Her whole life she's avoided other people. Any skin-to-skin contact-a hug from her sister, the hand of a barista at Stumptown coffee-transfers flashes of that person's most intense dreams. It's enough to make anyone a hermit.
But Koi's getting her act together. No matter what, this time she's going to finish her degree at Portland Community College and get a real life. Of course it's not going to be that easy. Her father, increasingly disturbed from Alzheimer's disease, a dream fragment of a dead girl from the casual brush of a creepy PCC professor's hand, and a mysterious stranger who speaks the same rare Northern Japanese dialect as Koi's father will force Koi to learn to trust in the help of others, as well as face the truth about herself.
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A Portland Hafu Novel: Book One
By K. Bird Lincoln, Rhonda Parrish
World Weaver PressCopyright © 2017 Kirsten Lincoln
All rights reserved.
The cashier held out my debit card, smiling with too-bright teeth.
"So terrible," she said, still turned to her floppy-haired manager. "He hardly had a career, and then on his one, big, movie break ..." she let her sentence trail off, sighing.
I took the card, flinching as her fingers brushed mine. Crap.
Salty butter taste of popcorn on my tongue. Cheeks flushing with fear and excitement as an actor's garishly painted face loomed onscreen in a close-up.
I'd picked up a fragment from her.
Her Pepsodent smile had fooled me into thinking there was no real depth behind her chatter, but she was genuinely sad. Trying to make it look like something had gotten caught in my eye, I squeezed them shut and breathed in deeply. On the gray static behind my eyelids I pictured a brush dipped in ink. A broad, perpendicular stroke, followed by shorter ones coming together to form the kanji for "five." The popcorn taste faded — my usual trick had worked its magic.
I opened my eyes to the fluorescent store-brightness. The tabloids on the rack above the candy shelves headlined the untimely demise of a movie star with acne-scarred cheeks — the source of the blonde cashier's sorrow. The cashier, who along with her manager, were now openly staring at me.
Marlin owed me for this.
I should have added one of the register display-bars of Ghirardelli 72% Cacao to Marlin's bill. Dark chocolate always made fragments go away quicker. All those endorphins and serotonin.
Too late now.
I was careful not to brush the clerk's hand again when I took the plastic bag. The gray-haired lady behind me cleared her throat, loudly. The receipt was waiting for me on the counter. I mumbled an apology, stashed my purchase inside my messenger bag, and swiveled to make a run for the exit.
Someone's midsection stepped into my path, I barreled straight into it and felt a warm shock pass through me
The midsection was covered in a gray OHSU sweatshirt, but it was definitely hard, and male.
"Sorry," I mumbled again, flicking my gaze down from the man's startled face to the box in his hands.
Heat rose again on my cheeks.
Great. My first time outside my personal triangle of apartment, Stumptown, or Portland Community College in two weeks and what do I do? Immediately pick up a fragment from a star struck cashier and bump into a guy buying condoms.
I pushed past the man. I had to get out, now. I tore through the candy bar aisle and out the sliding door.
Pacific Northwest damp gave the air a soggy, thick feeling. Douglas fir loomed over the rain-shiny blacktop of the parking lot, immense and aggressively green.
A weak fragment like the cashier's was easily corralled in the nether regions of my brain during daylight. As soon as I fell asleep, though, the emotional charge would rise to the surface, infiltrating my dreams like a dollop of real cream in a perfectly pulled espresso. Feelings would haunt me the next day. I wouldn't be sure if my reactions were my own or colored by the cashier's sad fragment.
As if I needed more disturbing dreams. Despite being extra-special careful to keep my elbows in and hands folded since PCC's spring semester started, for the past few weeks I'd been haunted by a pretty bad one. A fragment I'd picked up somewhere at school. Or maybe Stumptown.
I'd honed avoidance to a fine art — Amazon Prime was my best friend — but at 9 this morning, Marlin had been on the phone, needling me in that little sisterly way that tripped all my guilt buttons. She needed Sudafed. Or. She. Would. Die.
Thus my live appearance at Rite-Aid.
I kicked at a pinecone on the sidewalk, and watched it roll into the soggy bark dust.
Marlin owed me really, really big.
Soon afternoon school buses would disgorge tweens in spaghetti strap shirts and low-slung pants, despite the misty chill, but I managed to make it past the middle school to her condo without encountering more than a few curious glances from the LL Bean chic ladies lurking under the towering Douglas fir bordering the condo parking.
I'd dressed up for Rite-Aid in Nike workout pants Marlin had bought at the employee store when she interned last year, and a pink sweatshirt without any stains. I was presentable. They weren't disapproving or startled, like the cashier, just low-level curious. I adjusted my messenger bag strap, heavy with textbooks, to the little hollow between neck and shoulder.
Marlin's door had a fish-shaped number plate. I traced the metal points of the sharp fins with my fingers. Mom had given Marlin the nameplate and me the pink sweatshirt, right before she went into the hospital the last time. We'd gone to Uwajimaya to get those sugared senbei she loved so much, but Marlin forced us into the gift shop first.
With Mom's chemo buzz cut and the dark circles under her eyes, she looked like a wizened waif. "You are too much like your father," she said, holding up a sweatshirt with my namesake painted on in gold, sparkly scales.
"Wear this and remember your Pierce side," she said, apparently ignoring the irony.
"Mom. You guys gave me your last name, not Dad's. Besides, this is too flashy for me."
Mom whispered my middle name and cupped my cheek with her cold, dry palm. "Flashy? I suppose the metallic scales are more Marlin's style. But the fish's spirit, that's different. You have grown into that name."
* * *
I shook myself out of the memory, rubbing knuckles at the corner of my eyes. Mom and her marine-biology pop psychology.
A sharp rap on Marlin's door made it swing open. Unlocked.
"Brought the Sudafed," I called out and made my way through the Ikea-furnished living room to the bedroom in the back. Marlin lay ensconced on top of her maroon sateen bedspread, propped up by a dozen cushions in floral and quilted geometric patterns that should have clashed, but didn't.
"My savior," said Marlin. She won the genetic lottery by getting Pierce eyes, amazing limestone-patterned flecks of blue, gray, and green — when she was in commando mode Marlin could bore holes through flesh with those eyes. My flat brown ones, like Dad's, didn't have the Pierce bite. Marlin complained they were too secretive.
We shared our mother's nondescript brown, wavy hair. Mine was a long and usually tangled mass hanging past my shoulders; easier to cut the split ends off every few months than bear the intimate and fragment-filled touch of a stylist.
Marlin's was highlighted with bronze and usually pulled back in a French chignon or ponytail, but today it was as unstyled as mine, loose around her shoulders in a way that softened my righteous indignation at the earliness of the hour.
"Here," I said, pulling out the Rite-Aid bag. Dark bags under her eyes gave her a bruised look. Not just a cold prompting her call for help, then.
"What's wrong?" I said, sitting on the edge of her bed. I'd picked up enough fragments from Marlin over the years that I could immediately tell when she was flavoring my dreams, but it still gave me TMI creeps seeing what haunted her sleep. Talk about awkward. Some things were never meant to be shared by older sisters, and Marlin's dream of her prom night date with Southridge High lacrosse player Taizo Kovach was one of those things.
"We need to put Dad in a home."
Oh. This again.
"We can't afford it," I said, picking at a stray, blue thread fraying from her embroidered pillow.
If I would quit school and get a real-person job instead of the online coding gigs I scavenged we could afford it. We'd have enough left from Mom's life insurance to set Dad up in a memory care unit.
The whole argument where she very carefully didn't call me selfish, and I tried to explain that school was the only path out of the hole I'd dug myself into these past years, shambled into the room with us — a looming, unspoken monster. The thread I was wiggling tore away from the pillow, unraveling an intricately embroidered bird shape.
I just couldn't face that monster today. Not when I was gearing myself up for a class at PCC.
But Marlin didn't pull out her alphabetized file folder of nursing homes, or even the Willamette Weekly's classified section. She just waited, looking at me with Mom's eyes.
When Marlin played quiet and reasonable, I knew I was in big trouble.
"He disappeared for a whole day. I tried to call you," she said. I'd promised to pick up if she called me twice in a row.
"I'm sorry," I said, showing her my phone. It was set on vibrate.
"It figures. Look, he's either snuck out or slipped away from every home helper we've hired. This latest one only lasted two weeks! We can't take him to adult daycare every day and we can't leave him alone."
"He's fine. Ever since you got that plastic handcuff with his name and address on it, someone's always called the police —"
"That's not fine!"
I shut my mouth. But instead of the lecture on dire consequences I expected, Marlin collapsed into a fit of coughing. She grabbed a handful of tissues and pressed the whole clump to her face, drying tears and snot at the same time.
I teased open the Sudafed box with my ragged nail and put a capsule in my open palm. A peace offering.
"You are who you are," said Marlin. The bare tone more cutting than her eyes. "You're my sister and I love you. But. We all deserve a life. Even Dad." She plucked the capsule and slipped it into her mouth.
"What do you want me to do?" I said.
"Take Dad for two weeks."
"What? No, I mean, I can't. What about school?" I sucked in air, floundering. First the memory care monster, and now this? I'd been sucker punched.
She waved a hand at the mess of tissues and the box of Sudafed. "I have been managing Dad all winter. My clients are booked solid through April and May."
"You managed before."
"Ha," she said, "Managed." The word turned into a dripping sarcasm ball. "Just two weeks, Koi, that's all I'm asking."
"I can't do it."
Marlin looked down at her manicured thumbnail, picking at an appliquéd flower. Loose hair fell forward, covering her face in a glossy curtain. "He doesn't need me," she said quietly.
A bigger monster entered the room. Mom's reasons for leaving Dad, tangled up with the very careful way our family never, ever talked about the biggest thing I had inherited from him.
This was the closest we'd come to naming it since Mom died. A thin wisp of connection hovering in the air between us. I could reach out right now and take Marlin's bare hand, let all those unspoken things spill out of me. A yearning to share this burden, to explain somehow, flickered for an instant. But talking about it with Marlin would ignite her caretaker instincts, and I couldn't let her fix things for me anymore. I had to figure out my life on my own.
The moment dissipated. Marlin snuck a sideways peek at me through her hair. I reached out and stroked soft strands, careful not to brush the edge of her ear.
"And we'll try to work out some more permanent solution in the meantime," said Marlin, back to bossy little sister voice.
Permanent solution? "I was supposed to have spring off for my classes," I said. She just stared back at me, waiting, sick, concerned, and stubborn as Mom.
I flexed my fingers, trying to calm the little bursts of unease running up and down my arms. I couldn't fight this Marlin. She was deadly serious. "Okay. You can bring him by tonight."
"Can you just pick him up at Salvation Army at the end of his day program?"
"I've got classes." Even Marlin could push me only so far.
"Fine. I'll bring him. Now, I've got some serious binging to do with Leverage on my DVR. If you want to stay and play 'spot the downtown landmarks', that's fine. If not, you're dismissed." She fiddled with the remote. "And thanks for the Sudafed."
She kept her eyes on the TV, but I blew an air kiss to her as I left anyway. She drove me crazy, but she was one of the only people in the world since Mom died that I could call "mine."
My smothering, meddling bridge to humanity.
I let myself out the door, ran down her rickety staircase and whipped around the overgrown pink-budded rhododendrons back towards the sidewalk.
And barreled headlong into somebody.
Somebody with a hard midsection covered by an OHSU sweatshirt.
I looked up, flushing for a third time that morning. "Sorry," I mumbled.
It was the guy from Rite-Aid. I hadn't had a good look at him before, but now there was no convenient escape-path. He had very dark brown eyes, almost black. Under the lack of a pronounced eyelid, his eyes tilted up at the corners. Asian, or possibly, part-Asian. Medium-length dark hair, moussed up into tousled spikes at the top of his head.
He wore the sweatshirt like someone who didn't care what they put on because they had the body to pull off any look.
I glanced at his hands. The box of condoms was no longer in sight.
"This is becoming a habit," he said.
I bristled, but his mouth was curved into a relaxed grin, and he held one eyebrow arched up high in a way I'd wished I could emulate ever since I'd watched Spock on old Star Trek reruns.
"Sorry," I repeated with great emphasis. I stepped off the path to go around him, but he held out a hand to stop me.
"I was hoping to talk to you," he said.
"What?" I backed away, checking quickly to see if anyone else was nearby. The parking lot mothers had all gone inside. Not a soul was around. Unease prickled.
I'd touched him. Usually I only got fragments that lasted long enough to turn into dreams from people feeling strong emotion — like the clerk's sadness. This guy didn't have a drama aura, and I'd felt nothing at Rite-Aid but all of a sudden I wasn't so sure he hadn't given me a fragment. Were crazy stalker dreams going to haunt me tonight?
"I'm new to town," he said, with a curious emphasis.
"I'm sorry," I repeated. Was that all I could say today? Just placate him, and then slip away. I was good at slipping away. "Do you need directions somewhere?"
"Directions?" he looked puzzled. "Nihongo wakarimasu ka?"
I shook my head, screwing up my face into a puzzled look. Crazy stalker who spoke Japanese? Why the hell did he ask me if I spoke Japanese, anyway?
It wasn't like Dad's heritage was stamped all over my face. There was only a slight lift around the corner of my eyes. Even my nose was the sharp monstrosity inherited from the Pierce side.
"Ah, dame ka," he muttered. Those perfectly formed eyebrows fell, and his face changed. Not just the expression, but I swear his eyelashes got thicker and his mouth got wider, the lips more generous and the cheeks rounder. I blinked and looked again.
It was the same guy, but his expression now fairly screamed "attractive and amiable." As if he were the ultimate life insurance salesman.
"Ah, I have to go ... ah meet someone for coffee." I gestured vaguely at the apartment complex. "I'm pretty sure all the apartments are labeled with names. You shouldn't have any trouble finding anything."
"Actually, I was going to ask you for directions to the nearest café," he said, his smile was genuine, but a hint of a smirk crinkled beneath his eyes.
Seriously? I rubbed my hands on the sides of my sweats. This guy was weird, but he hadn't given off scary vibes when I bumped into him those two times. If only Marlin were here to give me a clue about how to handle this. Was it more normal to blow my rape whistle or walk with him to Stumptown?
He was patiently waiting, smiling in that way that made me feel included in a secret joke.
Okay, Stumptown it was. Once we got there I'd order first and then slip out while he was waiting for his.
"Follow me," I said, moving forward so he had to fall into step beside me. My head barely reached the bottom of his chin. Walking side by side meant I didn't have to meet his gaze.
"Do you live in one of these condos?" he said.
I stumbled a bit over a non-existent sidewalk crack
He coughed. "Ah, that's not a comfortable question, is it? Let me try again. Okay, how about, do you know a cheap but nice apartment complex around here?"
I considered my scant knowledge of the neighborhood where I'd been living for most of my post-high school life. Nope. Not a clue.
Best cold buckwheat noodles in Portland? Grocery stores that delivered? Back stairwells on PCC's campus? Navigating databases and academic search engines? I was your girl. Knowledge of the real world? Not so much.
"Can't help you. But there's some great apartment-finder websites for Portland. There might even be some of those real estate booklets at Stumptown."
Excerpted from Dream Eater by K. Bird Lincoln, Rhonda Parrish. Copyright © 2017 Kirsten Lincoln. Excerpted by permission of World Weaver Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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