Betelnut, Soldier-Wolf 檳榔,兵狼: Fiction by YakuzaBaby

Grand Prize Winner, Middle School Category

Betelnut, Soldier-Wolf: 檳榔,兵狼 

Echo sat on the edge of the cracked leather seat, clipping a curler into her bangs. What the hell was she doing in this dingy-ass store, every surface plastered with slippery tiles in dire need of grouting, a flickering neon sign out front with the words 檳榔 五十年老店 and a drawing of a clawed hand faded into it. Though she could not read the words, she found the strange hand amusing. Her phone vibrated against her thigh. Her father had messaged her. 

Echo’s stupid parents were always bothering her, “How are you doing? Have you eaten? Is it cold there? Are you drying your hair before you go to bed? 7-11 isn’t a restaurant. Have you gone to the market? My daughter doesn’t do this. Did you try chayedan?” 

Today’s message was: “Have you eaten? Call me.” 

God, take a hint. Echo had gotten a job, hadn’t she? There was no reason for her parents to keep pestering her. 

The conversation had blown up shortly after graduation: 

“Xiao Ying,” her mother said over a bowl of rice, “have you heard back yet?” Echo knew exactly what she was talking about, but said, “From who?” “NYU. Harvard. Berkeley.” 

“Oh. Them.” Echo scoffed and took a bite of dinner, wishing desperately to leave the table and dive into her phone. Usually, she would have done just that. However, for once, she clocked that this was a conversation that would be inescapable no matter how many times she locked her bedroom door. 

“I didn’t apply.” 


“Xiao Ying…” her father broke it. 

“What, Dad?” 

Ni mei gong zuo, ni mei nian shu, ni mei shi zuo, ni mei bang mang–ni dao di shi shen me yi si?” her mother yelled. Echo tuned it all out. 

“I’m American, Mom, like you wanted.” 


“You Kai Ying.” Her mother’s face turned painfully cold. Joke’s on her, thought Echo. That gaze was so cold Echo was perfectly numb to it. She turned her own face into a mirror of her mother’s, though she couldn’t keep it for long. A giggle bubbled from her mouth. 

“I swear…” 

“I’ll end up selling betel nuts like my grandparents, right? I know.” 

“My daughter is not this rude!” 

“Xiao Ying…” her dad started. 

“My name is Echo!” Echo giggled as she retreated into her room. Her father followed her in without knocking. 

“Echo…” He raked his fingers through his greying hair. 

“Hi,” said Echo from her bed. 

“Get a job.” 

The expectations were heavy in the air. But he hadn’t specified. The unsaid words were scent trails and Echo smelled them clear as day. She grabbed them, twisted them, whipped them back towards her opponent. 

Being in this old, dirty little betel nut shop was Echo’s answer to “get a job”. Most of the things Echo did were in order to free herself from her parents. She didn’t hate them, per se, just hated the way they made other people see her, look at her like she was less than

This place was a threat they’d used since she was a child, long before she realised it was empty. They’d tried so hard to squeeze her into the ‘good girl’ box but she’d fought long and hard and those forlorn faces filled her with a kind of glee nothing else could give her. 

Echo put her feet up on a broken plastic stool and took out a cigarette. She liked the way it felt between her fingers, she liked tapping it and pretending ash fell from its tip. The thing never made it to her mouth, though. She felt stupid carrying an inhaler and avoided having to reveal it at all costs. 

Her parents shouldn’t have been surprised, really; rebelling ran in the family. As far as she knew, her parents moving to the States was running away. It could have been 


romantic, but it made her gag to think of her parents that way. And besides, working multiple jobs for minimum wage and minimum acceptance wasn’t romantic. Echo knew it wasn’t; they took out their disappointment on her in sighs and passive aggressive looks. And words too, sometimes: “Our daughter isn’t this rude. Our daughter isn’t a ‘punk’. Our daughter isn’t…” everything she was

Her mother’s parents owned a betel nut shop and a guest room in Taoyuan, Taiwan that nobody expected her to fly halfway across the world to occupy; there was no other option. No one would miss her, anyway. Not really. 

The shop was supposed to open at noon, but there was no way in hell Echo was waking up that early. She pushed up the metal shutter with a screech at two and stared at betel nuts for a while. It was four PM now and no customers had turned up, which meant nobody to tell her what to do or how to do it right. So, for the past two hours, she’d been scrolling through Instagram, wishing her friends would message her. It wasn’t like they stuck to time zones, anyway. 

After a pork floss rice triangle and cafe au extra extra extra sugar from 7-11, Echo took a walk around the neighbourhood. The shop was at a street corner, slightly obscured by foliage. The racket of traffic rumbled through the ground as Echo passed the other road-side betel nut vendors. 

The entire stretch was dotted with fan-shaped rainbow LEDs sticking out from walls. All the other betel nut stores looked like packaged Barbie dolls lining the shelves of a Toys R Us: a large window in the place of a shopfront, a scantily-dressed woman stretching her legs sitting at a table on a barstool, folding betel nuts into betel leaves. 

“Strippers,” scoffed Echo. She would never let herself be objectified that way, never stoop that low. She chuckled at the thought of herself in that window, boobs drooping out of her collar, areolas teasing, half a buttock falling out of her shorts. No. She went back to her grandparents’ shop and settled into her chair, hunched in her leather jacket and Doc Martens. 

She propped up her phone to watch videos as she folded betel leaves and slaked lime. The few customers who came didn’t stay long. Their stained teeth made her chuckle; these people were willingly destroying themselves and she was getting paid to aid them in their mission by delivering oral cancer. 

The sun had set. God, the sun set early in Asia. She began to wonder where her grandparents were; she assumed they’d come fetch her to go home for dinner at around five something, but it was past six now. She felt a little guilty for showing up, butting into their well-established routines. They were nice to her–not in a condescending or patronising way–feeding her and offering her work without expecting anything in return. She could not comprehend why her parents had run away from these wonderfully ‘chill’ people. 

She was just finished wishing a customer a ‘happy badonkadonk’ when a voice said, “Bu hao yi si.” 

A woman around her age approached the counter. She looked like she’d come from a wedding or LARP session: a white tie hung from her loose collar, and an indigo blazer sat on her shoulders; the only informal thing she wore was a pair of sunglasses on her head, pushing her short black hair back. One of her eyebrows was red, creased in a frown. Echo felt the giggles flare up in her chest. 

“Hi,” said Echo. 

Nin shi Wang xiao jie de jia ren ma?” 

Ah. Jia ren ma. Family, mah? ‘Wang’ Echo recognised as her grandmother’s surname. 

“Yes,” Echo said. 

“Oh,” said the woman. “You are the American.” 

Ah, there went her cover. Stupid LARPer

“I’m their granddaughter.” 

She held out a hand. “We are the soldier wolves of–” an unintelligible growl. “Come.” 

“OK, sure.” She rummaged through the pockets of her leather jacket. Inhaler, eyeliner, hair curler, stick of gum, cigarettes…keys. She locked up, tugged the shutter down halfway and took the woman’s hand. No one would miss her anyway. 

Walking with the woman leading her by the hand felt like wading through a dream, the air swirling thickly around them, the garbage truck’s Maiden’s Prayer passing by with a strange timbre. Motorcycles flew backwards. It wasn’t until a truck full of pigs passed that Echo realised she was outrunning traffic. They stopped before an alleyway with far too many people crammed within–a sea of black-and-white suits and ties. These people were obviously a gang–not an amateur gang like the ones in her highschool; a real, bona fide, dangerous gang. 

Shadow led her through the suits, the crowd parting into impossible spaces. There were two bodies lying in a pool of viscous fluid. Though the darkness hid its colour, the scent of iron filled the air. Her vision adjusted to the dark and she realised with a jolt that she recognised their still faces, the curves of their frames. Her mind began rationalising: car accident, hit and run, mugging… 

Soft things shoved at Echo’s ankles. She fell backwards with a yelp, but a mound of fur caught and steadied her. 

Fear not, fear not, said Pack. Safe, safe

This voice had no accent at all. It was hardly a voice, really. The words were felt in her mind, slithering in cool and golden, like moonlight. 

“Xiao…Ying…” A faint whimper. 

“Ah Ma!” Echo scampered over to her grandmother. The woman struggled to form words, each breath gurgling. 

“Ah Ma…Let me call an ambulance–” 

“No…” The old woman pressed a stick into Echo’s hand. It was a back scratcher–Echo hadn’t seen its head before; it was always down her grandmother’s shirt, being put to use. What the fuck? 

“Keep this with you. Always,” her grandmother wheezed her final words. Her grip slackened and the breathing stopped. Echo dropped her hand and stared at the still bodies of Ah Ma and Ah Gong, shock pulsing through her veins. No, no…I just met you. I’ve known of you all my life, but I haven’t gotten the chance to know you yet. 

The Pack swarmed in, lifting her grandparents, moving as a unit. They glided through the air before tapping the ground, propelling them forward. Echo had trouble matching their graceful, perfect rhythm…the light changed. The golden moonlight was almost tangible amidst blue shadows. 

“Oof!” With a jolt, Echo was deposited on a hard surface. She let her head stop spinning before clambering to her feet. 

The sky is bigger, was her first thought. The stars spread forever above her head. She couldn’t put her finger on the difference, but the universe felt even more infinite than infinity here. The ground ended a few feet in front of her–they were on a cliff. The air was alive here, not dead and viscous like Taoyuan’s air. This air didn’t feel like it would give out on her without warning the way it usually did–it filled her lungs and gave her life; she felt its power thrum in her veins. Echo let her eyes wander… She yelped. 

Huge dogs were sitting before her, yellow eyes glinting in the dark. Hush, hush. The voice came again. The largest of the dogs approached her, steps soft and ginger. There was a patch of red fur above its left eye. 

“You…” Echo breathed. 

The wolf met her gaze for a moment before swiftly turning to her underlings. She lifted her head and howled. The rest followed suit, slowly, each individual wolf waiting just a moment before letting out their mourning cry. It should have been loud enough to hurt her ears, but Echo was taken aback by the ethereal, sorrow-filled beauty of the symphony. 

It was funny. Everything was funny. Huge dogs were howling all around, like in some sort of cringey emo fanfic. The giggles burst from her chest… She knew there was something more that wanted to break free. She wasn’t the kind of girl who cried; she’d decided so a long time ago. Her breath caught and she giggled further. 

The giggles died out as she met the eye of the wolf with the red patch. She swore she saw a nod. Echo didn’t cry, but reared back her head in her own primal howl. She felt her entire body becoming lighter, flying above the silver cliff, above the clouds stained yellow by the borrowed light of the moon. 

Traitor, traitor, hurt Pack, grieved Pack. Her own voice spoke with them, clear and fluent. This wasn’t at all like her broken Mandarin or her street-learned English–this was her native tongue. The howl stopped. It was sudden and jarring. They hadn’t eased into the silence they way they had eased into the sound, and Echo was left reeling from the crushing quiet. 

The Pack curled up and all was warm and mellow. Echo was surprised that she didn’t feel the giggles resurfacing at the first snore. Nothing was real; it couldn’t possibly be. Yet…she had never felt more real. 

The woman was human-shaped again, blazer wrinkled, perhaps hastily donned. “Come,” she said, slipping into a patch of dark.. 

Echo followed, blinking to let her eyes adjust. 

“We need your help,” said the woman. “Come.” The woman pulled her through the dark farther. The quality of shadow changed. A street light flickered to life, shocking Echo’s retinas. Now the bodies were gone, Echo could take in her surroundings: they were back in the overgrown patch of land, buildings towering on all sides, an alley ahead. A secret little park in between patches of urban life. 


“A portal.” The woman squatted on her haunches and launched into the air, landing soundlessly on a low rooftop. She lay on her belly and reached out an arm. “You want me to…?” The woman nodded before Echo could finish. Echo jumped, wishing she hadn’t worn the heaviest boots in the history of booting tonight. The woman hauled her over the edge and Echo clambered onto the metal roof with a clatter. “Those bodies…” Echo struggled to breathe. 

“The traitor…my father…killed them,” said the woman. “My grandfather tried to stop him, but…” 

“What? Who? Who are you?” 

“The newest Alpha wolf of my Pack. My grandfather was second in command to his predecessor. And that predecessor was … your grandfather. Did you not know this?” “No.” Echo felt a giggle rise but it quickly disappeared. Everything was perfectly plausible. “So what’s your name? Wait…I bet it’s Red. Is it Red?” 

“No, of course not,” the woman said. “Why did you say that?” 

Echo finally giggled. Seeing the woman’s incredulous expression made her giggle harder. She gestured to her own eyebrow. 

“Really? I…I never knew. I can’t see red.” 

“Hey, you said I.” Echo gave her a nudge. “All night, you’ve been talking like some sort of hive mind.” 

“Oh. Should I stop?” 

“No!” Echo chuckled. “So, what about red?” 

“Wolves don’t see red or green naturally.” She leapt onto another roof–a more stable looking concrete one. 

“Right.” Echo let the woman help her over. “What is your name, then?” “Shadow.” Shadow grimaced. Evidently a name granted by other people with malicious intent. 

“I’m Echo.” Echo’s name had similar undesireable origins from when she was in a neighbourhood gang. It was to piss her off for being so devoted to Ed, the alpha of the group, but she wore it with pride. 

“I like it,” said Shadow. 

“Me too.” 

“I need your help, Echo.” Shadow met her gaze. “You see, my Pack has been the dominant group in our world since your grandfather left. He gave his second in command, my grandfather, a gift of great power–the elixir. My grandfather did not earn his place at its head. He had unfair advantages.” 

“What does this have to do with me?” 

“We won because of your family.” There was a hint of pride in her voice, heavily mixed in with contempt. “That fruit you sell, bin lang, it makes us stronger, makes us able to see all the colours you can–for a short time. It gives us an unfair advantage and over time our jaws weaken. But my father became drunk on power and turned cruel. He assembled his own Pack with no regard for the old ways. My grandfather tried to stop him and was murdered. Your grandparents tried to close the portal tonight but …” She sighed. “What does it taste like?” 

“I don’t know. I’ve never tried it.” 

“But, you sell it. How can you sell it if you’ve never had it?” 

“You’re talking like you’re an expert, but you’re asking me what it tastes like.” “My grandfather trained me to never be dependent on elixirs–I have my own power and that is all I need. He and your grandfather regretted bringing the elixir to my world. With my generation, he tried to right his wrongs.” 

My Ah Gong…” Echo couldn’t picture that pot-bellied old man being some badass Alpha wolf. 

“Yes. He fell in love with your grandmother, the inheritor of the Phoenix Claw–the only human capable of manipulating portals. Isn’t that sweet? He made sure we were taken care of when he left. Tried to, at least.” 

“So…” Echo pulled out a cigarette and balanced it between her fingers. “Your dad…he killed Ah Gong and Ah Ma?” 

Shadow nodded. “They were trying to close the last remaining portal so he wouldn’t invade and let the chaos in my world spill over into this one. My father is injured and needs time to heal. But he will be back soon with his rag-tag new Pack. There is no telling the damage that could be done then; we have to close the portal while we still have the time.” 

“Who’s going to close this portal?” 

“You’re going to.” 


“Yes, you. Who else? You are the inheritor of the Phoenix Claw. Only you can do it.” “Well, shit.” 

“Is something wrong?” 

Echo reeled her heart back up onto its shelf. “Well…I won’t see you again, right? Once the portal is closed.” 

Shadow nodded. 

Echo fiddled with the zip on her jacket. “Can’t you stay just a little longer?” 

Echo and Shadow walked and talked, somehow ending up in a night market. They never ran out of things to say. The lights were a bit too much for Shadow, but she mightily enjoyed tanghulu and skewered chuanshao. Shadow let Echo ride on her back as she ran across rooftops, balancing daintily on electrical wires. It was all just as new to Echo as it was to Shadow, but something about the air, about the light, about what was certain in their future, made those moments feel like crystal clear snapshots from a life long past. 

“Echo,” said Shadow, “thank you.” Her face broke into a grin. It almost made Echo laugh: her teeth were crooked things, her canines sharp as a vampire’s. The best part was the raw quality of the smile; it was like a cheeky toddler’s, pure pride and uninhibited goofiness. This smile had been waiting all night to shine, Echo hazarded, and now the girl part of the wolf was showing through. 

“Yeah,” said Echo, blush creeping up her cheeks. 

The two sat in Ah Ma and Ah Gong’s third-floor walkup, sharing a packet of twisty shrimp chips. The moment Echo got home, she set the back scratcher down on a table and excused herself to the bathroom. She locked the door, removed the curler from her hair, combed out her bangs with flustered fingers, and assessed her appearance. She coaxed her mind away from the empty office and master bedroom. 

Echo grabbed a beer from the fridge (she was overjoyed to learn she was old enough to drink legally in Taiwan, not that she obeyed the law in the States) and offered to get one for Shadow, but the wolf-girl shied politely away from any substances. 

“Why do you care so much?” Echo said, struggling to open the can. Shadow reached over and opened it for her, the carbon dioxide hissing. 

“It’s my responsibility,” said Shadow. 

“Huh.” Echo took a swig. “It’s not even your fault, though.” 

“My responsibility,” Shadow repeated. She popped a shrimp chip into her mouth, her face becoming instantly animated. She swallowed and continued. “One person’s actions affect everything else–everything matters. My grandfather made some mistakes…My father became corrupted as a result. Who else is going to help the worlds recover?” 

“Damn…Portal, huh?” 

“Yes. This is the last one left.” 

“How am I supposed to close it?” 

“Your grandmother never taught you?” 


Shadow’s eyes widened, nostrils flared. She let out a breath before speaking: “Well…your grandmother used the Phoenix Claw to close the others.” “The Phoenix Claw?” 

“Yes.” She gestured to the bloodstained back scratcher on the table. “Phoenix Claw?” Echo lifted the ebony back scratcher. Its head was shaped like a hand and had a thumb that was just a little too long. It was unsettling to lay eyes upon, but it made her giggle. 

“Yes! Phoenix Claw!” 

The walk to the secret park went by far too quickly; before Echo knew it, the giant portal yawned before them. Echo didn’t understand how she hadn’t noticed it before; it was so obvious now she knew it was there. 

“You need a minute?” Echo said. Shadow stood stock still before the tear in the world, staring like she was having an existential crisis. 

“No. It’s just a luxury I’ve had for a long time.” 

Shadow took a few more seconds, yellow eyes glinting. She turned and pressed a kiss into Echo’s cheek. “I’ll miss…” You? This? Shadow never finished the sentence.She stepped through the portal and watched her from the other side. “Do it now.” 

“How do I, like, activate this thing?” Echo waved the back scratcher around. “I’m not sure. It probably runs in your blood, though.” 

“Blood, huh?” 

“Oh! Yes! Try pricking your finger. I can help you!” Shadow reached out and stabbed a claw into Echo’s thumb. 

“Ow! Fucking shit…Holy shit!” The blood in her finger began to glow a faint light, like crappy Michael’s glow-in-the-dark stars. She gripped the back scratcher and held it to the edge of the opening. The thumb snapped into position, pinching the fabric of the universe, shrinking the gap. 

“Like this?” Echo said through gritted teeth. 

“Yes! Yes! Exactly!” 




Great, billowing monsters of smoke. 

Shadow stood, stricken. Echo smelled the fear, the unsaid words. She stuck the back scratcher into her boot and reeled herself in by the scent trail through the gap to Shadow’s hand. 

“Papa…” Shadow breathed. A figure emerged from the light, a great black Wolf, spittle dripping from its jowls. The smoke nearly masked the scent of anger and despair in the air. The rhythmic beating of paws got louder. 

It’s not too late to be my daughter, said the Wolf. 

Shadow leapt forward, arms and claws outstretched. The two wolves tumbled into a bundle of fur. 

Yellow eyes blinked all around in the darkness, the flicker of fire illuminating bestial shapes. 

Kill, kill? The Traitor’s pack advanced. There was dissonance in its voice, a battle raging in each individual word. Human? Wolf? Food? 

“Shit!” Echo screamed. A wolf snapped at her ankles as she stumbled backwards. She felt around in the dark, the flames casting long, misleading shadows. Through the portal she fell, pavement slamming into her face. The wolves swarmed forward– 

They pawed at the ground just before their world turned to hers, anxious whimpers travelling fast. 

Strange, said the pack. Different. Outside. 

“Close it!” screamed Shadow, leaping over heads and bodies. “Hurry!” Echo stumbled to her feet and bit the wound on her thumb open. She groaned as the Claw pinched the fabric of worlds together. The portal was big, old, obstinate. She reached as far as she could standing when Shadow’s yellow eye appeared at the gap. Shadow’s hands flew forward, caught her arms and lifted her up, up. Shunk! The threads of the world snapped shut. 

A whimper echoed in the fabric between universes and a sprig of red fur floated down, the last remnant of another world. 

Echo crumpled to her knees, taking too many shaky puffs of her inhaler. 

The Sun took time to rise. Echo raised her head to the golden light, taking in its warmth. The sounds of the world filled her ears and she pressed her hands to the ground. She spat thick bile onto the pavement. Hesitantly, she stood and walked, pulling the back scratcher from her shoe, grasping it in a white-knuckled grip. A doujiang youtiao shop was just opening across the street. She sat down and ordered in broken Mandarin. 

Never had a meal tasted so delicious. The youtiao crunched between her teeth, lining her lips with oil. She paid and stumbled on. 

She caught sight of her eyes reflected in a dark window: yellow. 

After a shower, Echo pasted a google translated message of closure onto the shutter of the betel nut shop. 

She stuck her hand into her pocket, searching with her fingers. Inhaler, keys, eyeliner, hair curler, stick of gum, cigarettes…phone. 

Her throat tightened and her saliva thickened. “Hi Mom, hi Dad…Yeah, it’s morning here!” Tears poured down her cheeks and her shoulders shook with suppressed weeping. “Have you…have you eaten?” 

Leave a Reply