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Azrael Tseng

Azrael Tseng

Azrael Tseng is the author of the 'Was Eternal' series, 'The Fifth Claw', '52 and Counting' and other works of fiction.

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Success! Balls! When A Girl Has Them sold 18 pre-orders by July 21, 2017, was pitched to 22 publishers, and is in discussions with publishers.

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Balls! When A Girl Has Them

What happens if a girl starts developing male parts? Based on real accounts of Guevedoces syndrome, this sensitive, humorous story depicts a 12-year-old girl coping with her body's unexpected changes.

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Young Adult Gender
Okinawa, Japan
50,000 words
25% complete
6 publishers interested

Synopsis

Kokoro is about to turn 13, enter junior high and start a new year in a new school. If that's not enough, her body starts changing in the most horrifying way possible - she starts to grow male body parts. Down there. From trying to figure out what the h**l is going on, who she can trust to tell, and finding out that someone has a crush on her, the first year of junior high just seems to keep throwing her non-stop horrors and surprises.

This story is based on the real-life account of the Guevedoces, also called “machihembras” meaning “first a woman, then a man”. I want to explore how one would feel if one was raised as one gender for an entire life, only to change into the opposite. It is also intriguing to discover how gender definitions are still changing, and the different ways people respond to such extraordinary situations. 

The issue of gender identity is a sensitive one, even taboo in certain countries. But it is something that many people face, or have to deal with. I intend to approach this in a sensitive and thoughtful manner, and inject doses of humor (satirical and comical) to keep the tone from becoming too overwrought. 

Outline

Chapter 1: “Girls should act like girls.”

(A dodgeball game. Someone throws like a girl. A tomboy switches sides.)

Kokoro is annoyed when Kaito insults a weaker boy Shun, and
makes a condescending reference about girls' ability in sports. She switches to the weaker side of their dodgeball game just to prove him wrong.

Chapter 2: “It’s just a health tonic.”

(A horny uncle's secret. Tiger balls and voodoo dolls.)

Kokoro visits her grandparents' home during the school break, and learns more about her family history. She is impressed by her grandmother's heroic actions during the war, but not so much by her uncle boasting about his sexual prowess. She
is curious about his strange ways of keeping sexually active and potent.)   

Chapter 3: “I can’t find a bra I like.”

(Underwear for a tomboy. Skirts for girls, pants for boys.) 

Kokoro takes measurements for her new uniform, and complains about having to wear a skirt. Her mom takes her
shopping for new underwear but Kokoro doesn’t like any of the colors or designs, as they are either girly, sexy or just plain ugly. Her mom gives up trying to convince her.

Chapter 4: “Everybody goes through this.”

(Puberty. Great. An awkward change. Googling for reassurance.) Kokoro inspects herself in uniform in the mirror, and finds herself thinking about how to let her personality show through that imposed image. She checks her chest to assess the need for a bra, and then below. Her genitals seem a little engorged, and she uses the family computer to check if that is normal.

Chapter 5: “Everything’s different now.”

(New school. New rules. Old friends or new?)

Kokoro feels awkward in a skirt, and overwhelmed by the new
environment and faces around her. She wonders if she should stick with the friends she knew from elementary school or try to make new ones, and looks around to see what everybody does. Somehow the cliques are sorted by gender, even the interest groups. Kokoro wonders if it had always been like that, and she was only noticing now. Eventually she decides who to hang with, and feels good about her decision.

Chapter 6: “You have to pick one.”

(Afterschool club. Girl teams, boy teams, mixed teams.)

Kokoro, Shun and Naomi check out the different club activities offered by the school Kokoro is interested in the sports clubs, but the ones the school is strong in does not have girl
teams. Kokoro is upset that even though she is better than some of the boys, she cannot be on the team. Shun also wants to try sports, even though the chess team wants him because he is really good at it. Naomi doesn’t think she’s good at anything, and just wants to tag along. They decide to join the same club together.

Chapter 7: "You don’t want to lose it to a tampon.”

(Pad girl or tampon girl. Losing it. Almost.)

Kokoro, Shun and Naomi go for soccer practice together. The school team plays against the reserves and other club members after drills. Kokoro doesn’t agree with the tactics and positions
chosen by the reserve who captains her side, and plays against instructions. She tries to score but does not receive enough support from her team. In the girls’ locker room, the tennis and volleyball girls tease one another about using tampons, and pad outlines against their shorts. Someone mentions that Kokoro must be a pad girl, and that makes Kokoro upset and self-conscious somehow. She almost loses her temper.

Chapter 8: “Bigger isn’t always better.”

(A phone call. Up a level. Awkward/Comfortable.)

Kokoro takes a bath to cool off at home, and discovers her genitals getting worryingly big. Naomi calls her to talk about the locker room incident. She shares some private details about
herself, and confesses that she finds it easy to talk to Kokoro. Her candor in talking about her body, such as how running hurts her boobs and her bra chafes, makes Kokoro uncomfortable but she doesn’t say.

Chapter 9: "Close your legs when you sit!"

(One rule fits all. Or not. Shun’s logic.)

The class goes on a field trip and during a lecture, a teacher chastises the girls for not sitting properly like girls should. Kokoro is annoyed by the rules, and questions them. At lunch break, she asks Shun about how he sits, and is quite surprised by his honest and logical responses. She tries to ask him more about how boys behave in the guys’ locker room, and he says that everyone behaves differently. She asks him how the soccer club captain Kento behaves, and Naomi teases her about having a crush on him.

Chapter 10: “Rumors aren’t lies. They’re unofficial truths.”

(Rumors. A surprise test. Sick to the stomach.) 

Nasty rumors start flying about Kokoro having a crush on Kento, which embarrasses Kokoro but doesn’t seem to bother Kento. Naomi mentions how lots of girls have a crush on Kento and offers to help Kokoro find out more about him. Kokoro does
badly on a surprise Math test, a subject in which she’s usually really good at, and starts feeling terrible about herself. Shun tries to comfort her, sharing that he didn’t do that well either, even though he’s the top Math student in the class.

Chapter 11: “Running away doesn’t solve anything.”

(Feeling terrible. An unexpected conversation. Clearing the air.)

Kokoro continues to feel terrible and doesn’t really know what’s
wrong with herself. She wonders if hormones are supposed to do that to anyone going through puberty, and if so, when it will end. She skips soccer to go home early. The next day Kento pulls her aside for a private talk. He asks her if she really has a crush on him, and tells her not to skip practice to avoid him,
since she’s the best he has played against. Kokoro asks him why he cares about how she feels, and Kento reveals that he had a crush on a senior girl before and knows how it feels.

Chapter 12: “Don’t drop the ball!”

(Balls drop. A juggling feat. Too much to take.)

Kokoro feels something strange, and discovers that instead of
female genitalia, she has male ones. All of it. The stick and the balls. She also has what she thinks is her first erection, much to her horror. She is too ashamed to tell anyone. She convinces herself that it’s just some strange side effect of her illness, and that it will go away. During soccer practice, the coach is late and the members decide to have a juggling contest in pairs, with
the winners advancing. Naomi loses in the first round; Shun makes it past the first round but fails at the second; Kokoro advances all the way to face off against Kento. Kento manages 71, and Kokoro knows she can beat him, but the crowd’s chants of “Drop the ball!” distracts her and she falls just short. Shun
decides to quit soccer club, revealing that he has been doing Chess Club as well and his grades are suffering.

Chapter 13: "Someone has a crush on you."

(Feelings! Eeek! Freaking out.)

Kokoro receives a torn note in her locker from an unnamed person confessing feelings for her. She can’t identify the handwriting and asks Naomi, who thinks it’s possibly from a girl.
She asks Kokoro how she would feel if it was from Kento, and Kokoro finds her heart racing, although she can’t figure out why. Shun asks if he can still join them after school, even though he is no longer in the soccer club with them, and Kokoro is kind of mad at him.

Chapter 14: "Please remove your clothes.”

(A medical exam. Baring it all. The online truth.)

All the students have to take a medical exam at the school. Kokoro doesn’t read the notices she brings back home and had no idea that it was happening. When she realizes that she would
have to take off her clothes for the doctor, she freaks out and feigns illness to go home early. She uses the computer to find out what is really happening with her, and learns about the Guevedoces. Biologically, she is actually a guy.

Chapter 15: “You can always talk to me.”

(A friend offers comfort. A really nice waiter.)

Kokoro takes the next day off, but knows she cannot keep avoiding school and everyone. Her mom wants to take her to a doctor, but Kokoro insists that she just needs some rest. They
quarrel and her mom has to leave for work, leaving some money for her to buy lunch. Kokoro goes for a walk and notices that there are women doing grocery shopping while carrying a baby in a harness, or sometimes managing a few children. A couple she sees has the wife carrying everything, while the husband just walks on ahead leading the way. But she also sees a father with a toddler whom she can’t really tell is a boy or girl. Naomi texts and asks about her. Kokoro goes to a family restaurant to eat, and is touched by the service she receives from the waiter. She feels that she is being treated as a person, with her needs addressed, and is not being judged by her gender or age.

Chapter 16: "They don’t know anything at all."

(Someone confesses. A test of friendship.)

Kokoro goes home to find Naomi waiting outside. They go to a playground nearby to talk. Kokoro talks vaguely about how people think they know you, or have some impression that they
try to force on you, and somehow both of them say “They don’t know anything at all” together. Naomi confesses that she had been asked by Kento to deliver the note to her, but had torn out parts of it because she was jealous. Kokoro asks gently if she likes Kento, but Naomi tells her that it is Kokoro that she likes. She talks about why and how scared she is about how she feels, and how Kokoro feels. Kokoro stays quiet for a long time, and tells her she has never thought of her as anything but a good friend, perhaps even a best friend. But she doesn’t know if she can think of her any other way. Naomi just hugs her and cries, and Kokoro wishes that she could let it all out too.

Chapter 17: “We need you on our team.”

(Competitions begin. Everyone wants Kokoro.) 

Shun and Kokoro are selected to represent the school in a Math competition. Kokoro asks how Shun is doing, and Shun tells her that he’s happy at Chess Club. He even thinks he might come
back to soccer club, once he gets better at managing his time. Kokoro asks him why he wants to come back, since one of his reasons for quitting before was that he didn’t think he was good enough. Shun replies that he joined soccer club partly because of Kokoro, and mentions her influence on him. Her standing
up for him gave him the confidence to try to be more than what others thought of him. Kokoro asks if he would think differently if it was a guy who’d stood up for him. Shun mentions that he never thought of her as a girl, nor a boy. “Kokoro is just Kokoro. You’re unique, not because you were born that way but because
of what you did for me, and what you mean to me.” Later Kana asks Kokoro to fill in for an injured dodgeball team member. The team is into the next round but their reserves are weak and Kokoro is better than any of them. There is no gender criteria, and they would be up against teams that may be all boys or
mixed or not, but they’re all good. 

Chapter 18: “It’ll mean a lot to me if you come.”

(A personal request. Attraction?)

Kokoro approaches Kento about the note to explain what had happened, and why she didn’t reply. Kento is glad that she came to talk to him, as he thought his luck with crushes was happening again. Kokoro talks about how popular he is with the girls, and Kento confesses that popularity is nice, but not what he really wants. Everyone desires it, and so he sometimes puts up a show for them, but he doesn’t really care as much as
everyone else does about it. But when he wants something, he won’t hold back from trying for it, even if it fails or is a mistake. He confesses his attraction to Kokoro, and Kokoro mentions how tomboyish she is, but Kento just laughs and says how he thinks it’s refreshing that she doesn’t try to act cute or grunge or be a certain type. He tries to kiss her, but Kokoro gets spooked
and runs away. Later that day, Kokoro receives a text from Kento asking her to come support him in the soccer final. It is on the same day as the dodgeball match.

Chapter 19: "I don’t know what it is but I feel something inside."

(Difficult feelings. Kicking down the closet door.)

Kokoro reads about other Guevedoces online, most of whom identified as male, with some as female and undergoing surgery to achieve a sex change. She is confronted by her mom, who
discovered what she thought were pornographic material in the computer’s history, and is worried that Kokoro might get involved in illicit sexual activities with strangers online. Kokoro reveals the truth to her mom, who is disbelieving initially but comes to accept it, when Kokoro asks if she wants to see for herself. She doesn’t know what advice to give, or what to do, but she gave Kokoro this body, and she will love and support her no matter what she chooses to do.

Chapter 20: "This is me."

(A wet dream. A hard decision.)

Kokoro wakes up to find a mess on her bed, and realizes that she has had a sexual dream. It is a strange smell, not unpleasant, but embarrassing all the same. She remembers who she was dreaming about, and realizes how lucky she is to have people she cares about, and who care about her as well. She decides who she wants to be, and realizes that not everyone has to know, except the people who are really in her life. And she also knows that not everyone would be able to accept her for who she was, and had become, but the most
important part of the struggle was over. She has decided. And she has a competition to catch.

Audience

For the gender-confused, teenagers or pre-pubescents learning about sexuality, or those helping close friends or family go through such a difficult period. Also for those with an intellectual curiosity about gender issues.

Quora puts the number of LGBTQ people in the world at upwards of 240 million. Most of them can enjoy reading this book.

Author

Azrael was born in Singapore, where he picked up 'leet' skills in snobbery at the top schools in the tiny country. He has as many complexes as turbulent teenage years spent sleeping on the streets, escaping sexual predators, and encountering the supernatural will give someone. Proud to be a beneficiary of a national bilingual policy (English and Mandarin), he has also acquired passing fluency in French, German, as well as Japanese, granting him pseudo-polyglot status in Egoland.
Always a writer at heart, it was not until the birth of his son Lynx that he actually began to write. He has created the 'Was Eternal' universe in a science-fiction series, and has expanded on Oriental mythology through 'The Fifth Claw'. Other projects include a young adult novel about gender issues, as well as a collection of short horror stories that chronicle the lives and deaths of ordinary Singaporeans. His plays include 'Color Me Gonzo: The Life and Rant of Hunter S Thompson' and some of his recent portfolio can be viewed at https://thewordswebreathe.wordpress.com/

Promotion

I will promote the book aggressively on Facebook, and ask my friends to help spread the word as well, especially my LGBTQ firends. I believe this book has immense educational potential, and will also market this book to schools and submit it for competitions, as winning an award boosts the recognition and appeal of both the book and the author. Meeting personally with curriculum heads to explain how the book fits educational goals and giving out a free sample of the book to each school also helps a lot to secure bulk orders. 

I have recently joined Writing.com, and will use that online community to promote the book, and search for other ways to spread awareness online. 

Competition

1. When Kayla was Kyle by Amy Fabrikant, published April 9th 2013 by Avid Readers Publishing Group. A children's story about a boy who was uncomfortable with his own body and eventually becomes a girl.

(Similar central themes of gender identity and bullying, but Balls! explores other gender issues as well. Balls! is also focused on the Guevedoce syndrome, which has never been written about in fiction form.)

2. Middesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, published September 16th 2002 by Picador. A family saga about how Callie turns into Cal.
(A girl turns into a boy because of genetics - ouch, already done. However, Middlesex is serious literature that has an epic and dramatic tone, which makes it perfect for serious readers and university students majoring in Literature. Plus, Eugenides is a Pullitzer-prize winning author. Balls! on the other hand, targets teenagers and young adults, with a more personal 1st-person limited perspective narrative, that is more chick-lit and humorous in tone and style.)

3. None of the Above by I. W. Gregorio, published April 7th 2015 by Balzer + Bray. A school drama about a girl who discovers she has male parts after having sex with a guy, and how her world falls apart when her secret is revealed.

(School drama - check. Girl discovers she has guy parts - check. Generic plot-wise, the two stories are similar, but the key is in the details. Balls! has a fair bit of melodrama, but it is balanced with humor. It leans more heavily towards a positive and reaffirming mood and tone, and is overall more light-hearted, without disrespecting the gravity of the issues brought up. It is also based in a Japanese school, and describes the culture and students of someplace that's not America. Also in Japan, trans culture is not as developed, so social awareness on this topic is not as great, and attitudes not as tolerant. If translated, this could be quite a pioneering achievement in Japanese literature.)

4. Gracefully Grayson by Amy Polonsky, published November 4th 2014 by Disney-Hyperion. About a 12-year old boy who is a girl on the inside, and who discovers the strength to be herself with a teacher's help. 

(12-year old - check. School story - check. Gender identity issue - check. Moving and beautiful writing - hopefully check as well. Balls! aims to deliver the same high quality writing and sensitivity of emotions as Polonsky's debut work. Instead of a teacher, Kokoro finds that strength from her friends and family, and also from within herself, and the romantic entanglements in Balls! also sets it apart from this wonderful novel.)

5. Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin, published February 2nd 2016 by Balzer + Bray. About Riley, a gender-fluid teenager in a new school who must decide how to deal with the consequences of a blog post, and whether to lose everything.

(Kokoro in Balls! actually shares some of the gender fluidity of Riley, in that some days she identifies as a boy and some days as a girl. The settings are different, and ultimately they are different stories, because the treatment of similar issues and characters is different.)

Ultimately books about gender identity are not new. And there are many good ones already out there. None of them, however, are set in a strictly traditional and patriarchal society in the Far East, or attempt to mix humor in these stories because of the sensitivity and gravity of the issues they deal with. I believe, however, that it can be done, in a somewhat manga-style that opens up possibilities for screen and comic-book adaptations, especially if translated into Japanese. 

It is when issues begin to be normalized that people can begin to tolerate humor on such topics. There is probably a limit to the number of heartbreaking stories about a gender-confused person's struggles to be accepted. What if there's a book that can discuss the same issues in a slightly way? Perhaps the world is ready?

Samples

Chapter Two: Just A Health Tonic

(A horny uncle. Tiger balls and voodoo dolls.)
I don’t get the chance to have a rematch since that was the last day of school. In fact, I don’t know if I’ll get the chance even when school starts again. Only about two-thirds of the sixth-graders are going up to the junior high. The others are either switching to public schools or moving to the mainland. I’m not sure where Kaito is going, but I start obsessing about kicking his smug ass anyway.
Yet I know it isn’t the girls’ team losing that bothers me so much. It’s Seira’s words at the end, and that meek acceptance of the boys’ triumph that infuriates me. Why should it be a given that girls will lose to boys? I’m taller than most of the boys in my class, and faster too. And what does it mean anyway – girls should act like girls? I’m a girl. Why should I have to pretend to be someone I already am?
I ask Ba-chan at dinner about this.
“Girls are expected to act a certain way. It’s just the way it is. Every society has rules,” she says.
Rules. I hate rules. Rules don’t make sense to me at all. They’re just made up by someone to get everything going just the way they like it, without any consideration for the people they’re a bother to. Rules tell us to go to bed when we’re not sleepy at all, or to stop playing right in the middle of a great game.
“What kind of rules did you have when you were my age?” I ask.
Ba-chan picks at some pickled vegetables. They always get stuck between her teeth, but she can’t resist them still. “Oh, so many rules, but I’ve forgotten most of them. That’s the good thing about being old – you have a good excuse for forgetting things you don’t want to remember,” she chuckles with what I call her Yuubaba voice.
I wonder if that excuse works for twelve-year olds as well. Oh, I forgot my homework because I’m old. Twelve years old. I’ve never heard anyone use that one before. Maybe I should try it. Ba-chan did say it’s a good excuse, and our teacher always says, “Unless it’s a very good excuse, I don’t want to hear it.” Anything that gets me out of doing homework is worth a shot.
“Will you go call your uncle down from his room for me, Kokoro-chan? Dinner’s getting cold.”
Ba-chan lives in one of those old houses made of wood, instead of concrete. It’s on one of the small islands in the north, and she keeps her own farm. I come to stay with her almost every school vacation, because Mother thinks it’s good for me or something. I know she just wants me out of her hair and in someone else’s. And it’s good for the neighbors, of course.
Somehow, and I swear it isn’t my fault, every time a school vacation comes round and I stay in our tiny apartment in the city, we get a complaint from a neighbor. The last time it happened, I was ten. We were playing catch with a real baseball. None of us had any gloves, except for Asahi, whose father is a baseball coach. So when a really fast hardball came my way, I did what anyone else would’ve done. I ducked. It was either that, or have all the bones in my tiny unprotected hand shattered, as I was certain the ball would have done. Somehow it became my fault that the window behind me got smashed!
It wasn’t my throw. And yet I got blamed for it. Unbelievable. Just like the time when I kicked the ball and hit a baby, but it wasn’t even a proper soccer ball, just one of those super light ones from Daiso that doesn’t bounce the way it’s supposed to. The baby didn’t even cry, but the mother made such a big fuss about it. She made it sound like we’d tried to run them down with a bus or something. A ball is not a bus. Sheesh.
Anyway enough was enough, Mother said, and me coming to stay with Ba-chan would be better for everyone’s health. I’m still on the fence about that. There’s no TV here, but back home we don’t have cable anyway so TV’s only good for when we eat dinner. It’s especially useful when Mother asks me about homework, and I can pretend to be engrossed in whatever random variety show is on, or distract her by pretending to be amused by what’s on the screen. Sometimes if I sense that she’s still on the topic, I just act like the program’s so exciting and narrate what she missed until she forgets about asking.
The closest neighbor is a good five minutes walk away, and they don’t have any kids my age, so I don’t really have a reason to be walking down that way. Other than Ba-chan who is usually tending to her crops outside, there’s only Uncle Joe around.
Uncle Joe’s room is upstairs, right at the end of the corridor from mine. I try knocking, but there is no answer. Loud music sneaks out from the gap under the door.
“Uncle Joe?” I call out. “It’s time for dinner.”
Still no response.
Well, I did what I was asked to, didn’t I? Maybe he’s taking a nap, or has his headphones on. I sometimes do that back home when I’m listening to something I suspect Mother might not approve of. I put on some music that I know she won’t mind, but I’m really listening to something else on my headphones. She never suspects a thing.
Just out of curiosity, I get down on my knees and peer under the door. I’ve never been inside Uncle Joe’s room before, and from what I can see through the gap it’s full of candlelit shadows. Weird. It’s not so primitive here that we don’t have electricity, so why is he using candles?
“Uncle Joe?” I force my voice in against the flow of dancing decibels. Then I worry if I should have stood up before doing so. Would he notice where my voice had come from, and think that I was snooping?
I get the sense that Uncle Joe likes his privacy. He never talks about what he does, unlike most adults whenever they get together. He keeps his door locked all the time, and has never invited me inside before. He comes down for mealtimes, and then disappears upstairs immediately after. I’ve never seen him help out around the house. Ba-chan does everything. Cleaning, cooking, even fixing up all the broken stuff.
I remember one time a couple of years back when we saw her up on the roof replacing some broken tiles. That was the last time Father had come together to visit Ba-chan, and he got into some sort of argument with Uncle Joe. Something about not pulling his weight, and Uncle Joe had accused Father of never being around. I don’t remember how it ended, but Father stopped visiting Ba-chan, except during the New Year and he never stays over anymore.
When I inform Ba-chan of my failed attempt to call down Uncle Joe, she simply says, “Try the other door. Tell him he’ll have to wash up if he’s not done with his dinner by the time we finish our tea.”
The other door is at the top of a staircase outside the house that leads directly to Uncle Joe’s room. Mother told me that Uncle Joe built it himself, although I don’t quite believe her. It’s not that she lies, but rather because I’ve never seen Uncle Joe do anything resembling work before. It’s like he’s allergic to it. Maybe I take after him.
The door at the top is slightly ajar. I knock and call out, “Uncle Joe? It’s Kokoro. May I come in?” Somehow my hand gives me permission to push the door open and let myself in.
The room is unlike anything I have ever imagined. Not that I’ve ever tried to imagine Uncle Joe’s room. Well, maybe just a bit, but not any more than anyone would try to imagine what’s on the other side of a locked door. There is a huge bed against the wall that looks way too fluffy and comfortable to be just sitting there. It practically screams, “Jump on me! Please!” Ba-chan sleeps on a futon mattress, just like I do, so I am totally unprepared to find such luxury under the same roof.
The inner curtains are white and lacy, and appear to be just for show. They lie lazily against a set of thick, light-obliterating shades. I can’t tell if they’re black or brown, since the shifting candle light keeps making the color change. About a dozen or so candles are laid out on the floor. Mother never lets me play with candles, claiming that they’re fire hazards, and we don’t even have a wooden floor, or walls. I wonder if Ba-chan knows about Uncle Joe using candles up here.
Uncle Joe is nowhere to be seen, and yet I get the sense that I’m being watched. As I make my way into the center of the room, I realize why. The shelves lining the walls are filled with strange dolls all looking right at me. There must be dozens, many even a hundred of them, or more. Wow. So Uncle Joe has a doll collection. No wonder he doesn’t want anyone coming into his room. Whatever would people think?
I don’t know what I think, but then again I’ve never really liked playing with dolls. They just lie there, doing nothing. At least a ball bounces when you throw it down. Dolls? I just don’t know what to do with them. Some people talk to them, but I usually like whoever I talk to to talk back.
There’s something strange about the eyes of these dolls, so I step up to a row of them to take a closer look. They’re buttons, just like in Coraline. All black, and each doll also has a red velvet heart sewn onto its chest. Several of them have pins sticking out of them, and what looks like a ribbon of hair tied neatly around.
“That one’s Misaki.”
I jump and whirl around at the same time, and somehow manage to trip myself doing so. “Uncle Joe! I’m sorry, I knocked but…”
Uncle Joe is my mother’s older brother. He’s older than Father, I think, although I’ve never asked. He has a thick beard, which is quite uncommon here in Okinawa. Most men here are neatly shaved, especially the men in the military, like Father.
“Watch out for those candles now. Don’t want you burning down the house now, do we?”
I try to get up on my feet, but it’s like they’ve gone deaf or something. My mind barks commands like, “Get up!”, “Move! Oy!” but there’s no response. I consider grabbing onto the bed beside me for support, but maybe that’s not such a good idea. I’m probably not supposed to be in here poking my nose around, and touching stuff I’m not supposed to isn’t likely to help.
Uncle Joe pretty much ignores me and goes right to where the candles are. Only now do I notice that they are laid out in an arc. He kneels down and mumbles something unintelligible, swaying back and forth in a rhythmic fashion. I wonder if he’s praying or meditating, both of which strike me as odd. He just doesn’t seem like the religious sort at all.
I manage to sit up, but my legs still refuse to push themselves into a standing position. Part of me just want to get the heck out of here. It is the same part that can’t quite believe that Uncle Joe hasn’t literally picked me up and thrown me outside yet, but suspects that may be the next thing on his list after he was done with his mumbo-jumbo. The other part of me wants to find out more about whatever it is he’s doing. Guess which part my legs are helping?
“Um, Ba-chan told me to call you down for dinner. She says that you’ll have to do the dishes if you’re not done by the time we finish our tea.” That almost makes it sound like I have a perfectly legitimate reason to be in here. I think.
Uncle Joe continues his swaying and mumbling for a while, and I start to wonder if he heard me. But before I think of something else to say, he responds, “Since you’re up here, I don’t have to worry about you finishing your tea yet, do I?”
Huh. If he thinks that he can finish his entire dinner before I finish one tiny cup of tea, he’d better think again. I usually just gulp down my tea. And even if I didn’t already do it, I would do it tonight just to see him do the dishes.
Uncle Joe uncaps a small clear bottle he retrieves from inside his jacket. It is filled with a golden liquid, and a lump of something pale and round is floating around inside. He says a few words I can’t quite catch, and then takes a long swallow. “Yosh!”
Then he begins blowing out the candles one by one.
Before I can do anything, the room is engulfed in darkness. Strange smells of smoke, sweat and something else all mingled together overwhelm me, and I feel light-headed. A hand grabs me by the arm and hoists me to my feet. “Out!”
As I stumble down the stairs, shooed from behind by Uncle Joe, I can’t help but ask, “What was that you were doing in there?”
“Just a bit of harmless voodoo. Nothing like a little magic to get the girls to fall for you.” And then he guffaws.
Uncle Joe always likes to say things to shock or startle me. Most of the time, I know he’s just pulling my leg, but this time… Now that I think about it, those dolls did look strange, like they could be voodoo.
“Yeah, right. And I guess that was a magic love potion you were drinking?”
“You got it. Nothing like some brewed tiger balls to get you going the whole night long.” And then he laughs again, like he just made a clever joke that has got everyone around him in stitches.
I’m not laughing at all. What does he mean by tiger balls? I know cheeseballs, and mothballs and, um, probably all the types of balls we play with in sports, but those aren’t for eating. Do they cut up tigers into tiny pieces and stuff them into little doughballs, like stuffed mochi? I’ve heard of some cultures eating strange stuff, but eating tiger is a first for me. I must have stiffened or something, because he claps a hand on my shoulder in a reassuring manner, and says, “Just a health tonic, my girl. Just a health tonic.”
“Is there something wrong with you?” Mother has migraines, and I know Ba-chan’s joints hurt her sometimes, even though she never complains about them. I’ve seen her rubbing them with medicated oil.
“Oh no, don’t you worry about me. I’m as healthy as an ox. This is just to make me stronger for special occasions.”
I wonder what’s special about tonight, but apparently my brain is even more curious about the bottle Uncle Joe is holding, because I find myself asking, “How does it make you stronger?”
Somewhere in the back of my mind a tiny me has just chugged down one of Uncle Joe’s tiger power potions, and gained superhuman powers. Singlehanded, super tiny me is singlehandedly taking on an entire team of Kaitos and thrashing them silly in dodgeball. I giggle at the thought.
We’re standing under the stairs at the corner of the house, and Uncle Joe just stops suddenly. “Here, have a sip, and stop asking so many questions. But don’t blame me, if you start growing a moustache.” He thrusts the uncapped bottle at me, and I get a whiff of something strong-smelling and almost sweet. It reminds me of Father’s breath after he returns from a night out with his friends.
I wonder if it’s a trick. I once asked Mother what it is that makes Father’s breath smell like that, and she told me it was beer. So I asked if I could try it. She said that it was an adult drink, and that I probably wouldn’t like it. “You always tell me that I won’t know till I try it, so how would I know I won’t like it unless I try?” I remember replying. So she’d done the exact same thing that Uncle Joe was doing now - she got a can of cold beer out from the fridge, opened it and thrust it at me.
“Go on then. Give it a try,” she dared me in her don’t-say-I-didn’t-warn-you tone.
Now I love sweet soda, even though I know they’re supposed to be bad for my teeth and my health. My reasoning was that whatever made Father’s breath smell sweet like that had to be sweet, so I took a big gulp, and immediately regretted it. It was as far from sweet as anything I had ever tasted. I wanted to spit it out, but didn’t want to give Mother the satisfaction of saying, ‘I told you so.’ So I swallowed. It tasted even worse squeezing down my throat than swilling in my mouth, but I forced the grimace off my face and said, “It’s not too bad, but I prefer Sprite.”
Now I wonder if the sweet-smelling liquid in front of me is going to taste like beer. I eye Uncle Joe sideways suspiciously.
“No?” He shrugs and pulls the bottle away, but I impulsively grab his hand.
“Wait! I’ll try just a tiny sip.” It can’t hurt, can it? Even if it tastes as foul as beer does, if it really does make me stronger in some way, it might still be worth a moment of disgust.
It burns my tongue, like a tiny splash of acid. I swallow, and almost gasp at the sensation of it gliding fire down my throat, past my chest and into my stomach. The taste doesn’t register at all. I thrust the bottle back at Uncle Joe, tongue sticking out of an open mouth sucking in cool air to soothe my burnt parts, and am vaguely aware of a low chuckle from him. Whatever.
“Guess I’ll be keeping the rest for myself, huh?”
Honestly I can’t understand why adults enjoy drinking disgusting stuff like that. We go back into the house, where Ba-chan’s mild tea sits waiting for me on the table. That, I know, will not poison me.

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