More Than One Zodiac in High School
by Eliza Chan
“You were supposed to be a boy,” Amy’s mum said, attacking the raw duck with a cleaver. “The fortune teller said it was guaranteed. Aiyah, even then you don’t listen to your parents.” She tossed one half into an oven dish with a dash of salt, star anise, and cloves. Rice wine and soy sauce were massaged into the skin. And all the while, the other half was being surreptitiously dragged off the countertop by Amy’s dragon.
Her mum pushed the huge beast out of the way. “And born in the year of the dragon! Okay for a boy, but for a girl… no husband will want you! Too much fire to bear sons and every meal will be burned.” She clucked, exactly like her chicken spirit: tutting, fussing, and happiest when she had something to worry about.
The dragon lay under the kitchen table—well, as far as it could manage. A twisted coil of scales and sinew, feet and tail protruding as it gnawed on the meat. It looked up when Amy caught its eye, dropping the chewed carcass on the floor, nuzzling it towards her.
“What will your dad say?”
Not much. Her dad liked to read the paper and practice calligraphy whilst listening to Pink Floyd, his sleepy dog spirit like a hot water bottle warming his feet. He had barely glanced at her test paper: the B minus circled in emphatic red pen at the top.
“You know I can’t read these English books!” her mum continued. “I’m not like these gweipo with their degrees and paying for extra lessons. Dinner, a bed, a desk. The rest is up to you!” she added, then switched into Cantonese so she could lecture Amy more thoroughly.
Amy sighed and started washing the choi sum in a basin. Under the water, her hands looked like they belonged to someone else.
After dinner, Amy took the bins out. Something brushed her head. A bird shrieked and swooped overhead, melting into the shadows of the unlit house on the other side of the street. It was too big to be her mother’s spirit.
A shadow peeled itself from the hedgerow: a tall slim girl with masses of auburn hair and skin like the moonlight. She wore jeans and a T-shirt, but occupied them with a confidence Amy could never manage. Half a dozen mismatched bracelets and a hand on her hip set everything off perfectly. Only the bird of prey gnawing at the “For Sale” sign ruined the chic image. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Amy recalled now, the gaggle of viewings of the house opposite. Its garden was too small for those with spirits who needed space to roam. Her mum had given them updates, satisfied to learn their own house was cheaper, had a bigger second bedroom and nicer wallpaper.
“I’m Tegan. We just moved in.”
“Amy. I— I need to do my homework. Bye.” As soon as they left her mouth, the words fell like hard stones. After all, the girl hadn’t done anything. At least, not yet.
Her mum’s spirit followed Amy up the stairs, clucking with encouragement. Meanwhile, she could hear her mum—everyone in a square block probably could—shouting down the phone as the TV blared in the background.
“Amy? Yes, she’s still at the private school. Of course it’s expensive, but they gave us—what do you call it in English—saucership, money off. She’s smart… a doctor in the family would be great, but don’t dream too high. I’d be happy with a dentist.”
Amy rolled her eyes although no-one could see, put on her earphones to drown out the cyclical conversation. The same thing every week since she had changed schools.
A sharp pain snapped her attention back. Blood welled on her finger where it had been cut as she rummaged in her bag. She tipped the whole backpack over. Exercise books, chewed pens, her lunchbox, and a scorpion fell out. Brown body, no bigger than a plum. Legs and claws waving madly in the air as it spun on its shell, a capsized stray.
“CHINK” said the scrawled note attached to its tail. The jagged edges of the letters stared at her, an ugly afterthought beside her childhood toys and ornaments. Amy blindly opened her bedside drawer and added the paper to the others. It was already half-full.
Her dragon growled as it crept from under the bed. It raised its head and wheedled under the crook of her arm, nudged her back from the ever-present darkness that threatened to edge in. The ruddy tinge in her vision dissipated. The scorpion had righted itself and jabbed its stinger at her dragon’s whiskers. Amy felt the bitterness draining from her as she watched it, leaving her mouth dry. Some poor scorpio kid would be freaking out just as much as her right now. She fed it stale crisps, which it shoveled to its mouth, black eyes watching her suspiciously.
“Just two more years,” she whispered.
Amy made her mum park around the corner from the school. “You made friends yet?”
“Oh plenty,” Amy said. “A virgo, two scorpios, even a pisces.”
“Leos? No, I mean—”
“You need a lion, or a—what’s the sheep one? That’s what your Auntie Two said. Those kids are the ones with contacts. Make friends with them, okay?”
Amy dutifully agreed in order to escape the car. She dashed around the corner, pretending to wave at someone as the tall redbrick walls and carefully manicured trees hid her from sight. Her dragon was there as always, serpentine body blocking the steps as all the other students tentatively walked past. Amy dropped her shoulders as she shrunk down. Don’t draw any more attention. Not for the first time, she wished she had been born a few months earlier, an innocuous little rabbit.
“Ah Mei!” her mum’s voice shouted after her. Amy turned on her heels, face crimson as her mum came flapping up the school steps with a carrier bag. The too short sweatpants and sauce-stained jumper, unremarkable at home, were blaring klaxons. The chicken flapped after her, pecking at the paving stones.
“You forget your lunch.” Amy snatched it silently, trying for damage limitation by hurrying up the steps. Her mum’s spirit shattered any illusions with a throaty crow behind her. Students laughed, someone already trying to emulate her mother’s broken English.
In the crowded corridors, her dragon filled half the space and the other students had to press themselves against their lockers. A couple of lads in rugby shirts, one riding a bull, the other mounted on his centaur, leapt over the dragon and made ching-chong noises.
“It smells like chicken feet in here,” someone sniggered.
Amy tightened her grip on her backpack straps and kept walking. The stiff blazer collar dug into her neck. She missed the duffle coat she’d worn at her old school. The building had changed, but the people were almost identical. The water clique, popular and going with the flow. The fiery energetic types: lions and rams, typical sports team players, with the centaurs not far behind. The head-down, get-on-with-it virgos and tauruses.
Amy crammed her things into the locker as her dragon wove past her towards the school sports grounds. It was fine for spirits. Her dragon could spend all day curled under a tree or flying about. She would be the one trapped in a classroom filled with horns, claws, and stinging tails. The dragon looked back at her, cocking its head to one side. She knew what it wanted. Checking no-one was watching, Amy transferred the plastic container with the scorpion spirit into her blazer pocket. She had to find which student it belonged to before she got in trouble.
With only fifteen minutes before lessons, there was no subtle way of putting it into the tank room. It was packed. Just then, a new group walked in: glossy haired like an advert and uniforms somehow made glamorous. Water and air girls.
“And that’s the school’s diversity programme,” one said, pointing a painted nail at Amy. “Seriously, even her dragon is lame. It can’t fight. You should’ve seen it at the beginning of the year when the Year 12 lions chased it down. Stupid snake just ran away. Such a massive let-down.”
They had cooed around her when she transferred. Everyone curious about the exotic new girl and her dragon. How disappointed they were to learn she was from Birmingham and not a far off country, that her dragon couldn’t breathe fire even if it was given petrol and a match. And she had wasted the opportunity, idiot, too slow to understand the friendly overtures, the invites to parties, would disappear when they realised she just didn’t fit in.
Amy looked up. She caught the eye of the girl in the middle, the one the others were trying to impress. The auburn hair was curled and pulled down over one shoulder, the face made-up and confident, but Amy recognized her all the same. Tegan. The new girl opened her mouth and her hand started to creep upwards as if to wave. Then the fingers curled back in. Hand lowered to her waist. One of the other girls handed her a silver flask and she took a sip.
“I see,” Tegan said.
Amy put her head on the desk. Spirit Class was insufferable. An hour a week of whining about leash or no leash, separating from their primitive self or how to bring out the best shine in their object spirit. Leaving the lion in the zoo. Breaking up with your twin. Pointless drivel. None of it ever touched on her experience. She had spoken to her form tutor about dropping the subject, but no, it was compulsory. It would get her a university place, her teacher had said placatingly, spreading out a fan of glossy prospectuses: the perfectly chosen blend of ethnicities, genders, and ages on the cover reminding her of a department store catalogue.
Everyone turned to look at Amy and she realised she had groaned aloud.
“Amy, you have a counterargument?” The teacher shook the textbook in her direction, earrings jangling with the force of the action. The whole class was staring.
“Well, no, I mean, it’s just… we, us and spirits, are two parts of one whole,” she stammered, shoving her hands deep into her blazer pockets, knocking against the tupperware box as she did so. She envied the scorpion’s sanctuary. If she pushed hard enough, perhaps she could hide in there as well. Don’t cause a stir, don’t make a fuss, her inner voice warned.
“Ah, but humans trained and domesticated animals. We can do this with our spirits also. Emotional attachments to them are a sign of immaturity and you must all be prepared to move on.” The teacher had slowed her speech, carefully articulating every word. Someone snorted loudly.
“You aren’t applying to universities yet, but remember, many give preference to students who are able to detach themselves.”
“That’s just economics.” It was Tegan. Pen in hand, pointing to emphasize each point. “Current research indicates people born in September and October are more likely to be accepted into university. Why? Because object spirits don’t need room and board. They really don’t care if your spirit sleeps in your bed or in stables. What universities really want to know is: how big is it, and does it need feeding? Economics.”
A muttering of discontentment ran through the class. One of the taurus lads looked uncomfortable, his adam’s apple bobbing up and down. Others raised their heads from their desks, awake as if for the first time.
Tegan’s confidence wafted towards her and Amy breathed it in, letting it fill her lungs. Exhilarating. She could win this one. She had an ally. “Exactly! Spirit-based prejudices are rife in our society. And they aren’t pets or ornaments. They’re part of us. As integral as limbs!”
Amy swelled up, grinning at the silence, only to belatedly realise they weren’t looking at her. Rather, they were looking at her gesticulating hand, gripping the plastic tupperware box. The scorpion tapped its claws at her, knocking to be let out.
Detention wasn’t so bad. Amy had managed most of her homework at least. A cool breeze ruffled her hair as she opened the door to the sports grounds and called to her spirit. It did not reply at first. Then, finally, a plaintive reedy noise. Amy felt unease on her neck and settling down into her stomach.
Her leaden feet dragged as she walked, then half-trotted, and finally made a headlong dash towards her dragon’s muffled voice. By the equipment shed, a mound shifted, and a baleful yellow eye blinked at her. Her dragon was tangled in badminton nets and twisted through bent hurdles. They had used duct tape to attach cardboard wings to its flanks.
Amy stood for a long while, hands shaking at what she saw. Her brain could not process it. It was, no. It wasn’t. But it was. A scream rose from her throat as she tore the tape off. She was trembling so much her hands were tear-soaked blurs. They just kept falling: stupidly, pointlessly leaking from her. Idiot. The netting dug red lines into her fingers, but she could not break it. She tried biting it, her teeth grinding against the rough nylon to no effect other than leaving a taste in her mouth. Her dragon pushed its snout against her forehead, touching hers. The smell of joss sticks, coriander, and moth balls. Amy inhaled deeply, letting it ease over her. Forced herself to do nothing other than breathe. Let the words out. “I’m sorry,” she murmured.
Voices and footsteps echoed. Sticks slung over shoulders and legs misshapen by kneepads clattered towards her. The field hockey team had finished practice. A cupped hand, a whisper, and then laughter. Eyes looked down, avoiding her the way her mum had told her to avoid rough sleepers.
Amy kept her gaze firmly on her dragon’s. She started picking at the net where it unravelled. But someone was still watching her. “Had a good stare?” she snapped without turning. “You can shove off now. Or I won’t—I won’t …” The humiliation radiated deep within her diaphragm, and she wanted to dredge up enough rage to lash out. But all she felt was numb. Hollowed.
“May I?” Tegan stood there, not with a camera phone in hand, but sharp scissors. Amy stared in confusion as Tegan snipped. The dragon spilled from the netting. It arched, giving Tegan a single nod before flying into the sky. Tegan collected her gym bag, the hockey stick like a sword hilt. “I’ll walk you home.”
The night spread before them. The streetlights buzzed, the occasional one struggling and flickering out. Their footsteps echoed discordantly on the pavement, then suddenly, they were in-sync, a pair of tin soldiers.
“Does it happen a lot?”
Tegan gave her a look.
“I’m not—I mean, it’s not. It’s just, it’s nothing. You know, everyone gets it.”
Tegan’s head was tilted upwards, her expression blank. No unsought advice or critique offered. Just listening. Amy found herself continuing, her mouth running on in the resultant silence. “And anyway, that’s just how things are. We’ve got to be stronger, smarter, more thick-skinned than them. That’s what my mum says. It’s not as if I can be like you. Just fit in, and be insta best friends with everyone.”
Tegan started to say something, then changed her mind. She took a swig from her sports bottle and offered it to Amy.
“I didn’t mean that. I’m just…” Amy said.
“I get it. Everyone likes an aquarius. So amicable, flexible. Get on with anyone. But believe me, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” Her voice dropped, shoulders drooping like the first night they had met in the darkness.
Amy knew she should ask, she really should ask, what Tegan meant.
But they had come to their street. Awkward questions fled from Amy’s mind as she scowled at her house.
Newspapers lining the porch windows to stop burglars from seeing their shoes. She said goodbye to Tegan, watching as her neighbour went over to her house with its perfectly ordinary curtains and blinds.
“Amy, who’s that?” her mum shouted in Cantonese, her voice wafting over as Amy opened the door. Her chicken spirit clucked onto the garden path, pecking at Amy’s feet.
“Tegan. She moved in across the road.”
“Was she in detention, too?”
“No, Mum, she was at hockey. We just walked home together.”
Her mum contemplated this. “What zodiac is she?”
“Aquarius—I think, but—” Before Amy could say more, her mum pushed past and stood in the garden, shouting down the street.
“I’m Amy’s mum, you call me Mrs. Tang!”
Tegan turned and walked back, smiling and introducing herself properly. The chicken was properly flustered now, jumping and squawking like its eggs had been stolen.
“Mum, let’s go inside. I’m sure Tegan is tired and wants to get home.”
“You tired? You have dinner yet? Eat with us, not rubbish microwave meals, real food. Tonight, I made special soup for Amy, good for woman and girls on their per—”
Congee in ceramic bowls sat on the breakfast bar in the morning, the thick grains of rice disintegrated into the soup. Amy swirled the liquid with her spoon, unearthing shredded meat and century egg from the bottom of the bowl. Mum must’ve been awake for hours.
“I just wanted toast,” Amy said as her mother poured another ladleful. The response was a crispy yau char kwai pushed across the counter. Amy hesitated. She loved the fried bread, the perfect balance of crisp and soft when dipped into her congee. But she could hear the taunts already—deep fried sticks and rotten eggs for breakfast, what a freak—and it killed her appetite.
Her dragon growled, weaving underfoot until her mum tutted. She tossed the contents of a bamboo steamer—a trio of pork bao—into its mouth.
Amy pushed down a few mouthfuls.
“Eat more, eat more la.”
“Stop lecturing me!” Amy spat the words out and regretted it immediately. Her mother’s face fell.
“Food makes you strong.”
Amy pushed her bowl away. She knew her anger was misdirected, but she still could not prevent it from rising. “I just want normal food.”
In a flash, the bowl was swept off the counter, the contents poured into a thermos. “I don’t want it,” Amy snapped.
“Then give it to that girl, Tegan. She’s too skinny. Her mum’s food must be bad.”
By some unspoken understanding, Tegan had taken to waiting for Amy before walking to school. She stood at her gate, sipping from her water bottle. The school blazer was transformed on her, the sleeves rolled up, a couple of pins on the lapels.
Amy gave her the thermos. “My mum wanted you to have this.”
“What is it?”
“Congee. Kinda like rice porridge. It’s a breakfast thing.”
“Your mum made me breakfast?”
“I told her you wouldn’t like it. It’s weird Chinese food. I mean, we can just pour it down the sink at school,” Amy said, trying for cool nonchalance, trying to stand like Tegan, flipping her hair over one shoulder the way Tegan’s was.
The other girl’s hands were shaking as she gripped the thermos. Her knuckles had turned white and she wasn’t meeting Amy’s eye.
“Tegan, I won’t be offended if you—” But Tegan had undone the lid, pressing the thermos to her lips and gulping the congee like a gasping fish out of water.
“It’s hot!” Amy yelped. Tegan wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Her tongue must’ve been burnt numb, yet her eyes were shining.
“Really?” Amy raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t remember the last time I ate breakfast,” Tegan said.
“D-don’t you eat?”
“I thrive on water.”
“Oh. Then… want to come over for tea?”
Amy eyed her family’s hallway. There was a mountain of discarded shoes and plastic guest slippers. Coats were piled on the banister, making it look like a hunchback. Gritting her teeth, she took her mum’s jars of wood ear fungus and dried sea cucumber, stashing them out of sight. Draped a scarf over their household shrine to Guan Yin.
Her dragon followed as she made these alterations, growling as she put several dragon ornaments into a drawer. “It’s not personal,” she explained. “I’ll put them back as soon as she’s gone…” The dragon flicked the banister with its tail, sending the precarious pile of coats into Amy’s lap as she passed.
Amy’s mum dropped the shopping bags at the door and kicked off her shoes as she came in. “What have you done?” her mum said. She nodded towards her chicken spirit. “This one started flapping as soon as we reached the drive.”
“Nothing! I just… made some changes. You know, I don’t want my friend to freak out!”
“Why would she freak out?”
“Because… some of the things we do are… weird,” Amy said, “Look, can you leave it for one night? Please?”
Her mum shook her head. “We aren’t weird. We’re Chinese.”
“Okay la, you want to play happy white family? Sure, sure, we will hide everything from your nice new friend. Where do you expect your dragon to hide? In this cupboard with my sauces? You want hamburgers for dinner? Maybe I dye my hair blonde and drink tea with the queen also. You want this?”
“Why can’t you just be proud of who you are?”
“Because!” Amy said. The breakers holding back the tidal wave gave way. “Because we’re freaks! Because everyone at school laughs at me.”
Her mum was staring, face unreadable as her chicken clucked in a circle, hopping over the shoes. Amy’s conviction faltered and in a much smaller voice, she continued. “Please, can you just be normal? For one night?”
At dinner, Amy’s mum had added a bowl of french fries to their usual fair of Chinese dishes. They had been cooked to a slightly charred state, squashed into a rice bowl, and placed directly before Tegan’s plate. The steamed fish, kai-lan greens, and black bean ribs stared at it sideways with a scoffing laugh. The dry fried prawns and lotus root soup smirked from their end of the table. Tegan smiled, saying it was delicious, it was all delicious, Mrs. Tang.
“What do your parents do?” Amy’s mum asked.
“Just my mother. She’s a lawyer,” Tegan said.
“Ah, very respectable! Good money, too.”
“Mum!” Amy interjected.
“It’s okay. Mum is well paid but always working late. We don’t really do this, well, ever. But she lets me charge anything to her card, so I can’t complain.” Tegan picked at the leafy veggies with twisted chopsticks, stalwartly keeping her cool as they slopped and slid across her plate. Amy willed her friend to pick up the fork beside the fries, but Tegan wouldn’t give up.
“Aiyah, then how do you get a bargain? I should talk to your Mum, I have alerts for all the deals. Like today, six bath towels for fifteen pounds. That’s Egyptian cotton!”
“That’s great, Mrs. Tang. I’ve been using the same towel for ages, can’t find which box the rest are in!”
“You haven’t unpacked?” Amy said. Her words sounded more critical than she’d intended. Hadn’t they moved in several months ago? And Tegan was always so well-dressed, everything in the proper place, that Amy always assumed her home was the same.
After the meal, Tegan was laden with leftovers. Old containers that had been rinsed out, wrapped in foil, and double bagged. Also included were a tin of sweets, biscuits, three apples, a bunch of bananas and a handful of lychee. Tegan stammered her thanks, standing completely still as the food was piled into her arms.
“I don’t know why she gets like that,” Amy said as she walked Tegan across the road. “It’s so embarrassing. Acting like you’re some homeless kid who hasn’t eaten in a month.”
Tegan rummaged for her keys. “Your mum is wonderful,” she said so quietly, Amy was not even certain she had heard right. As Tegan entered, Amy saw a glimpse of unopened mail splayed across the hallway. Then she was gone, slamming the door closed.
The “Sold” sign was still in the garden. A closer look revealed splinters down the post, a weather-battered surface. The curtains to the living room were drawn. Come to think of it, Amy had never seen them opened.
A silver Mercedes was parked in Tegan’s drive. The house lights were on even though it was 7am. The front door was ajar, the radio on full blast, audible from within.
An angular woman with a flick of short caramel hair was doing yoga poses against the banister. She snapped upright, a charming smile pulled across her face.
“Good morning! You must be the neighbour? Tegan! Your Japanese friend is here!” And suddenly the woman’s face was close to Amy’s and there was a hug, or was it an air-kiss? It was fleeting, whatever it was, a flurry of perfume and bony limbs.
“Uh, yes, I’m Amy. Actually, we’re Ch—”
“I love your hair, how do you get it so straight?”
“It’s… like that when I wake up. Um, my mum sent some food because—” Amy shifted the weight of the leftovers her mum had loaded her with.
“Oh my, authentic Chinese takeaway without the MSG. How amazing.” Tegan’s mum waved her through to the open plan kitchen area. It was the first time Amy had actually set foot in her neighbour’s house. Moving boxes were still unpacked and stacked down the hall. “Tegan, darling, where are the plates?”
An inhuman shriek sounded from behind Amy. She ducked reflexively as a shadow swooped overhead. It was the bird of prey she had first seen Tegan with. Claws lunged for the food in Amy’s hands and grabbed an unwieldy foil tray. The bird’s clumsy grip faltered and it fell to the ground, splattering open across the tiles. It feasted noisily on the deep fried squid, tearing chunks between its talons. Yellow eyes glared up at Amy periodically as it shook its feathers. Amy saw slits of light through the gaps in its plumage, molting and askew feathers making it look rather vagrant. It hobbled across the floor, nothing more than a lame street pigeon.
Tegan’s mum kicked at it with her foot, shrinking back as the bird snapped back. “Horrid creature! Oh, I do apologise, animal spirits are quite nasty. Say what you want about libras, but scales do not bite! Look at it! What a waste of your mother’s good cooking.”
“We share our food with our spirits, so it’s okay.”
“You feed them? Cooked food? How quaint.” In that moment, her voice sounded exactly like the spirit management teacher. She covered her mouth as she watched the eagle feed, her face a mask of pure disgust.
Tegan’s feet slapped across the floor and her words of thanks were off-key today: shrill as broken glass. She propelled Amy by the arm out the door. They walked in silence for the first ten minutes. Each of Tegan’s footsteps was a fist pounding on the tarmac, and her usually shiny hair seemed to cloud around her hair like a thunderhead.
“Was that your eagle?”
Tegan didn’t answer. Amy thought about the other aquariuses she knew. They all had object spirits: silver water carriers, clay vases or leather pouches. They loitered by the water fountains and joined the swimming team.
“At my last school there was a biracial boy two years above, he had a tigerfish. It was, well, cool. At least, I thought it was…” Amy said. Her words petered out in the echoing silence. Tegan hardly even acknowledged she had spoken. Amy tried a different tack. Prising opening her lunchbox, she offered Tegan a coconut tart.
Tegan shoved the whole thing in her mouth, her expression softening as the sweetness melted into her. As she chewed, the rattling pace she had set slowed into a walk. She swallowed. “Mum’s home, properly home for a week, maybe two. I told her about you. How you’ve all looked after me. And, and all she said was I’ve been a bother.”
“You’re not a bother! Just wish you’d told us you had a spirit animal so it could’ve come over, too.”
Tegan shook her head, the skin around her temples and neck flushing. “It’s just a weird anomaly. I should have an object spirit, everyone knows that.”
Amy wasn’t sure what to say. “Well, I know what it feels like to be a freak.”
“At least your mother isn’t ashamed of you,” Tegan said.
“My mother? I could be starving to death and Mum would make slow roast pork for my dragon before she made me anything.” The words fell carelessly from Amy’s mouth, scattering like litter on the pavement.
Tegan stopped walking suddenly.
“Was that supposed to be helpful?” Her voice was sharp, reminding Amy of the eagle’s beak snapping at the fallen food.
“Well… I was just saying,” she dithered.
Tegan stood so straight, it was like her back was pressed against a wall. Hair had fallen over her eyes but she didn’t sweep it away, let it cover her face, darkening it like a cloud. “You have no idea, do you?”
“Your life!” Tegan was shaking, hands curled into fists, arms locked straight.
“What are you on about? My life is crap!”
“You’re a bigger idiot than I thought. Your life is amazing!”
“Guess I am an idiot. You know why? Because I’ve invited you into my house, you’ve met my weirdo parents, eaten our food and yet the one time I meet your mother, you’re so embarrassed, you push me straight out the door!” Amy wanted to pause, start the conversation over again. But she just kept digging, filling in the hole behind her so that she was trapped.
When Tegan finally stormed off, Amy didn’t blame her. Part of her was relieved. There, friendship done. Now she could stop worrying about ruining it and go back to shrinking down to her true size.
Red is good luck, right? said the note taped to her locker. Even she knew this wasn’t a Lunar New Year card. Her locker swung open with a protesting creak, revealing textbooks and notes dripping in red paint. It splattered onto her shoes.
The voices behind her whispered. The shadows magnified them, turning them to shouts, telling her she didn’t belong, that she deserved it, that they were all thinking it anyway. She was plunged into a rush of overwhelming noise, drowning in the comments both inside her head and out.
“Stop looking at me!” She needed to escape. She climbed onto her dragon, squashing her face against its scales. If she stopped looking, they’d go away. If she stopped looking, it didn’t happen. She was somewhere else. She was someone else.
And then, and then, they were in the air.
Wind whipped her hair across her eyes, quickening her breath as it tore the rage from her lungs. The biting cold cleansed her, washed away the paint on her hands and diluted the hurt. Up here, the other students looked like aphids. Tiny bugs hidden in the foliage, swarming and infesting, but pitifully weak by themselves. Even the spirits faded away the higher they flew. Their differences all but indistinguishable.
They stayed airborne until the adrenaline had subsided enough for her to feel the chill penetrate to her bones. She patted her dragon to take them down. It spiraled lazily towards the school, towards the reality she would have to face sooner or later.
Tegan was waiting for her.
“I know who did it,” she said. They hadn’t spoken since the fight, Amy leaving for school early so she would not have to endure the awkward walk. It was a relief to finally hear her friend’s voice again.
“We’ve got to sort this ourselves,” Tegan said.
“Tegan, I—” Amy started.
For a moment, Tegan stopped, but her eyes hardened again. “We’ve got to act now. They’ll just keep at it. They’ll continue the nastiness because they think they can get away with it. Just because you’re a bit different to them. Just because they don’t like what they can’t explain.” Tegan marched towards the science block, her face an ugly snarl.
“They’ll tell you just to keep it inside, to be all charming and easy-going. They’ll tell you it’s easier to move school, leave your spirit at home and just try to fit in.”
A darkness fell over them. Amy looked up to see Tegan’s eagle hovering overhead. The yellow talons were extended, its sharp eyes staring beyond them. The bell rang and students streamed from the science block.
The eagle started to descend.
“Wait.” Amy grabbed Tegan’s hand.
“They need to pay.”
“No, not like this. This isn’t you!” Above, the bird of prey swooped towards the students. Some had noticed, strangled screams sounding as they scattered.
“I know she did it, that two-faced gemini.”
The eagle shrieked, dropped like an arrow towards a girl just emerging from the doorway. She looked up, mouth open and unmoving despite the flurry of shouts around her. The eagle’s claws sliced towards her face.
Amy called her dragon. She was not even certain if she had shouted aloud but the spirit came. The dragon slid in from the side, fouling the bird’s wings. Streamed and twisted like a gymnastics ribbon, claws and teeth tumbling together as it pulled the eagle from its target.
“Tegan! Tegan!” Amy said, holding her friend’s shoulder until she turned.
“What?” she said. Amy noticed the resemblance for the first time. The determined line Tegan’s mouth had taken, the steel in her eyes.
“Come for dinner.”
“What?” The peculiarity of the statement startled Tegan out of her reverie. She looked, she truly looked back at Amy.
“You and your eagle. After hockey practice tonight. My mum makes the best lamb claypot.” Amy pulled her friend into a hug. Said nothing as the taller girl shook in her arms. She felt Tegan’s head come to lean on hers. Could hear her dragon land behind them. “I’m okay. We, are okay.”
Amy turned the key in the lock, patting her dad’s dog and her mum’s chicken as they greeted her in the hallway. The smell of fried foods filled her nose, and a sizzling sound escaped from the kitchen. Her mother was at the counter, a grease-splattered apron over the stretched and greying T-shirt that Amy was sure once belonged to her father. Her mother’s short black hair was peppered with white. She did not notice Amy’s presence at first. The blade was slicing spring onions with a speed that Amy could only marvel at.
Her mother scooped the cuttings onto the flat of the cleaver and looked up, wrinkling her nose. “Amy? Aiyah, why are you standing there. I made spring onion pancakes. Eat them whilst they are still hot.”
“Can Tegan come round for tea?”
“Give me more notice next time! I can buy more meat. All I have for tonight is leftovers.”
“She’s got an eagle. I said it was okay to bring it.”
Her mother rinsed the chopping board whilst taking in this information. “An eagle? What do eagles eat? I have to ask Auntie Two, maybe she knows.”
“Hai, so many questions tonight! Don’t you have homework? Take this, I made some spare ribs for your dragon.”
“Mum,” Amy said, stopping her mother’s endless litany with a tremor in her voice. Her mother turned, properly turned away from her tools and table. She looked down and frowned at the red paint on Amy’s shoes, obvious even from this distance. But she didn’t say anything.
“Thanks,” Amy murmured.
“For all the cooking.”
“You thank me now? You and your dad don’t thank me when I made eight dishes at Mid-Autumn. Eight dishes! And you thank me now, che.” Her mother wiped her hands on a dish towel, taking a long time to put the cutlery away with a loud clatter into the drawers. “Okay, now I teach you to be a good future wife. Get me some ginger and one of the knives,” she said, grabbing a handful of garlic cloves.
Her mother continued. “Now, the most important thing is preparation.”
About the Author
Eliza Chan is a writer and occasional narrator of speculative fiction. She has narrated for Pseudopod, Podcastle and Cast of Wonders. It amuses her endlessly that people find her Scottish accent soothing. Eliza has had her own work featured in The Dark, Podcastle, Fantasy Magazine and The Best of British Fantasy 2019.
When not working on her current novel or reading, Eliza can be found boardgaming, watching anime, baby wrangling and dabbling in crafts. You can find out more at her website www.elizachan.co.uk or on twitter @elizawchan.
About the Narrator
Rebecca Wei Hsieh (she/her) is a Taiwanese/Taiwanese American actor, writer, translator, and sensitivity reader based in NYC. Having grown up across several continents, her work focuses on the interplay between Asia and the Asian diaspora, gender, queerness, and mental illness, and has been featured in outlets like We Need Diverse Books, Wear Your Voice Magazine, Book Riot, and The Dot and Line. She has a BA in theatre and Italian studies from Wesleyan University, and you can follow her attempts to use her liberal arts degree at rwhsieh.com
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.