The Hothead

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I am nine years old and I have my knee buried into the chest of a much larger boy, beating him with my fists. He is probably about eleven or twelve, and I think his name is Lei Qiang. My fists are small but hard, and each one slams into his face with all my strength. I feel a tooth slice open a knuckle, but I am pleased in an instant as my other set of knuckles collides with his jaw and he loses the tooth.

I leave him bleeding in the alley as I collect the American sneakers he stole from me yesterday. The sneakers came from my aunt in Connecticut and I love them very much.

Some other children back away from me as I leave the alley.

I relish my victory for the next few hours until Lei Qiang and his parents visit my home. My parents hand my shoes over to him. His family is much better off than my own. I do not eat that night because of my rage, and my parent's refusal to feed me as punishment.

Giving away my American shoes was punishment enough.

...

I am twelve years old. I made the mistake of trying to steal from three older kids who wandered into my territory. I am defending myself, but I am losing ground and I feel hot blood running out my nose and down my lips. I duck out of the way as a tattooed fist flies toward me. A tattooed fist. These kids are junior gangsters. I am lost in thought and feel two hands collide hard against my back, knocking the wind out from me. I fall to my knees, gasping.

I brace for another strike, but suddenly I hear a fourth person. His voice is cracked and he is screeching.

"Shitheads!"

One of the kids falls to the ground. I stand up and go to take a swing at one of the others. By the time I am up, the other two are running, and the new kid is shouting at them.

"Come back and I'll kick your asses!"

He turns to me and flashes a smile. He's missing a tooth. He looks down at the remaining kid who is trying to crawl away. He kicks him in the side. The kid on the ground coughs and sputters. He crawls off, all the while my rescuer is laughing.

"You should get some kung fu lessons or something."

I wipe the blood from my nose and lips with the back of my arm. "Shut up. Who asked you to help? This is my alley."

He laughs again. "Whatever, shithead."

I run toward him, fist pulled back and I clock him in the jaw. He stumbles back. He begins laughing again.

We fight for an hour. By the end, we're both bloody, and between ragged breaths, he tells me his name is Cai. We talk for a bit until he decides to leave. Before he takes off he pulls a piece of chalk out of his pocket and draws a small axe on one of the brick walls.

He tells me this alley is now under the protection of the Axe gang.

...

I am fourteen and my parents are yelling at me. They ask me about the heroin and guns I have in my small room. I answer honestly and tell them that it is how I make my money and how we've kept our home despite the local government's constant attempts to push us out.

My mother cries and my father begins to shout at me, but I do not care. I do what I do for them.

Someone mentions my aunt, in America. Maybe it is my mother. I begin to think about my American shoes. They were red. Lei Qiang had torn through them in a month after he stole them from me a second time. I made sure he lost another tooth and broke his foot for good measure so he would tell nobody what had happened. Ever since he would whimper when I was around.

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