✘ 11:28 PM ✘

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11:28 PM—bai's herb pharmacy, NJ

1987

Joel


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THEY ALL SEEM SO COMFORTABLE WITH OUR DECISION. I stand apart from the group of boys I've come to know as my brothers. They all laugh, throwing their heads back to down some whiskey. I listen-in on their normal conversations, wondering why they seem so at home here.

The smell of drug-store alcohol and burned-out cigarettes doesn't mix well with the oriental medicines lined-up on the walls. A small Chinese woman stands with her back against the front door, guarding it like a hawk guards its ego.

Her lips fold into a heavily painted red line, her arms placed neatly behind her back as she judges the scene with narrowed eyes. Fancy, golden chopsticks stick out of her head and she's wearing leather pants that she's much too old to pull off, but, somehow she does.

I look around the room, cascading, colorful beads falling from every wall. Candles are lit anywhere with a place for them to stand, and there's even one of those fortune cats sitting on the cash register.

When I gravitate back to the woman, her eyes are glued on mine, causing me to look away as quickly as I can.

"Do you know when you're getting the tattoo?" Clayton, the youngest of the boys stands rather close to me, his large, dialated blue eyes waiting for an answer.

"No," I respond, looking at all the men and women cramped into the small shop. Every single one of them has a tattoo on some visible body part.

"Oh," Clayton starts, walking over to the table that has all the drinks on it. He starts to pour some neon green drink into his solo cup. "I already got mine," he pauses to take a sip of the poisonous looking drink, "wanted to get it over with, you know?"

"You know what that thing does, right?" I ask, my tone as warning as I'd hoped it to be.

Clayton shakes his head carelessly, finishing off the drink quicker than he poured it.

"It means they own you," I finish, keeping my voice down so no one can hear.

"So?" he says, slurring the small word. "What? Are you scared or something?"

"Yeah," I cut-him off, "and you should be too."

When he goes to pour another drink I walk away, sick of watching him drown in the stuff. I walk past all of the boys and head for the door, deciding against being here at all. Muttering 'excuse me' and 'get the hell outta my way,' I push myself through the herd of sweaty bodies.

I find myself having an easier time breathing once I get past everyone. But, it quickly ends when I come face-to-face with the Chinese woman. She looks me up-and-down without even trying to be discreet about it. Her makeup is messy but her hair is pristinely styled.

"Where you going?" she asks, her English choppy.

"Out," I respond, trying to keep whatever conversation I hold with these people short.

"But why?" she pries, tilting her head to the side.

My heart starts to beat a little faster, assuring me that I'm right in trying to leave. She keeps her eyes fastened on mine and I notice a few of the men starting to appear from the crowd.

"I left something important," I try to cover-up. "I'll be back in five minutes."

"I'm sorry, I can't let you do that," she explains simply.

I'm fully aware of the men moving closer to me as well as the guns sticking out of the waist of their pants. Just as I'm about to let it go and wait on my escape until later, hands wrap around each of my arms. They start to drag me away, as I try to swing at them.

I don't yell or shout, knowing fully that will only make my situation worse. But, that doesn't stop me from trying to get away from them. I look down at one of the guns and quickly grab it, managing to hit one of the men on the head. He falls to the ground instantly and I point the gun at the other guy.

If people weren't already looking, they are now.

"Don't move," I say as calmly as possible. "Any of you move and I'll shoot him."

Everything stays silent for what feels like too long. I just stare at the man I'm pointing a gun at. It's not like I know him. How am I supposed to know if he's a good person or not? Why would I point a gun at anybody, especially a stranger?

Still, I stand there, keeping my focus airtight, even when someone starts to clap. The sound throws me off, but not enough to get me to lower the weapon. Through the corner of my eye I see a man in a ritzy suit approach me. He keeps his hands clasped in front of him, showing that he's not going to shoot me.

"And that is exactly why you should stay," he says, his voice snobby yet powerful.

I can feel beads of sweat falling down my forehead as I try not to break my concentration.

"You know," he turns on his heel, starting to walk around me. "We could use some more people like you."

"Too bad I won't take part in your shitty organization," I struggle to keep my voice from shaking.

He doesn't say anything more until he's the one in front of the gun, a smug smirk on his face. With an almost happy bounce, he holds out his hand as a greeting, "I don't bite, go on."

I shake my head, refusing to shake his hand.

"That's what I was afraid of," he walks away and flicks his finger up in the air, "take him to the ink chamber."

Finally, I break my eye contact and look around, dropping the gun when an arm wraps around my neck.

I feel something sharp stick into my leg.

And then everything goes black.

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