ate.
In the morning, they woke up jolly and hungover. Three of them less than they used to be, but they would not ever know it. Nor would the one who had become more, who had received some crucial bump in talent or desire or perseverance or pure idiot luck, and who would be famous, in a way, years later. We don’t need to talk about that. Better to think about what the fame did to the others — how the sheer proximity of awardpartymoviesbookstravelhotelcruditesgraduationspeeches made success feel actually possible, maybe even attainable, while at other times inducing in them a fresh, keening despair, inscribing behind their eyelids shining golden letters like:
H E R E I S Y O U R L I F E then a sickly, disorienting leap over hundreds of millions of miles of alien terrain over to T H E R E I S T H E I R L I F E
These lands were on the same planet only technically. In one direction they were so far away from each other on the globe that in another direction, they almost touched. But they never touched. Years later, one was famous, and meanwhile, the others would hope to be, almost be, and finally, never be. There were so many tiny little steps between each stage that each one felt much like the last, and thus, the letdown was gentle, merciful, barely noticeable, even.
Alice Sola Kim is a 2016 Whiting Award winner. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as McSweeney's, Tin House, Lenny Letter, and Lightspeed Magazine. She was a MacDowell Colony Fellow and has received grants and scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She tweets sometimes @alicek.