“Sesame chicken and happy family!” cried out the short, plump, elderly Asian woman in the stained, white apron. As always, her hair tightly fixed in a bun on top of her head. She placed the brown paper bag on the counter and looked kindly at Dylan as he stepped to the counter. “You a good boy to come and get good Chinese takeout for your family,” she told him in a thick Chinese accent while Dylan fumbled in his pocket for the money.

She smiled at him, as she always did. The wrinkles on her face made her appear kinder, and perhaps even wiser than she really was. Dylan had been coming here for a while to get dinner for himself and his little brother. It was one of the many local take-out joints that he favored whenever his mother had to work late, which was more often than not. Both brothers could eat the sesame chicken until they were stuffed silly, but Dylan knew that he needed to order something like happy family. It had vegetables.

Putting his change on the counter, she told him to “have a nice evening, and we see you soon!” She smiled again with a customer service smile designed to make the restaurant’s customers feel as if they were truly loved by the family who owned The Wonderful Dragon.

Dylan knew better. He had always known better, but he looked into her eyes and in a polite voice replied, “Thank you, Ms. Faung. I’ll see you again soon.” Her smile widened, and she scurried back to work.

Dylan walked out the door and into the brisk autumn air. At 15, he couldn’t drive, but it didn’t matter. The walk was only two blocks. His home sat in the middle of what he considered a dull, average city block in Denver. It was a couple of blocks from a main street and only a few blocks from each of the schools that he and his brother attended. The streetlights began coming on as he stepped onto the porch and opened the front door to his home.

“I’m gonna destroy every one of you motherfuckers!” yelled a young boy, as Dylan stepped into the living room. The young voice continued its bravado, “Leveling up after this round, you bunch of dumbasses can’t keep up!”

Dylan stared at the boy, sitting on the floor, wearing headphones with a microphone that was tethered to a game console in the television stand. The boy was almost exactly four years younger than Dylan, but the difference in their size and stature seemed like more than four years. Dylan was always an above-average sized kid, and puberty treated him right. The wisps of dark hair on his face had begun to thicken. His voice occasionally cracked but was deepening and sounding more and more masculine every day. He knew he was attractive. The girls at school knew it too, and he was very aware of how they felt about him.

Dylan’s little brother was much smaller. He was one of the smaller kids in his class. His moppish, unkempt blond hair did little to hide his cherub-like, round face, which refused to stop looking like a little boy’s face. No matter what he did, he just couldn’t be as mature-looking as his older brother. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. He once heard that eating too much chocolate would give you acne, and in the little boy’s mind, acne made you look older. He managed to sneak to the corner store and buy three big bags of Hersey’s Kisses and two king-sized dark chocolate candy bars. Every single bit of chocolate was consumed by the time he walked the four blocks home. As his stomach began to tie into knots, he just knew the discomfort would be worth it. The next day was an utter disappointment. Not only did his stomach still ache, but his face looked exactly the same. Not a single zit graced his angelic face.

The challenge to be like his older brother went beyond just looks. He was never interested in the toys that his friends played with. He wanted the same amusements as his brother. When Dylan stopped playing with action figures, so did he. When Dylan finally got the latest gaming system, he insisted on equal time, pushing himself to keep up with the records and achievements in each game that Dylan played.

“Seriously, Bjorn?” chided Dylan in a loud, nearly parental-sounding voice. “Do you have to cuss like an ill-tempered sailor every time you play that game?”

“Oh shit! My brother’s home! I mean, whoops, sorry – oh dang! I gotta go!” Bjorn barked as he pulled the headphones away and turned to his older brother.

Despite sounding angry and stern, Dylan was far from it. From the day Bjorn was born, Dylan knew his little brother worshiped and looked up to him like no other. It was hard to be angry at the little guy who wanted more than anything to be respected and be just like his cool, big brother.

“Let’s have some dinner, little dude.”

Bjorn, popping up from the floor, replied, “Cool! I’m starving man. Whadda we having?”

Dylan narrowed his eyes, and in his best, evil, bad-guy Chinese accent hissed, “I have visited the dragon lady and now bring us treasures of amazing flavor, deep from the Orient!”

Bjorn tilted his head and nodded in appreciation. Attempting to mimic his brother’s Chinese accent, the boy stated emphatically, “You have done well. But have you reached a level of enlightenment that brings with it the wisdom to serve two orders of sesame chicken?”

Maintaining character, Dylan snapped his head towards his little brother, declaring, “Young student, you need your vegetables!”

Bjorn let out a huge sigh. He knew his brother was right, but he’d rather have more sesame chicken than snow peas and celery. The boys headed into the kitchen, and Dylan removed the food from the paper bag, as Bjorn opened the cabinet and pulled out some plates.

• • •

Chapter 3 Chapter 5

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