Age: 15, Grade: 11
School Name: High School Of American Studies-Lehman, Bronx, NY
Educator: Natalie Cook
Category: Short Story
When I wake up, Kaho isn’t there. Next to me, the bed is empty, a vast expanse of white sheet stretching out where my baby should lie. For a moment I think it’s morning and she’s in the kitchen, struggling to put together an American breakfast, but then I look to the window and it’s still dark behind the blinds. For whatever reason, she’s up in the middle of the night. Annoyed, I push myself up and out of bed, the floor cold beneath my bare feet. She should know better than to wander around at this hour, making me drag myself from sleep to look for her and bring her back.I find her in the bathroom. The door’s wide open, and it’s obvious she didn’t think I’d come after her. She stands in front of the mirror, unaware of my presence, fingering strands of her long black hair as moonlight pours in through the window. It turns her yellow skin almost white. My baby is not a bombshell, at least not by conventional standards, but to me she’s beautiful, with her sweet rounded features and her face devoid of sharp lines. Her cheekbones are exquisite. Right now, she wears nothing but a lacy nightgown, but something about the longing look she gives her reflection reminds me of the day I saw her first, in her striking red kimono. I was stationed in Japan. It was just in time for the cherry blossoms, and hordes of people flocked out to the festivals, but it was Kaho who caught my eye. Standing alone in the shade of the rippling pink flowers, she looked right out of a silk painting. So of course I went to talk to her, and she was shy as all get-out, but I didn’t leave her side for the rest of the day and I could tell she liked it. I liked it, too. I spent the first few dates mostly staring at her, marveling at that face with its slanting eyes, that face that was so different from mine. My eyes are blue, my features sharp. But somehow she was right for me. And I know I’m right for her, too.
“Kaho,” I say.
She jumps, letting loose a squeal before dipping into a quick bow. “David-san.”
“You shouldn’t be out of bed.”
“Yes. I—I cannot sleep.”
Normally I’d be mad, with her making me get out of bed for this, but she looks so genuinely apologetic—hell, even a little frightened—that I can’t help but melt a little.
“If you say so, baby. Now, come on. Let’s go back.”
But she doesn’t listen. Instead, it’s as if she didn’t hear me at all. She just turns back to the mirror and stands looking at herself, gently twining strands of glossy hair around her finger.
“Kaho,” I say, warningly this time.
“Just please let me cut it!” she burst out. “All other girls have short hair—nobody wears it so long. I promise, I look more better with it. You like it, David—”
Not this again. Even her childish English mistakes, which under any other circumstance would be endearing, only annoy me further. I roll my eyes—I can’t help it—and she swallows her words, bowing again.
“Kaho, we talked about this,” I remind her.
Kaho has wanted to cut her hair for a while now, do it in rollers, even, so it would curl around her chin in soft waves like the women she saw on TV. I thought I’d talked some sense into her. Apparently not. I like her hair the way it is, especially when she does it up in those elaborate hairstyles of hers so she looks like some ancient Oriental empress, with me as her king. Besides, if she cut it short, she’d look like any other girl, and if I wanted that, there were plenty of American blondes and redheads that I could have gone for.
Still, I know she’ll listen to me. She always does. There’s a certain submissiveness they have in Japan that the girls at home have lost, and Kaho’s no different. I know what’s best for her, and she knows that. I like that about her. She has no crazy notions of independence for herself, and she would never, ever leave my side. She needs me. You can see it every day, when there’s something she doesn’t understand—a word or some nuance of American culture—and have to I explain it to her, carefully, like I would a child. She needs me physically, too. I’m her protector. Kaho’s small, and while I was never tall myself, I still tower over her, big and powerful next to her delicate frame. We were meant for each other. She complements me in every way. Worships me, I like to think.
It’s a nice change.
It can be hard to believe, but not everyone’s drawn to me the way Kaho is. In fact, she’s really one of the first. I don’t like to admit it, but back in the army (and even before that), I was never really taken too seriously. Not that I was a joke—I had friends, of course, but I was never at the top, never the leader, never the man we were all drawn to like magnets. Those were the BMOCs, the alphas. The alphas were the kind of guys who played football in high school, back when I was busy blowing through packs of cigarettes and trying to get my girlfriends to make out with me. God, I hated those guys. They never even gave me a chance. But with Kaho, I am her alpha, and she loves me for it.
So I know she’ll obey me when I tell her to go back to bed. Doesn’t she always? And yet some small corner of my mind, the part that wonders if I don’t have her as much as I think I do, whispers—except. Except, except. I hate the word. It’s self-doubt, that’s what it is, but I can’t stop myself from thinking it anyway.
She always obeys me, except for the times when in her eyes I can see a spark, a flicker, a glint of something like the word no. It’s rebellion—however brief. I can’t stand it. It’s unbecoming, giving a repulsive shade to her entire face, and it’s not her. It’s not the Kaho I love. It taunts me, even long after it fades, nagging me that maybe she’s restless, she’s bitter, she’s not all mine. I clench my hands into fists. It’s staring me in the eyes right now, as inexplicably, my baby refuses me and won’t do as I ask.
“Kaho,” I say, threateningly now. I raise my hand so she flinches away from it. I don’t like hitting her—it always hurts to see someone you love in pain—but sometimes that’s the only way she learns.
The spark always dies after that. Kaho breaks her gaze away, dropping her head to stare at her tiny feet, and then she follows me back into bed.
At last, I’m comfortable and Kaho’s small body is warm next to mine, and yet I can’t sleep. Instead, I stare up at the ceiling, unable to forget how her eyes flashed not only with rebellion, but with something that looked a little too much like hatred. That can’t be possible. Kaho doesn’t hate me, I know that for sure, but at this point I can’t ignore how many times I’ve seen that look in recent days. Sometimes it’s for silly things—when I refuse one of her girlish whims, for instance—but other times it’s for nothing at all, when I glance over at her and the look is there, burning away, contorting her face with anger. Sometimes it even seems to be getting worse. Hell, she refused me outright just last week, when I told her to take off her clothes and get into bed but she wouldn’t move. She wouldn’t even enter the bedroom, instead clutching the doorframe tight with her little hands, her eyes burning with that look of rebellion as she gave me such a cocky little shake of her head. Of course, I thought I knocked some sense into her. She was fine the next night, when in spite of her bruises we made love like we never had before, but somehow the look only seemed to grow stronger. I don’t understand it. Haven’t I done so much for her? I protect her, I teach her, I look after her. She should be grateful for me, even, but if that look proves anything—
It’s no use. I’ll never get back to sleep now.
“Now you’ve done it,” I groan, raising myself up on my elbows. “I can’t sleep now that I’ve gotten up.”
In an instant, Kaho’s up too, and it’s clear she’s been awake the whole time. “Please relax,” she murmurs, running a hand through my hair before pushing herself out of bed. “I make you tea.”
Now, this is the Kaho I know. Thoughtful, sweet, always ready to give me what she knows I need. I allow myself to loosen up a little, lying back down against my pillows as I wait. Could this be her apology of sorts? I guess she knows her anger’s unreasonable, that she should have listened to me in the first place instead of making things harder for the both of us. I take this as a kind of peace offering.
The tea’s hot when I take it in my hands, and an exotic, herbal smell wafts slowly upwards. I take a sip. Kaho only smiles.
The liquid slides across my tongue, burning it, filling my mouth with a sharp, pungent taste that makes my eyes bulge. I try to cough it up, but I’ve already swallowed most of it. My heart skips a beat. A sense of dread is dragging over me fast, and the corner of my mind that whispers except is coming to a realization, but that can’t be true and so I don’t listen. Kaho’s done something wrong. She’s done something she shouldn’t, and it’s up to me to set her right again, but somehow when I look at her a jolt of fear shoots through me and I can’t bring myself to threaten her. I swallow, trying to erase the acrid taste.
“Kaho?” I demand, my voice unusually high. “What’s in here?”
And now my heart palpitates as my baby doesn’t answer, only smiles at me, her rounded face suddenly made frightening. It’s unlike her other smiles. No longer shy and tremulous, this one is curving, wicked, the first sharp feature I’ve ever seen on her face.
She turns to leave, but I won’t let her go, not after she’s done this to me. I start after her. Then the room spins and suddenly I’m on the floor, choking, convulsing, vomiting and unable to stop. I can hear Kaho’s footsteps growing quieter. She’s getting away from me, I know, but somehow I can’t make myself get up. Instead, I call after her. I scream her name over and over, until my voice breaks, until the word itself is just as bitter as what must have been poison.
To my relief, she returns.
“Oh, baby,” I spit out, wiping bile from my lips, “I am gonna make you hurt—”
My breath catches. In her hand, she carries a pair of scissors.
For a second, my mind refuses to catch up to itself, unable to acknowledge the kind of betrayal I’m about to feel. But then she only raises them to her head. They glint in the moonlight, and as I watch she hacks off piece after piece of glossy hair, all of it falling to the floor around her until she stands in a puddle of her own tresses. She kicks it away disinterestedly. The cut’s uneven, but even as my pounding heart begins to slow I realize that she was right. She does look better this way.
She is so tall above me. I lie, spasming, on the floor, stretched out at her bare feet.
Then she leaves me for the second time. I hear the front door shut, and even as the world grows darker around me I keep on calling her name. This time, she doesn’t answer.