The girl is old enough to stay at home by herself but she insists on taking one bus and then another to the Super Target out on Highway 51. She dodges bleating horns and auto exhaust like a character in a video game, and walks along a narrow path to the old shopping center where the restaurant sits at the corner, sticking out like an elbow.
The girl sits up front near the register on a wooden stool and reads books about princesses trapped in tall towers. The girl’s father cooks egg fu young and pork fried rice and Kung Pao chicken in a round pan as big as the moon. The girl’s mother dunks egg rolls in vats of dark oil. Their pale dough-wrapped bodies spit and sizzle and bubble and emerge transformed. A baptism every time. The mother snaps silver tongs, slips them two by two inside cellophane pockets and sends them out into the world.
The air in the restaurant is heavy with grease and spice and heat that presses down on the girl. Every few minutes, she has to push her shoulders up toward the ceiling in an exaggerated shrug. The customers think she’s just another teenager expressing her indifference in an extravagant manner, but really it’s the only way she can prevent herself from drowning. This is the price for egg rolls that crack and crunch and scarlet-glazed chicken that tastes like honey and feels like velvet on the tongue.
Once or twice a week, a girl with gold hair passes by on her way to buy candy or pop at the 24-hour market. There’s always a spark before the gold hair girl rounds the corner. Maybe it’s the sun striking the silver key the gold hair girl wears around her neck, or maybe it’s something else entirely. Either way, the girl likes having a superpower.
When the gold hair girl appears in front of the restaurant and waves, the girl turns her head and catches her mother’s brown eyes in hers. “Go,” her mother says, releasing her with this one word as if she’s saving her other words for another day.
Outside, the air is cool and crisp, and the girl bites into it with sharp teeth, rolls it around in her mouth like a menthol lozenge.
The gold hair girl shines like the sun, and the girl stands as close to her as she can without bursting into flames.
The girl and the gold hair girl run down the crooked sidewalk, their long legs pumping in tandem, but to the girl it feels like flying.
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