I wake up at midnight for the third time this week. Some villain’s robbing a jewellery store.
Can’t they get more creative? Maybe try . . . a high-end winter coat store? Or a candy store? Doesn’t make much sense economically, but that’s never stopped a supervillain before.
Me? I’m MegaPunch. Just one of your many overworked, panda-eyed superheroes. There’s nothing I want more than go back to being Xiaoyu Chen, Assistant Professor of Economics at York University. The most mundane, normal civilian you’ll ever meet, notable only for the four walls of bookshelves in her office and her infamous short-answer exams that sent many a student into uncontrollable fits of sobbing. But academia doesn’t pay what it used to, and I’m in dire need of cash. Hence the modern-day bounty hunter shtick.
It all started with my Awakening. And Dylan. And Mining and the Cactus Industry.
• • • •
Dylan was living with me by that point, in the suburban detached house left by my late father. Living together exposed a host of flaws I hadn’t had the chance to notice earlier. He bought groceries every Monday and every Thursday, regardless of what we already had. The new stuff pushed the old stuff to the back of the fridge until we had a rotting microbial forest growing in there. He splashed around for an hour in the bathroom every morning, and when he finally came out, the counter always looked like a thousand mermaids had used it as their launch pad to land, leaving a dripping flood in their wake.
He read on the toilet too. That didn’t bother me, until the day I badgered him to read Mining and the Cactus Industry one too many times. He obeyed—and brought my signed, embossed first edition ($349.35 on eBay) to the toilet and promptly dropped it in his excrement.
I stood frozen, staring at my beloved book floating in the increasingly murky water, a bigger, rectangular island next to the smaller islands of brown sludge. “Why?” I managed to say.
“It was an accident!” He sounded both too panicked and too calm for my liking.
“How’d you manage to drop a book in there? Wouldn’t you be sitting over the bowl?”
“When I got up to wipe, my hand just slipped—”
“God!” I pressed my knuckles to my forehead. “Why didn’t you tell me right away?”
“Because I knew you’d react like this.” His face reddened. “And, well, I had to finish wiping.”
“Get it out of there,” I said.
“Get. My book. Out of there!” I waved at the toilet. “You’re handy enough with chopsticks, for a second-generationer.”
“You’re not thinking about keeping it, are you? It’s my own stuff down there, and even I—”
“Get it out of there, right now!”
Dylan hurried downstairs. My hands twitched at my sides, instinct to save my book fighting with instinct to avoid feces. Dylan returned with the oldest, thickest, most battered pair of chopsticks we owned, which had dried bits of dough stuck on its ends. I almost demanded that he use his favourite pair, the lacquered ones he’d brought from Taiwan and kept in a display case. But no, time was of the essence.
Dylan took a deep breath, coughed, then took another deep breath through his mouth. I was getting inured to the smell, but I guess the trip downstairs had sensitized him again. Grimacing, he crouched by the toilet and fished out Mining and the Cactus Industry. Not like how he’d pick up a dumpling, but rather with one chopstick in each hand, clamping my book between them.
It came out dripping. Shat on. Ruined. It stank. I laid out reams of toilet paper on the bathroom tiles and Dylan dropped the book onto them. I watched the growing stain of brown and dug my nails into my palms. My eyes stung. I didn’t know which leak would happen first, blood from my hands or tears from my eyes. I just knew I felt fucking awful and the asshole who had caused it was busy splashing around in the sink again, hot and cold taps turned on maximum, rubbing his hands so violently that little droplets of water splashed onto my already-drowned book.
The taps turned off. “I’m sorry,” he said.
My eyes remained glued to my book.
“It’s just, I’ve been so busy, and the only reading time I’ve had is on the toilet—”
I looked up and caught him blinking at me behind his round spectacles. He retreated out the bathroom door.
“Out of the house, I mean!” I yelled. “Pack up your shit! Or don’t. I’ll burn what you leave behind. Just . . . go! I don’t want to see you again!”
At this Dylan reappeared in the bathroom doorway. His face seemed washed in red disco lights, his mouth twisted in a snarl. I almost spat on him. What right did he have to look angry?
“Really, Xiaoyu?” he said. “You’re kicking me out because of a book?”
“A book? It’s Mining and the Cactus Industry.”
“It was an accident—”
“—which wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t bring it along for a dump. You could’ve found the time to read it. Or you could’ve taken my ten-dollar paperback copy.”
“Weren’t you rereading it? I can never remember which purse you’ve tossed it in—”
I turned away. And he had the audacity to place a hand on my shoulder.
“I’ll buy you another copy, okay? First edition, embossed, signed by Anna . . . Anna . . .”
I grabbed the bar of soap and threw it . . . at the mirror. It slid down, leaving a trail like old ski tracks. I was angry enough to throw it at Dylan, but my hand changed direction at the last moment. The trail divided the reflection of the two of us, me panting and livid, Dylan with his hands raised.
“You don’t even remember her name?” I snarled.
“I do, I just momentarily . . .” He sighed. “It’s a hard name, okay?”
“Anna Veselovskaya! What’s so hard about that?”
“Russian names are kinda—”
“That’s so racist!”
Dylan clawed a hand through his carefully styled hair. “Why are you making such a big deal out of this? It’s not even a very good book.”
I stared at him, mouth open, unable to process what he’d just said. I sputtered, forgetting how to speak English, Chinese, or even the Russian I’d picked up from the Anna Veselovskaya fandom. “Not . . . even a very good book?”
“I mean, sorry for dropping it in the toilet. But it wasn’t all that engaging. I mean, if I were in undergrad and you assigned this book to me, I might end up going on SparkNotes instead.”
I’d tried to understand him. His refusal to value Mining and the Cactus Industry over his snoozy programming job, his hour-long nightly calls to his mother, his endless replays of 16-Bit video games. A slip of the hand as he reached for the toilet paper. Even his inability to remember her name. But to say it wasn’t even a good book? I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t, I couldn’t.
The truth dawned on me—a slow horror, the reveal of an invisible foe in a slasher film. “You did this on purpose, didn’t you? You threw it into the toilet!”
“What? Of course not!”
“You think throwing away my favourite book could get me to like your stupid kiddy video games and your ugly ass comics?”
“Jesus, Xiaoyu, you were the one badgering me to read this.”
I balled my hands into fists. I wanted to punch him. I imagined my fist sinking into his stupid, familiar nose, shattering those pretty cheekbones. Hearing the crunch of breaking bone, feeling the spray of his blood on my arm. I imagined licking it off, tasting copper. Tasting his fear. Because no one, no one, talked shit about Anna Veselovskaya without paying for it.
My fist moved. Time slowed. My arm seemed to carry the primal power of a storm, an angel of vengeance, a defender of good books everywhere. I didn’t know what I was in that moment, only that I was something stronger, something more. Before my rage, the world seemed paper-thin and porcelain-brittle, and Dylan, too . . . His eyes widened, the whites like aging egg albumen. Air resistance jostled my fist, some manifestation of my consciousness pulling me back, asking me to stop.
At the last moment, my fist swerved. For a second I wasn’t thinking about Dylan or Anna Veselovskaya or vengeance. I was thinking about those old games of chicken, how the two drivers would accelerate towards each other and see who’d swerve first.
And I did. I did, because Dylan wouldn’t react fast enough anyway.
My fist sailed past Dylan and slammed into the bathroom wall, inches from the light switch. I expected it to hurt, but I barely felt a twinge. There was an ominous rumble.
Cracks spiralled out from the wall. I felt like the world’s most adipose spider spinning the world’s quickest web. Soon the bathroom looked like a black-and-white rendition of the Nile Delta, and the floor shuddered beneath at my feet. Mouth agape, Dylan turned, reminding me of those disaster movie characters as the tsunami rises behind them.
The house collapsed around us.
What I did next was pure instinct. I grabbed Dylan by the waist, leapt off falling bits of ceramic tile, dove through shattered dry wall, and somehow landed feet up and bones unbroken on my front lawn. I looked up to see the first floor of my house give beneath the weight of the collapsing upper floor. Distantly, I heard the alarmed cries of my neighbours and wondered why they had to be home today, of all days.
• • • •
I arrest the villain. During the fight we break five Swiss watches, ten gold-and-crystal bracelets, and more glass displays than I care to count. The sky’s turning pink as I leap across the rooftops of my new neighbourhood. My thighs are freezing. A leotard in December is really a stupid idea.
I land beside the basement entrance of a semi-detached house. I unlock the door and enter, then remove boots and gloves. The kitchen lights are on. Dylan sits at the dining table, a plate of fried buns in front of him. “I tried to make Russian buns,” he says. “Thought you might be hungry.”
“Pirozhki,” I correct him absently. I plop down in the chair beside him and dig in. The pirozhki are quite good.
“By the way, I forgot to tell you,” Dylan says. “Mr. Lee called last night. Said he’ll contact a friend about the ant problem. His friend is some kind of pest control guy . . . at least, I think that’s what he said.”
I sigh. While my house gets rebuilt, we’re renting the basement here. The landlord doesn’t speak English and barely understands my Chinese, so Dylan does most of the talking with his half-assed Taishanese.
I finish the plate of pirozhki, yawn, stretch. “Going back to bed,” I say. Dylan takes the oily plate and walks to the sink.
I stumble into the bedroom, strip off cape, leotard, and hair ribbon. I sink onto the bed and stare at the four walls of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Not all my books are displayed, of course. Many of them are stashed away in storage boxes, my new accommodations offering no room to exhibit them all. After quitting my university job, I had to move the books out of my office. Damned insurance company. Said they couldn’t cover self-inflicted damages, and yes, that included Awakenings. I had no choice but to begin working as MegaPunch. I couldn’t rebuild on an assistant professor’s salary.
On the bookshelf in front of me, displayed with its cover facing forward, rests Mining and the Cactus Industry. A signed, embossed first edition, $482.96 on eBay. Pressed for money as we are, Dylan still bought it for me.
Dylan never talks about the day I shattered the house. Never comments on how close I came to hitting him instead, to killing him. It’s a secret we share, a guilt that only he knows. Since he hasn’t left me despite that, I . . . cannot leave him either.
Especially after he finally sat down at the living room table, opened my battered paperback copy of Mining and the Cactus Industry, and read it from cover to cover. And called it a damn fine book.