Zero was too hungover to take them to the pool, not that he would’ve anyway, so when the oven struck twelve-noon Keats stole a five from the pants crumpled at the bedroom door and biked there with Tommy on his back, forgetting the water bottle and their shoes. Their boxer shorts billowed in the sweaty wind; they had no swim suits.
They were meeting Jorja there, Keats said, which Tommy didn’t mind. Jorja sometimes carried him while she waded shoulders-deep in the water; her arms and stomach were always slick with spray-on sunscreen and he liked the way it felt on his skin. Zero didn’t buy sunscreen. “That shit’s poison. Never used it in my life. And Asians don’t fuckin’ burn.” He’d say this while shaving over the kitchen sink, big swabs of his black beard that would gunk up the drain and force them to sacrifice a chopstick to rectify. He did this only when running late, they learned. They had only been staying with him since the beginning of the summer, his routines shuffled themselves at intervals unknown.
Tommy fought to keep up across the sharp-edged rocks to the concrete deck, Keats waved to a group of six under their tree, and Tommy didn’t recognize most of them, older than Keats—they looked like—although what did he know? Jorja barely glanced Keats’ way, striding past him to plant a kiss each on Tommy’s eyes (he liked this part too. His mother used to do this before that April morning they’d found her in the garage).
“You didn’t tell us about him,” a girl whose big earrings rattled around her cheeks and neck had wrapped her arm around Keats’ waist, nodded her head toward Tommy.
“Teach him to swim, Keaton.”
“I’ll teach him, I’ll throw him right in the deep end, like my dad did.”
“Your dad got the clap from his birthday present last year.”
“Tommy knows how to swim,” Jorja said, lacing her fingers with Tommy’s. Keats smiled, not big enough for anybody but Tommy to notice. He bumped his knees and stomach with the earring-girl, who was turning her hair this way and that so energetically that Tommy thought she must be tired by now.
“Tommy,” he said, unfurling the five from his elastic waistband, “I’ll buy you lunch. Pick something.”
“He doesn’t want to go with you, motherfucker,” Jorja said, smiling though nothing besides her mouth had moved as she did it. She snatched the bill from Keats’ hand and steered Tommy toward the snack stand by the lockers. “Let’s go, baby. What do you want?”
“Jesus, he’s gonna be eight next month—”
They were already gone. “If you grow up like him,” Jorja whispered softly into Tommy’s ear, “I’ll kill you.”
Tommy ate his hot dog with Jorja by the shallow end, their feet dipping in and out of sight. Jorja was holding his strawberry shortcake bar up in the breeze so it wouldn’t melt as fast. Tommy liked the pool. They had been coming all summer just to stay alive; Zero didn’t pay to keep their air unit alive after it busted back in May.
“Keats has a lot of new friends,” Tommy mumbled, finally. He got shy around Jorja. She rolled her eyes at him.
“I’m a new friend, aren’t I?” she said. Tommy shrugged. They’d lived with Zero two months, before that with Tilly, their mother’s sister, enough time for them to pack their things and attend the funeral. They did not talk about it again, not once. He didn’t think Jorja knew about their mother.
“Cass has a big fat fucking crush on your big brother. That’s why they’re here.”
Tommy thought about the earring-girl. She didn’t look like a Cass. He wondered briefly if this were rather some mean nickname he didn’t know about that Jorja had given her. He indicated he was ready for the shortcake bar, and she unwrapped it for him. Behind them, Keats was sprinting through the grass after a football one of the others had brought. His arms shook off little flicks of sweat as he moved, then was tackled, tumbling into a patch of dust that turned to mud on his back. The hair on his head stood up far straighter than the white boys; Tommy’s did too. Cass was watching the boys play, laughing so hard at something another girl said that the sound carried across the water. Tommy recalled the way Keats would laugh at home, loud and fake, when the moment caught Zero in a good mood and the two of them would strip their shirts and wrestle on the floor.
“You’re nothing, nothing,” Zero would shout himself hoarse, Keats’ head in a lock, “I own you—”
Tommy spotted it, the moment Keats’ limbs had slackened, all at once like a marionette with its strings cut, and Zero, sensing it, loosened his grip. It would take Keats another second to flip his father onto his back, pinning his shoulders, taking the folding table with them. Tommy would jump onto them both, pounding his fists, Zero grabbing both their heads and smothering them against his chest: “I love you, I fucking love you.”
“Your dad back yet?”
“Last night,” Tommy said. “he’s not awake, I don’t think. He said the Commies made him drink.”
Jorja blinked at him over her brown shoulder. “He calls those antique shop guys Commies because… they don’t pay him enough?”
“Because they’re Chinese.”
“But you’re Chinese.”
“We’re Korean,” said Tommy. Jorja made a small noise with her mouth, like a huh, swiped a drip of ice cream from Tommy’s chin.
Hours later, Tommy climbed out of the water to look for the towel Keats had brought. Jorja was lying out under the sun nearby, an arm pulled up over her eyes. The pool had emptied, mostly. Children had been lugged away as the sun dipped, screaming or indifferent, noodles and floaties made jagged wet scars on the concrete. Tommy swiveled his head, the snack stand was closing up. He skittered across the baking concrete to the locker rooms on the other side of the pool, trying his brother’s name. Inside the boy’s area, the benches lay bare, pools of water collected in the irregular dips of the floor. There was a shower running, way in the back. “Keats?” he tried again, turning the corner, saw the slick top halves of their bodies pressed together. Keats’ palms flat on the white tiles behind Cass, making yips and yelps in his ear. There was a lot of noise after. Tommy saw pale triangles of white skin on her breasts as she turned away, still those earrings whipped around her face, one tangled in the wet ropes of her hair. Keats stumbled out of the shower stall, cupping his dick with one hand.
“Turn around,” his voice jolted Tommy awake, “Wait outside for me, Tommy. Just go.”
Tommy kept blinking, he could hear what was being said but hadn’t quite connected the words. His eyes were wide, Cass’s back was turned, he saw little knobs of her spine all the way up her back, “I’m sorry—”
“I know, just turn around, wait outside—”
“What the fuck’s he doing here?”
“Shut the fuck up, Cass—”
“Cass, fuck!” Keats turned around. His bare ass still wore soap suds. “Shut the fuck up, get fucking dressed—”
Tommy walked back out into the sun. He didn’t remember what Keats had told him to do. Wait by the pool? The towels? He reached the water’s edge. Jorja, sitting up with a startled look on her face, spotted him, smiling when he waved. He watched his figure ripple, split into cells and waves by the shimmering surface. He jumped, aligning his body plank-like. His feet hit the water first, it swallowed him to the waist, then his shoulders, closing like the jaw of an icy creature over the top of his head.
Keats played a game with him sometimes, when it suited him and there was nothing on TV. Tommy didn’t remember who had thought of it. Tilly had given them her bed to share and slept on the couch until Zero had come to take them away. Tommy missed this bed.
“Come in, Starbase, kch” he blew a raspberry into his fist like a radio receiver, “what’s your read? kch”
“Asteroid B-12 is coming to fuck-ing hit us, sir.”
“B-12 is the vitamin, dumbass, over kch.”
“Asteroid B-12,” Tommy howled, before he could shushed quiet. “Nuke it. Send twelve nukes, send’em all.”
“I think one’ll do, Starbase kch.”
Keats stuck his fists out, as though clenching two joysticks. He waited a second or two, then bolted up, snatching Tommy up and tossing him around the pillows spread about them—“There’s too much debris entering the atmosphere, Starbase! Shockwaves! Brace for impact—”
Tommy begged to be let down, gasping for air for laughing so hard, and was flung back onto the mattress. Keats crumpled down next to him, pulling his body in and wrapped tight around with his arms. He angled his head and found Keats’ face buried in the folds of his shirt, grasping him tighter. His shoulders shook, nothing escaped the cushion of cotton shirt that he’d put between himself and Tommy as he gripped tighter, the two of them curled together, “Tommy,” his brother cried, “Tommy.”
Zero shook them awake, he smelled cleaner than usual, in the kitchen lay a shelter blanket bound tight with duct tape that he slashed with a pair of scissors. “I want you to see this,” he said over his shoulder, “I want you to look at your father’s fucking masterpiece.”
“What time is it?” Keats gave a yawn. They were sleeping on two blankets padded and bunched against the living room wall.
“Never mind the fucking time—” Zero flung the blanket open, before them lay a pile of brushed bronze daggers, each the size of Tommy’s arm. “These go for seventy, maybe eighty-five apiece. Eighty-fucking-five! I’ll buy you the time.”
Keats crouched low, picking one up, weighed it in his hands. With a hiss of metal he uncovered the blade, curved like a talon with a notch of steel at its end. He shared a look with Tommy, smirking. Tourists, they ate this shit up, with the red tassels on the handle. Red, the color of harmony, Mandate of Heaven, sweet-and-sour. Zero would tell them about the fourteen-year-olds from Jersey bullying their mothers into buying them with breathtaking maneuvers of suburban manipulation. They’d never actually been to the store, tucked away with the rest of the souvenir shops crammed onto the street that, especially in this heat, stunk like manure. Zero lit a cigarette, digging his thumb into the waist of his pants.
“Your grandfather ran a kumdo studio when I was a kid,” he said, “Do you know what that is? These motherfuckers dressed up in all black and fought with these big bamboo swords. Like fencing. Your grandfather didn’t know shit. Pretty sure the swords were just table legs he’d sanded down.”
He picked up one of the daggers, holding it straight and center. He bowed, enunciating a string of gibberish that he sold with his enthusiasm. He didn’t speak Korean, none of them did. Tommy stomped his foot, gave a roar, and threw himself against Zero’s legs. They went down.
“Remember what this looks like,” Zero said, “look at my face, Tommy. Remember this. You’re my fuckin’ man, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, you are,” Zero showed him the black filling on his two bottom teeth, the way he smiled so big. In the evening two guys hauled the re-wrapped blanket away, down the stairs. One of them, the shorter one, with a thick, sweaty roll of flesh on the back of his neck and beads of moisture on his shiny forehead, slid an envelope into Zero’s back pocket, smirking as he did, “Koryo-boy. Good boy.” Zero batted his hand away, and they left. Tommy was trying to sleep with his head in his brother’s shirt; he heard the door close. He opened his eyes, Zero, wringing the little envelope in his hands. Lines had come out in his face that Tommy had never noticed before. He saw Tommy looking and cleared his throat. “Keaton.” He dug the ratty, nearly empty pack out of his back pocket and tossed it to Keats, “Get me another pack. Keep that one.”
He could be good.
Tommy didn’t ask why Tilly didn’t call anymore, he didn’t like the way Keats had looked at him the last time he’d asked. It was July, he thought. He didn’t know for sure, it only felt like July. His cheeks were starting to sting in the sun, around his eyes when he squinted to see, and the only thing that made it better was to keep dunking his head under the water. It was just them two today.
“Why do you call him Keats?”
Tommy shrugged. Jorja had asked him one day while their ice cream melted.
“That’s his name.”
“Keats, like the writer?”
“No,” Tommy had said, annoyed.
His brother was lying on his back with one foot dangling below. One of the teenage lifeguards was shrieking his whistle at a group of grown men roughing their soccer game too close to the kiddie pool. Tommy clung to the concrete wall like Spiderman, bored. He thought of asking if Jorja was coming today. It had been a couple days since he’d seen her and he’d grown used to her doting.
He turned his head, opening one eye.
“You spent the last of it on that ice cream.”
“You don’t have any more money?”
Keats patted his shorts down, showing him empty hands.
On the morning they left Tilly’s apartment, she’d given them each envelopes with a twenty inside. They were standing on the wet curb of the Dunkin’. “Buy something so, so stupid with this, don’t think about it. Buy the first thing that comes into your head,” she said, pearly drops of dew collected in her hair like a crown. She looked very much like their mother, Tommy thought. Keats, lugging a backpack stuffed with their clothes, had made to stow them in his pocket but Tommy whined and was given his to hold. They went inside, they saw him; he stood, grinding his chair against the floor. Zero’s chin and jaw were patched with grey stubble, and he pulled them toward him, grinning, putting his fingers through their hair. He hoisted Tommy onto his hip, close enough now to smell the tar on his clothes.
“You don’t remember me,” Zero said after a while, disappointed, and his eyes were so sad that Tommy wanted to lie and say that he did.
They went out to the car, an old wagon with a smell that made them choke. The drive took them the rest of the day. Tommy didn’t remember thinking it would be the last time he’d see Tilly, or the Dunkin’ Keats would take him to sometimes after school, or the trees dotting the ranchland out beyond the downtown roads. He wasn’t thinking about anything, those eight hours crammed together with the highway lights streaking the sky.
Tommy heaved himself out of the water, sitting on its edge. Keats picked up a towel that he draped over Tommy’s shoulders. They sat together, unmoving.
“This is Starbase,” Tommy tried, hopeful. Keats stared out over the water. Minutes passed.
Keats looked at him, his face dark. He sighed.
“I read you, Starbase kch.”
“Comet cluster is incoming, knocked off-course, they’ll hit Los Angeles in an hour.”
Tommy thought, chewing his bottom lip. If he didn’t make it good, Keats wouldn’t play with him.
“We’re sending a jetpack team up there with drills, we can break ’em up before they’re caught in the atmosphere.”
“Jetpack team’s a no-go. Dead on impact.”
“Jetpacks don’t work in low orbit. Those things are gas-combustion. No oxygen out there to burn.”
“Okay,” Tommy said, “So my jetpack’s anti-gravity. No gas.”
Keats didn’t answer for a while. He kicked a foot out, sending a wave across the waver.
“Let’s go home, Tommy.”
“We didn’t finish.”
His brother’s voice had become jagged and cold, Tommy felt his back tighten at its suddenness. He mumbled an apology, and the lines in his brother’s face receded. They sat there another few minutes.
“Mom used to do that thing with her hands when your stomach hurt,” Keats said, “Remember? She made them all warm under hot water first. I’ve seen her hold you all night sometimes.”
Tommy nodded. “I don’t get those stomachaches anymore.”
Keats looked at him.
“I don’t need anybody to do that for me.”
Keats spent a long time just watching him, and Tommy didn’t know if he’d said the right thing. Zero always said: “I made my boys tough; you’re killers, aren’t you?” Yes, Tommy shouted, louder when Zero asked again, getting in his face. YES! “You guys are fucking maniacs, aren’t you—” I’M A FUCKING MANIAC!
They stood. Tommy reached out his arms and was allowed to climb onto his back. Keats’ footprints stayed wet almost up until the concrete ended and the grass began.
Zero brought food home and they ate from the greasy boxes. He coddled a brown bottle in his hand. Tommy, unused to being full, felt dizzy. He winced, a fold of his t-shirt had brushed up against the sunburn on his back. Zero looked at him.
“What’s your problem?”
“Asians don’t burn.”
“I need to buy us some sunscreen,” Keats said, pushing the rest of his food around his plate. Zero made a noise from the back of his throat.
“You’re not used to it yet. In a week you’ll build up a layer, after your skin peels.”
“Mommy used to say that wasn’t true.”
Keats was looking at him, urgently. It scared him, how hard his eyes had become. Zero put down his beer, leaning across the table.
“Did she really, Tommy?”
“We were talking today about her,” Keats said, “It’s not his—”
“Shut your fucking mouth,” Zero balled his fist on the table, all three of them stared at it, a comet crashed on the surface of their plastic table. He unclenched it, splaying his grubby fingers out on its surface. He laughed.
“You love me, Tommy?”
Tommy gazed down at his hands, his thoughts gone numb.
“You trust me?”
“You know what I’d do for you? Look at me. Look at me, Tommy. You know what I’d do for you? I’d fucking kill for you. You’re my boy. You don’t see it, you don’t see what I do, what I’ve worked nights and weekends and broken all my fucking fingers doing to provide for you. Tell me you understand.”
When a moment passed, he picked up his bottle and bashed it against the table, spraying them with foam. Tommy’s lap was soaked; he felt it go down his legs in rivulets.
Zero sat back against his chair, picking up his bottle, locked his eyes on the top of Keats’ head, and they said nothing more until he turned the lights out for bed.
Tommy was shaken awake, gently, his face nestled in the crook of Keats’ arm beside him. He turned, blinking helplessly at the blinding light coming through the windows, saw Zero crouched beside him. He jerked his head toward the door, putting a finger to his lips. Tommy did as he was told, untangling his legs from his brother’s. They put on their shoes and went downstairs. It was sometime in the afternoon, the blades of light coming through the gaps in the tops of the buildings were teeming with dust and flying insects. They reached the diner across the pool, Tommy had only been once. They’d spent Tilly’s money here on burgers and sat up at the bar by the flat screen. He’d never eaten more in his life. Zero showed him to a booth by the window and they slid in.
“What are we doing?”
“They got the best sundaes here,” Zero said, “caramel, hot fudge like you wouldn’t fucking believe, Tommy.”
He ordered a beer, gesturing theatrically across the table to Tommy.
“Whatever you want,” Zero said. He smiled. Tommy, sitting stock-straight so as not to rub against his sunburn, didn’t know how to describe it. The feeling of wanting to stay, what he would give to stay. He ordered, three scoops of different flavors, and Zero told the waitress another scoop, extra whip, extra fudge. Did he want a milkshake too? A burger? Tommy watched the peaks of whipped cream and sprinkles disappear for the first five minutes, not knowing how much he was eating or how fast. Zero leaned forward to dip the end of his nose in the fudge, making Tommy laugh.
He felt like throwing up, almost, when the last of it had melted to a swampy mess in the bowl. He smiled, hesitantly, when Zero looked at him.
“I love that smile,” he said. He lit a cigarette, breathing smoke, and held it out the window so the waitresses wouldn’t fuss. “You miss your mother, Tommy.”
It hadn’t sounded like a question, though Tommy felt himself shaking his head. Zero smirked at him.
“Yeah, you do.”
“No, I don’t. I’m a fucking maniac.”
Zero belly-laughed, almost dropping his cigarette.
“No, you’re not.”
He reached out, picking Tommy’s chin off his chest.
“When you’re eighty years old and you’re on your death bed, Tommy, you just remember this. You remember my fucking face. My man, right?”
Zero reached over with both hands, the glowing ember in his hand lit Tommy’s frame of vision like the peeking edge of the sun.
“You’re so afraid of me.”
Tommy frowned, confused, and thought of shaking his head, saying no he wasn’t, he wasn’t afraid of his father, but couldn’t shake the feeling, then and there, that the moment had already seemed to pass.
They came at night and broke the door down, after Tommy had jolted from sleep and raised his head to look, grabbed across the face by his brother and pressed against the mattress. They walked right past and kicked their way into Zero’s bedroom. Keats held him, the weight of his body on his chest as the shouts started, as the dull crowbar thuds reverbed through the floor and into Tommy’s ears. When it was over, they came back out, ripping out the kitchen drawers, dumping their contents.
“Hold up. There’s kids here.”
They stopped. One of them stepped further into the light, not all the way. Tommy gave another feeble tug on his brother’s arm.
“You know who I am?” Tommy didn’t recognize the man, his voice was down at a whisper.
“No.” Keats’ voice was level, for the way his arms shook around Tommy’s head.
“Where’s the old guy keep the money? I want what’s owed. Where’s he keeping it?”
Several dark, solid moments passed between them.
“I don’t know.”
One took a furtive step toward them, Tommy heard the sound through the floorboards, no further.
“I’m not fucking around with some kids. He doesn’t know.”
They left, and the door hinged open on the splintered edge of the frame where the lock had been. They lay there, breathing. Tommy strained to hear more from the bedroom, getting nothing. At last, Keats let him go. He made to spring up and was forced back down.
“Let me go.”
“We have to call the police.”
Keats didn’t answer. Tommy felt it whip past his ears, filling him with hatred. “Let me go—” he screamed, pounding his fists, and Keats caught his wrists. Tommy didn’t make it far, crumpling. He put his face in his brother’s chest, exhausted.
“I want to go back to Tilly’s. I don’t want to be here anymore. Please take me back to Tilly’s—”
He lost track of how many times he asked. When he’d been quiet a while he heard his brother breathe little breaths on the top of his head.
“She could take us back,” Tommy said.
“Yeah. She could’ve, Tommy.”
They lay, curled in each other, slept for days and minutes.
© Jinwoo Chong
[This piece was selected by Sarah Starr Murphy. Read Jinwoo’s interview]