The way home from school took me longer that day because I kept running into so many spirits.
First it had been the gnome behind the school building. He had been poking his head out of a manhole and would've been run over if I hadn't jumped onto the road and pretended to be a careless idiot long enough for him to get out. Then it had been the djinn trapped in a discarded plastic bottle on the sidewalk until I unscrewed it and let it out. And then I had run into the little people on the river, trying to figure out a way to get their canoes over the beaver dam.
There were lots of them out there if you knew where to look—spirits, mythical creatures, some of them native to the land like the little people, others who had migrated with the humans who'd come here like the gnome and the djinn. I liked to watch them as I walked. Ghosts sneaking into movie theaters to watch the newest Star War; nature spirits chilling in parks or on balconies; tiny critters playing pranks on people; a cat sith and a bakeneko fighting over a discarded chicken nugget. Sometimes I stopped to chat with them for a bit. Sometimes people were looking at me weird, but the fun part about living in a big city was that there was always somebody weirder than you out there.
The spirits started to look familiar as I entered Chinatown. I knew a lot of them personally, and I chatted with almost everybody I met as my feet carried me through the same old roads, past shops and restaurants towards my family's bookstore.
Foxtail Books, the worn-out sign over the door said. And below, in smaller font: All you can read, and then more you probably can't.
A weird name for a bookstore, but hey, big cities and all that. It wasn't like the store itself was that weird. It was just old and dusty and full of books you wouldn't find anywhere else. Sometimes they rearranged themselves on the shelf when you weren't looking, sure. Sometimes books popped up that we'd never bought, and sometimes they went missing for a couple days and came back totally changed. Sometimes they were even written in languages that would leave a historian stumped. Totally normal stuff.
Besides, even if anybody noticed all that, it wasn't like people would believe them, right?
"Mom, I'm home!" I called into the door. There was a rustle from the back, then a thud and a yelp. A moment later my mom's head poked out of the back room.
"Already?" she asked, rubbing her foot where she'd probably dropped a box full of books on it. "You're early."
"My last class was canceled," I replied, walking up to meet her. "But I ran into a lot of…uh, people, so I'm not that early anymore."
"Alright, alright." She picked up another box of books. "How was school?"
I made a face. "Do we have to talk about that?"
"Hey, you're a junior already! I know you'll be taking over the bookstore, but that's no excuse to neglect your grades." She gave me a stern look. "Are you prepared for finals week?"
"Not emotionally," I said and made for the stairs before she could stop me.
"Eric!" she called after me. "Hey, don't run away! You can't avoid the topic forever!"
"I mean, I could always get sick for finals and—"
"Young man, don't you dare—Eric! Get back here!"
Half panicking, half laughing, I fled up the stairs and escaped into my room.
Only to meet with a half-naked fox girl lying on my bed.
"Dude," I said, dropping my backpack into the corner and giving her a glare. "You have your own room! Get off my bed!"
Sighing, the girl paused whatever cheesy drama she'd been watching on my laptop—my laptop!—and turned her fox ears towards me. "You're so stingy," she said. "Your bed, my bed, who cares. Why are you already home, anyway?" She swished her tail. "Let me guess, you pranked people into thinking the school's haunted again?"
I winced. "Hey, that was one time!"
"You used your powers to pull down the school bully's pants in front of everybody?"
"You say that like it's a bad thing!" I shot back. "He deserved that one."
"So you did?"
She rolled over onto her back, thinking hard. "You, hmm…put salt into Mr. James' coffee?"
A grin crossed my face. "I wish," I said. "He'd deserve that one. Can you believe he still calls me 'Erin' and 'she'?"
Her ears twitched disdainfully. "Humans," she said. "You're obviously a boy. How else could I feed off your masculine energy?"
"Vampire," I said, making her roll her eyes. Meng Meng had nothing to do with vampires. She was a huli jing—a fox spirit who had followed my grandparents when they had come here from China. Supposedly she had a deal with my family: she could live under our roof, and in return she…protected our house, or something. I'd never actually seen her do much protecting. All she did was laze around, watch Netflix and eat all the snacks from the fridge.
Wait a second. Speaking of snacks…
"Hold on," I burst out. "Is that my ice cream?"
She looked down at the tub she'd half emptied by now. "Uh, was it?" she said, fooling absolutely no one. "I had no idea."
"Don't gimme that! It had my name on it!"
She stuck out her tongue. "It said family pack!"
"Go fox yourself!"
She groaned. I grinned. One of the iron rules around our house had always been no swearing, so I'd used the seventeen years of my life to find as many ways to not technically swear as possible.
"I swear," I said, "I should lock my stuff away. Also, could you put something on? Nobody wants to see your half-naked body, man."
Meng Meng rolled her eyes again, but she got up. "Having a brother is so annoying," she said. "I can't even hang around the house in my undies anymore."
"Adopted brother," I insisted, but she ignored me.
Crouching down, she picked up a shirt from the pile of clothes scattered across the floor and pulled it over her head. "There," she said. "Better?"
I was about to say yes when I noticed something. "Hey, that's one of my few guy clothes!" I lunged at her. "Take it off! You're gonna stretch it!"
"First you want me to put something on, now you want me to take it off again," the fox girl answered, diving out of my reach. "Can you make up your mind already?"
"There's a ton of old girl clothes right there! Here!" I shoved one of my old hoodies in her face. "Now—give—me—my—shirt—back!"
"Give it back, dammit!"
I leaped at her again. She almost dodged me again, but I just barely caught her, snatching her shirt and trying and failing to pull it back over her head. She tried to wrestle me off, but I clung. I'd wrestled with her a lot when I was a kid. Except now I was bigger and stronger, and she was still the same.
The door opened.
We froze where we lay on the floor. My mom stared at us both: my hands pulling at my stolen shirt, Meng Meng trying to push me off, both of us tangled together into an angry mess of limbs.
"She stole my shirt," I said.
"Ah," Mom answered. She didn't look surprised. No wonder; barely a day passed where Meng Meng and I didn't fight over something.
My gaze dropped to her hands. She was holding a box—not a gift box or a cardboard package, but a parcel made of wood, no bigger than an average book. "This just arrived on our doorstep," she said. "It's addressed to you."
Standing up, I took the parcel from her hands. It looked old, I realized, though it was still in good shape. There was no dust on it. No sender's name or address either. Just my name in a black ink that seemed to flicker before my eyes: ERIC HUANG.
"Careful," Mom said as I started to open it. "We don't know what's in there. If it's magical, it could be dangerous."
I waved it off, but gathered my power at my fingertips anyway. "If I die, I die."
Mom shook her head in exasperation, but she and Meng Meng crowded closer as I placed the parcel down on the floor and slowly lifted the lid.
Nothing blew up. Nothing tried to attack us either. There wasn't even anything weird inside. Just a stack of very old paper, bound together with a thread of silk.
"A book?" I asked, disappointed. "Somebody sent me a book?"
Why me, anyway? My parents ran the bookshop. It would've made a lot more sense to address it to them and not me.
Which, now that I thought about it, was so weird that it kind of made this interesting again.
Slowly, carefully, I lifted it out of the box. The pages were soft under my hands and weirdly smooth. The first page was blank.
I turned the page.
And even as I thought the next one would also be empty, something came alive on it, and letters began to form.