by Cynthia Li
Art by Cynthia Cheng
Issue: Metanoia (Winter 2017)
There was a prophecy that one day, the Chosen One would walk the earth and bring peace to all its people. That year the war against the aliens was too much to bear, too thin, too spread out, and thus began a search for this peace-bringer.
They started in New York State, where the Chosen One was prophesied to live, and found no one matching the description: Chinese, knobby-kneed, very-short-haired, and slightly sunburned. Discouraged, they returned to battle.
Coincidentally, the Chosen One was in Iowa City, staying with his relatives, eating chicken wings, and not really watching the search unravel on the news at all.
The day the search disbanded, Derek Wang was sitting alone at the kitchen table in his relative’s house in Iowa City, eating chicken wings. He finished one, checked his watch, and yelled, “Mom! The flight’s taking off in an hour!”
“Coming!” she yelled back, and three minutes and a lot of hassle later the car engine revved up and they were going to the airport.
It was eight o’clock exactly when they pulled up to the terminal and eight seventeen when they got through security and eight twenty-nine when they got to the gate, just in time for boarding.
At eight forty-seven they lifted off.
At eleven fifty-eight PDT they touched down in Los Angeles, which was where they usually lived. At exactly midnight they hailed a taxi, and at twelve forty-three they dropped into bed at home. Derek slept for approximately nine hours, rolled over, and slept some more.
He was going to college in New York City in a week.
On August twenty-ninth, Derek found the other guy in his dormitory room.
“Jon,” the other guy said, holding out his hand. He was cute. White, but cute. Derek was incredibly gay.
“Derek.” Derek shook Jon’s hand.
“You’re kind of late.”
Derek blinked. It was ten thirty in the morning. That was not very late, especially considering that he had flown in yesterday evening and he was still sleepy.
“Long ago,” said Jon, “there was a prophecy. I should know. I made it.”
“Oh,” said Derek. He was only slightly surprised. He’d heard about the prophecy, vaguely.
“This prophecy says that in a time of war, there would come the Chosen One, and he would walk the earth and bring peace. You are the Chosen One.”
“Really?” Derek said. All right. Cute but also slightly creepy.
“Obviously,” said Jon. “You are not safe here. We should leave. I’ll put up wards later.”
Derek frowned. “Who are you?”
“Jon Teagle, Mage of the Seventh Order. It’s complicated. We do need to go.” He opened his hand, and the room glowed blue.
“Woah,” said Derek. He decided that this was probably not an elaborate prank.
The room was no longer blue, or even the color of the wallpaper. It was no longer any color anymore. It was best described as really, really bright. Also, they were hurtling through space.
Derek closed his eyes.
“Almost there,” said Jon.
They hit the floor together with a thump. Derek swore. He couldn’t see anything. An orb of blue flared to life in Jon’s hand, illuminating stone walls. Derek squinted.
“So,” he said. “Where is this?”
Jon scrunched up his face. “My cave. Desmonda 120-E, sector 17, 19990IFGG—”
“Right.” Derek looked up. The cave was huge. “What are we doing here again?”
“I’m teaching you how to bring peace.”
“Peace?” said Derek.
“Yes,” said Jon. “Bringing to everything a sense of calm and creating a space in which no one wants to kill anything.” He went very still, and the earth settled and sighed. There was a soft quiet.
“I’m not very good at it,” he said. “Half the time I burn things down in the process. But peace-bringing’s your job, getting it to the entire world.”
Derek decided that he liked the work opportunity. It would look excellent on his resume.
The first semester was strange, to say the least. Between transporting himself to an alternate galaxy and calculus homework, he didn’t get much sleep. He did, however, master bringing peace to caterpillars. If he concentrated enough he could bring peace to Jon too, and his heart widened when that happened.
Derek had managed to develop a crush within four months. He wondered if he could survive the rest of the year crushing on his roommate without kissing him. On the lips.
The war raged on, slowly being defeated, into the winter. It did not reach New York. The army was ready to give up; the president urged them on, fearing the destruction of the world.
Derek was slightly stressed. Over winter break, he had bought a hoodie, a ski jacket, a pair of mittens, and a scarf, and he graduated to bringing peace to small rooms. And almost always Jon.
It was particularly snowy that day, and the blizzard screamed outside. Derek and Jon were in their two respective beds, wrapped in blankets. Jon hated the cold even more than Derek did: a feat Derek had not been aware was possible. This made Jon even more adorable.
“Should we go practice?” Derek offered.
“UuuunnnNnnnnghhhhh,” offered Jon back.
“Here?” Derek pulled the blankets closer.
The pile of blankets shrugged. Derek went very still and concentrated.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Heartbeats slowed: the bacteria in the room became quite docile. The room temperature rose slightly. He could hear Jon’s breaths across the room.
Outside the blizzard stilled and the sun came out. Jon peeked out of the blanket pile and out the window and swore. The snowflakes shuddered momentarily.
“Cut it out!” Jon snapped.
Then he reacted to what Jon had said, and the temperature dropped about ten degrees.
“Maybe no one noticed,” said Jon.
There was a rapid knocking on the door. Voices. Shuffling.
Jon squeaked. “Don’t open—”
Derek ignored him and discovered no less than seventeen rifles aimed at his face.
“That was fast,” he said, and focused on bringing peace to the hallway, and stuck out his hand. “Wanna come in? I have ramen.”
The hallway breathed.
The soldiers lowered their guns. A mustached man who was apparently their commander took his proffered hand and shook. “Sure.”
“I still can’t believe you let them in. And gave them our food.”
Derek shrugged, stuffing the remainder of the ramen packaging into the trash, which had already been overflowing in the first place. With the addition of nineteen ramen containers, the trash was going to drown them. “Wasn’t that hard.”
“Wasn’t it terrifying?”
He retrieved the bag from the trash can and headed downstairs and dumped it in the communal one in the cafeteria. He stared at the communal trash can for a moment, thinking. He wondered what the soldiers had come to do. He wondered why anyone would want to shoot down a peace-bringer. He didn’t know.
Then he went back upstairs to take a nap.
He was halfway through his math class when the news came: San Francisco had been bombed. The Golden Gate Bridge had collapsed. The shoreline was populated by half-broken buildings and dust.
Classes were let out on a national day of mourning. The world was odd, skies the color of ash. Thirty thousand people. Dead. The sound of hushed phone calls filled the hallways and the streets and the city.
The war, the president declared over the television screens and flashing cameras, had to go on. If the aliens win even more will die. We can not stop. We must not let these deaths go unavenged. We must persevere.
Derek dropped his eyes.
Being the Chosen One wasn’t much use if he didn’t bring peace. He had to get better, and fast.
In the meantime, they had a bunch of cardboard signs.
STOP THE WAR. STOP THE KILLING. SAVE LIVES, said Jon’s. Derek sported the more literary STOP FIGHTING ALREADY, DAMMIT.
The park was packed. A woman hoisted herself onto a park bench with a megaphone. “I hope we’re all here to protest the war. If you aren’t, you should join us. Why? War is pointless. Repeat after me: WAR IS POINTLESS.”
There was a smattering of applause and a general chorus of “WAR IS POINTLESS.” The woman stepped off the bench and the crowd followed, filing into the streets.
“Peace is great!” she yelled. “If the war goes on we’re probably all going to die. We don’t want to die. STOP KILLING PEOPLE.”
“STOP KILLING PEOPLE.” Derek looked at the apartment complexes above him, wondering what they were hearing, what they were thinking. A small trickle of people began to join them. The voices grew louder.
“PEACE, NOT WAR.”
“PEACE, NOT WAR.”
And that was when the police came.
There was no ban on public gatherings — it had ended some time ago. The protest was legal. They had the right to peaceful protest. They had the permits. Maybe someone had called in.
But there was no reason to target them.
The voices in the crowd changed: STOP THE VIOLENCE. WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO DO THIS. WE ARE THE PEOPLE YOU CAN’T SILENCE US WE WANT PEACE—
The words slipped into chaos. The crowd splintered.
Derek saw the first gun being unholstered. The first can of pepper spray. He didn’t get it.
“Stop.” His voice was swallowed by the noise. He looked for Jon, if he was okay, and found Jon a few people away, craning over their heads. Derek’s heart skipped.
Peace rolled in like fog over the park. The people froze. The police froze.
“We reserve the right to peaceful protest,” he said, glancing at Jon. Jon raised his eyebrows and grinned. Derek looked away. He might’ve been blushing.
There was a resounding clatter as everything dropped. Signs, guns, fists. Cans of pepper spray were tucked back into belts.
Derek slipped his hands into his pockets and left.
Spring break: in which they were swarmed with essays and tests and pollen allergies. The war was mostly contained in the west; there was occasionally a strike in Nevada or Utah, even, but it all seemed very far away. The entire west coast had been evacuated.
The first war fought on American soil in centuries. The troops had come home after all.
Derek’s family had been relocated from Los Angeles to Iowa and was staying with relatives. It was a mess over there, they said. You don’t need to come.
So he didn’t.
Instead he stayed in New York, which was steadily becoming more paranoid, and wondered when exactly he should bring peace to all the world. It was hard. Too often he messed up, and the textbook he was trying to make peaceful would go up in flames. Not beneficial. Also, expensive.
He asked Jon his opinion.
“I have no idea,” said Jon.
“But you made the prophecy!”
“I don’t do much prophesying.” Jon blew his nose.
“You have to know more—”
“I know as much as you do: a Chosen One will walk the earth and bring peace to the land. Nothing else.”
“But just — what you think,” Derek said.
Jon thought. “Peace is always good.”
“Do you think I can do it?”
“Maybe,” said Jon.
Derek had never been fond of maybe’s. They were too liable to change. Maybe he could do it. Maybe not. Maybe he was tired of it all. Maybe he was scared that he would burn down the whole world.
Maybe wasn’t an option if he couldn’t get it right. And maybe it would fix itself soon.
In the news that day: thirty people shot at a protest in Kansas. Seven of them were dead.
The unsteady silence that had spread across America shattered all at once. Media outrage. Protests. Police. Fear. Reports of nationwide violence flowed into the news stations.
The country was breaking apart from the inside out.
Then: air raid in Salt Lake City, Utah. The war had advanced; the aliens where reaching further east. The reporter trembled as she clutched the microphone, speaking out of a backdrop of smoke and the whir of planes.
From underneath the blankets in the semi-darkness of New York night, Derek pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose. He felt like the world was about to break — he was about to break from fear and worry and finals stress.
There was still so much to lose. He could fail. But failing no longer was as much of a risk. He wasn’t that bad at what he did. Still, he hoped he wouldn’t burn down the entire world.
“I’m going to do it.” Derek rolled out from under his blankets.
“Are you sure?”
Jon got up immediately. “Okay. Downstairs. You need to be on the ground, and if you can’t don’t tire yourself out. Come back up. Be safe.”
“I’ll be fine,” said Derek. “You aren’t coming?”
He shook his head. “It’s your job.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said again. “Don’t worry.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said again.
Jon drew in a breath and pulled Derek close. Derek studied his mouth, and thought about how much he wanted to kiss it. They were so close, and his nerves were jangling.
“Derek Wang, I’m incredibly gay for you.”
“So am I,” he said without thinking. A pause.
“I’ll put it on the priority list,” Derek said. Then he pulled back and headed out.
He really hoped he wouldn’t.
New York City settled.
The streetlights glowed more benevolently orange. Crying babies hushed. Arguments ended. Quiet fell over the city.
Derek Wang was sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, on a park bench. Stretching the limits on his power. Finding them. Stretching further.
Keep breathing, he told himself.
Then it all stopped. Just beyond New York, the state.
He hadn’t done anything to help the war. It was an improvement, though. He sighed, started to draw his power back in. Then—
Who goes here? said the earth. Rumbling.
He clenched his fists. “Derek Wang. Peace-bringer.” It felt odd saying the words out loud.
Mmmm, said the earth. She rumbled. I suppose you are bringing peace, then.
His fingernails bit into his skin. “Trying to.”
And he felt his power easing into new things, slipping outward without his own thoughts propelling it forward.
I will help you. He heard her voice then: a rampage of sound whirling into the world. A song of life and death and everything in between. Blood seeping into the dirt. Pain. An old exhaustion. But also the little joys. There could be both at the same time, held by a single entity.
He summoned up more peace to prevent the peace flowing across the globe from thinning. It was washed into the rest of his power. Spreading out.
There was a place the peace wasn’t reaching, he realized. A place of resistance. He turned south, eyeing the capitol. He shoved the peace in its general direction. Come on, he thought. His power fizzled out at the borders and he thought YOU ARE GOING TO FAIL AT THIS AND EVERYTHING, INCLUDING ALL YOUR FINALS. GIVE UP GIVE UP—
He shook his head, hard, and continued pushing back, but he wasn’t focusing anymore. The peace began shriveling up.
Breathe, said the earth, turning her attention on him. He stopped for a moment.
He breathed. He listened to the things happening inside the capitol: We’re losing but we can’t lose. We’re losing we’re losing can we stop losing no we have to keep going until we win—
Derek sighed. He knew the feeling. But sometimes things had to be let go. The war had stop, or at least work out better. They could keep fighting, just not in the same way. Things would be better in the morning: they usually were. And maybe the president would be able to sleep.
Can you let me through? he asked the place of resistance, nicely.
It collapsed with a grumble that sounded suspiciously like you could’ve asked earlier.
And they were done.
Early morning. Derek woke up mostly cold, sprawled across the park bench.
“Hi,” said Jon. He was sitting on the park bench as well.
“Did it work?” Derek stared at the sky.
Derek didn’t respond. He was tired. And proud. But mostly tired.
Jon squeezed his hand. “You did it.”
“Against all odds,” he agreed. He sat up and put his arms around Jon’s shoulders.
Jon scrunched up his face. “You smell weird.”