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Learning to Fly

Chapter One

Three more hours. One hundred and eighty minutes.

Milson Mall is busy on weekends, so I am forced to help at my mom’s deli.

Ten thousand, eight hundred seconds. Ten million, eight hundred thousand milliseconds. Then the mall closes, and I can go roll a joint and inhale those sweet, sweet fumes. Then all the crap in my life will float away, just like the smoke.

From below, a little girl hands me two dollars. Is she mumbling or am I stupid? I lean over the counter and ask, politely as usual, “What can I get you?”

This time I think I hear “cookies.”

“What kind?” Now my words are loud, and strained if you listen hard.

She looks away and strands of yellow hair swirl up.

“What kind?” I ask again, wanting to reach out and twist her ear hard.

After we exchange oatmeal cookies and cash, she runs off. Her mother, a plump woman guarding a stroller, stands far back. It is as if she’s worried that just standing close to the baking will make her fatter.

The next person has a belly that pokes out like a prize-winning pumpkin. He orders coffee and apple pie.

“What do you take?” I ask.

“Huh?” He frowns.

“How do you take your coffee?” I speak louder. “Black? Cream? Sugar?”

“Oh! Just milk.”

My English is not bad, but people do not hear me. They see a Chinese face, and right away they think my English will be poor and broken.

Bland music fills the mall. Bland shoppers stroll through, licking ice-cream cones. The air in here is stale. This whole town is stale.

Four kids from school enter through the main door. Right away I squat and pretend to straighten the trays of squares and tarts in the display case. I pray that none of the kids will come near the deli. Through the glass I see one I think of as “sweat-shirt girl” because she is always wearing the same shirt. She is looking over here, searching for a target. Usually she nudges and calls to her friends, and then they all stare at me, giggling or laughing. I don’t even know their names.

Jie-xin, where are you?”

I stand up as Aunt Mei hurries in with Josh. She watches my little brother on weekends.

“I need to pee-pee,” he says.

“You take him,” I say, turning away. Aunt Mei and I speak Chinese.

“You take him!” she retorts. “In the washroom, women do not like to see little boys running around.”

“I’m too busy.”

“You have no one here!”

Ma calls from the back, “Jason, take him!”

I edge away from her voice.

“Right now!” Ma shouts.

I swear under my breath and rip off my apron. Josh smiles at me. I march him past the shoe shop, the drugstore and the crafts place. I press him so close to the walls that he squeals in protest. Maybe we can get through the food court without the kids seeing us. Why are the washrooms right by the eating tables?

I slow down to keep pace with strolling shoppers so that we will not be noticed. My eyes stay down and watch the ugly brown tiles rush by. Then I hear the guys’ voices.

“Hey, Jason-baby!”

“Daddy!”

“I need to go pooh-pooh too, Papa! Can you take me?”

We rush into the washroom and into a stall. I slam the door and stand Josh on the rim of the bowl. Someone did not flush the toilet. Spongy brown coils float below. Ugh!

“Hurry!” I growl.

His eyes are big. “Were those people laughing at you?” he asks.

“Who?”

“Those people.”

“Don’t know them. Come on, hurry!”

Josh is only three. He is fourteen years younger than me. No one in my class has a brother or sister who is so many years behind. Everyone pretends to think I am Josh’s father because it is so funny, and because my dad is not living with us. When I arrived in this town, Celine Lapointe, the girl who was assigned as my “buddy,” told me that a thirteen-year-old in grade eight got pregnant. I acted as if it was no big deal.

When we come out, the kids are waiting. They sit close to the entrance. I can see their faces clearly, all pale and white. They jeer at me.

“Daddy, bring the kid to school.”

“Show us how you change diapers and wipe ass!”

“Hey, are you breast-feeding, Daddy?”

I check my watch. Time is crawling. Back at the deli, Ma asks brightly, “Did you see your friends?”

Friends? What friends? I make a grunting sound.

“At school you must make friends,” Ma adds. With no customers at the deli counter, she speaks Chinese too. “Bring them home and welcome them.”

I would sooner slit my wrists, I think.

“Your English will improve with new friends.”

Shut up, I want to shout. You know nothing! You think it’s easy to make friends?

To have friends you must be cool. You must wear the right clothes. You must know how to make people laugh. And you must look like everyone else.

Ma lied to me. Before moving here, she told me that many Chinese people lived in North America. She did not say they all lived in the big cities. In Milson, we are the only Chinese. I can never trust Ma again.

Chapter Two

“Stop!” barks a voice. “Police!”

Two people dash through the mall. They run so fast that they blur. They crash through the crowds, chased by the dark blue and shiny black of two cops. People hop out of the way and flatten themselves against the walls. At the water fountain, the two suspects break off from each other and sprint toward the far ends of the mall.

Aunt Mei scoops Josh up and runs to the back of the deli. Ma yanks open the cash drawer and whips the tray to safety.

Shoppers hurry toward the exit doors, but I hear no fire alarm. In fact, a deathly silence hangs over the place. We have been told by mall security that a steady clang means that store owners should leave the building quickly. A stop-and-start clang means we should hide inside our stores for safety. Or is it a steady clang that tells us to stay? I can’t recall.

Ma orders me to stay, but I rush after the chase. Did the cops pull out their guns? Hey, if they shoot someone, they’ll shut down the mall with long loops of yellow warning tape. That would be great news. At last I would get part of a Saturday to myself.

One cop has thrown someone to the ground and is cuffing his hands behind his back. The man is kicking and growling. He has long black hair and wears faded jeans and a jean jacket. A bunch of crests are sewn onto the back. I’ve seen them before. When the cop pulls him to his feet, I realize it is Chief. He goes to my school. His real name is Charles, but he got his nickname because he is First Nations.

“Leaders of Indian bands are called chiefs,” Celine told me.

It made sense then. “Indian” was the word we had used in China. There, the word had three parts: yin-di-an.

Celine said that the people who lived here first recently chose the name “First Nations.” They had been called “Indians” by Columbus.

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