*THE BLUE FROG 1st PLACE WINNER*
Introduction by Guest Judge TARA ISABEL ZAMBRANO:
The first time I read “Press 3 for Random Track”, it gave me a great sense of place. When I read it again, the language unlocked like a song. On subsequent readings, I loved how the karaoke was a centerpiece until we discovered the disappearance of Liu-ayi. How the lyrics went into the background and sprung forward with details, a storytelling so beautifully done. How “Press 3 for Random Track” in the midst of this story felt like a choice when the narrator’s mind was playing tracks of its own. How everything real and imaginary coincided and filled up the field of view with sounds and colors. Of Missing, of attachment, of freedom. It’s this transition, though understated, that felt deeply profound to me. Something I aspire to in my own writing.
It is 3:00AM and 告白氣球 by Jay Chou comes on the karaoke machine.
I am not at the 24-hr Holiday KTV in Zhonghe on Jingxin Street, with its dim yellow lighting and glorious two-tiered soda machine. I am not leaning against Liu-ayi as she belts the lyrics with three times the intensity of the original, pretending to sleep so Mom won’t say it’s too late for a ten-year-old to be up and make me go home. My other aunties are not on their phones, rolling their eyes but smiling at Liu-ayi’s high notes.
Instead, I am on the floor of my apartment in LA, staring at the karaoke jukebox I bought off Craigslist five hours ago. Photos on Google Maps open beside me show that the Holiday KTV has been thoroughly renovated with purple neon lights and a full bar. My chest is a pit. I am an outline of myself. And Liu-ayi has been missing for three days.
爸我回來了 comes on next. The other aunties would pause during the rap parts but Liu-ayi always took them on, bars committed to memory. Something feels different about the sound from the jukebox, like it’s coming from inside my head, but I’m distracted. I mouth the words as the family LINE group chat I’ve had muted for years buzzes with messages:
Liu-meimei has been going to strange bars lately.
No, she’s always done that.
She came home on the back of a suspicious tall woman’s motorcycle last Tuesday, very late!
Has she been taking drugs?
She should have a boyfriend to protect her. Look what’s happened now! Where is she??
I frown. I cannot imagine her doing any of these things.
Liu-ayi always sang romantic songs the loudest, even though, as the other aunties pointed out, she had never had a boyfriend. She wasn’t technically the youngest, but everyone called her mei-mei. At her younger sister’s wedding Liu-ayi cried onstage and promised, “I’ll be next!” After we got home I kneeled behind the dehumidifier, the holiest place in the house, and prayed she wouldn’t so she could keep taking me to karaoke forever.
In the dark, I crouch in front of the jukebox and press VIDEO as the guzheng notes of 雨下一整晚 twang in my ear. The whole jukebox flickers for a moment, and my hand passes through as if it were a projection. I pull back, then shake my head— my dissociation acting up. A grainy Jay Chou blinks onto the screen, crooning in a cream-colored satin suit.
As I got older, I started staring at the lyrics during weekly karaoke, willing them to move faster. I sensed a distance separating me from my family, so I widened and solidified it; better a chasm I could see clearly than a small gap I could trip over. Soon, Liu-ayi’s earnestness curdled in my mouth like over-sweetened soymilk. I came to karaoke less and less.
The music crackles to a stop. My thighs prickle with numbness. The screen flashes:
PRESS 1 FOR MAIN MENU
PRESS 2 TO PLAY AGAIN
PRESS 3 FOR RANDOM TRACK
I have work in four hours. I press 3.
雨下一整晚 begins to play again, and the camera zooms in on a white-suited figure. I am about to shuffle again when I pause. The figure in the music video is shorter than before, with hair dyed a reddish brown instead of Jay Chou’s black and centimeters away from a pixie cut. I press my laptop to my face until I can inhale the pixels, but I am already sure:
Liu-ayi is on the screen.
She rocks against the microphone stand, closes her eyes. My stomach crumples. Then unfolds: She is. Here? A tall woman in a black leather jacket walks into frame. The camera pans out and they slow-dance, Liu-ayi caressing the woman’s long hair, and Liu-ayi is also still in the corner with the microphone stand, and also behind everyone, older, greying, strumming a blue guitar. A-yi. There are seven of her, eight, overlapping, fading in and out of each other: a teenager shaving her head, an elderly couple making egg pancakes. Here. In grainy color the jukebox displays an entire life all at once.
After years without song my mouth begins to move.
The screen’s edges slip open and so do mine. The room tilts and I fall forward, somehow calm— nothing has felt real since her disappearance, but this does. Weightless, I pass through the screen like a ray of light. Liu-ayi’s face flickers between hers and my own. I once would have been revulsed at our merging but now I reach forward, trying to grasp her face, mine. My body resonates with music, a medium for the sound waves. Faint outlines of my apartment float around us, my life layered beneath this joint space. Fingers blink. Turn translucent. I always knew we shared something, but was horrified by the way Liu-ayi threw herself into our family over and over; I wanted to come into myself on my own. I put on the white suit jacket, grab the microphone and sing. In my body and outside of it, I watch myself with love. Sound and color flood me. I am fuller than I have ever been.
My throat strains as I sing louder, sliding out of key. In the jukebox I watch us sway, wheel, laugh. My apartment’s outlines begin to solidify but the jukebox-world only brightens, all of my worlds real at once. Pixels glitter and we move with the freedom I always sought by detaching. Pale purple light begins to filter into the window and I scream, I scream–
In a private karaoke room in Kaohsiung, two women duet 告白氣球 by Jay Chou. The TV screen switches to a figure kneeling by a window at sunrise, belting 雨下一整晚.
“There you are, little Wen.” The shorter one smiles.
DRI CHIU TATTERSFIELD — Dri (they/he) is a nonbinary creator and educator from Taipei, Taiwan currently teaching high school physics near Boston, MA. Guided by speculative fiction, they make video games, zines and short stories, collaboratively whenever possible. They believe in making things together to build abundant community and possibility. As a member of the Free Radicals collective, he co-creates political education resources such as zines and workshops around building a more just science where all forms of knowledge are valued. Dri studied physics and philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, and you can find their games at hellodri.itch.io.
Art by ROB KANIUK — Rob is a union carpenter in the city of Philadelphia.