Updated: Mar 26
“We need to meet tonight,” Min stated, sliding into the empty seat across from Jung-hee. Jung-hee blinked. He stared at Min like a deer in headlights.
“What?”, he said after a few moments had passed.
“For our project,” Min reminded him. Jung-hee only shrugged. Min tossed her hands in the air. “It’s due in two weeks.”
One of Jung-hee’s friends, Ishaan, waved a hand in dismissal. “That’s a problem for two weeks from now.”
“Hey Min,” Elijah nodded, “is Jade still mad at me?”
Min ignored Elijah and looked back at Jung-hee. “We’re meeting tonight.”
Jung-hee shifted around uncomfortably. “Tonight doesn’t work for me.”
“Tonight is the only night that works for me,” Min said.
Her hands were crossed on the circular, white lunch table. She could hear her friends– several tables away— giggling at the situation. The fluorescent, high school lights shone on them as Min tapped her feet on the red and white floors. The conversations around them ranged from today’s homework to heated debates on the best brand of chocolate milk. But Min was focused on Jung-hee. And Jung-hee was trying to hide inside his hoodie. Min raised a brow.
“Why doesn’t tonight work for you?” “I need to get a haircut.”
“It’s gonna take the entire night?”
“I have a lot of hair.”
Ishaan pointed at Jung-hee’s fluffy, black hair. It covered his forehead, eyebrows, and most of his ears. “You have a gorgeous head of hair. Never cut it.”
“Agreed!” Min exclaimed. “Never cut it.”
Jung-hee gulped. “My mom really wants me to.”
“I’m sure your mom also wants you to get an A on your project.”
Jung-hee stared at Min.
Min stared at Jung-hee.
“Fine,” Jung-hee said, sighing. “What time?”
“Seven-thirty at the library.” Min smiled. “Bring your textbook, laptop, and highlighters.”
“I don’t have highlighters.”
“That’s fine. You can use mine.” Min stood up and wiped her hands. “See you later.”
“Looking forward to it,” Jung-hee muttered, and Min rolled her eyes and spun around.
She walked back to her table, sat down, and huffed. “Ten years are taken away from my life everytime I talk to those guys.”
“I still think Mrs. Nishimura paired you with Jung-hee as a practical joke,” Jade laughed. She glanced at their table, and her smile faded. “Like mine and Elijah’s relationship,” she said, stabbing her bowtie pasta.
“Jade, just go talk to him,” Min urged.
“Aiguo punched him first, Jade,” Phoebe said. “You can’t blame him for fighting back.”
“Yeah, but he got mad at me for getting mad at him! What am I supposed to do when my boyfriend fights someone? Rejoice? Cheer him on?” Jade stuffed her lunch inside her backpack, threw it over her shoulder, and stood. “I need to reapply my lip gloss.”
Samira pointed at Jade. “I’m gonna go check on her.”
Phoebe and Min nodded in agreement.
After Samira walked away, Phoebe turned to Min. Her hands were crossed under her chin and she scooted closed. “Is it just me, or have things been more weird than usual?”
Min sighed. “It’s not just you.” Mr. Li’s death in May marked the start of everything. Mr. Li came from one of West District’s Founding Families. He was a pillar in the community, often called the town’s father. But, after he passed away and that pillar crumbled, West District had begun to collapse on itself. The town council held fewer meetings, men in suits began appearing and examining the buildings, and Mr. Li’s youngest son, Aiguo, picked fights nearly everyday. And in July, a guy with superhuman powers appeared. He could lift cars, run at superspeed, and even had retractable claws. He dressed in white, orange, and black and called himself “The Siberian Tiger” – a crime-fighting hero that helped keep West District safe. He stopped numerous robbery attempts and home invasions, but mainly helped the elders cross the streets. West District had a superhero. Because, apparently, superheroes were real.
Min would get a headache if she kept thinking about this.
“Are you going to the elder’s center after school today?” Min asked Phoebe. “They’re playing mahjong.”
Phoebe side-eyed Min. “As if I would ever miss mahjong. My grandma always ends up trying to fight Elijah’s.”
Min shrugged. “Well, Elijah’s grandma does always cheat.”
“And she does a terrible job at hiding it,” Phoebe replied.
Min laughed. “The elder’s center deserves its own reality show.”
Phoebe opened her mouth to say something, but the lunch bell rang. Students rose to throw out their trash and zip up their backpacks. Friends shook friends awake from naps and other students pondered if they could sneak out the back exit without getting caught.
The students doing the latter were Jung-hee and his friend group.
“I don’t get them,” Min said as she left the cafeteria. “They hate school but they’re always at the children’s center.”
“School doesn’t matter to them,” Phoebe said. “But West District does. Isn’t that why you go to the elder’s center? And help out around town? They care – just not about school.”
“Yeah. Priorities, I guess,” Min said.
Phoebe patted Min’s back. “Just be glad that Jung-hee agreed to work on the project.”
Min rolled her eyes. “He tried convincing me that he had to get a haircut.”
“Yeah, well, I never said that he was smart,” Phoebe remarked.
Min chuckled and hooked her arm around Phoebe’s. As they rounded the hallway corner, a body knocked into theirs. Min and Phoebe stumbled back, nearly tumbling into the people behind them. They regained their balance in time to see the figure in front of them.
He sported a black eye and busted lip.
“Watch where you’re going,” Aiguo hissed, then pushed past them.
“Hey-” Min shouted, but Phoebe pulled her back.
“Leave him alone,” Phoebe muttered. “There’s no use in picking a fight.”
Min shook her head and kept walking.
If West District was crumbling after Mr. Li’s death, Aiguo was disintegrating.
“I’m serious, she almost hit her!” Min’s grandmother said, complaining about Phoebe and Elijah’s grandmothers. “They cause so much trouble.”
“Auntie Yang is just getting tired of Auntie Dù’s cheating,” Min replied. “You can’t blame her.”
Min’s grandmother made a -tsk sound. “They are both a piece of work. Are you sure you have to go? You should stay. You can’t leave me alone with them.”
“I have to go to the library for a project. And you should go home. Mom and Dad don’t like it when you’re out late.”
“Your mother and father are too worried for their own good.”
“That’s because they care.”
“But I have the Siberian Tiger now,” she winked. “He walks me home.”
“He walked you home once,” Min said.
Min’s grandma shrugged. “More than some people in this town. He’s a superhero, Min. Maybe he’ll save us from those suited men who keep coming here.”
“They came back today?” Min shouted and flung her arms in the air. “That’s the fourth time this month! Why do they want our buildings?”
“I don’t know, but Mr. Li was so good at getting rid of them,” Min’s grandma said. “It’s okay. The town will figure something out. Now, if you aren’t going to work on your project then come back inside.”
Min chuckled. Her shoulders relaxed and she shook her head. “I have to go.”
Min’s grandmother eyed her. “You sound like your parents. That’s why you’re going to the library instead of staying for karaoke.”
“I have homework!” Min defended. “It’s due soon.”
“Okay, if you insist.” Min’s grandmother pulled her in for a hug. “I’ll see at home. I love you.”
“I love you too,” Min said. “Be safe.”
“You too, Minnie.”
Min crossed the street as her grandmother yelled something about the Siberian Tiger. Min laughed it off, but shook her head.
The Siberian Tiger. She was semi-convinced that he was a social experiment. That the cars were lighter than they actually were, the videos were edited, the criminals’ ran slower, and the claws were fake. But part of her… well, part of her was also glad there was someone watching over West District. That someone was there to stop an attempted robbery at the supermarket over the weekend, or catch the window cleaner that fell off his ladder last month. After everything that’s happened— and that Min worried could happen— the suburb needed this. But how did a superhero get here in the first place?
West District wasn’t a big city. It was a small, immigrant community. Everyone knew everyone. Most families had lived here for at least two decades. Everything was family-run and operated.
Why was West District appealing to a superhero?
Min stopped at the intersection. The sun had set and the yellow street lights illuminated the sidewalks and pot-holed roads. The air was getting cooler, crispier. Leaves graced the ground, and the nights were slowly getting longer. It was Min’s favorite time of year. In her opinion, the best things always happened in the fall– the best food, the best movies, the best shows. West District always had the best festivals too.
But Min didn’t know if those traditions would remain now that Mr. Li had died.
The street lights turned green. Min shook away the thoughts and crossed the street to the red and white brick library.
Jung-hee was forty-five minutes late.
And he wasn’t replying to Min’s texts.
Min said seven-thirty.
What part of seven-thirty did he not understand?
Maybe all his hair blocked his hearing.
He could’ve at least texted her.
Jung-hee was going to regret standing Min up at the library. Tomorrow she would march up to Mrs. Nishimura and make it clear that she would not be working with Jung-hee. She’d demand to be graded separately. His lack of self-discipline and care wasn’t going to affect Min. She wouldn’t allow it. Min stomped out of the library and down the sidewalk. She zipped up her sweatshirt and readjusted her plaid skirt.
Being late showed a lack of care. That’s what Min was taught growing up. She knew every household was different, but didn’t timeliness regard respect for others? The more you liked and valued someone, the more you wanted to show up? To be on time? Jung-hee didn’t respect Min. He didn’t respect anyone. Him and his friends didn’t take anything seriously. Sure, they volunteered at the children’s center. But that’s all they did. West District was in shambles. West District needed people who care. And people like Jung-hee and his friends were just bringing it down.
She nearly face-planted on the ground. She pulled out her bag quick enough to brace her fall, but her knees slammed against the pavement. Her upper body and face landed on top of a thick canvas material filled with textbooks. “Alright, I get it,” Min shouted at her ancestors. “No thinking negatively of people,” she grumbled. She peeled herself off the ground, wiping the pebbles and weeds from her bloodied knees. She slung her backpack across her shoulder, stretching her arms as she crossed the street and entered the town’s main square.
Just in time to see what was in a dimly lit alleyway.
The Siberian Tiger was kneeling between two brick buildings, going through a backpack.
“Holy shit,” Min whispered, and ran towards him. She stopped in front of the alleyway and watched him rustle through his backpack, talking to himself about food.
For a superhero, he had an awful sense of surroundings.
Then he pulled the mask off.
Min’s jaw dropped.
She’d recognize that floppy hair anywhere.
“Jung Hee?” She yelled. His posture straightened. He turned around, eyes wide and mouth open. Park Jung-hee was in the superhero costume.
“I-” he began.
“This is why you skipped our meeting?”
Editor(s): Marie Hong, Amelia Pinto
Photo Creds: Etsy