Arena Mode

When Omma asks me where I’ve been, I spin stories of one-man empires built and destroyed in the span of a Dollar General run.

I don’t add, falling down drunk where only the trees can see.

I don’t add, testing how fast I can ramp up on the interstate.

In the city I never lied, but moving out to the sticks for Appa’s job means adapting to survive, means Monster and Fortnite on weekdays, football and hand-me-down beers on weekends.

She nods and puts down her suspicion like a Switch on its dock: plugged in, charging for next time.


We sit around the back table in class, dealing clandestine poker cards out of khaki pockets.

“Jaebro,†T-dawg says, “gonna need you to speak Asian to the hibachi people tonight.â€

Kev still makes himself laugh with his “fried lice†joke, buckling the cards in his wet palm. My smile has too many teeth.

College, I remind myself, willing the glow of my Korean skin to tone down. The world’s not all black and white and neither is our little group—more than I can say about the camo and Confederacy kids who call driving to Walmart “going into town†and think I carry the Konami code for corona in my veins. When we came back in-person and they discovered “Jay Lee†wasn’t a glorious descendent of Thee Robert, they tried to disinfect me until Kev and his crew interfered.

So I blend in, obeying the ancient rule that something must be spilled: 3D-rendered blood and guts, cheap vodka, premium to rev up our 16th birthday engines.


When we do active shooter drills, Kev looks serious. “I’d be the hero, no cap.â€

“You be dead, dawg,†Mike Mike says, levelling a finger gun at him.

“I’d run,†I say. “No kung fu from this Asian!†We all laugh.

If I make the joke, it’s less painful.

We sound good, but our eyes dart like scared deer. We like playing shooters; we don’t want to be in one. It’s Atlanta and Charleston and Parkland all together—a Southern song of skin color and unbelonging.

We know what a bullet can do to a body.


When Mom asks me what’s wrong with me, what the heck I want, rattling cans fished out of the trash, I lie and say, “Nothing.â€

I have two desires: prom with Megan; college in a big, blue city.

Until then, I camouflage to survive: more LED lights in my gaming tower, more dings and scratches on my car, more of stomach lining puked into the leaves, more, more, more. All I want from the world is for it to say we’re sorry you didn’t get the perfect drop location, to give me a playground where I can hack and build and fight and rank up to some type of standing, to show me the highest ground I can climb to without the shot in the dark that takes it all away.

A black background with red border and a white line.
A woman with glasses smiling for the camera.
Maria S. Picone

Maria S. Picone/ìˆ˜ì˜ is a queer Korean American adoptee with an MFA from Goddard College. She has been published in Fractured Lit, Little Blue Marble, and others, including Best Small Fictions 2021. Her work has been supported by Lighthouse Writers Workshop, GrubStreet’s Novel Generator, VONA/Voices, and Kenyon Review. She is Chestnut Review’s managing editor, associate editor at Uncharted Magazine, and an SFWA member. Find out more at, Twitter @mspicone.

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