Chapter 1:

1 | Mythic Kingdoms

Mythic Kingdoms

"Have a good night, Mai!" Priscilla, the bus driver, yells as I run down the steps of the bus. I wave goodbye to Priscilla, watching the doors close behind me. The yellow school bus disappears around the corner and I pick up my pace, running up the hill to go home.

After Maê divorced, we found a secure community close to a prestigious high school and a middle school with a strong special ed program for my little brother. The three-bedroom condo we live in is nicer than what we're used to. It has a swimming pool, a jacuzzi, a private gym, and a recreational room where kids could play board games and lose track of time on the new PlayStation 25. As nice as everything is, I know me and my family don't fit in. Of all the tenants living here, how many are Asian? I'm lucky if I meet at least one other Thai person.

I run up the steps to Apartment B-88, ringing the doorbell. I hear soft footsteps trudging on the carpet; the ground creaking with every step. Suddenly, the sound stops and a faint shadow is cast from the bottom of the door.

"Lamai, is that you?" Yai asks, despite being able to see me through the door's peephole. Her eyesight isn't the greatest, so it doesn't bother me.
"Yes, I'm back from school," I reply, waiting impatiently as I tighten my grip on my scarf, trying to keep winter’s icy embrace from penetrating my skin. My breath appears as a puff of smoke.

Although it’s February, the weather has yet to warm up. The cherry tree branches lack their usually vibrant pink-edged white flowers, while the needles of the pine trees have fallen to the ground. It’s quiet, with no birds or woodland critters in sight. Leaves once green now have turned to a dull brown and dark orange. The wind blows fiercely, whistling its discontent on the breeze.

It’s four in the afternoon, which means I have an hour and a half before Maê returns home from work. Before school ended, my best friend, Yumi, mentioned a new VRMMORPG game they planned to release tomorrow. I had saved enough money from my part-time job. If I wanted to get the game, I would have to persuade Yai to take me before my mom could influence her decision.

"Could you let me in? It’s cold out here," I say, shoving my hands deeper into my coat pockets to wrap my hands around the pocket warmers.

The lock clicks and the door swings open. I'm greeted by my grandmother's exuberant grin. She has her bifocals resting low on the ridge of her nose, like she just read something. She has her same bright red lipstick on, including curly hair extensions that look like a dead poodle. Her hair is blacker than usual, and the potent scent of chemical dye wafts through once she closes the door behind me. My gaze wanders to her hair and I notice it's wet. She must have dyed it again… Maê won't be happy when she gets home.

I hear my little brother, Ari, laughing in the bedroom, likely from a new Spongebob game. He has played that game damn near one hundred times, and every time, enjoyed it more than the previous run. Maê didn't like it when we played too many games because she worried it would affect our schoolwork. It's different for Ari because he's autistic. She often says how she regrets not giving him half the things she's given me. Though I think it's because he's her favorite. What did I get to be proud of? A set of IB classes I need to take to improve my chances of getting into a good college, hours of Taekwondo on Saturdays, and concert and marching band. It's a lifestyle that forces me to turn to games for comfort. At least in the gaming world, I could forget about my worries for a few hours.

"How was school?" Yai asks, already rushing around the corner into the kitchen. I take my shoes off and slip my feet into slippers, following her. I'm instantly hit with the delicious fumes of her signature teriyaki chicken. My favorite. "Are you hungry? I made some food for Ariyanuntaka earlier. I can heat it up if you'd like."

My stomach rumbles and I know it's a lost battle. "Maybe just one plate," I answer, while thinking if I ate fast enough, I would still have enough time to learn more about the new game.

She pulls a white ceramic plate from one cupboard and opens the rice cooker. Heat floods the surrounding space as she scoops two generous dollops of rice onto my plate. Next, she turns to the pot that held the main course. She lifts the lid and the mouthwatering aroma of soy sauce fills my nose.

Chicken drumsticks and hard-boiled eggs float in a dark brown liquid, having soaked up the juicy sauce. Yai picks up a pair of tongs and places two drumsticks next to my rice. I know it's cooked to perfection because the meat sloughs off just from her gripping it. She places a hard-boiled egg on the cutting board to slice it in half before adding it to my plate. The rice has already started to turn brown from the sauce. All thoughts about the new VRMMORPG leave my mind and I forget about the urgency in talking to her before Maê gets home.

She sets the food at the table and hands me a spoon and fork. With how tender the meat is, I don't need a knife. I fill my spoon with a bit of rice, a bit of egg, and a strip of chicken. When I take my first bite, a sweet and salty flavor explodes in my mouth. The meat practically melts and I find myself searching for more. Even the hard-boiled egg has a soft texture that satisfies me when I eat it without the other elements of the dish.

Within thirty minutes, I finish my meal. "My compliments to the chef," I say, as though I'm a customer dining in an exclusive restaurant to humor her.

She chuckles and says, "I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'll put the leftovers in the fridge. You can eat it tomorrow." She leans in to whisper, "Unless Ari eats it all before you get to it again. That boy is a bottomless pit! I don't know where he puts all that food. It's amazing. He never stops eating and yet we still can't get him to gain weight."

"Fast metabolism runs in the family, Yai. Look at you, Maê, and I." I head to my bedroom, peeking my head in the room Ari shares with Maê. He munches on raw mushrooms, peeling it away layer by layer with the front of his teeth. "I'm going to get started on homework. If you need anything, just knock."

"Don't study too hard. Remember to take breaks," she replies, already settling into the green couch in the living room with a quarter-filled container of purple sweet rice to watch the latest episode of her Thai soap opera. I watch her scoop up a generous helping and sprinkle a pinch of sugar over the colored rice. Shivers run down my spine as she takes her first bite and I take that as my cue to close my bedroom door before I lose my dinner.

I empty the contents of my backpack onto my bed before throwing it onto the floor. My room isn't anything fancy. A single queen-sized bed rests against the wall at ground level. Faded purple sheets cover the mattress, and it sits on the floor without a box spring or a headboard. It doesn't bother me because I still have my desk. But I'm not planning to do homework right away.

I slide into the chair at my desk, rousing my desktop computer from its slumber by gently nudging the mouse and entering my password. It opens up a Firefox browser with multiple tabs, most of which are YouTube videos of Korean and Chinese drama soundtracks. The last song I listened to is sung by Nantida Kaewbuasai, a family favorite. A day doesn't go by when a song written by Nantida or Tom Rainbow isn't blasting in someone's room.

A new tab opens and I type in the keywords 'MYTHIC KINGDOMS' and 'VRMMORPG.' It leads me to an official website with a background filled with ethereal shades of blue and purple. A goddess with luxuriously long hair holds a bright orb of white light above a tall staircase. Lines of text fade into view at the bottom of the screen, capturing my attention:

The Goddesses of Light beseech you to save their Mythic Kingdom.
Only one will reign victorious and keep the darkness at bay.

Unlike most games, this one doesn't include a preview of gameplay, so I don't know what to expect. Instead, there are one-line testimonies from beta testers, praising the game's intuitive gameplay, one hundred and fifty floors of intricately crafted worlds based on myths and legends around the worlds, thrilling and challenging bosses, and incredibly smart nonplayable characters who behave as though they are people in the real world. AI technology isn't unheard of. There have been recent advancements, but I'd never heard of a video game spending so much money to apply it to all the NPCs. The developers must have all the money in the world.

I scroll further down and see an instructional video for the new virtual reality headset, the SoulDive. As I watch the long tutorial, my eyes nearly bulge out of my skull in surprise when I see they're giving it out for free to promote Mythic Kingdoms, as it's the first game to utilize new technology. It wouldn't be easy to convince Maê to get me another VR headset, but with it being free, how could she refuse? She never turned down free stuff. It saved her the time of having to bargain with the seller and she couldn’t hold it against me for wasting my money.

The next thing I search for is the cost of the game. It's fifty bucks, a meager amount for the gaming experience they offer. It's not enough to put a dent in my savings. All I need is a ride to the nearest game store. There's sure to be a long line.

I hurry out of my bedroom and find Yai, who has just finished an episode of her five hundred episode drama. "Yai?" I tentatively ask to get her attention.
"Oh? Did you finish your homework already?" she replies, setting her empty container on the coffee table. "Are you hungry again? I'll fix you a bowl."

"No, not yet." I fiddle my thumbs behind my back nervously, my heart pounding in my ears. I know she'll say yes and yet I'm nervous, like I need to convince her why I need to buy Mythic Kingdoms. "Could you take me to the store tomorrow? There's a new game coming out and it's supposed to include a world similar to Thailand."

"That's nice. Of course I'll take you." She ruffles my hair. "What time would you like to go?"

The door swings open suddenly, and my mom appears around the corner. She begins talking in Thai to my grandmother, not realizing I'm also standing here. My gaze flickers to the clock. It's a couple of minutes past six. Six already? I didn't realize it had gotten that late already.

Everyone always says I take after my mother. She has short black hair, styled as a fashionable bob. Where her hair is naturally straight, mine consists of long, tight coils of curls, pressed flat thanks to the many straightening treatments she takes me to do every six months or so. It helps me save time on my hair and keeps unwanted strangers from reaching out and touching my hair out of curiosity. I inherited her full red lips, high cheekbones, upturned eyes, and warm brown irises, and yet we have completely distinct personalities.

I'm envious of her outgoing, playful nature because I'm an extreme introvert. New and unfamiliar situations frighten me, and new and unfamiliar people terrify me more. She enjoys going to happy hours with friends and meeting new people, whereas I don't like to stray too far from my bedroom. Aside from Yumi, the only friends I have are the people I met online and I've never seen their faces before. All I know is we are people with similar interests with the identical desire to remain in their bedroom, playing a game, where everyone accepts us.

Maê and Yai exchange a few more words in Thai and Maê's tone becomes harsher as the conversation goes on. She stares at me speculatively before asking, "Where are you making Yai take you tomorrow?"

Oh boy. I’m in for it. "To the game store, Maê. There's a new game that I want to try and they're giving out free SoulDive headsets for free!" She opens her mouth to argue, but I continue, hoping my reasons will be enough for her to understand and agree. "It's for a good cause! The game provides a learning experience about other cultures and helps provide companies with feedback to progress our technology."

Maê raises a hand to stop me. She sighs and rubs the bridge of her nose, closing her eyes. "Why do you need to learn about other cultures, Mai? You should focus on becoming fluent in Thai. Yai passed the language down to me and it's my job to pass it down to you so you can pass it down to your children. We may be in America, but it's important for us to not forget our heritage."

Here we go again... "That's different. You grew up in Thailand. You were surrounded by people who spoke the language. How can I practice Thai if no one else speaks it here?"

She opens her eyes and crosses her arms. "You have Yai."

"Yai isn't fluent in English! How can I learn Thai if I have nothing to compare it to?" I fire back, stepping closer to her to show I won't back down.

She takes it as a challenge and squares up to me. For a moment, I worry if she'll slap me for disrespecting her. "If you diligently studied the language, you wouldn't be asking that question."

Yai chuckles nervously and separates us. "How about we make a deal? I'll take Mai to get the new game she wants and we will work on improving her Thai. By this time next year, she'll be at the intermediate level." Maê begins to disagree, but Yai isn't having it. They continue their conversation in Thai. Maê raises her voice, but Yai remains calm.

The argument persists for a few more minutes before Maê finally says, "You can play the game, but you must keep your grades up."

Enthusiasm fills me, and I struggle to contain my happiness. I send all my excitement to my hands, clapping them together exuberantly. "Thank you, Maê! I'm already ahead of the rest of the class, so you don't have to worry! You won't regret this."

"It better stay that way. We didn't immigrate to this country, so you could play games. Don't lose sight of your goals, Lamai. You're our family's hope for redemption."

Talk about pressure. I roll my eyes as she stalks into the bedroom, where Ari is still playing his game. She kisses the top of his head and says, "Hey bud, did you have a good day today?" If only she treated me the same, the thought passes through my mind as jealousy rears its ugly head.

"Don't worry too much about what your mother says," Yai says, trying to reassure me with a side hug. Her embrace is warm enough to let some of my envy dissipate, but the frustration remains. Why couldn't Maê act more loving to me like she did with Ari? "She only wants the best for you. We'll get your game in the morning, so get some rest."

At least I'll always have you in my corner, Yai.

* * *

The next morning, Yai and I drive over to the nearest store, where there is already a line of people waiting to get their own copy of Mythic Kingdoms. The line winds down the street and around the corner. Although I expect it to be crowded, I didn’t expect the line to be this long at nine in the morning. Surprisingly, some even set up sleeping bags and slept on the sidewalks during the night. Camping outside a store isn’t unheard of, but it still doesn’t fail to surprise me.

Yai's attention is on the Thai restaurant across the street, Dee Thai Kitchen. It's owned by her friend, Phaoy, who immigrated here and ended up marrying an American. She often spends her weekends helping her open the restaurant and cook for the customers, so I know she'd rather be there than waiting in line for a game she didn’t understand.

"Mai!" a voice calls to me from a distance. I turn my head and see Yumi. Her dark brown eyes light up when they meet mine and she waves enthusiastically from the end of the line, not caring about the people staring at us. She has thin, medium-length black hair, something I wished I had. With how thick and long my hair is, it constantly tugs at my head, giving me headaches.

I wave back and shift my gaze back to Yai before saying, "Why don't you go ahead and say hi to Phaoy for me, Yai? I'll come over when we're done and we can go home together."

"Are you sure?" she asks, looking at me worriedly.

"Yes, we'll be here for a while. That should give you plenty of time. Besides, I bet Yumi and I will be hungry by the time we finish. Will you save me a fortune cookie?" I answer.

A knowing smile tugs at the corners of her lips. "If I save you one, you'll want more. You almost ate through the last bag Phaoy ordered."

I shrug before replying sarcastically, "I'm helping the restaurant. It's false advertising to offer fortune cookies at a Thai restaurant. You guys should stick to the mango slices and sticky rice."

She rolls her eyes, fighting a laugh. "Alright, alright. When you're done, come right over, alright? No wandering. Your mother agreed to let you get the game, not play with hooks. You still have homework and chores to do." She turns to leave, waiting for the crosswalk to say 'WALK'. The crosswalk sign turns green and dings, signaling for her to cross.

"It's hooky, Yai!" I shout to her. She's already too far away to hear me.

I join Yumi at the back of the line and I notice she's wearing traditional Japanese clothes. The kimono she has on is the color of dawn—yellow, orange, pink, and a faint trace of blue—with an embroidered image of a Goddess of Light from Mythic Kingdoms' website, except this one provides a warmer contrast. Delicately crafted with various shades of red threading, her ensemble comes together with a cherry blossom hair pin to keep half of her hair in place, while the other half cascades down her back.

"Stealing your mom's clothes again, Yumi?" I ask, trying not to snicker at the memory of when I last visited her house. She always took clothes from her mother's closet to make cosplay. It's not like she's terrible at designing, but it amuses me how she took inspiration from the simplest of things.

"No... She gave me permission this time. This is one of her old kimonos. They say Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto will show up in the Japanese Mythic Kingdom. I hope she's their Goddess of Light!" she replies before spinning slowly. "What do you think?"

"It's beautiful. If Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto isn't half as beautiful as your design, it'll put the developers to shame!" I say with a laugh. Yumi's outdone herself.

My gaze shifts to the make-up on her face, noticing her red lips and fierce winged black eyeliner painted over soft orange and yellow eyeshadow. The next thing I see is how clear her skin and pale her skin is. It reminds me of how much I wish I looked like her because everywhere I go, people openly stare and ogle. Some are unrestrained by going as far as asking ‘what are you?’ or saying ‘you look exotic.’ Why can’t I be treated like everyone else? Is it really so strange for me to be Black and Asian? I can’t be the only mixed-race person in the world.

The line starts to move, with up to ten people entering the store at a time to avoid overcrowding and chaos. I watch a group of teenage boys run past us with their SoulDive and Mythic Kingdoms copy in hand. They joke amongst themselves, betting who will score the most female NPCs. A smirk forms on my face and a chuckle escapes me, knowing the game is rated PG and won’t be the kind of game they’re expecting.

“Can you believe them?” Yumi asks. “The NPCs might be artificially intelligent, but they’re not programmed to bang every person they meet. If they want to play a game like that, they’re better off looking elsewhere, if you catch my drift.” She wiggled her eyebrows at me for good measure, not caring about the curious glances of those nearby.

“I don’t think they care,” I admit with a shrug. “They’re probably tired of being rejected by girls in the real world. They’re perfectly harmless so long as they’re not aggressive. Besides, how is that any different from us fangirling over certain video game husbandos who shall not be named?”

“Good point,” she said, returning her attention back to the front of the line.
Before we know it, we’re at the front of the store. The sign glows in a neon orange that says “Tarot Gaming.” In the beginning, the store only hosted games that featured Tarot cards, with its most popular game being Divine Hearts, a dating sim game where each character represents a specific Tarot card. Their popularity skyrocketed after its release and they began selling a diverse array of games. To those of us who knew the store when it struggled to keep its doors open, it makes me happy to see it so prosperous.

While I expect to see only Mr. Wu managing the shop, I quickly notice a man and a woman, dressed in full suits. The man looks mysterious and intimidating based on the serious glare he gives customers who pass by. He wears dark sunglasses and stood stiffly while he held boxes of the SoulDive equipment for his colleague. If this is their way of making a sale, they’re doing a real shitty job at it. Is this a hold up or a hand out?

For a moment, it almost feels like he’s watching me carefully, but he turns his head before I could think more of it. On the other hand, the woman is attentive and friendlier, answering questions as they come in like she had nothing but time to respond to their needs.

“Mai! Yumi!” Mr. Wu calls to us with a wave. We join him at the counter and he has the biggest grin plastered on his face. My gaze briefly flickers to his new toupee. Over the past couple of years, he’s lost his hair and done everything one can think of to try to hide his balding. As much as some kids tease him for it, I don’t think anything of it and consider it a natural part of aging.

“Hi, Mr. Wu!” Yumi greets in return.

“Good morning, Mr. Wu,” I mumble, returning my attention to the suspicious man. He’s observing the customers carefully and I can’t help but wonder if they have a shortage of staff to help sell the SoulDive and all they could spare is that bitterly quiet man.

“Did you hire new people?” I finally ask Mr. Wu.

“Oh, Angelina and Eli? They’re just the people Breakthrough sent over. They’re here to help advertise the SoulDive and hand out limited edition deluxe versions,” Mr. Wu replies. “You would think they wouldn’t be good at selling things considering they’re dressed for a big shot business meeting, but they’ve brought new customers to Tarot Gaming. Don’t let Eli’s broodiness fool you, he’s sold more than Angelina.”

I narrow my eyes at him, assuming he’s toying with me. “You’re kidding.”

Mr. Wu shakes his head. “Nope. I made him put on those sunglasses because his good looks lured a lot of women into the store. When I confronted them and told them they needed to buy something if they wanted to stay in the store, they said they had no intention of buying anything.” He shrugs before continuing, “I can’t have them taking up spots of customers who actually want to purchase something. As you can see, we only have a limited number of spots to avoid overcrowding and potential shoplifting.”

No kidding, I glance at Angelina and Eli once more, realizing I’m overthinking things.

“Mr. Wu, what’s going on with the deluxe SoulDive?” Yumi asks. “They didn’t announce it on their website.”

He chuckles before responding. “It’s a perk that is only available in stores. They choose random customers, so I don’t know how they make those decisions. You’ll have to find out. A copy of MK for each of you?”

I nod and Mr. Wu rings up Yumi while I look around. The store has board games of all varieties stacked on shelves against the walls, ranging from Co-Op and RPG to trading card games. There are four individual, revolving, pillar-like shelves in the center of the store that hold figurines of popular video game, anime, and manga characters, stuffed animals, large marshmallow pillows, keychains, and posters.

Sifting through the stacks of posters, I search for the Thai Goddess of Light, thinking it could be a nice aesthetic to brighten up my rather dull room. Before I can grab it and view it, I notice a boy around my age who has reached for the same poster on the opposite corner.

Prepared to fight for the only copy of this poster, I look up to see the bright smile of a brown-haired boy with gray eyes. He rubs the back of his neck and laughs, which only makes the awkwardness in the air more apparent. “Sorry, I didn’t think we were going for the same thing,” he says. “I’m trying to collect all the posters of the Goddesses of Light and this happens to be the only one I don’t have yet. I guess it’s not as popular as the Greek Goddess of Light or Chinese Goddess of Light.”

“You’re telling me,” I mutter, realizing once again that Thai people don’t really have a place outside of Thailand. If I were in Thailand, there would surely be many people clamoring for this very poster. I hate knowing this.

“You can have it, I don’t really need it,” he says, releasing his grip and shoving his hands into his pants pockets.

I peek at the price and nearly have a heart attack. Seventy bucks. I don’t have enough for this and the game. “No, go ahead. I was just looking around.”

“Thanks,” he says, taking the rolled-up poster before holding his hand out to me. “I’m Braeden. I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before.”

“I don’t live in this neighborhood,” I answer, turning to leave, hoping he would understand and leave me be, but he followed me to the counter. If it’s one thing that my mom taught me since I was a kid, it’s to never trust a guy. And this person is something I could never confide in, but why is he so persistent?

“If you’re here, it must not be far. What school do you go to? Maybe we’ve passed each other in the hallway before.” He leans against the counter, which warrants a curse from Mr. Wu in Chinese. I fish for the fifty dollars in my purse and hand it to him in exchange as he rings up my copy of Mythic Kingdoms. I ignore Yumi’s leer burning into the side of my head as she watches the exchange between me and Braeden.

“I don’t think that’s any of your business,” I say sharply. Yumi elbows me as if to chastise me for turning down an interested boy. But I don’t want to be with anyone. I’m not allowed to date and I have enough responsibilities to carry out to my displeasure. “Thanks, Mr. Wu,” I tell the shopkeeper before grabbing Yumi’s arm. “Let’s go, Yumi.”

He looks troubled by my response as he furrows his brow in confusion. He stands in front of me to stop my escape. “I didn’t mean to be a pest. I just wanted to know because it’s not often I meet someone interested in the Thai-inspired Mythic Kingdom. Maybe we could talk more over coffee.”

“I don’t drink coffee,” I reply curtly, pushing past him, ignoring Yumi’s pleading for me to give him a chance. “Excuse me.”

“Lunch then?” he says with a disgustingly bright grin. No matter how many times I shoot him down, it only seems to increase his confidence.

I turn around, finally having enough. “Look, Braeden. You’re probably a nice guy, but I’ll save you the trouble. I’m not allowed to date nor do I have an interest in dating. I have a lot of responsibilities at home and it would only be a distraction. You’re better off finding someone who can actually make you happy.”

He raises his hand in defeat, his smile never fading. “Alright. Sorry to hold you up. Well, if you ever want to play MK with someone, my gaming username is The Gun.”

I’ll be sure to never ask you to play with me. “Excuse us.”

“What’s wrong with you?” Yumi whispers in my ear. “He’s cute!”

“Oh, please. You know my mom would kill me if she found out I had a boyfriend. Besides, you know I have to put Ari first. No one would be able to tolerate that, no one should,” I reply.

“You deserve to put yourself first for once.”

“Try telling that to my mom. Apparently every day, I’m a bigger disappointment for her.”

“I doubt that. My mom was telling me about how she ran into your mom at the store the other day and she wouldn’t stop gushing about how well you performed at your last taekwondo tournament. I’m sure she’s proud of you but doesn’t know how to express it to your face.”

As much as I want to believe Yumi, I can’t. I’ve had to withhold my emotions, cry where no one else could see to avoid being viewed as weak, and endure all the pressure my family placed on me. For years, I’ve thought about the ways I could tell my mom what I’m feeling, but whenever I face her, the words are stuck on my tongue. The words I couldn’t say weigh heavier on my heart, and my mind, and I’m forced to be happy to appease the one person I desperately wanted love and support from. Is harmony even possible for someone like me?

My thoughts are interrupted by Angelina and Eli, who have handed Yumi her SoulDive box. Eli extends a different box to me and I notice it has a strange yellow sticker on it with bold black letters that say ‘DELUXE EDITION.’

“Aww… I only got the regular version,” Yumi says with a sigh. “I wonder what makes the Deluxe Edition so different.”

“You’ll have to find out in the game!” Angelina replies cheerfully.

Or maybe not at all. What if it’s all part of a coy plan to bring in more users? It doesn’t worry me too much as I’m only concerned with escaping reality as soon as I can. The only way I can do that is to get through the day and retreat to the solitude of my room.