The next morning, Yai and I drive over to the nearest store, where there is already a line of people waiting to get their own copy of Mythic Kingdoms. The line winds down the street and around the corner. Although I expect it to be crowded, I didn’t expect the line to be this long at nine in the morning. Surprisingly, some even set up sleeping bags and slept on the sidewalks during the night. Camping outside a store isn’t unheard of, but it still doesn’t fail to surprise me.
Yai's attention is on the Thai restaurant across the street, Dee Thai Kitchen. It's owned by her friend, Phaoy, who immigrated here and ended up marrying an American. She often spends her weekends helping her open the restaurant and cook for the customers, so I know she'd rather be there than waiting in line for a game she didn’t understand.
"Mai!" a voice calls to me from a distance. I turn my head and see Yumi. Her dark brown eyes light up when they meet mine and she waves enthusiastically from the end of the line, not caring about the people staring at us. She has thin, medium-length black hair, something I wished I had. With how thick and long my hair is, it constantly tugs at my head, giving me headaches.
I wave back and shift my gaze back to Yai before saying, "Why don't you go ahead and say hi to Phaoy for me, Yai? I'll come over when we're done and we can go home together."
"Are you sure?" she asks, looking at me worriedly.
"Yes, we'll be here for a while. That should give you plenty of time. Besides, I bet Yumi and I will be hungry by the time we finish. Will you save me a fortune cookie?" I answer.
A knowing smile tugs at the corners of her lips. "If I save you one, you'll want more. You almost ate through the last bag Phaoy ordered."
I shrug before replying sarcastically, "I'm helping the restaurant. It's false advertising to offer fortune cookies at a Thai restaurant. You guys should stick to the mango slices and sticky rice."
She rolls her eyes, fighting a laugh. "Alright, alright. When you're done, come right over, alright? No wandering. Your mother agreed to let you get the game, not play with hooks. You still have homework and chores to do." She turns to leave, waiting for the crosswalk to say 'WALK'. The crosswalk sign turns green and dings, signaling for her to cross.
"It's hooky, Yai!" I shout to her. She's already too far away to hear me.
I join Yumi at the back of the line and I notice she's wearing traditional Japanese clothes. The kimono she has on is the color of dawn—yellow, orange, pink, and a faint trace of blue—with an embroidered image of a Goddess of Light from Mythic Kingdoms' website, except this one provides a warmer contrast. Delicately crafted with various shades of red threading, her ensemble comes together with a cherry blossom hair pin to keep half of her hair in place, while the other half cascades down her back.
"Stealing your mom's clothes again, Yumi?" I ask, trying not to snicker at the memory of when I last visited her house. She always took clothes from her mother's closet to make cosplay. It's not like she's terrible at designing, but it amuses me how she took inspiration from the simplest of things.
"No... She gave me permission this time. This is one of her old kimonos. They say Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto will show up in the Japanese Mythic Kingdom. I hope she's their Goddess of Light!" she replies before spinning slowly. "What do you think?"
"It's beautiful. If Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto isn't half as beautiful as your design, it'll put the developers to shame!" I say with a laugh. Yumi's outdone herself.
My gaze shifts to the make-up on her face, noticing her red lips and fierce winged black eyeliner painted over soft orange and yellow eyeshadow. The next thing I see is how clear her skin and pale her skin is. It reminds me of how much I wish I looked like her because everywhere I go, people openly stare and ogle. Some are unrestrained by going as far as asking ‘what are you?’ or saying ‘you look exotic.’ Why can’t I be treated like everyone else? Is it really so strange for me to be Black and Asian? I can’t be the only mixed-race person in the world.
The line starts to move, with up to ten people entering the store at a time to avoid overcrowding and chaos. I watch a group of teenage boys run past us with their SoulDive and Mythic Kingdoms copy in hand. They joke amongst themselves, betting who will score the most female NPCs. A smirk forms on my face and a chuckle escapes me, knowing the game is rated PG and won’t be the kind of game they’re expecting.
“Can you believe them?” Yumi asks. “The NPCs might be artificially intelligent, but they’re not programmed to bang every person they meet. If they want to play a game like that, they’re better off looking elsewhere, if you catch my drift.” She wiggled her eyebrows at me for good measure, not caring about the curious glances of those nearby.
“I don’t think they care,” I admit with a shrug. “They’re probably tired of being rejected by girls in the real world. They’re perfectly harmless so long as they’re not aggressive. Besides, how is that any different from us fangirling over certain video game husbandos who shall not be named?”
“Good point,” she said, returning her attention back to the front of the line.
Before we know it, we’re at the front of the store. The sign glows in a neon orange that says “Tarot Gaming.” In the beginning, the store only hosted games that featured Tarot cards, with its most popular game being Divine Hearts, a dating sim game where each character represents a specific Tarot card. Their popularity skyrocketed after its release and they began selling a diverse array of games. To those of us who knew the store when it struggled to keep its doors open, it makes me happy to see it so prosperous.
While I expect to see only Mr. Wu managing the shop, I quickly notice a man and a woman, dressed in full suits. The man looks mysterious and intimidating based on the serious glare he gives customers who pass by. He wears dark sunglasses and stood stiffly while he held boxes of the SoulDive equipment for his colleague. If this is their way of making a sale, they’re doing a real shitty job at it. Is this a hold up or a hand out?
For a moment, it almost feels like he’s watching me carefully, but he turns his head before I could think more of it. On the other hand, the woman is attentive and friendlier, answering questions as they come in like she had nothing but time to respond to their needs.
“Mai! Yumi!” Mr. Wu calls to us with a wave. We join him at the counter and he has the biggest grin plastered on his face. My gaze briefly flickers to his new toupee. Over the past couple of years, he’s lost his hair and done everything one can think of to try to hide his balding. As much as some kids tease him for it, I don’t think anything of it and consider it a natural part of aging.
“Hi, Mr. Wu!” Yumi greets in return.
“Good morning, Mr. Wu,” I mumble, returning my attention to the suspicious man. He’s observing the customers carefully and I can’t help but wonder if they have a shortage of staff to help sell the SoulDive and all they could spare is that bitterly quiet man.
“Did you hire new people?” I finally ask Mr. Wu.
“Oh, Angelina and Eli? They’re just the people Breakthrough sent over. They’re here to help advertise the SoulDive and hand out limited edition deluxe versions,” Mr. Wu replies. “You would think they wouldn’t be good at selling things considering they’re dressed for a big shot business meeting, but they’ve brought new customers to Tarot Gaming. Don’t let Eli’s broodiness fool you, he’s sold more than Angelina.”
I narrow my eyes at him, assuming he’s toying with me. “You’re kidding.”
Mr. Wu shakes his head. “Nope. I made him put on those sunglasses because his good looks lured a lot of women into the store. When I confronted them and told them they needed to buy something if they wanted to stay in the store, they said they had no intention of buying anything.” He shrugs before continuing, “I can’t have them taking up spots of customers who actually want to purchase something. As you can see, we only have a limited number of spots to avoid overcrowding and potential shoplifting.”
No kidding, I glance at Angelina and Eli once more, realizing I’m overthinking things.
“Mr. Wu, what’s going on with the deluxe SoulDive?” Yumi asks. “They didn’t announce it on their website.”
He chuckles before responding. “It’s a perk that is only available in stores. They choose random customers, so I don’t know how they make those decisions. You’ll have to find out. A copy of MK for each of you?”
I nod and Mr. Wu rings up Yumi while I look around. The store has board games of all varieties stacked on shelves against the walls, ranging from Co-Op and RPG to trading card games. There are four individual, revolving, pillar-like shelves in the center of the store that hold figurines of popular video game, anime, and manga characters, stuffed animals, large marshmallow pillows, keychains, and posters.
Sifting through the stacks of posters, I search for the Thai Goddess of Light, thinking it could be a nice aesthetic to brighten up my rather dull room. Before I can grab it and view it, I notice a boy around my age who has reached for the same poster on the opposite corner.
Prepared to fight for the only copy of this poster, I look up to see the bright smile of a brown-haired boy with gray eyes. He rubs the back of his neck and laughs, which only makes the awkwardness in the air more apparent. “Sorry, I didn’t think we were going for the same thing,” he says. “I’m trying to collect all the posters of the Goddesses of Light and this happens to be the only one I don’t have yet. I guess it’s not as popular as the Greek Goddess of Light or Chinese Goddess of Light.”
“You’re telling me,” I mutter, realizing once again that Thai people don’t really have a place outside of Thailand. If I were in Thailand, there would surely be many people clamoring for this very poster. I hate knowing this.
“You can have it, I don’t really need it,” he says, releasing his grip and shoving his hands into his pants pockets.
I peek at the price and nearly have a heart attack. Seventy bucks. I don’t have enough for this and the game. “No, go ahead. I was just looking around.”
“Thanks,” he says, taking the rolled-up poster before holding his hand out to me. “I’m Braeden. I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before.”
“I don’t live in this neighborhood,” I answer, turning to leave, hoping he would understand and leave me be, but he followed me to the counter. If it’s one thing that my mom taught me since I was a kid, it’s to never trust a guy. And this person is something I could never confide in, but why is he so persistent?
“If you’re here, it must not be far. What school do you go to? Maybe we’ve passed each other in the hallway before.” He leans against the counter, which warrants a curse from Mr. Wu in Chinese. I fish for the fifty dollars in my purse and hand it to him in exchange as he rings up my copy of Mythic Kingdoms. I ignore Yumi’s leer burning into the side of my head as she watches the exchange between me and Braeden.
“I don’t think that’s any of your business,” I say sharply. Yumi elbows me as if to chastise me for turning down an interested boy. But I don’t want to be with anyone. I’m not allowed to date and I have enough responsibilities to carry out to my displeasure. “Thanks, Mr. Wu,” I tell the shopkeeper before grabbing Yumi’s arm. “Let’s go, Yumi.”
He looks troubled by my response as he furrows his brow in confusion. He stands in front of me to stop my escape. “I didn’t mean to be a pest. I just wanted to know because it’s not often I meet someone interested in the Thai-inspired Mythic Kingdom. Maybe we could talk more over coffee.”
“I don’t drink coffee,” I reply curtly, pushing past him, ignoring Yumi’s pleading for me to give him a chance. “Excuse me.”
“Lunch then?” he says with a disgustingly bright grin. No matter how many times I shoot him down, it only seems to increase his confidence.
I turn around, finally having enough. “Look, Braeden. You’re probably a nice guy, but I’ll save you the trouble. I’m not allowed to date nor do I have an interest in dating. I have a lot of responsibilities at home and it would only be a distraction. You’re better off finding someone who can actually make you happy.”
He raises his hand in defeat, his smile never fading. “Alright. Sorry to hold you up. Well, if you ever want to play MK with someone, my gaming username is The Gun.”
I’ll be sure to never ask you to play with me. “Excuse us.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Yumi whispers in my ear. “He’s cute!”
“Oh, please. You know my mom would kill me if she found out I had a boyfriend. Besides, you know I have to put Ari first. No one would be able to tolerate that, no one should,” I reply.
“You deserve to put yourself first for once.”
“Try telling that to my mom. Apparently every day, I’m a bigger disappointment for her.”
“I doubt that. My mom was telling me about how she ran into your mom at the store the other day and she wouldn’t stop gushing about how well you performed at your last taekwondo tournament. I’m sure she’s proud of you but doesn’t know how to express it to your face.”
As much as I want to believe Yumi, I can’t. I’ve had to withhold my emotions, cry where no one else could see to avoid being viewed as weak, and endure through all the pressure my family placed on me. For years, I’ve thought about the ways I could tell my mom what I’m feeling, but whenever I face her, the words are stuck on my tongue. The words I couldn’t say weigh heavier on my heart, and my mind, and I’m forced to be happy to appease the one person I desperately wanted love and support from.
My thoughts are interrupted by Angelina and Eli, who have handed Yumi her SoulDive box. Eli extends a different box to me and I notice it has a strange yellow sticker on it with bold black letters that say ‘DELUXE EDITION.’
“Aww… I only got the regular version,” Yumi says with a sigh. “I wonder what makes the Deluxe Edition so different.”
“You’ll have to find out in the game!” Angelina replies cheerfully.
Or maybe not at all. What if it’s all part of a coy plan to bring in more users? It doesn’t worry me too much as I’m only concerned with escaping reality as soon as I can. The only way I can do that is to get through the day and retreat to the solitude of my room.