Club KISS is as terrible as its name. Smoke fills the lobby of middle-aged men who line the walls, eyeing girls on the dance floor. Overhead, a strobe globe shoots ray of light in every direction, while a spotlight illuminates a makeshift stage of black boxes dripping with microphone and amp wires. Girls in skimpy tops crowd it, screaming, waving at a third-rate band who turned out to be a first-timer. A base vibrates my entire skeleton.
"They're awful!" I yell. But I'm not a music snob. If it has a pulse, I'll dance to it, and Sohee and I head-bang on with Sulli, Krystal, and some girls who live down the hallway from us. My socks—donated by small-footed Subin—slide along the floor.
Something happens when I dance. If someone met on the street of Vail, they'd assume I was on the quiet side, studious, hardworking. The side I let most people see. But when I dance, I become music in motion. A goddess. Myself.
Sohee kicks off her own shoe. She grabs my hand, spins me under her arm while I sashay my hips and whoop. I imagine Eomma's jaw dropping, Appa removing his glasses, if they knew all the culture I'm picking up already. I've slayed my first Bae Rule—curfew—and wearing makeup, too.
I tug at my collar, pulling it tight against the back. The AC is cranked high, but will I dare take it off as the night rolls on? Because sometime tonight, another Bae Rule is going down. In style.
Krystal holds out her phone for a selfie. As Sulli crowds in, I sashay out of the way—no social media for Eomma and Appa to stumble across. Opposite me, Sohee dances a sultry circle, scanning, scanning the crowds. The strobe globe throws stars across her pouting lip and enormous faux-lashes that only she could pull off.
"Who are you looking for?" I shout.
Then Wonder Boy pushes through the dancers and grabs Sohee's shoulder. The upper half of his yellow shirt is dotted with sweat. His damp hair gleams like onyx. "They've brought in a guy from Cobra Alley. You've got to try this—it's the best in Seoul."
Sohee pulls free, tossing her hair in a silky parachute. "Cobra Alley—no way!"
"What's Cobra Alley?" I ask.
"A disgusting tourist trap," Sohee says. "It's in one of the night markets, farther down south."
I follow Wonder Boy's gaze to a table in the back, where a man in a leather apron pulls a snake from a wooden cage.
A literal, slithering snake.
Well, well. Wonder Boy has some exotic interests.
"What's that for?" I ask as a wave of dancers jostles us sideways.
Wonder Boy smirks. "See for yourself." Grabbing my hand, he pulls me into the crowd of dancing bodies.
His hand over mine is rough, calloused. Big. A boy's hand. But it means nothing; if he weren't hanging on, the crowds would tear us apart. Sure enough, when we reach a thick chopping block on a table, he releases me.
Then I wish he hadn't.
Inches away, three snakes writhe in a mass of scaly coils; green, red-and-black, yellow patterned, the mottled. Dark red blood stains the block, overlaid by new, damp blooms. Just behind them, the thin-faced cobra-minder wipes stubby-nailed hands on his apron.
"As your unofficial chaperone, I have to advise against this." Wonder Boy gives me an infuriatingly superior smile.
"Ha. Whatever." But my stomach clenches. So we're going to eat snake. I've eaten a cooked eel, but never stared my food in the eye. Never seen it slither through the sludge of its comrades' blood. The metallic scent makes me light-headed, as always—I almost faint when I shadowed at the Banner Clinic, when I had to observe a doctor stitch up a gashed knee.
"Let me guess. We're grilling our own snake-kebabs."
"If only." Wonder Boy a finger-gun at the cobra-minder.
"What do you mean?" I ask, but he's already maneuvering toward the bar and bartender.
"I'll get tickets."
"I can cover myself—" I protest, but he's out of earshot.
Whatever challenge Wonder Boy's got planned, I can handle it.
A brown snake rears, hissing onto its coils. I force myself to face it, trying to brave my coming fate without throwing up. Or passing out.
"Want to hold one?"
I jump as Kang slides up beside me. I haven't seen him since the cab ride, when I jumped off his lap and out the door. The silver threads gleam in his shirt. As he extends his bare forearm toward the snakes, his scent breaks over me—that musky scent, plus something I can't identify. He moves like a cat, cornering me, but not entirely in a bad way.
Then the green snake coils like a rope onto his arm.
My heart stops.
The corner of Kang's lip rises in a teasing half smile. He rotates his arm, letting the snake's skin refract the light like jewels. Its forked tongue flickers over the pale inside of his forearm.
As the snake slides up his arm and nestles inside his collar, Kang takes my hand. His is warm, like a cup of coffee. A thrill of fear digs at my gut as the snake spirals down to his wrist. The heavy ridges of its underbelly glide over our joined hands and my skin crawls as I imagine the prick of its tiny fangs.
"He definitely likes you." Kang shifts his grip to my fingers, folding them over his index fingers.
I laugh shakily. "How can you tell?"
"How?" His smile deepend. Before I can react, he lifts my hand in a gesture I recognize from my Victorian novels.
And presses his lips to my knuckles.
My breath hitches.
Then Sohee's voice rings out behind me. "I'm not tasting anything that comes from those!"
I pull free. Wonder Boy and Sohee are navigating the crowd toward us, Dohyun and Subin in tow. A length of blue carnival tickets dangles from Wonder Boy's hand.
"Oh, Suzy, did he bite you?" Sohee rushes forward.
"N-no, of course not!" I stammer, then realizes Sohee means the snake, not Kang.
Wonder Boy's eyes drop to my hand, as if a lip-shaped glow is still burning there.
Then Kang turns back to the block, allowing the snake to slither off, as though nothing of importance has been interrupted. Sohee sets her chin on his shoulder, and Kang idly squeezes her waist—gah, he really is a Player.
"You ready?" Wonder Boy hands the tickets to the cobra-minder.
"Whatever you're getting all dramatic about can't be that bad." I toss my head, Sohee-style. "Snake tastes like chicken, doesn't it?"
Wonder Boy smiles as the cobra man drops a hatchet onto the bloodstained butcher's block with an ominous thud.
"Wait," I say. "He's not—right here—?"
With practiced fingers, the man arranges the six glass vials on a tray. From an unlabeled bottle, he spills a clear shot of liquor into each one. Here's my chance to break Bae Rule #4, but, um, why is he grabbing the brown snake?
He grips it a few inches below its triangular head, then plants his snake-filled fist on the block.
His hatchet bangs down.
The snake's fanged head flies at Subin, who yells and slams it with a kung fu chop. Too shunned to scream, I sway on my feet as Sohee shrieks, "GROSS!"
"That's an ulcer waiting to happen." Subin wipes blood from his arm. "Sorry, Joohyuk. I'm not drinking that!"
"Drinking?" Alarmed, I eye the limp snake. Its severed end spurt dark red blood. I'd assumed the snake was headed to a kitchen. A frying pan. "Wait. Isn't he cooking—?"
Into one vial after another, then man squeezes the snake's cut end. Dark red blood pulses out, pinking the liquor.
Wonder Boy grins crookedly. "Snake-blood sake."
"Wait." The table edge bites my palms. Mr. Perfect, it seems, has a dark sense of adventure, perhaps as hell-bent on breaking loose as I am. But I'm back in the Banner Clinic, the gashed knee blooming like a crimson flower. "Wait . . ." I croak.
The rusty scent of blood reaches the cavities behind my eyes. The crimson flow slows and the man shakes the snake over the sixth vial, catching the last red droplets. Then he shoves the limp snake into his apron pocket and plunks the tray before us.
Wonder Boy, Dohyun, and Kang each take one. Subin refuses.
Three are left.
"Sohee? Suzy?" Wonder Boy's glance is challenging.
"No way." Sohee's ordered a glass of wine. She waves it. "Girls don't drink snake blood."
"Anyone want a second?" Wonder Boy offers.
"One's plenty." Dohyun rotates his bloody glass in his fingers, staring into it. "Daebaek. It's warm." Under his bangs, parted down the middle, his face pales. Beads of sweat form on his upper lip.
Only Kang's face remains unimpressed.
A scenario crashes into my mind: me passes out on the floor, blood spilling from a cup that hasn't even touched my lips. There must be less exotic ways to break the No Drinking rule, like a nice mango cocktail.
I reach uncertainly for a glass. It is warm. Warmed by the heating lamp that beat down on the poor snake while it was writhing alive.
My hand shakes as I peer into the cloudy pink liquid.
Wonder Boy's brows rise.
All three guys, holding their tiny glasses, are watching.
Fighting nausea, I lift mine. "I'm in."
"To the freaking best summer of our lives!" Sohee clinks her wine glass all around. "Geonbae!" Bottoms up!
I throw back my head. The warm, salty blood and sake set my throat on fire. It tastes bitter. Like metal. Medicine. Heat sears my chest, opening up a pipe there I've never felt before. I squeeze my eyes shut and fight it down.
Don't throw up. Don't throw up. Don't throw up.
Me head feels stuffed with rice, then it explodes in a million directions. Kaleidoscopic tingles dance through my body—and it's not just the sake. I've faced down my fear of blood. I'm still standing. I've broken another Bae Rule—at this rate, I'll be done with them before the sun sets in Arizona.
Sohee cradles her glass and shakes her head, scandalized but smiling. Dohyun vomits into a spittoon. Kang closes his eyes.
But Wonder Boy's watching me, emptied his glass in hand. As our gazes lock, he his ear toward his arm. My own hand is there, gripping him like a lifeline.
"Oh, sorry!" I've left four nail marks in his tanned flesh.
But there's a new glow of respect in his eyes that warms me as much as the sake.
"You outmanned Dohyun."
Dohyun scowls. His nose wrinkles and he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
"Like it?" Wonder Boy asks.
"It was terrible." I smile. The heat of the sake pulses through me like a river, warming my fingers and toes.
So, I've impresses Wonder Boy.
With a new surge of confidence, I grab his free hand, then Kang's, and drag them both into the strobe-lit fog. "Come on. Let's dance!"
ʕु-̫͡-ʔुྉ*ᴸᵒᵛᵉᵇᵒᵃᵗ✲ﾟⁱⁿ*。⋆ 서울。⋆ *
Hours later, I'm still dancing.
I'm rocking it up with Sulli and Krystal, who dance like fiends. I grab Sulli's arm and lean into her. "How do you do it?" I yell over the music. "You meet presidents. You dance!"
Sulli gives me a wry smile. "What?" she yell back.
"You two rock." In my hand, I hold my third—fourth?—mango cocktail. I can't understand the shortsighted, small-mind-edness of banning such delicious flavor. I can't even taste the alcohol. Bless the bartender, who's taken a liking to Sohee and me and serves us drinks on the house all night.
Speaking of whom, where has that girl gone?
"Have you seen Sohee?" I yell. Sulli shakes her head, smiling as if I've spoken pig Latin. I repeat myself a few times, dancers jostling me against her. My socks want to stick to the floor.
From out of nowhere, Kang seizes my elbow. His hair is damp with sweat and slicked back. I haven't seen him since Sohee dragged him off to the bar hours ago.
"Dance with me." His hold shifts to my rib cage. The strobe lights illuminate his sharp cheekbones. His eyes glitter as they hold mine, daring me to decline.
I dance with him. A cocktail sloshes onto my arm and his, but I don't care. He draws me close, and the rhythm of his movements find mine. I'm glowing, smiling—at him, the dancers behind him, the bartenders everywhere.
I'm dancing with a boy. Another Bae Rule bites the dust.
His warm fingers glide along my sides and settling on my waist. For the space of a heartbeat, a part of me freezes, like I've been misted with liquid nitrogen.
But all around us, couples have melded together, bodies grinding to the beat.
So as the tempo of the music increase, I throw myself into its beat. I pump my hips, nod low over my shoulder, crook one hand behind my head, the other still holding my glass. His eyes sweep my body. His neck gleams with sweat. My hair's damp. I writhe with him, matching for . His hip wedges against mine as he pulls me deeper, deeper—
And then I feel him.
Omo. Omo. Is that what I think it is?
Then Sohee's towering over me in her golden dress, necklace refracting the strobe lights. She drapes her arm around my shoulders, drawing me from Kang.
"Maybe you should cool it with the drinks, baby girl!" she shouts over the music.
"There you are!" My laughter rings out. Everything's hilarious. "It's past one! Can you believe we're still out?"
She takes my glass and sets it on the speaker. Smiles at Kang. "I'll be back," she says. "Just need to help Suzy out."
"I don't need help," I protest, but Sohee's arm tightens around me. Her own back is damp with sweat.
Dancers slam against us as we weave toward the sidelines and I grin and knock back. It's like running through a maze of those big hanging bumpers at the kids' play space in Phoenix. One thump sets my head spinning.
"Joohyuk, help." Sohee's talking to him. He's pocketing his cell phone, this thumb digging at the inside of his fingers in that odd, fidgety gesture of his. His jet-black hair is spiked as if he'd been clinging to it earlier. Beams of light cut across his unsmiling eyes, clenched jaw.
"Who'd you call from here?" I ask. At least, I think I do. It's hard to hear myself.
And why the thunder brows, when he was laughing over the snake beheading a while back?
Wonder Boy's arm wraps low around my waist. His body dwarfs mine as he walks me to the door. Wind gusts in the cloying scents of cigarettes and sweet incense. My stomach undulates like I've descended a roller coaster.
Then I break from Wonder Boy to hurl its contents onto the asphalt.