Joe Reed abhorred guns and violence, despite - or possibly because of - his father’s career in the military. At least he did, until a spirit moved into his body, granted him powerful destructive magic, and began urging him to use it. Now he’s a little conflicted.
Joe is a Korean-American pre-med student in a world inhabited by spirits. His dream of becoming a doctor is shattered when he is possessed by one such spirit, the wrathful Sovereignty, who fills him with chaotic Destruction magic that can only be used for violence. But his reluctance to use the magic he is now stuck with leaves him without purpose. So when his mother’s estranged Korean family contacts them for the first time in over two decades to ask for Joe’s help, Joe flies to Korea in the hopes of finding a way to use his powers to help others. When he arrives, he struggles to suppress the animosity he feels towards the family who rejected his mother while investigating increasingly dangerous attacks by a mysterious trickster spirit. With the guidance of Sovereignty, Joe must navigate his mother’s culture and its mythology of dangerous, cunning creatures to protect his family and, possibly, reconnect with them.
I am currently seeking representation for Hostbound, and so only the first three chapters are available here.
The sign above me flashed, illuminating a neon green clover leaf despite the fact that the restaurant it advertised probably served more chicken fingers and shrimp scampi than anything Irish. That was fine by me. I doubted I’d be able to eat more than a few bites anyway.
The green glow reflected off the window below it, coloring the people sitting inside a sickly green. I was standing close enough to hear the electric buzz as the neon steadily turned on and off, and the combined effect turned the restaurant scene into something unnerving enough to match my own anxiety about going inside.
The door beneath the clover loomed and I was stalling. A low restlessness that was not my own creeped over me, urging me to square up and face whatever it was that was making me so nervous and, if necessary, burn it to ashes. The source of those urges seemed more excited about the prospect than was probably necessary, and I broke into a sweat that had nothing to do with the Fayetteville summer.
I hadn’t been a Host long enough to get used to foreign emotions intruding on my own, and the fact that so many people were hounding me for my Guest made the whole situation that much worse.
I looked back at the door to the restaurant. One such person had invited me to brunch and was waiting inside. I sighed, letting the spirit’s confidence fill in the gaps of my own, and walked in.
“Mr. Reed,” the soldier started, standing up beside the booth he’d been sitting in, “thank you so much for agreeing to meet with me today.” I smiled in response and cast a nervous glance toward my father sitting at the table behind him. His look back my way was both reassuring and pleading.
“Sure. I appreciate the opportunity,” I lied. My father had called in some favors just to set up this meeting, apparently; I just wish he’d asked me first.
My interviewer sat down after I did. He was clean-shaven with a lantern jaw so wide his face was almost rectangular, and his eyes were so white and blue they screamed to have a little red thrown in just to complete the patriotism. His form shimmered just a bit from the motion, his edges blurring like a TV image going out of focus: the sign of a possessing spirit.
So he was a mage, like me.
Science hadn’t quite determined what the shimmering that mages saw when they looked at each other was. The prevailing theory was that being possessed by a spirit gave the Host the ability to see, if only faintly, the presence of other spirits. But the shimmer wasn’t always there, and if you looked for it, you’d never see it. It was a flicker, like deja vu, and afterwards you weren’t sure if you’d really seen anything at all.
I wondered what he could do to the little restaurant around us if he managed to get truly angry. I didn’t know where people who could throw around magic normally met, but my imagination had a spectrum between fantasy castle and secret underground bunker that did not include nice little corner restaurants like this one. A dozen tables filled the room neatly, giving just enough room between them for waiters to walk around while still managing to not feel cramped. The curtains kept the place dimmer than the sunny afternoon outside, people chatted loudly just a couple of feet apart but still kept their privacy, and the collection of landscapes and modern art scattered around the walls managed to give a nice background to a good meal without being distracting.
Generic Americana cuisine. If this food were personified as a person, it would have been the man sitting across the table from me.
“So tell me a little about yourself, Joe. Do you mind if I call you Joe?” I shook my head. “I only know what your father has told me, and I prefer to hear things from the horse’s mouth, as it were.”
I bit back a groan. The small talk these guys always made when they were trying to schmooze me was getting old, and it was always the same stuff, too. What are my hobbies? Do I have a girlfriend? Do I play any sports? Make sure to sneak a few interview-type questions in to make it feel like they were considering me as much as I was considering them.
Right. I could tell them I collected human faces and put them on dolls in my basement and they’d still hire me.
So I went through the questions like I'd studied for them, which I guess I kind of had. Most of the friends I still kept in touch with I had made in college, so my hobby these days was playing video games with them to stay connected. I didn’t have a girlfriend, a vestigial protocol from when I didn’t have time for anything but studying to get into med school. I wrestled in high school and kept it up casually since to stay in shape. It was like these people had a small-talk manual or something. Hell, they probably did.
The soldier - he had introduced himself as a colonel, a solid step up from the major who had bought me brunch last week - took a sip of his coffee and put on his business face. Here it comes.
"Joe, I'd like to talk about your gift." That was a funny word for it, and not the one I would have used. Some of that must have come out in my expression, because his face took on a conciliatory half-frown.
"I know this isn't the path you would have chosen. God knows I've had to make some decisions based on my own circumstances that I wouldn't have otherwise, given the choice." His star-spangled eyes softened with something like sympathy, and he held out his hand to show a small blue flame dancing in the center of his palm. A pyrokineticist, then; not a lot of peaceful routes to take for a person who could make fire with his mind. He could do it easily, too, no pause to focus, no slow build up from a small spark, just a blink and there was fire. It was carefully controlled to the size of a baseball. He didn’t even let it crackle. This man had probably spent a lifetime perfecting his use and control of flame, and while it wasn’t a power I envied, something about that sense of purpose and fulfillment tugged at me.
"And I get it. You spent your life thinking you would be healing people, and now fate's slapped you in the face and told you no. That you're only ever going to be good at hurting them. Or blowing things up,” he added pointedly; he had probably seen the video. “But what I'm offering you - and I'm sure plenty of others have been offering the same - is a chance to fulfill your dream in spite of it all. In the Army, you'd be using your powers to help people. Take back control of your life. Do good."
He gestured at the restaurant around us. “Places like this wouldn’t exist if there weren’t people to protect them. I’ve been to places where safety was uncertain, where people didn’t know if or when a group of armed militia were going to ride through and murder their loved ones and burn down their livelihoods. Those people don’t get the chance to pursue their dreams, to make something great out of their lives. They live in fear, surviving on the basic necessities from one day to the next. Those people need doctors, yes, but I guarantee you if they had to choose between someone who could give them flu medicine and someone with the kind of power you have to protect them, they’d choose you every time. What I’m offering you is the chance to protect people like that. I know it’s hard to set aside a dream you’ve been set on your whole life. But it takes courage to look at that dream in a new way. If what you really want is to help people, to save lives, then this is how you can do it.”
He sat back and nodded, the sympathy mixed now with that dad look that said tough love, and he let the fire in his hand go out.
My own dad nodded along to his words. He made anyone near him look small, even the colonel; my father was large and ever-present, his bear-like form forever squeezed into a collared button-down. I had decided, growing up, that they must not make collared button-downs in his size. I had always pitied the stalwart buttons desperately straining against the bulk of his chest.
It made me wonder where all that bulk had gotten lost when he had me. A couple inches under six feet with a slight frame and a face that was all angles, I struck a figure that a casual observer would be hard pressed to identify as related to the broad man my father was. Even our eyes were different, his large and green and bright where mine were dark and narrow at the ends.
His eyes were gentle, at least, even when he disagreed with me, nodding along to a recruitment pitch he probably knew I was planning to blow off. I had to admit, it was a good speech. I wondered how long the soldier had rehearsed it. Like my dad, he might even believe it.
"Colonel,” I replied, after a considerate pause, “can I ask what I would be doing in the Army?" My dad winced.
"Well, the Army is a nebulous thing, but with your skills, you would probably be supporting our troops in the field."
"What does that mean?" I kept my tone innocent. Innocuous.
"It means you would use your powers to keep your fellow soldiers safe."
The colonel paused. "By eliminating threats that endanger their lives," he said, carefully.
"What kind of threats?"
My dad slammed his hand on the table, less a violent act and more the simple frustration of a man too big to do anything without making a lot of noise. I started, and the feeling of being a teenager getting caught with cigarettes welled up inside me. He knew what I was doing.
"The same threats this country has always faced, Joe,” my father answered in the colonel’s stead. “The people who want to destroy it. Sometimes that's how you have to help people: by making sure the people who want to hurt them can't."
The clever retort I'd had for the colonel fizzled in the face of my father’s narrowed eyes, all gentleness now suppressed. The feelings behind it weren't any less true - that I refuse to take a life under the assumption that it would save somebody else - but sometimes logic and feelings and everything else just kind of fail when confronted by family.
The colonel looked back and forth between us, suddenly aware that the exchange didn't really involve him. His outline shimmered again. The fire in his hand was gone but I could feel a growing heat radiating from his body; he wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead, despite the air conditioning vent blowing just above his head. He soldiered on anyway.
"Your father's right, Joe. There are people who want to hurt this country, and we have to stop them. Right now, other people are doing exactly that so that we can have the opportunity to sit in peace and have this conversation, and they don’t have the kind of power you do. They’re fighting with their grit and will alone. Don’t you think you owe it to them to use what you’ve been given - what those brave men and women would give anything to have on their side - to help them?"
"Thank you for brunch, Colonel," I answered, standing up quietly. "I'll consider your offer." I turned and left before I managed to hurt my dad any further.
It would be a long walk back to my parents' house from the cafe, but I could use the air, and I could always call a rideshare if the Fayetteville heat became too much. Give myself some time to think about what had upset me about the whole affair. The knee-jerk answer was that it felt like my dad was siding with strangers over me, but that wasn't really it. My father had been career military right up until he had to choose between his family and a tour in the Middle East, and then he became middle management at a construction company. But he wore his loyalty like a badge of honor - sometimes literally, when he put the now-ill-fitting uniform back on - and so it wasn't a question of siding with me or a stranger. He just didn’t understand my resistance to the solution he offered when I couldn’t think of any alternatives.
The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. Why couldn’t these people just leave me alone? Okay, yes, I did accidentally blow up a parking lot, but surely the military could do everything I could do with my magic by remote from a desk a thousand miles away. Instead, they saw the parking lot incident as a demonstration of potential, which I guess it kind of was. It was just potential for something I really, really didn’t want. The confusion and guilt and hopelessness quickly gave way to helpless anger. In a way, I was thankful; anger was more manageable, and so I changed course and started towards DeMarco’s.
DeMarco's Guns and Ammo was an unusual hangout for someone like myself who hated guns, but it offered more than a place to shoot off a few rounds. The store sat on a full acre and a half of land with a wide open shooting range tucked away on the outskirts of Fayetteville, North Carolina. Again, not usually an appeal for me, but Derik DeMarco, proprietor, made it a point to let Hosts practice their powers in their own section of the range. As long as they could be practiced safely, that is. I’d seen a kineticist thrown out a week or two ago after he kept trying to take people’s guns apart while they were shooting. Mostly, it just threw off their aim.
But for me, it was a place where I could work out some anger. And since working out anger for me meant firing beams of star-hot light out of my body, a safe place for it was essential. Grass had a tendency to combust if I used my magic even close to it, which made the dirt range a plus. I nodded to Derik as I walked in. He nodded back, a little hesitantly, and his eyes flicked briefly to the gun rack beside him.
“Morning, Derik,” I said.
“Joe,” he responded cautiously. Derik was a slight, greasy man who believed camo was God’s gift to the world of fashion, and his fingers tapped rapidly on the counter as we spoke. “How’s it going?”
I sighed. “Had to turn down another Army recruiter this morning. I just wish they’d leave me alone, you know?”
“Yeah,” he said, his cigarette-marred voice demonstrating neither sympathy nor understanding. “Your usual spot?”
I nodded. “Please.” He buzzed the door to the range and I made my way through the shelves of ammunition and hunting gear toward the back of the store.
The range was divided into stalls by faded green plywood, and even on a late Wednesday morning there were at least a dozen people there, all dressed in camo jackets and ball caps under their ear muffs like a haphazard uniform. Their guns themselves were the only real distinguishing features between them, some firing pistols, some rifles, and all very, very loud. I winced as I adjusted my ear protection. I hated the sound of guns, just like I hated everything else about them, and I hated the fact that these people were choosing to play with destruction like it was a toy when I was stuck with it like some cancerous lump.
I made my way past the conventional stalls and into the Host section. It was empty, apart from Max, the electric elementalist who could just about make the hairs stand up on your neck from ten feet away.
His own hair was perpetually at attention, of course, and it gave him a mad scientist sort of feel - a look he did little to discourage.
Poor Max. He was obsessed with the idea of shooting lightning bolts from his fingertips, but his Guest just wasn’t strong enough. He thought that, if he trained enough, he’d get there. I’d told him that wasn’t how it worked, but he would just give a look of grim determination and turn back to the practice targets his powers would never reach.
I waved at him and walked on.
My usual stall was at the far end of the range, and not just because I liked my privacy; after the first time I accidentally set my neighbor’s targets on fire, I decided a little self-imposed isolation would be in everyone’s best interest.
I sat down on the little bench opposite the opening to the range. It was a good place to meditate, and it gave me a great view of the scorch marks on the plywood Derik had given up on painting over. I closed my eyes and began the uphill battle toward centering myself.
As I did, a presence made itself known in my mind.
She was a warmth when she first arrived, hot chocolate on a cold day, but soon grew into an uncomfortable flame before manifesting as a radiant entity, within but apart from me. The heat was less jarring to me than the cordoning off of her sanctum from my mind: part of me was hers now, and though I had not lost anything for her arrival, her addition to my self still felt alien. She was a neighbor, infinitely close but forever inaccessible.
“What stands before us?” Her voice was thunder and ice, power held coolly in check by perpetual calm. It came from within my mind. I heard her voice as if through the clearest earbuds, if those earbuds had melted just a couple inches into my head - my alien neighbor knocking to ask for a cup of sugar.
“Just practice targets, Sovereignty. No conquests today.” I couldn’t feel the same hatred for Sovereignty that I did for the people in the range and their guns. There was no difference between the spirit that possessed me and the powers she granted me: I could feel it, every time she spoke, every time I used those powers. Sovereignty was destruction. That was a difference I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate if she hadn’t possessed me.
Not that I planned on thanking her for it.
"Practice is key to honing your inner strength, Joseph. I approve.”
"Trying to focus here, Sovereignty," I replied in a half-whisper, eyes still closed. I was pretty sure I could speak to her with just my thoughts if I focused them, but that was a level of creepy I had not yet come around to accepting.
"Apologies, my Host. But remember, as you center yourself and prepare to use the gifts I have granted you, we two become closer. It is difficult not to take a direct interest in your actions when that happens." I didn’t know where Sovereignty went when she wasn’t taking a “direct interest” in what I was doing. I wasn’t even sure where was the right question. I certainly never felt her leave; her presence just diminished, like she left the phone on speaker and walked away.
"Well, when you put it like that," I whispered back, now thoroughly creeped out. I focused harder, picturing clouds rushing through the front of my head and out the back, taking all of my thoughts along for the ride and out of my way. Sovereignty had taught me how to do that.
"Good," she said, as soon as I had found my focus. "Now open your eyes, and maintain your center. Cast off all you don't need. There is only the inner and the outer." Despite having only been with Sovereignty for a little over a month now, I was starting to take her meditation stuff to heart. Everything was sharper when I was focused, like the important details were highlighted and everything else dimmed. Fifty feet ahead of me, the score markers of the paper target seemed to glow.
"Breathe in. Gather yourself. Feel the energy coursing through you, then feel it in your hand. Mold it. It is of you." I did so. The power Sovereignty had given me - whether I had accepted it or not - was a warmth, a heat that was both burning and comforting all at once, and it gathered like a sun behind my palm.
"Now release. Let your first strike be the mightiest you've ever struck, overtaken only by your next strike." She had said this before, and later, I always thought of it like how coaches tell kids to give a hundred and ten percent. It doesn't really hold up to scrutiny, but in the moment, it's what you need to hear.
A ray of white starlight two inches wide blasted out from my hand, tearing through the air with a crack audible even over the guns people were firing down range. It struck the paper target in the shoulder, incinerating a patch almost a foot across and setting the rest ablaze. Other people were probably reacting to it, but I was too focused to notice.
"Again. Never expect your enemies to fall to your first strike. Continue your onslaught until those who stand against you are ash, and then turn to your next conquest." Somewhere in the back of my mind, those words sounded really ominous and, honestly, terrifying; nothing good probably ever came from a voice in someone's head telling them about conquest. But like the rest of my thoughts, those were washed away in the clouds. I had only the range, the heat, and the targets.
My second strike reduced what little was left of the first target to ash. I didn't notice where I hit it, exactly, but it didn't seem to matter. Then Derik took manual control of my targets, because instead of the automated replacement, I got a full two dozen paper targets arranged at five different ranges and heights.
I continued striking.
Blast after blast fired from my hand, each one coming more easily than the last. Sovereignty was giving me guidance, but really, I didn't care about honing my skills at blowing stuff up. She might have thought she was chiseling me into a glorious warrior of fiery starlight, but to me, the whole experience was just a really awesome way to burn myself through my issues. Nothing helps get you past anger and grief and guilt better than bursts of controlled exertion.
I wasn't sure how much time had passed when Sovereignty boomed, "Enough," with the force to fill my head and break my tunnel vision. I blinked and looked up. Judging by the scorch marks on the wall at the far side of the range, I had probably missed half the shots I took, a poor showing against unmoving paper targets that couldn't fight back. But I was covered in a satisfying sheen of sweat and I was too exhausted to feel any complex emotions about my father or my future, and that was good enough for me.
looked around, smiling sheepishly at the half-dozen or so people who had stopped what they were doing to watch what probably looked like a very intense, very hot light show.
"Joseph," Sovereignty started, drawing my name out as she did, "anger is a tool like everything else. But the first conquest must always be over the self. I will help how I can." She paused. "Perhaps you should speak with your father. I feel you may have issues that need to be worked out."
I wasn't any less confused on my way home, but at least I was tired enough to notice it less. Fayetteville's hot and sticky mid-July weather made sure I was thoroughly miserable all the way to my parents' house.
Kind of a sad situation for a twenty-two-year-old, but my original plans had been shattered by Sovereignty's sudden appearance in my life. She was my Guest and had made me her Host. Most people would be thrilled to have a spirit as strong as she was choose to possess them. I had never had the desire to get her tested, but since she could have coherent conversations with me, she was at least a Class 3. Class 2 spirits could only impart animalistic urges on their Hosts, and Class 1 spirits couldn’t communicate at all.
Humanity had done a pretty thorough job categorizing things we didn't understand ever since we learned about the Stream, the place where spirits come from that we know about only because they have to come from somewhere. The Rifts to the Stream opened up over a hundred years ago, back in 1890, the day after the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Six Rifts appeared in the sky across the world, bringing spirits with them. Spirits that possessed humans became Guests; those that possessed animals became Primals, the monsters that lurked in the hills and the forests and the oceans. Before the Rifts opened up, only the strongest of spirits were able to squeeze their way into our world. Now it was like a revolving door for the riff-raff of the spirit realm.
On the few occasions Sovereignty mentioned her previous Hosts, she used words like Khan and Legate. I was pretty sure those titles predated the Rifts.
So what I didn’t understand, and what she had failed to explain, was why she picked me. I don't think being on the wrestling team in high school qualified me as a warlord. The fact that I had just finished taking the MCAT and was daydreaming about med school when she possessed me really should have given her the hint that I wasn't her type.
Plus, spirits have a purpose. Their names are more representations of concepts they seek to fulfill than any source of identity. I still lived with my parents. I didn't even have a job - balancing college with studying for the MCAT was essentially my full-time career. How a spirit devoted to the idea of self-rule decided I was her best chance was beyond me, and so far, she hadn't done much to explain her choice.
And okay, Sovereignty was an ancient spirit when she found me, and she probably couldn't have foreseen that possessing me in the parking lot of the testing center for the MCAT - causing an explosion that blew up most of the cars parked there - wasn't the demonstration of otherworldly power it likely would have been hundreds of years ago. Nor could she have understood that doing so would ruin any chances I may have had of becoming a doctor. The Host Protection Act of 1972 may have established that Hosts couldn’t be discriminated against for their powers, but it was pretty common for Destruction mages to be turned down from all kinds of careers, especially those in the medical field, for simply being too unstable.
Can’t exactly fault them for that. Imagine watching a guy blow up a parking lot on the news and then seeing him for your yearly checkup the next day.
Of course, I couldn't fault Sovereignty for not knowing the political climate, either, especially since she gave me the power of a small sun in return.
I just wish I understood why. Just about every military and security agency in the country had been willing to pay me a fortune to work for them, as long as I was okay using my powers to kill people. But that's the thing - I wasn't. Sovereignty had to see that, and yet she hardly seemed disappointed. What else could I use her powers for? Was there some super battery someone had invented that I could just dump Destruction magic into and power a city? Maybe that was it: the best thing Superman could have ever done was turn a giant crank and provide power for the world, not fight petty crime, and maybe I was the same way.
But Destruction was a catch-all category for powers that had no other use than to destroy things. There was probably some cosmic rule stopping the battery idea from ever happening, or someone else would have done it by now. Probably for the best - that would be one hell of a boring life. But it still left me without a purpose.
I sighed, wiping my sweaty face with my sweaty arm. There wasn't much to do in the summer humidity of North Carolina besides just spread the moisture around. At least I'd be home soon, and then I could have a very uncomfortable conversation with my father.
I slowed my pace a little.
My father was waiting in the living room when I walked in. He had what I imagined was the same look of confused guilt on his face as I did. It was a long, awkward moment before he spoke.
“I would have driven you home, son. It must be a hundred degrees out there. Where have you been?”
“I stopped by the range on the way home.” He nodded. If nothing else, my old man understood the value of working through emotions with physical activity. He was career military, after all.
“Well, you should go wash up. Your mother’s making iced noodles for dinner.” My mother was Korean, and though she’d lived in the States ever since I was born, she never forgot her roots when it came to food. Iced noodles with kimchi and cucumbers was not a popular dish for my friends when we had sleepovers as kids, but it was one of my favorites, especially for hot weather.
I went upstairs and got in the shower.
“That was not a very thorough conversation, Joseph,” Sovereignty said as I was lathering my hair.
“It wasn’t the right time for a heart-to-heart,” I replied. Some people sang in the shower. I talked to glorified poltergeists that lived in my head.
“It seemed to me he was waiting for your return specifically to do just that.”
“Yeah, well, he should have said something, then.”
“He is your father. Fathers are notoriously unskilled at speaking to their sons about emotions.”
I paused mid-rinse. “Are you trying to mother me, Sovereignty?”
“Of course not. Your mother is more than sufficient at that task. I am merely pointing out what I have learned in my time coexisting with your kind.”
Right. Easy to forget that the person you’re talking to only meets a couple criteria for the term.
“Joseph,” she started cautiously, “it is not my intent to condescend, nor do I wish to intrude upon your personal life.” A little late for that, I thought. “But how a person chooses to define their relationship with their parents is an important part of that person’s identity. Over the last month, your father has been doing everything he knows how to do to help you. He knows that you are hurting, and his old comrades have told him they can make you into a warrior - a warrior like he was. He believes that becoming a warrior would help give you purpose and take away the hurt, and he is confused that you are refusing and worried that he does not know what else to do for you. If you choose not to speak with him at length about this, you are choosing to define your relationship with your father as broken, or worse, useless.”
I slumped against the shower wall. Of course she was right - and I already knew everything she was telling me - but hearing it said somehow made it much more real.
“Alright,” I managed, eventually, turning off the shower, “let’s go talk to my dad.”
“I will be here if you need me.”
I got dressed and asked my dad if we could talk before dinner. We took seats in the living room ninety degrees from each other, both focused on looking straight ahead. A picture of him in his decorated Army uniform stood on the end table beside him, looming over his shoulder at me. I exhaled. I had asked him to talk, so I had to start it.
“I’m sorry for how I acted at brunch, dad,” I began. “I know you’ve been trying really hard to get me a job with my new… skills, and I shouldn’t throw it in your face like that.” I looked up at him. He was listening carefully, and since he didn’t look like he was about to say anything just yet, I kept going.
“But I don’t want to hurt people. I know that having Sovereignty with me means that I would be really good at it, and I know that you think me being in the Army would mean I would help people more than I would hurt, but I don’t. I believe that if people are killing each other, we’ve already failed at something, and just killing more people won’t solve anything or protect anyone.” Tears were starting to fill my eyes as I felt a much more emotional, much less comprehensible string of words rising up, but my father stopped me.
“Okay,” he said simply. “Okay, son. I understand. I mean, I don’t agree with your reasoning, but I understand what you’re saying.” He paused, his expression pained. “If you don’t want me to, I won’t set up any more meetings. That doesn’t mean other people won’t try to reach out to you, and they might not be as nice as the Army, but I won’t try to pressure you into something you clearly don’t want to do.”
I nodded, though it was a minute or two before I’d fully composed myself and he continued. “So that means we need to talk about what you are going to do. It doesn’t need to be today, it doesn’t need to be tomorrow, but sometime soon we need to start coming up with other options for jobs.”
“Okay,” I replied meekly.
“Okay,” he said back. “Let’s go eat some of your mom’s weird noodles.”
Sovereignty was quiet for the rest of the night. I had to admit, as much as I complained about her, she wasn’t as intrusive as she could have been. A few times I even thought about thanking her for her advice, but then I remembered that she was the reason I was having all of these problems in the first place and decided against it.
The next day, I went back to DeMarco’s. I needed to think. Avoiding recruitment into the Army or some other government agency had been a full-time job ever since I’d been possessed. Now that my dad was finally off my case on that end, I would have to figure out what I was going to do for a job. Twenty-two was a bit old to be unemployed with no skills to speak of - at least, no skills I would ever be able to use again.
So the question was, would I try to find something else to do with my powers, or would I just go for a regular old vanilla job? On the one hand, there didn’t seem to be much a person could do with Destruction powers besides destroy things. Hence the name. On the other hand, Sovereignty would probably not be content to play Guest to a construction worker at my dad’s company for the rest of my life using her incredible powers as a cutting laser. But I guess that was her fault for possessing me in the first place.
Somehow, that didn’t seem to make me any more okay with it.
“Uh oh,” came a voice clearly directed my way as I walked through Derik’s shop to get to the range, “everybody clear out. Starlight’s here.” A couple of the regulars I’d seen before chuckled - though more of them hurried away - and I turned. A short, fifteen-year-old girl who looked like a strong breeze could blow her over grinned back at me.
“Cherry,” I said back, putting my hands on my hips. “Shouldn’t you be in school?” When I first met Cherry a couple weeks back, just after I first started coming to the range, I thought she looked mousey. I have since determined that this was an inaccurate description - small she may be, but mice don’t look like they’re perpetually planning to prank you and grinning at the expected outcome. She wore T-shirts of bands I’d never heard of but that were always black with fonts that made the letters look like knives and made me think of screaming. Considering that’s probably what those bands did best, I figured it was good marketing.
“It’s the middle of summer break, old man. You asked me that last week, too. Is your Alzheimer’s finally setting in?”
I mock groaned and she followed me back to my station, taking her spot in the one next to mine. Cherry was a Class 1 Blaster - a Host with Destruction powers, like me, only with a spirit too weak to communicate with her. She could only create little explosions about the size of a cherry bomb, which meant I wasn’t sure whether Cherry was her real name or a name she’d adopted when she was possessed. I liked her. Everyone else at the range gave me a wide berth but her, and most of the time, I was glad for the company, adolescent and snarky as it may have been.
Barely ten seconds into my meditation, I heard the familiar pop pop pop of Cherry’s micro-blasts from her station. “Come on, Starlight,” she sneered at me, “what’s the point of being a Blaster if you have to take a nap before you blast things? ‘Oh, hold on a second, Mister Robber. Let me just close my eyes for a minute, then I’ll be right with you.’”
I closed my eyes tighter, shoving Cherry’s jeers into the stream of thoughts to be washed away by the clouds.
“She is right, my Host. One day, you will have to use your powers without warning, and when that day comes, you must find a way to center yourself more quickly.”
“Thank you, Sovereignty, for taking her side.” I sighed, and Cherry barked out a laugh.
“That’s my girl, Sov! You tell him!” she cheered.
“You should tell the young girl-”
“No,” I said flatly, rising from my failed attempt at meditation. “Nope, not going to play relay with a ghost and a maniacal little girl. Not happening.”
“I am not a ghost,” Sovereignty said at exactly the same time as Cherry said, “I’m not little!”
“Uh huh,” I replied to both of them, then launched a ray of starlight at the target downrange.
It was messy. The beam was wide and unfocused, and it sparked and crackled noisily as it arced toward the target and missed it by half a foot.
“Nice one,” Cherry said, then singed her target several more times with her micro-explosions. She almost looked bored.
“It’s a little tougher when it’s a couple thousand degrees, you know,” I replied, frowning at the missed target.
“Uh huh,” she said. Pop pop pop.
They were right, though. If I ever actually needed my powers, I probably wouldn’t have time to meditate first. I focused, trying to make a fast-forwarded version of the cloud meditation go through my head, and fired another beam. Another miss, but it was a little more controlled.
“Keep practicing, my Host. We will work on your focus.”
The next half-hour was a long stream of misses and fizzles until I fell into a rhythm, hit most of my targets, and then slumped back, exhausted. Sovereignty had told me that Guests chose Hosts for both willpower and physical strength. The Host’s mind had to be able to focus on the powers it had been granted, but their body also had to be able to endure the exertion of actually channeling the energy. And the spirit itself had its own limited reservoir of energy to fuel its powers, after which it would need time to recover. Basically, every Host had what was called the recovery time, a combination of the Host’s physical endurance and the Guest’s raw power that determined how long it took to recover from using powers. I found that I was usually ready to go again an hour or two later, depending on how much energy I had thrown around.
Pop pop pop.
And Cherry, despite the small size of her explosions, didn’t seem like she had a recovery time at all. I had totally exhausted myself, and she still looked thoroughly bored.
“If you can just keep throwing those around all day,” I said, still catching my breath, “why hasn’t the Army been trying to recruit you, too?”
Cherry smirked. “Because, despite not having a refractory period like most people,” pop pop pop, “the military just couldn’t seem to come up with a use for an unlimited supply of cherry bombs, especially when they have to be hand-delivered. No complaints here.”
I was about to say something snarky about her refractory period jab when my phone rang. That in itself was a bad sign. Most people who wanted to talk just texted; there were really only two who still actually used the call feature on phones.
“Honey,” my mom said, her voice shaky, “I need you to come home. We have to talk.”
My mom didn’t look upset when I got home. I had seen my mother post-cry before, and this wasn’t it. It was more of a vague shock: a lot of surprise, a fair heaping of confusion, and equal parts happiness and fear, all rolled up into one.
She and my dad - who apparently had left work early for this - were sitting at the kitchen table when I walked in, my mom’s laptop left open between them like an ugly scar. Both of them were doing their best not to look at the screen, though my mom’s eyes flicked to and from it anxiously.
If my father’s eyes were earnest, my mother’s were discerning. I had inherited most of my looks from her - the dark eyes, the dark hair, the sharp angles that denied even the hint of a curve. Even her posture was straight enough to measure by.
“What’s going on?” I asked, a little panicked and more than a little convinced somebody I cared about very much had just died.
“Take a seat, Joe,” my father replied. That really didn’t do anything to alleviate my growing anxiety, and I elected to stand. I repeated my question. Slowly this time.
“Joseph,” my mom started, “my father just sent me an email. It’s about you.”
My mother never talked about her side of the family. The only things I knew about them were that they still lived in Korea and that they didn’t like the fact that my mom married an American soldier when she was supposed to be studying piano in Germany.
My father’s side of the family was a Southern Baptist horde. We had more cousins and holidays than I could name off the top of my head, and while there was the odd uncle or two who made the same racist jokes about us every Thanksgiving, they otherwise made sure I never felt like I was missing anything by not knowing my mom’s family.
Apparently, her family had just sent my mom an email.
And here I was thinking parents were supposed to be reassuring. It took all the willpower I could muster not to lash out and impatiently demand they just get on with it and tell me what the hell this was all about. Instead, I leaned forward and read the email.
Your mother, siblings, and I hope that this letter finds you well. Your sister SeoYeon showed me a video yesterday of my grandson, Joseph, when he became possessed after taking his exam. If Joseph is still possessed by that spirit, I would like to meet him. It is my hope that he can help the family with a problem we have been having in recent weeks. I have purchased a plane ticket for him that leaves for Seoul in two days. If he cannot make it or is no longer in possession of the spirit, please let me know and I will refund the ticket.
Your father, Song NamHoon
“That’s from your father? My grandfather?” I asked tentatively. My mother nodded. “Has he always been such an asshole?”
“Joseph Song Reed, watch your language!” my mother shouted, just as my father let out a surprised snicker. My mom simmered, then glared at my dad until he put his serious face back on.
“Well, Joe, it’s a complicated situation. But to answer your question, yes, he has always been an asshole.”
“I cannot believe my own family would say such things. About my father! At my dinner table!” My mother had learned English as her third language, some thirty years ago. She was perfectly fluent at it, but when she became truly flustered, she’d switch back to Korean. I always assumed it was so we couldn’t understand her cursing.
My father struggled not to smirk again as she launched into a string of what I could only guess were obscenities in Korean.
“Enough!” she said at last, transitioning so quickly back to English that it took me a second to realize she was speaking to us again. “Joseph, I know you have never been to Korea, but-”
“MinJi, you can’t be serious,” my father interrupted. “That man abandoned you twenty-five years ago and hasn’t said a word to you since. Where was he when Joe was born? When he said his first words? When we were struggling to put him through school? And now that he reads about how our son could be useful to him, he reaches out and buys him a plane ticket? One plane ticket? He doesn’t care about you or Joe, MinJi. He just wants easy access to Sovereignty.”
“I know,” my mom replied. Dad was fuming. The man could go from cold to hot and back again before most people realized he’d been angry at all. But I knew what to look for. His eyes would twitch and his cheeks would redden, just a bit, like the first time my uncle Mark tugged at the corners of his eyes at Christmas dinner. My mom knew, too, and she knew how to calm him down with a look and a few words, even if they weren’t related to the source of his anger at all.
She was keeping her voice calm as she spoke. “But he is a man who believes in one’s duty to family. In his eyes, I betrayed my family by quitting school and running away to America. If I had come back, he would have forgiven-”
“Forgiven?” My father’s hands gripped the edge of the table tighter. “You didn’t do anything wrong! And if he’s so big on duty to family, why was he so quick to cut us out of it? You owe him nothing! There is no way I am letting our son-”
“I haven’t seen my family in twenty-five years!” my mom shouted back. Her calm facade was crumbling. “Don’t you get that? Oh, it’s easy for you to be self-righteous about it, to tell me to forget about them, but it’s not your family! You still talk to your parents every week! Your siblings, your cousins, your nieces and nephews, but me? I don’t get any of that! I get to smile politely at Christmas and pretend nobody gets me gifts because I’m too old for them! That my name is left off of birthday and wedding invitations because it just slipped their minds! That nobody in your family even speaks to me because they’re just not sure what to say!”
She barely paused for breath, bearing down on my father with a pointed finger. “Your family is just as disappointed in your choice as my family was in mine; they just show it differently. So if you want to hold a decision my father made twenty-five years ago against him, fine. You’re not the one he asked to go. But if you think you can just put your foot down and stop Joe from going and maybe, just maybe fixing that bridge so I can see my family again, you had better think again.”
I didn’t say anything. It hurt to be the source of an argument between my parents, and while I knew I wasn’t really the reason they were fighting, that rationality couldn’t squeeze in between the guilt. It brought back the months before I went off to college, when every day was a battle over how to pay for my tuition. I still didn’t know how much debt was left there, how much they had hoped I’d be able to pay off when I became the doctor I now never would.
“Fine.” My father’s grip on the table slacked and his wide shoulders drooped, but his face stayed hard. He stood to leave. “But it’s his decision. I can’t force him to stay, but you can’t force him to go, either.”
My mom and I sat there for a long couple of minutes after my dad left the room before she spoke up.
“I’m sorry you had to see that, Joe. And your father’s right. Neither of us can make this decision for you. It’s your name on that plane ticket.” She breathed in, then out, slowly. “You know I won’t hold it against you if you choose not to go. And I’ll make sure your father doesn’t get angry if you do.”
I nodded, slowly, and got up to go. I needed a place to think, clear my head, somewhere without the distractions of DeMarco’s, so I checked my watch. Three thirty. Not exactly the healthiest time to go to a bar, but there was one place I knew that opened at two and had a fittingly non-judgmental attitude about early afternoon drinking. I grabbed my keys and headed out to the Dizzy Lizard Brewhouse.
Fayetteville was about thirty years behind the rest of North Carolina when it came to understanding that beer can taste good. Their bars, generally speaking, were the sorts of places where you could ask the bartender for “a beer” and he wouldn’t ask for clarification.
Unfortunately, my time as an undergrad in Chapel Hill, a considerably more craft-beer-friendly town, had spoiled me. And so, through diligent searching and the wonders of the Internet, I discovered the Dizzy Lizard: a dive in the sense that it was small and always filled with smoke and also in that one literally had to go underground to get to it. But its beer had names, and so there I went.
I grabbed a pale ale from the bar, took a seat in an empty corner, and took out my notepad. I was terrible at organizing my thoughts before a second person joined them, so when it came to difficult decision-making, I found writing things out helped a lot. I started scribbling.
My mom’s parents didn’t seem like good people, given the whole abandonment thing, but that was an outsider’s perspective - like my dad, I really only knew them through this one incident. My mom, on the other hand, seemed excited at the possibility of reuniting with them, and she certainly knew them a lot better than we did. That was a mark towards going.
Of course, they also asked for me, alone, and since the only reason they would do that is because I have a spirit that’s really good at blowing things up, that was a mark towards staying.
I wrote a few more things out, did a little doodle in the corner, and sighed. It really came down to helping people I didn’t really like versus disappointing my mom.
I took a drink, plugged some earbuds with a wire-mic into my phone, and started talking. There wasn’t anybody on the other end of the phone, of course, but I found that people were less likely to stare uncomfortably if I looked like I was on the phone while I talked to my Guest. Besides, there was some creepy guy across the room who wouldn’t stop looking at me, his wide eyes shifting hastily away as soon as I looked over, and avoiding self-consciousness is precisely why I came to a bar to think in the first place.
“What do you think, Sov? To go, or not to go?”
“That is the question, my Host.” She paused, and I couldn’t tell if she was quoting Shakespeare or just thinking. “But I believe there is one thing you have left out of your notes.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“You lack a means of self-sufficiency. You have turned down all who have sought to employ you because you do not wish to kill to survive. Now you are conflicted and idle. This could be an opportunity to use the powers I have given you in a means you do not find morally reprehensible.”
I pondered that for a moment. “You mean I don’t have a job, I’m still living with my parents, and I’ve got nothing better to do?”
“Huh.” I looked down at my notes and scribbled that in, then finished my beer. “Alright. I think I’ve made my decision.”
“I hope my guidance was of help.”
“It was,” I replied. “It made me realize that all of my reasons for not going were selfish and a little petty. The only important thing on this list is that I have the chance to help my mom with something that means a lot to her. So I’m going.”
Sovereignty was quiet for a minute. “I see.”
I leaned back, confident in the decision I had made and happy to savor my second beer for a while before heading back home. The creepy guy stood up and started heading for the door. He wore a thick red jacket - an odd choice for the Fayetteville summer - and his thinning hair was mottled and greasy, his steps an anxious shuffle.
I sighed in relief. There’s nothing like the feeling of watching a creep leave a room to make you feel like you dodged a bullet.
Only he wasn’t heading for the door. He was heading for my table, looking right at me. I sat up straighter but he slammed his hands on my table before I could stand, blocking me in.
“You’re the punk who blew up all those cars in that parking lot, aren’t ya?” he breathed, his breath conveying everything I really needed to know about him at that moment.
“Look, I don’t want any trouble,” I replied. But I could feel my body tensing up to prepare for just that.
“You know who I am?”
“I… really don’t.”
He snorted. “‘Course not. I work at the office building where you took that test. Well, that place and a buncha other buildings. I clean them.”
He paused, clearly expecting a reaction. I raised my eyebrow. “Did I leave a mess?”
That clearly wasn’t the right response. “You’re damn right you left a mess. One of those cars you blew up was mine. My truck! How am I supposed to work when I don’t have a car?”
His voice was getting louder, angrier, the more he talked, and I glanced behind him to meet the bartender’s eyes. She was already on the phone - calling the police, I hoped.
“I’m sure your insurance will pay for-”
“I didn’t have insurance on that car! And now it’s a pile of junk in some garage somewhere, if it’s not already scraps!”
“Is it even legal to drive without insurance?” Man, I do not handle confrontations well.
By now he was simmering. He brushed his hand back across his shirt, revealing very clearly the handle of a gun tucked away in the waistband in his pants. I almost asked him if it was safe to carry it like that without a holster, but my survival instincts finally seemed to kick in and I kept my mouth shut.
“So here’s what’s gonna happen, kid. You’re gonna pay me for my car, plus extra for all the trauma I’ve gone through because of what you did. Or there’s gonna be trouble.”
What, was he some cartoon bank robber now? And why did my brain suddenly become a comedian when I was in danger?
“Look, the Host Protection Act says that I’m not responsible for damage caused by being possessed-”
He drew his gun. He actually pulled it out of his pants, fumbling a little bit to get it past his belt, and set it on the table, hand still on it.
“Do I look like I care about what the government says you’re responsible for? You blew up my truck. You pay me for my truck. That’s how this works here.”
My breathing came in more shallow now. I didn’t think he would actually shoot me, in plain sight of everyone in the bar, but now I was questioning his ability to process the consequences of doing just that.
“Uh,” I started, “unless your truck was only, like, thirty bucks, I can’t exactly pay you right now. You know, sitting in this bar?”
He rolled his eyes. “I know that, kid. That’s why I’m going to follow you to a bank and you’re going to get the money there.”
“So… you’re going to follow me two blocks down the street, in the middle of the day, with your-”
“Stop mocking him, Joseph. You are in real danger. His eyes are mad. Use my gift. Protect yourself. At this range, you cannot miss.”
I almost, almost replied to her out loud. I really needed to practice internal dialogue; but then, I guess I wasn’t exactly expecting this sort of situation. The mad janitor said something else but it was drowned out by Sovereignty’s voice.
“You have power now, and power attracts those who seek to take it or to prove themselves. This man feels powerless, and by rendering someone with power equally powerless, he feels he can take back agency. Others will feel the same. Deny them. Show this man that your power is not so transient.”
Jesus, she was telling me to kill the guy. I mean, legally, I guess he was threatening me with a gun, and I was terrified; but the idea of all of his life’s decisions, his actions, his happiness and sadness, everything that could happen in twice as many years as I’ve been alive simply ending because of me was paralyzing.
The cleaner was picking up his gun from the table when two police officers walked in. They must have been close by to have gotten here that fast. They told him to drop it and he did, and the next hour was a blur of answering questions and giving statements. I told the police I wasn’t pressing charges, but I didn’t need to; the bar owner, Cindy, was, not to mention the several laws the guy must have broken. I sat there stunned for a long while after the police had left. Cindy brought me a beer on the house.
“Joseph-” Sovereignty started, but I cut her off.
“Not right now, Sov. Just… give me a bit.”
“As you wish.”