There’s a legend Khit once told me. A legend of star-crossed lovers who unwillingly became the target of two warring clans. One faction was called the yaojing, a group of shapeshifters that stole their life energy from the seven deadly sins committed by humans.
The opposing sect was their mortal enemy, the shi’an. These were beautiful creatures with giant, painted wings, who disguised themselves as humans to live among mortals. The shi’an possessed great powers, talents that varied from being the funniest comedian in the world to being able to shoot fire out of one’s eyes, and no two shi’an shared the same talent.
But the shi’an believed that their most important power was their honor. They allied themselves with humans, and although the human world knew nothing of their existence, the shi’an considered themselves to be the protectors of the human race.
So they despised the yaojing, and for as long as history had been recorded, the yaojing and the shi’an had been at odds.
A thousand years ago, a shi’an girl and a yaojing boy met by accident and fell in love. But before they could elope, their rivaling clans received word of this “unholy” union, and for the first time in history, the yaojing and the shi’an agreed on something. The young couple should be made into an example to warn all generations to follow that a shi’an and a yaojing were forbidden to fall in love.
The poor couple was punished severely, their fate worse than death. They were cursed in an endless cycle of death and rebirth, in which their souls could never find rest. In every life cycle, the couple would meet and fall in love, only to be destined for death. The shi’an and the yaojing would be looking for them, as they were branded with cursed birthmarks, and they were to be sentenced to death by whomever discovered them first, whether the yaojing clan, or the shi’an clan.
For hundreds of life cycles, that couple had been put to death simply because they had committed the innocent act of falling in love.
Each time I recalled that story, I wanted to cry. Because I didn’t know what I’d do if I were forced to live hundreds of lives, never being able to freely love my yaojing.
“Caren!” From the kitchen, my best friend and roommate, Liana, called my name. I looked up from my physiology textbook and sighed. It wasn’t like I’d been successful in concentrating anyway. My head was too filled with that legend of the shi’an girl and yaojing boy, and my brain kept urging me to write a story about it. So I decided a study break was necessary and headed out of the room to see what my friend needed.
“I’m right here,” I said, poking my head into the kitchen. “No need to scream like I’m dead.”
“Oh, sorry,” she giggled, turning around.
I jumped back about three feet. “What’d you do to your face?”
“It’s called a mask, Caren,” she answered dryly.
The leftover skins and pits of three avocadoes lay strewn out on the counter. Liana had used the avocadoes to form some sort of paste to smear on her face.
“Apparently you don’t need my help making salad,” I said. “So why’d you call?” Whatever it was, it was probably loads more interesting than trying to understand the difference between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.
“I can’t find the cucumber,” she said.
Rolling my eyes, I delved into the refrigerator, opened the bottom drawer, and dug through the produce until I located the elusive vegetable. Then I handed it to her. “You know these veggies were supposed to be part of our dinner.”
“Don’t be stingy,” she replied, already heading to the sink to give the cucumber a quick rinse. “We’ll dine out. My treat. Only it can’t be tonight. I’ve got a date.” She sighed dreamily. “With—“
“With the oh-so-hot and chivalrous Tyler, yes I know. You’ve done nothing but talk about him since you met.”
Liana had rebounded pretty quickly, after her previous jerk of a boyfriend had two-timed her, then dumped her, marrying the other girl instead. At the start of the new school year, just two weeks ago, she’d met Tyler at some party.
I was glad that Liana had found someone. I’d never met Tyler personally, but he seemed like a decent guy from what Liana described. Still, part of me was a little worried that Liana was moving too fast. Sometimes, I caught her staring at old pictures of her ex on the computer, but every time she saw me looking, she minimized the window, pretending to look at something else. It seemed like she was with Tyler just to be with someone.
Every time I tried to talk to her, she would just giggle and spout adoration about her new boyfriend.
“Shut up,” she told me, not in anger, but coyness. “I don’t talk about Tyler half as much as you talk about your professor.”
My cheeks flamed up at the mention of Khit, who was also an English professor. It was probably true that I talked about him a lot, but at least I didn’t use the same gushy tone as Liana when she was talking about Tyler.
She chopped a few slices of cucumber on the chopping board. “All right, enough about the boyfriends. It’s me time.” She headed to the living room, adjusted herself on the couch, and arranged the cucumber slices on her face.
I shook my head, returning to my room to continue studying the wonders of the nervous system. That dratted legend just wouldn’t leave my brain though.
Concentrate Caren. Concentrate.
I started to read out loud. “The neuron is composed of three parts: the soma, the dendrites, and the ax—”
My phone rang.
“Caren, guess what?” The excited squeal on the other side of the phone was my sister, Cathy.
“I have a three day weekend next week!” The high pitch caused me to distance the phone from my ear.
“But school just started,” I said. “There are no holidays yet.”
“Teachers’ conference days,” Cathy explained. “Anyway, that’s not the only good news. Mom said if it’s all right with you, I can spend the weekend in San Diego, since I didn’t see you all summer. Mom and Dad can’t come though. They have to work.”
My face brightened. “That sounds great. Of course, I’ll have to ask my roommates when they come home, but I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
“And can Daisy come too?”
Daisy was Cathy’s best friend since kindergarten. She was a nice girl who I’d always considered like a little sister too, so of course I couldn’t say no. “Sure, just call me when you have the flight arranged.”
“Yay!” Cathy squealed again. “And I have to meet your boyfriend. Mom says that I’m to take a ton of pictures of him. And Dad wants me to make sure he’s good enough for you. I promised I’d kick him in the shin if he’s not.”
I had to grin at that. Cathy was not lying about kicking shins. She’d done it to plenty of bullies in her lifetime, including one particularly nasty boy who’d picked on Daisy when they were kids. “I assure you there’s no reason to kick Khit’s shin.”
“We’ll see about that,” was her gutsy reply.
When I got off the phone, I was nothing but smiles. I hadn’t gone home during the summer at all, so I hadn’t seen my family since last Christmas. And even though Cathy got on my nerves, like all little sisters did, I missed her. She was good in small doses, and it would be fun to hang out with her and Daisy for the weekend.
Half an hour later, however, my opinion was greatly changed. I had tried to get into my studying again, only to be interrupted every five minutes by another phone call from my sister. The first call was to tell me that Dad had booked a flight for 8:00 Saturday morning, and the plane would arrive at 9:00. The second call was to inform me that she had complained to Dad that the flight was too early, so he had changed it to the 10:00 flight. By the fifth call, Cathy was telling me what kind of activities she had planned for us, highlighting the places we should visit.
When the phone rang again, I’d had it.
“What is it this time?” I snapped. “Just because you can memorize things in a blink of an eye doesn’t mean I was born with that gene. I actually have to study, you know. And Saturday is my catch-up day.”
There was a long, silent pause at the end of my tirade, and then the low, male voice that finally spoke definitely did not belong to my sister.
“I guess I caught you at a bad time. I’ll call again later.”
“Khit?” I gasped, and my tone sweetened instantly. “I’m sorry. I thought you were my sister.”
“Well, I still shouldn’t bother you, since you have to study.” He sighed heavily. “And here I was, planning a pretty little date with my girlfriend.”
“No, don’t hang up!”
He chuckled, and I knew he was just teasing. “So tell me what your sister’s done to put you in a mood.”
I explained to him about Cathy’s and Daisy’s visit next weekend and how my sister had kept calling about her plans when I was trying to study. “I was trying to get things done before our date,” I said.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I’m on my way over, but if you have to study, I’ll just sit with you and grade papers for two hours. And then we can get dinner.”
“Are you sure it’s all right with you?” I asked. Although spending an afternoon strolling on the beach or at the mall with Khit was far more appealing than studying about neurons, I really did need to study. Midterms were in two weeks, and I couldn’t fall behind.
“Sure I’m sure,” he said. “I refuse to be the cause of any bad grades. After all, professors are supposed to help students achieve their goals, not hinder them.”
“Until they hand out grades,” I replied dryly, making him laugh.
When I got off the phone, I gathered my books and notes, transferring them to the table in the living room, where there would be more space for us to do out work.
“Khit’s coming over,” I told Liana, who was still on the couch with her salad-covered face. “Just a warning, if you don’t want him to see you like that. We’re studying here.”
She waved her hand indifferently. “I don’t care. He’s practically family.”
“I guess I should warn him then,” I muttered. In less than five minutes, a knock sounded on the door. Eagerly, I opened the door to find my boyfriend, stack of papers in hand. His bleached hair stood out more than ever. At first glance, it would seem that he had just come straight from a rock concert. But the spectacles that surrounded those sharp, amber eyes, made him seem more mature and intelligent. A nerd at heart.
“Don’t be scared by the green monster on the couch,” I told Khit. “It’s only Liana having a facial.”
“I heard that,” my best friend called. “Hey there prof.”
Khit grinned. “Hi Liana.” Then his smile faded, as he looked around the room warily.
Understanding his concern, I said, “Already locked Faun in my room.” Faun was my dog, and Khit was horrified of all dogs. Foxes and dogs just didn’t get along by nature. Plus, if Khit accidently touched a dog, he’d grow a fox tail that would not retract for several hours.
He sighed in relief, finally crossing the threshold, planting a quick kiss on my forehead. “Study away, then.”
It was easier for him than for me. While he was able to remain completely engrossed in grading papers, marking them all up with his diabolical red pen, I kept getting distracted simply by his presence. It took all my willpower to keep my eyes on the text I was reading, although I had read the same page about twenty times.
About half an hour into our study session, Liana got up to wash the avocado from her face and get ready for her date. As I continued my attempt to outline the chapter, I realized I had just copied the entire last paragraph word for word without even knowing what it was about. Each sentence seemed to contain about ten important new vocabulary words. Putting down my pen with a frustrated sigh, I massaged my temples.
“Am I really that much more interesting than the nervous system?” Khit asked, peering at me from the top rim of his glasses. His eyebrows rose in perfect question marks, and his amused smile only caused me to redden. I hadn’t known that he had been conscious of my staring.
“It’s just too hard to understand,” I said. “I can’t believe how complex our nerves are.”
He put down his work and scooted his chair closer to me. “Maybe I can help. I did go to med school, after all.”
I sighed, wondering why my boyfriend had to be so great at everything. He had gone through med school, according to his father’s wishes, only to decide not to become a surgeon after he’d graduated. Then he had switched career paths, becoming a literature professor instead. His father had not been happy about that, but Khit remained firm.
I only wished I could be like that. But as much as I wanted to pursue the path of a writer, I knew my parents would disown and kill me, not necessarily in that order.
“Now what don’t you understand?” Khit asked.
Patiently, he explained to me the concepts I was having trouble visualizing. I found myself nodding and actually paying attention, until things began to fall into place. Two hours later, we set our pens down, got up, and stretched.
“Well, I’ve worked up an appetite,” Khit said. “Let’s go get dinner.”
“Let me tidy up a bit,” I said.
“You look fine.”
Looking down at my sweatshirt and sweatpants, I didn’t feel fine. In fact, I probably looked a mess, having no makeup either. I had been so busy studying, I hadn’t even thought about my appearance, but now I was incredibly self-conscious. My boyfriend was standing in front of me, and I looked like a hobo.
“You’re lying,” I said. “I’m in sweatpants. Nobody goes on a date in sweatpants.”
“I don’t care what you wear,” he insisted. “You look great in anything.”
I narrowed my eyes suspiciously. “You must be hungry.”
“Starving,” he admitted guiltily.
Laughing, I gestured to the fridge. “Go get yourself a snack while I change. I won’t take long, but I refuse to go out looking like this.”
He called after me. “I wasn’t lying though. I think those sweatpants are sexy on you.”
“Oh, shut up.”