Bright Decay is here

My debut novel is now live on Amazon. You can purchase a paperback now or preorder the ebook edition, which is coming out on September 16, 2019.

The cover of BRIGHT DECAY

Bright Decay is the origin story of a female superhero who can control time. It’s the first book of a trilogy and can be read as standalone.

Everyone knows there’s something off about Skylar, including herself. She wades through high school being normal, but ever since the disappearance of her only friend, her life spirals out of control. Humans with uncommon abilities live closer than she thinks. 

Skylar wants nothing to do with the government-sponsored superheroes that inhabit her world, yet a near-death experience makes her one of them: she can stop time with a thought. The entire world, frozen in stasis, can become her playground.

In the city of Duskim, she has to adjust to her new reality. Her powerful ability can’t save her from past regrets, though it attracts the attention of all kinds. If she wants a rank among the heroes, she must stop the resurfaced terrorists threatening to burn down everything she knew.

She may be powerful. She may be powerless. Who is she when it matters the most?


BRIGHT DECAY on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/45032011

BRIGHT DECAY on Amazon – https://www.amazon.com/dp/1093784865/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_tyXdDb89CXJFN

When Writing is Like Shouting into the Void

I’m, unfortunately, the kind of person who’s easily discouraged.

I could get a brilliant idea in the shower, come from the steam and open the laptop to write, but there’s another open window with the Goodreads page open. I would see a successful author in my genre, then remember the mediocre reviews on my book, and there goes the urge to write.

This year is a year for changing. I’m at a crossroads, having to face the reality of writing. I have to decide if I want to keep it as a passion or if making money sounds like a priority. I don’t know yet, but I’m not hurried to find out.

I’m exploring new things, new genres I haven’t touched before. New formats, like the sort of creative non-fiction I’m writing these days.

Sometimes writing feels lonely. And then that’s all I can feel.

I was once in a writer’s discord group. It was lively for a while. They were the only writing friends I had, at least in recent years. We talked about nothing and everything, but in the end, I realize there was never a true connection.

I know what a true one feels like.

All the way back to elementary school, I used to threaten my friends to write so I can have something to read. I was writing a novel even then. I wanted them to be like me, because the writers were cool. A few of them did, but gave up two pages in.

They preferred to read. Pen on paper in a tiny notebook I got from the nearby convenience store. That tiny notebook got passed around the class under the teacher’s eyes.

Now I haven’t heard a single notification from the group in months. And I haven’t been in contact with any of my childhood friends in years.

Except one, who visited me last summer. By chance, I just got my author’s copy in the mail. I opened the package in front of her. She was pleasantly surprised and thought it was unbelievable.

We met again in Beijing a few months later. Us two, and another friend of ours agreed on a reunion. We sat around in the back of a boba shop in a busy mall, each with a drink in front of us.

She said something I don’t think I can ever forget.

“It’s great that you actually went out to complete your dream.”

She said it in an almost wistful way. It made me stop for a few seconds to think.

We were all lost youth. Didn’t she have a dream she has yet to complete? Plenty of time left.

Also, was publishing a book my dream? I never really treated it as such.

When I was a teenager, I made a bucket list and one of them was “publish a book”. But it was obligatory.

I never intended for it to be just one. To publish more, of course, you have to publish the first one. I wasn’t going to stop, the idea of such is ludicrous. I wasn’t going to stop at just one.

I want to keep writing as long as I’m still alive.

That’s, I guess, is why I’m also easily encouraged. Just writing this article is making me feel better. There’s no profound insight here, just a writer, venting.

I don’t know who invented the phrase “there’s no going back now”, but he sure was an idiot. That’s what heroes say at the start of the third act. That’s not real life.

There’s never a way of going back. Not now, not ever. We can only look forward. Sometimes forward is the void.

Sometimes the abyss stares back.

How to Give Up on Your Work in Progress

This isn’t an article about never giving up

You are a writer and you have countless ideas. You have unfinished drafts too. You are working on something but it’s not working as intended.

You want to give up.

People have written countless blog posts about giving up. Articles are urging that you should finish everything you started, but sometimes we can’t.

So there are also posts about when to give up. Spotting the signs of a disaster in the making, a trainwreck too far gone. You should give up on your work-in-progress (WIP) then.

It’s not easy, not at all. Some may feel giving up is taking the easy way out, since you are refusing to do the work to see it through. Sometimes you know giving up is just as hard, because you realize it’s not working, and you can’t waste your energy on something that doesn’t.

Either way, there should be no judgment. It’s your work and only you can decide when it should end.

Maybe you have put in countless hours into it. You conceived this idea since the day you dreamed it up, and carried it with you ever since.

Understand this: you are basically a god. Not unlike the Lovecraftian deity Azathoth who dreamed up everything, ever. To your creation, whether it be a short story or an epic novel, you can decide where it goes from here.

Perhaps you are just putting it down for the moment. You have other things, deadlines to hit and life gets in the way. Perhaps you have plans to go back to it later.

Great.

Whether the giving-up part is permanent or not, now that you have decided on abandoning your WIP, how should you do it?


Braindump everything related

Go open a blank file and just write. Write down what’s frustrating you. Vent. Write down what makes you stop writing.

After the venting, write down your thoughts on the project as a whole, and your plans for the future. You might not remember it after you move on to the next project. Future you might find this helpful, and find ways to prevent past mistakes.

If it’s a novel, write down all the foreshadowing you have done.

This is important, because it helps you tremendously if you ever want to go back and finish the rest of the story. If you have to sift through your old writing to find the hidden details your younger self thought clever, you will be discouraged. Or worse, forget about the foreshadowing is even there and leave plot holes unresolved.


Never delete anything

Under whatever situations, you should never delete anything related to your writing.

Organize everything you have generated for this work. Your list of ideas, future chapter names, character ideas (even if it’s only a name and a gender).

If they are all separate in your chaotic Notes app (like mine), you can copy and paste them into one giant file called “ideas”, if you are lazy (like me). Or you can clarify from there. Character ideas, plot ideas, and scenes you have written.

Don’t delete any of your writing, and keep them together with your existing chapters. Don’t let them get lost in the sea of apps.


Finish the story —in a few sentences

I’m not telling you to write the next 40,000 words, just one or two sentences.

Every writer should be able to tell their story in a paragraph. Give it a beginning, middle, and end. At least you have one finished story, no matter how short it is.

One day you might realize, a story you loved so much just fade from your memory. It’s the worst feeling, like you lost a part of yourself.

The simple act of writing down a paragraph summary prevents it from happening.

Feel free to elaborate, though.

If it sparks a writing session, just keep writing. Finish that outline. Give each chapter a summary, or something like that.


Archive, and make backups

Even if it disgusts you when you spend one more second looking at it, you have to keep your writing safe.

The same should go to every project you ever work on. Archive your writing. If you usually write offline, make a copy on the cloud, vice versa.

While you are at it, make a few backup copies. External drives are cheap and spacious nowadays.

All your dead projects together on a USB thumb drive won’t cost you too much, certainly not more than the pain if you lose your writing.


So, you have given up on your writing project. Time to move on to the next one. Carry the lessons with you, and you might finish the next one.

While you do that, your abandoned project is safe. Whether or not you want to go back to it someday, your old writing will be waiting.

Don’t Force Yourself to Consume Something You Don’t Enjoy

Your time is more valuable than the money you spent.

Sometimes the things you resonate with come from the least expected places.

I was flipping through a typography book when I saw the following quote, used as a sample text. It’s a step above “lorem ipsum”, it actually carries some meanings.

“What is the cost of War and Peace? The cover price of the Modern Library Classics paperback edition is $15.00, discounted 32% by Amazon to $10.50. But what about the human cost in terms of hours squandered reading a super-sized work of literary fiction? If you can read 400 words permutes, double the average, it will take you 1,476 minutes (24.6 hours) to read War and Peace. Devoting just four hours per day to the task, you could finish the work in a little over six days. If you earn $7.25 per hour, the cost of reading War and Peace will be $184.50.”

— “Thinking with Type” by Ellen Lupton

This chunk of text struck a chord within me.

There is a wealth of content out there. There are more books, films, and music than we are ever going to consume in one life.

I’m not saying you should only fill your life with things you like. It may sound ideal, but when you are a student or learner, you can’t always stay within your comfort zone.

You eat food you hate because they are good for you.

Life is short. If it’s for enrichment and entertainment, don’t waste your time on things you don’t like. It’s simple. You have to be mindful of where your time goes.

Some people force themselves to finish every single book they read. Even when they want to chuck it out of the window 50 pages in. That doesn’t make much sense to me. Sure, you might want to finish that book if you’re a reviewer not want to be uninformed. But if it’s how you spend your afternoon at the beach, why are you torturing yourself instead of doing something you actually might like?

Your time is more valuable than the money you spent.

You can get the money back, sometimes, but never the time you wasted. I have wasted countless hours on YouTube watching mediocre content. I click close whenever the video lost my interest.

Blame it on my short attention span, but it’s still better than wasting more hours sitting through videos I don’t care about one way or another.

Don’t waste your time on things that don’t matter.

The time you waste on things you enjoy aren’t wasted time.

Breathing New Life into Unfinished Drafts

What to do with those 300-word drafts sitting in your files?

If you’re like me, you have a bunch of ideas and drafts saved in your word processor, waiting to see the light of day.

They probably won’t, unless you do something about them.

Some of them are only a few sentences, or even shorter. Some of them might look like this:

“The house was in complete chaos. Murder. Supermarket.”

What does it even mean?

I don’t know. It was probably jotted down in early morning, fragments of a dream I wanted to remember before falling asleep again.

But some of them are longer and more coherent. My mind was fully there when I wrote them, on the train or just before bed. Struck by a burst of inspiration and I needed to write them down.

Hundred-word long snippets, or opening paragraphs of something that looked much longer in your head. A scene to a novel that I have yet to outline. Or, an outline, but a rough one — one with the character named “MC” and “XX”, placeholders of their real names yet to be thought of.

They are not full-length stories yet. I can’t post them anywhere in that state, but they are the ones worth collecting.

It‘s always a good idea to save them somewhere, but what can you really do with them?


Get it to 1000 words

Then it’s a flash fiction, a short story. A 3-minute read. Good for publishing on Medium.

If it’s already a scene, then it’s simple. You flesh out the characters, describe the setting, and then give it an unforgettable ending.

Sure it needs some work before it’s publishable, but at least that’s a complete thing.


Write all dialogs

I do this when I’m lazy.

Imagine this: you are first drafting and heard all about “the shitty first draft”. They all tell you to go fast, type it all out. Mistakes, plot holes and all. You can rewrite them later.

Sure, it works. Guess what, what if you finished your shitty first draft but because it’s so shitty, you don’t want to look at it for another glance?

It’s possible. It happened to me.

When you’re lazy but still want to create, you probably don’t want to be stuck on the second draft forever.

There is something you can do: write all the dialogs first.

No dialog tags, no “he said” “she said”. No description. Just whatever is in the quotation marks. It helps.

Some advantages to this:

  • You have to differentiate who is talking, just by their words alone. Your character will look more fleshed out.
  • You can write very fast. Say, you’re aiming for a 2000-word chapter. You write 800 words of dialog, and that chapter is done. You can move on to the next chapter. 
    You can finish your first draft fast, and it won’t be shitty in the traditional sense. (Disclaimer: the dialog ratio is made up.)
  • Because the work is bare bone, you can do it any time. Waiting in a line? Write a few lines of your characters talking.

Later you can fill in the description.


Summary for a longer work

Sometimes an idea may look like a 80k novel to me, but I’m in the middle of another long project that needed to be done. I couldn’t spare the energy to work on two things at once, because then it usually means both of them will be half-finished.

Sometimes a flashy new idea looks so good it makes you fall in love with writing again, but you have deadlines to hit. It’s time to clear your head, and just brain-dump all your ideas for that project onto the page.

They are the notes for the future, and they aren’t going anywhere once they are on the page.

Tell that story in a few hundred words. It can tide you over until you can work on it again.


No excuses, now. You can start writing today. Create something, finish something.

Look through your old drafts, maybe you can fall in love again.

None of the Stories I Tell are Real

Then do we still need the tears?

Photo by Diz Play on Unsplash

Lately, I have been setting my fictions aside and diving into the world of nonfiction. As a young person, I might not have that many life experiences but some of them are rather unique.

I’m not blogging about a strange anecdote tied together with a life lesson to teach. I’m not trying to sell you anything.

I’m just trying to leave a mark on this vast internet.

I tried making listicles — they seem to be popular here — but they usually leave me feeling hollow inside.

That kind of emptiness is special. Only works I truly care about can fill that void. For me, it is fiction.

The sense of creating something out of nothing is real to me. It’s creating worlds. It’s like playing god.


When I was a lot younger, I used to walk past the newspaper stand on the way home and for certain, every week there would be a new issue of the YA magazine I follow. I would pay the smoking old man in scattered cash, and be on my way with the booklet.

The cover was always nice and illustrated by up-and-coming artists. The magazine was full of short stories, genre ranging from literary to science fiction. There were author interviews, too. Those acted as my muse and a glimpse into a future I would like to have.

There were several writers I like, with no one particular being my favorite.

A few months ago, while preparing for a trip abroad, I got distracted by the local social media and went stalking my favorite author when I was a child.

I came across a short poem. I will translate it here.


None of the Stories I Tell Are Real

By Qi Ci

None of the stories I tell are real
Then do we still need the tears?
Secretly saved in the pillow and the desk
Turning imagination bitter, making time rain dry
Then do you still need to use these clear blue drops
To save the blind girl you like?
Then do we still need to believe
Believing the deepest sky, the farthest land
Making the devil quiet, turning the claws soft
Believing in the gods walking past the rooftop
Trying to be the best little kid?
Then do we still need to believe, to journey?
To sail from the front gate to the next street
Still need to light up every single star sky
Light up the dark village?
Tell me, do we still need to set up
The last warm camp of this land?
Then do you still need me to tell you a story
My dear
How you wish to climb down from the bedtime story
And grow up
Leaving these old picture books, and the storytellers
By the dimming yellow light
Left blank, by you


If none of them are real, do they still matter? The stories I tell are just that, stories. They rarely expose real-world problems and never fix them, won’t solve climate change, can’t bring us one step closer to world peace forever. They aren’t even good utopias, the kind that allows an escape into fantasy.

Why do I still write if no one is watching? It feels like a solo ballet in an empty theater, and the spotlight is a gaze of mediocrity.

Why are there still stories when there are more than enough in the world?

Because the authors care. Because I care.

Because you do, too.


© Aurelia Wong 2019

We Flew All The Way To Rushmore

We flew all night, all the way to Mt. Rushmore. I landed on Lincoln’s head, stumbling until I knelt down on a flatter surface. It was slippery with morning dew, and I was spent.

Cold wind still filled my lungs as I tried to even my breathing. My feathers were all ruffed like a backyard chicken’s, but I had stopped taking good care of them long before that day.

I turned my head when I heard Olivia’s landing. She was graceful, riding the wind, gliding down and folding up her wings as soon as her feet touched the ground. Then, a breeze hit us. I heard her cursing as she wavered in the gust. I had already slipped and fallen off the human president’s face, crashed into his nose, and tumbled down the hill.

Before I recovered, the wind wooshed behind me. Olivia hauled me up from the ground.

“What the hell was that?” She was mad at me. “We just flew for five hours straight, what’s the point?”

“You didn’t have to follow me,” I said, smacking her with my left wing.

“I thought you were ditching Wind Physics for, I don’t know, a bite in town. But you kept flying like a psycho, all the way here.”

“That’s because you’re too slow to catch me,” I laughed, getting up to my feet.

“Where is ‘here’ anyway?” She crossed her arms.

“Mount Rushmore,” I pointed at the four heads carved into the mountain.

She turned to look, the sight startled her. “Those aren’t natural.”

“No, they aren’t.”

“You flew five hours to see four human heads made of stone?”

“I didn’t plan to stop here.”

“Then where are you going?”

“Relax, I’m not running away. Just need some time away, that’s all.”

“You really have no idea what you’re doing, do you?”

“The sun is coming up,” I commented. Rays of gold would soon engulf us and the ground down below. If I squinted, I could see the tourist center. I turned to look at Olivia, she was toggling with her wrist screen. “You aren’t going to report me, are you?”

“If I were to do that, I’d have done it 300 miles earlier,” she scrolled, “And my wearable is running out of battery. Hey — Where’re you going?”

The park was about to open. We couldn’t be here when the tourists arrived with their cameras. The Director wouldn’t like viral photos of a winged person on the internet, and I knew Olivia was camera-shy. Our existence was supposed to be classified.

“Alright, are we going back?” She arrived next to me, combing through her feathers absentmindedly.

“Yes, but it’s also getting hot.” I didn’t like flying close to the sun, and it was almost summer. “We can fly in the evening. Don’t you want to see the world, just for one day? I’m sick of spending my life in the hangar.”

“People will be looking for us — ”

“We’ll go back at night. Promise.”

As I walked down the neat pavement with all the state flags hanging from both sides, I could see a gift shop sign from there. We couldn’t just walk down the street in broad daylight.

“Ugh, fine. It’s not like I’m the one with a disciplinary warning.”

“That was an accident.” I didn’t like the reminder, but I loved being her amusement. “Let’s not speak of that ever again.”

We walked down the pavement with our wings folded. A few employees were arriving, getting ready for the day. One of them opened the door to the gift shop and went back inside.

I slipped in, grabbing two souvenir sweaters from the shelf. They were the largest size.

“What the hell are you doing?” Olivia hissed at me. I tore off the price tags and threw one of the sweaters into her arms.

In the public restroom, I took off the complex elastic band from my forearm and used to it bind my wings to my back. Olivia did the same but she was slower. I could get it done in a minute. She was the good kid who seldom left the hangar. I was surprised she had tagged along for so long.

“Isn’t this nice?” An hour later, we were walking on the side of a mountain highway. Cars sped past us, their drivers weren’t giving us more than a glance.

“You can see the city from here.”

“Would be better if we can glide down there,” Olivia said, “That’s faster than walking.”

“You want to see the city?”

“Well, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? If you want to see these trees — ” she gestured all around us. “We have plenty of these back home.”

I kept quiet, not wanting to mention the fact that she just called the hangar “home”.

“I feel like…” I hesitated, “I felt a pull…to come here. Like something is drawing me here.”

Instead of laughing at me, or worse, ask “what do you mean”, she didn’t say anything at first. I regretted walking at the front. I couldn’t see the reaction on her face.

“Hmm,” she finally said, “I wonder if it’s your human part or the bird?”

She was right. I never knew what kind of bird DNA they put in my body. My wings were tawny and white. Those colors were too common to really tell the species. And the scientists won’t tell us. Either they thought it was useless information, or they mixed so many things together they forgot which was which.

Could my bird species be native to South Dakota? Was that the reason to come here, some sort of natural instinct, living on as a part of me? Or…my history as a human had something to do with this.

I wrecked my brain and could not find an answer. None of us could remember our time before the hangar. Some of us were even born there and never ever left. I always liked to think of myself as the former. Someone with a history, with a past, a back story.

Yet it was no use to me now.

“Let’s head back,” I said, “That way we won’t miss the curfew twice.”

“But didn’t you say it’s dangerous in broad daylight?”

“It’s alright. We’ll fly high, close to the sun,” I looked at her, before tearing off my disguise and doing a running take off. “It’s not a problem at all.”

Strange Days Are Good For Being Inspired

Photo by Matthew Hamilton on Unsplash

It was January in California. I was living the low life. Sleeping twelve hours a day, waking up at noon. Doing work and then not. I ate very little, then a lot.

I went through whole days without talking to anyone. Even in our small room, my roommate and I barely exchanged hellos. I was surviving on peanut butter and instant noodle, the latter being the luxurious instant pho instead of ramen. I was looking at my electronic devices all day, watching other people achieving their dreams and not feeling a thing.

I wasn’t creating contents like I was supposed to do. I wasn’t creating anything. My thoughts still raced, but I was always tired, always too disappointed at the world to put anything down.

Among what friends I have, only one person still text me. And when he asked me if I want to go out to eat, I responded three hours too late. I was living in the confine of my room, biding time until the spring comes, waiting for a change to give me the reason to be irritated again.

I was in bed all day, under layers of blankets with the AC on cold. I was invincible at the safety of my room. I was in bed until 6 pm. I was invincible but only somewhat.

I crawled up and changed my sweatpants to a pair of jeans, put on a jacket and head out for a night lecture. Artists often visit my school throughout the school year, and now I was taking an easy class where all I had to do was sit in the lectures twice a week and get easy credits. Might be waiting the tuition I paid, but really I just want to get things over with.

The winding corridors were empty. The only sound was my footsteps. For once I was walking without my headphones on. Truly listening to the winds howling and all the creaking noises, the people talking in a faraway place or just behind the door.

The lecture hall was dimmed so I didn’t have to worry about seeing people’s faces. I signed in and sat down at the back row. I was on my phone, pretending to have something more important than this until the lecturer announced that he was ready.

The next two and a half hours was such an out-of-body experience I almost felt bored among all the strangeness.

The artist was one of those good speakers we rarely get, otherwise it could have killed me with secondhand awkwardness. Instead, he was brilliant and easygoing.

He mainly did installation works, worked with all sorts of material and sound. He took us through his life’s works in various types. A room-sized installation that looked like an escape room inhabited by aliens? Check. An outdoor opera through a hole in the chimney? Check.

I was always so cynical about fine art, never finding the point of it all. Told a friend that I’m not the type of person to feel emotions when I look at art and he was genuinely shocked. I truly didn’t.

Who’s gonna fall for this? I was a narcissist when it came to creativity. They could be producing masterpieces and still, I thought mine was better.

Of course, mine was better. I loved my world better than his rant about a fantasy world map he drew. Even though I never drew a map as complexed as his. Mine was better because it was all in my head, where they sat pristine in gestation, never tainted.

In the darkness, everything made sense. That was when I realized it couldn’t stay that way.

Everything in our headspace is always better. Every story sounds better in our own head. In my head, I won all the arguments, while in real life I only smiled faintly. Under the dimmed lights and having watched the improv performance the artists spontaneously did, we clapped in hesitation.

When it was over and I walked out, knowing the cafeteria would only have leftover food. I had a slice of pepperoni pizza for dinner the third time that week. Red-ish oil glimmered under the heating lamp.

I sat alone in the emptied dining hall, listening to the echoing sound. I knew at that moment, I needed to write something. For the first time in months, I felt the urge to write. I was writing before, but it was like a routine of typing words, and I would drop off the face of the earth for another few days, then came back trying to pick up the threads. It wasn’t working. I needed to write something else.

I was walking back home with my hands in my pocket, shivering all the while. I recently picked up an interest in the introspective personal essay. Am I telling a story? Or simply dumping my mind’s content on the keyboard? I started a first draft that later became this.

I don’t know, I don’t know. This feels like a journal entry.

Yeah, I do this very often. I get inspired by others quite easily. I got epiphanies a few times a month. The weightless feeling I was addicted to, the sense that you can do anything, you can accomplish anything. My mind turned into a different beast at night, or maybe I’m romanticizing the darkness.

I was back to my bed and blankets again.

I turned on my nearest screen. Turned on some soft hip hop. 
An old friend was online. The certain kind of friendship: know her in real life, friended her on social media. Never talk to me, never texted me, never liked my posts. Last time we met was five years ago in a dingy subway station. You know, one of those old friends.

She posted something, saying that she was crying because one of her favorite authors had passed away. We read some of his work in a grade school textbook, but it’s not an author I care too much about.

She thought otherwise. She posted a diary entry of four years ago when she wrote about being inspired by his work she just read. With the caption, “when I grew up, you’re gone.”

A sudden sadness came over me. Like it often did.

Beijing Took Us Under

Fading, the narrator’s childhood memory got fantastical.

I knew what I wanted when I left my hometown five years ago. I still knew, but the reason wasn’t the same. I have not been back to Beijing since.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t or wouldn’t go back, it was simply easier to stay away.

I still thought about the city, but only on a starless night and under a fluorescent desk lamp. I called it “city of fog”, a suitable name. When I was younger, I thought the fog was magic. When I grew older and came to my senses, the name remained due to the air pollution that the city was so famous for.

Today I was reminded that everything was changing. The city was a thriving metropolis, shedding its skin every day, over and over again like clockwork. The memories of my childhood were fading, that much was certain. Time ate away all things. Yet, one glimpse of memory came up every now and then.

It was windy that day. I exited my school’s steel gates, walking back home. Maybe I would stop by the convenience store and grab a rice ball, maybe not. I craved the kind with teriyaki beef inside.

I walked past the neighboring school, which was technically another part of mine. My classmates were jealous of them because of their beautiful campus. But to me, it was just the difference of more flowering trees. But it was winter, and they were all equally leafless. We were never expecting snow.

Gray brick walls guarded the other campus, except where they were metal fences. A string of students was outside, chattering and pacing, perhaps on recess.

Shapes of gray moving across the soccer field. Because the school color was unofficially gray, everything was gray. The buildings were gray, painted like that. The sky was gray but that wasn’t the principal’s design.

I liked the color gray. It was soft, neutral, and yet warm like dove feather. Many thought it dull, but I didn’t feel any annoyance when I put my hands inside the pockets of my uniform jacket.

I slowed to watch the students. They were mostly girls. They all looked similar to me. They all looked like me. Dark hair and dark eyes, whatever body size wrapped inside gray school uniform. They all looked the same except one, who had blonde hair and certainly not dyed.

It was naturally blonde. Dyed hair was prohibited, just like piercings of any kind. Tattoos were unmentionable, and it’s not like we knew where the parlors were.

Her blonde hair, long and straight, fluffed out in the wind. With her blue eyes and high cheekbones, she was the different one. But she was among them, dressed like them, talked like them, like us.

It confused me briefly. There were foreigners in my city, but they were tourists or businessmen.

I wasn’t a sociable child. Years of learning English didn’t mean I would call out to a stranger. Curiosity lost the fight.

She looked at me, turned back to her friends, and nothing else happened.

I walked home like usual. We didn’t live far from the school. We used to, then my parents rented an apartment near the school so I didn’t have to take two hours to commute.

The floor was made of cold white tiles instead of the familiar rich wood, which my mother was always paranoid about any scratches or spillage.

The second day we moved into this apartment, I spilled milk on purpose. The white liquid slouched on top of the tiles and didn’t react. I wiped it off, disappointed.

I sat on the bed in the living room and thought about the subway, which was only significant because it led to my real home. The small apartment I grew up in, where all my childhood memories dwelled.

The subway was a new one. I didn’t dislike it. It was new but already filthy and bustling like the rest of the city.

I was missing the commute again, except the parts I didn’t. The greasy seat or the handle, plastic feeling on my skin. The beeping of the card-reader and the green lights. The beggars who were slowly stumbling along the walkway performing a trick, then stick their hands under your nose. The constant danger of being a small animal among a large number of animals, of your species but much bigger.

I missed the creature living in the underground.

It was not a metaphor. Even if it was, a metaphor of what? The creature…what did it represent?

I saw it many times. Through the windows, the ghostly shapes as the darkness flashed past. It wasn’t merely the reflections of us passengers.

One day I went up to it and stared. The small lights guiding us, heading into the black hole.

The creature underground, it could be the desire of millions of people, wishing to make a life in the City of Fog. It could be the predator living in the shadow of those subway stations and waiting to strike. The creature could be the sleepless nights I spent on dreaming. It could be all.

It was not. The creature wasn’t any of the above.

The creature was real, and I was ashamed of not giving it a proper name. But who was I to name a creature that was as old as time? At least, that was what I assumed. I was a lost child in a lost city, heading toward a certain destination in life, no looking back.

I could jump off at this stop. When I saw the blond girl earlier, she broadcasted the connection. It made her one of us.

I thought she might even know of the creature.

I was sure that I wasn’t the only one who knew of the creature. After all, it was there, underneath the city full of millions of people. Anyone could have stumbled upon it, or saught it and succeeded.

If I got to the underground, would the stranger also be there? I was convinced that it wasn’t my concern. Even if she did know of the creature, she might have other reasons for not being there when I was. Hell, her school might not even have let her out yet!

With a heart of pure intentions, I set out for the nearest subway stations. I went down, down, and down. The escalator hummed as it worked, crooning as the chains rolled. I was entering the underworld.

The smell in the air was different. It smelt of mod and urine, I guess.

I liked it better than the taste of fog. I saw the black hole of the tunnel. A train would come out of that any second. I walked alongside the yellow warning line, past the sentry’s office and the restrooms. I walked into the dark tunnel that had no end.

With a flashlight in hand, I was focused on the patch of light in front of me. I bought at the neighborhood store when I first started exploring. It was the most powerful one I could afford, yet the thick darkness still swallow up its light.

I walked, careful not to tip over. I was descending, but the slope was familiar.

I could never sense the flow of time with the world so still around me.

I heard a rumbling. A low thunder, constant and never-ending. Every rock in the tunnel shook.

I felt its presence before seeing it. It was there, in the dark. I stopped right there, looking up.

Then the creature was looking at me, staring at me with its enormous eyes. They glowed bright white, so bright that they tore open the darkness and lit up its face. The creature was large, so large that I didn’t even know how large it was. Maybe the size of a train, maybe larger. It was designed to fit in the tunnel, but its body was thick and smooth like a giant python.

It wasn’t a snake though. I didn’t know what it was. It looked like a dragon, but dragons didn’t exist and this creature did. Myths about dragons came from people’s imagination when they found dinosaur fossils. They created great stories for themselves, all based on dead things.

This one was alive.

Awestruck once again, I stood stock still and watched as it approached me. Its claws razor sharp. Each step made the earth tremble. I was not afraid.

It bowed down to me, not because I was superior. It allowed me to touch its head, right between the eyes there was a soft patch. Its scales were cold and sharp except for one place, where it had black furs extending from its forehead and all the way down its spine, ending with a long and soft tail. It looked like any Chinese dragon would look like, like the mythical creature we all knew by heart.

Except it was not that. I was never sure what it was. I continued to call it “the creature”.

It made a sound, a low hum. It might have been approval. I didn’t speak its language.

It turned its head. Torch-like eyes shone upon a dark corner, where I saw the blonde foreigner standing there, at its tail.

She was surprised to see me, but I wasn’t. I felt a slight joy and bitterness at the same time. She was stroking its tail.

She met my eyes. I wasn’t good at telling expressions from eyes. But one thing I knew.

It was my creature, and now I had to share.

Struck Dead

A writer working on his magnum opus had to face the end of the world.

Ermolai had been attempting to immortalize himself through works of literature for two decades.

It was hard work for sure.

He had been writing ever since knew the language. His mother said he learned to write before he could speak. He wrote on the swinging chair on the porch of his childhood home. He wrote on a slim notebook hidden under the English textbook while the teacher was talking. He wrote on prom night, shut in his bedroom with all the lights off. He studied engineering in college to please his parents, for he knew he should atone for ignoring their love for eighteen years.

When he acquired a typewriter, he typed. Rolls of manuscripts pooled onto the water-damaged floor of his college dorm. He would accidentally wake up his roommate, who would grumble and then yell at him in the darkness.

Upon completion of the bachelor’s degree, he rented a good suburban family’s garage and lived there. He had a used computer and it took five minutes to turn on, and he had to remember to save the document before closing.

His first publication was a short story published in a science fiction magazine, after a few dozen rejections. It put some food on his foldable table. He realized the market for genre fiction and thus he made money from it, enough to keep him alive in the dimmed light of his square room.

Any spare time after deadlines, eating, and sleeping, he would spend them on his Untitled Magnum Opus.

Define Magnum Opus: a large and important work of literature, especially regarded as a writer’s most important work.

He was put on this earth to complete this, his most important work. He would one day finish and publish it, and his life would be complete. It was doubtful that people in this day and age would understand the true meaning of such work, though. He wouldn’t be surprised if no publishers would take the risk in publishing this tome. Many famous authors in history were remembered posthumously.

As for the moment, it sat at 920 pages and lacked an ending. He cherished the moment when it would be complete, therefore he should be fully prepared for that.

He made preparation. He was going to shut himself in the garage and write Part Five of his Untitled Magnum Opus on the first of February and finish it in 28 days.

It was doable.

He had received a check of $150 through the mail. He went out to cash it and buy food. He hadn’t seen the outside world in a week, and the sunlight was brighter than he remembered.

It was slightly more crowded in the discount store, but only slightly so. There were families doing their weekly shopping, and he had seen a more hard-edged man pushing full carts down the isles. They bought crates of canned foods and water and loaded them onto the back of their monster trucks.

The shelves were almost bare when he arrived. Still, it was more than enough. Non-perishable products were great for his shut-in.
He came out with a cart full of groceries. Two loaves of bread for fast consumption, peanut butter, instant ramen, canned meat, canned corn, canned beans. Alcohol. He drank cheap whiskeys, but there were a few beers in the basket. He didn’t have a fridge, so anything frozen was out of the question. He would have taken the canned sardines, but they reminded him of his lesser times in college.

He rolled the cart down the street. Cars sped past him and no one spared him a glance. He pressed the secret password to open the garage door. He placed the cart in his den, next to the bookshelves. The garage door hummed as it unrolled, and finally closed.

He was inside his kingdom again.

All better. Drained from his outing, he was recharging as he leaned back on his faux leather office chair. The computer began to boot up. He grabbed a bottle of water and drank, eyes never leaving the loading screen.

He scanned the document and found the machine too slow to load to the entire thing. He booted up the printer and began to print. All 920 pages of his work. The printer made a buzzing sound as it worked in the background.

When it’s done, he had the stack and flipped through them once and once again. The sound of the paper was like the fluttering of wings. He smelt the heavenly ink.

He looked upon his screen. It was blank except for the two words: Part Two.

He adjusted the type size. His eyes were getting worse these days, but it would not matter when it was over.

He stretched his arms, cracked his knuckles and began to type.

Days blurred together. Time lost its meanings. Ermolai typed, ate, and slept. His life became hazy in the end.

The nice suburban family didn’t bother him—that’s why they were nice. They stayed upstairs, talked quietly, walked quietly, and even the children played quietly. Which was why when there was a loud crash, it woke him from a drunken slumber.

He stared wide-eyed at the bleach-white ceiling. There was a throb in his right eye. It was difficult to tell reality from a dream, and a dream from the words that poured from his fingertips.

When the crash was followed by a scream, he sat upright.

He couldn’t tell the time. There was no clock, but judging by the blue-ish gray cloud seen from the slit above the garage door, it was either dusk or dawn.

He paddled his way across the various objects littering the floor. A small door connected the garage to the kitchen, but it usually stayed locked for the safety of both the family and himself.

It was only unlocked when the matriarch came looking for the monthly rent. Then she would close it carefully, and turn the lock slowly, so it didn’t make much of a noise, so it didn’t hurt his feelings.

He tried the door. It was locked. Why wouldn’t it be?

He heard a few clamors upstairs. Thud. Thud. Thud.

He went back to sit down at his computer, yet there was this constant distraction. He had tolerated the existence of humans in his close proximity, but it was too much this time.

He fought the urge to scream at the family “Stop the noise!”

He settled for knocking on the door and yelled, “Would you please be quiet?”

The noise continued downstairs. Thud. Thud. Thud. Down the staircase. Then it all died down.

Good.

He went back to work.

The quiet was nice.

When the noise sounded right next to him, he almost jumped out of his skin.

The office chair creaked loudly. He stared at the door. The sound came urgently. Thud. Thud. Thud. Something banging on the door.

Knock. Knock. Knock. He scrambled backward.

What the hell was that?

“Stop!” He shouted at the person on the other side of the door. “If it’s about the rent, there’re still a few days until it’s due!”

It wouldn’t stop.

Ermolai began to pack. Whatever was going on, was either supernatural or he was going insane. Judging by the frequency of the knocking and the force of it, it’s only a matter of time before the person made a hole on the panel, or brought down the door altogether.

It was clear that he couldn’t stay there.

He didn’t have many possessions. A backpack could carry them all. The stack of paper and the computer. A change of clothes. Clean underwears, not many of them. A jacket, wrapped around the computer to minimize damages. Bottles of water and some food. He swung on the bag and opened the garage door.

The neighbor, an old lady dressed in a flowery gown, snapped her head up at the sound. She stared at him unknowingly, unblinkingly, and it was unnerving.

She was making her way over to him. A slow shuffle, then faster, faster, almost up to the speed of a jog.

When she was some ten feet away, he finally recognized the pattern on her gown wasn’t flowers, but blood splatters.

He looked at her face, which was missing a half. She reached out for him, made gurgling sounds with a hollow cheek. A bloody eyeball skewed on her ring finger.

Naturally, he did what was acceptable in this situation he screamed, and ran.

His backpack bounced on his back as he went. His jeans were coming loose, his shirt riding up, and he could feel the wind against his waist and upper ass. There was no time to worry about his dignity. There was no dignity in fear.

After about thirty seconds, he was heaving like an old dog. He slowed down to a jog and then a fast walk, and finally stopped. He bent over in the middle of the sidewalk, breathing heavily.

He took in the silence around him and the sheer contrast of his loud heartbeats. He looked up and scanned the neighborhood—it was eerily quiet, devoid of anything living. There was a dog barking, but it could be an illusion. When he looked to that direction the dog silenced. The houses were there. A few pieces of clothes and trash littered the unkempt front lawns. The curbs were empty of cars, except one.

Was it a dream? If it was, the vividness was equally alarming. The only car was a white sedan. It had a broken window. He approached it without much thought.

There was a corpse sitting behind the wheel. He took a few steps back, still stunned by the state of the world he was living in.

He couldn’t stay here. He had to get away. Far, far away.

He took another closer look at the corpse. It wasn’t moving, and showed no sign of imminent animation. He tried the door handle, didn’t expect much, but the door unlocked. He froze, afraid of sudden noise would wake the corpse. It didn’t respond. Still had its mouth hung open; he was decomposing.

Ermolai noticed the key was still jammed in the ignition. He hesitated for only a second, then hauled the body out of the car and climbed into the driver’s seat.

The car smelt unpleasant, but the window was down. He started the car. It coughed a few times, then hummed to life.

He drove, heavy-hearted, toward the edge of the city. His manuscript never once came to the forefront of his head.

It was a different world. One unsafe to him. One he couldn’t play God with. He had to navigate its rules like everyone else who wished to stay alive.

It was a new world, and he wasn’t brave at all.