When Omma asks me where Iâ€™ve been, I spin stories of one-man empires built and destroyed in the span of a Dollar General run.
I donâ€™t add, falling down drunk where only the trees can see.
I donâ€™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 Appaâ€™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.
â€œJaebro,â€ T-dawg says, â€œgonna need you to speak Asian to the hibachi people tonight.â€
Kev still makes himself laugh with his â€œfried liceâ€ 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 worldâ€™s not all black and white and neither is our little groupâ€”more than I can say about the camo and Confederacy kids who call driving to Walmart â€œgoing into townâ€ and think I carry the Konami code for corona in my veins. When we came back in-person and they discovered â€œJay Leeâ€ wasnâ€™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. â€œIâ€™d be the hero, no cap.â€
â€œYou be dead, dawg,â€ Mike Mike says, levelling a finger gun at him.
â€œIâ€™d run,â€ I say. â€œNo kung fu from this Asian!â€ We all laugh.
If I make the joke, itâ€™s less painful.
We sound good, but our eyes dart like scared deer. We like playing shooters; we donâ€™t want to be in one. Itâ€™s Atlanta and Charleston and Parkland all togetherâ€”a Southern song of skin color and unbelonging.
We know what a bullet can do to a body.
When Mom asks me whatâ€™s wrong with me, what the heck I want, rattling cans fished out of the trash, I lie and say, â€œNothing.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 weâ€™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.