Serenity Vol. 1 Scale the Mountain Part 8

A few weeks later Jia steps off the train in San Francisco. Carly agreed to meet her at the station and then they’re going to cruise around town all day. This is Carly’s first time in the city so they’re hitting the tourist spots. She’s already meticulously researched everywhere she wants to go so Jia’s job is to recommend great places to eat and drink.

Carly isn’t hard to spot sitting out front in a bright pink convertible, practically beaming, while Hank sits in the passenger seat looking ill. Jia rushes to hug Carly before tossing her bag in the back seat and swinging her legs over the side of the car. “Not a fan of doors?” Carly asks.

“Nah, this way’s faster and makes me look cool.”

Cruising toward the waterfront they catch up on life. Jia thought this was going to be a fun day but before long she starts feeling inadequate. Carly works for a financial planning firm and a major company in San Francisco is considering hiring them. She won’t say who the company is but implies it’s a soda company who love holiday ad campaigns. If the car they’re cruising around in is any indication the job’s a good fit for her.

Carly keeps turning to look at Jia while Jia and Hank beg her to keep her eyes on the road. They almost hit multiple cars on the way and no less than three people flip them off. You’d think Hank would be used to Carly’s driving but he looks as green as the first time he rode in a car with her.

Suggesting brunch she asks Jia for somewhere fancy. Jia throws out a few cheaper options, afraid the money her mother gave her won’t cover things. After turning down a few options, Carly mentions she can write today off as a business expense so it’s all on her. Suddenly the options open up.

They decide on an upscale Mexican place Jia’s been to a few times. The food’s awesome and you get unlimited mimosas with brunch. Carly doesn’t need any more convincing.

As the drinks flow Carly dominates the conversation. She’s always been a talker and Jia doesn’t have anything going on she can talk about, at least not anything she can share. “Don’t get too excited, but me and Hank are thinking about moving in together.”

Jia practically snorts. “About time, you two started going out three years ago. What took so long?”

“Well I couldn’t abandon you to a new roommate our last couple years. They might have put you with a freshman. If all goes well and we get this client though, I actually might be moving out here to handle their account. I’d be on the west coast for good.”

Getting to see Carly more often would be awesome. They’ve tried to stay in touch since graduation but it’s hard when you’re living life on opposite sides of the country. It still stings. Carly’s thriving and moving forward with her life while Jia’s stuck. If they’re close they can actually see each other regularly and she can’t hide from that.

Jia turns to Hank. “How do you feel about that? Don’t you have a job where you are?”

“Nothing I can’t do wherever I am, I got hired programming for a big company but I work from home most days. I don’t think they’d have a problem with me working out here. I’d have to fly back and forth some but we can manage it.”

Time flies as they eat fajitas and drink mimosas. Once they have a half dozen drinks in them they decide it’s time to pay the check and move on. Carly has the whole day planned out in order. “We’re going to see the Golden Gate Bridge and then we’ll hang by the waterfront. Someone back home was telling me about the sea lions and I’m dying to see them.”

Thinking about how to tackle this, Jia says, “We can get to both of those without much trouble. Let’s start with the waterfront though. We can walk under the bridge and check out the vendors.” Jia’s favorite part of San Francisco has always been the sea lions. As nice as it is today, there should be plenty out. As they scarf the last of their food they decide it’s so nice they’ll walk. With how much they’ve been drinking, that seems like the safe way to go.

Hank’s quiet as they walk along. Once in awhile he’ll inject himself into a conversation but mostly he lets the girls talk. They’ve never been that close, but Jia knows him well enough to know something isn’t right. She thinks about asking, but doesn’t want to ruin what has otherwise been an awesome day. She figures Carly has to see it but she doesn’t say anything either.

As they get closer to the sea lions, Jia starts talking them up. With how close her family is to San Francisco she’s spent a lot of time here. She’s never really liked it though. Too many people. If they ever had to come into the city though all her parents had to do was tell her they’d see the sea lions and she was on board.

Nearing the water, they pass an abandoned building with the windows broken out and the door hanging open. Jia happens to look inside where she sees two men being held at gunpoint by another. None of them are moving, though the man with the gun seems focused. The men being held at gunpoint are wearing matching jean jackets. One’s Hispanic while the other’s a bigger black guy. The man with the gun’s wearing a mask that covers his face but is otherwise dressed like a businessman. His lips move like he’s saying something but between the sound of the water and how far they are away, Jia can’t make out what. Jia immediately jumps out of view, pulling Carly and Hank with her.

Afraid one of them is going to yell and blow their cover, Jia shoves a hand over each of their mouths. She gives them each a look that she hopes says, “Trust me,” before slowly removing her hands. Peeking around the corner, she can see the man with the gun shoving it in one of the other guys’ face.

She grabs Hank by the wrist and pulls him close enough that he can get a look. She decides not to show Carly. She isn’t good with stress. Jia still remembers a few years ago a frog got into their apartment. She walked in to find Carly literally sitting on top of her desk. She refused to get down until Jia caught the frog and removed it from the apartment.

Dialing 911 on her cell phone Jia’s relieved when she gets a quick answer. She whispers into her phone that there’s a man with a gun holding up two other men. She tries to describe their location but she only has a vague idea where they are. It’s hard to give the lady on the phone a great idea. She gives the okay to ping their GPS so hopefully the cops can figure it out.

Suddenly a gunshot rings out. Hank moves to get a hand over Carly’s mouth before she can give them away. Jia doesn’t want to look through the window and see what happened but the 911 operator heard the shot as well and she needs to know. A quick glance allows for a sigh of relief. One of the men’s now on the ground crying while the other leans over him. Neither seems to have been shot, at least not yet.

Jia looks around her environment, considering options. The next gunshot might be more serious. She doesn’t have a weapon and even if she did, she doesn’t know how to use one. She does notice the man with the gun’s facing away from her.

Looking to Hank and Carly, she says, “Stay here,” before handing her phone to Hank. “If this goes bad, run and don’t look back.” Carly’s eyes go wide. She’s always been pale but now she’s whiter than snow. Hank manages a nod. He seems to be holding himself together. Jia’s happy to see someone is.

A few feet into the building there’s a box of crates that could make good cover. Going out so much at night, she’s gotten used to operating quietly in recent weeks and she’s confident she can get there without issue. The other half of the way to the group’s going to be the tricky part. Even if she gets to the crates that leaves at least ten feet to cover without being seen or heard before she’ll reach the man with the gun.

Even if she’s quiet there’s no guarantee one of the men being held up won’t see her and give her away. She could wait; she probably should wait. There’s still no sound of sirens though which means help isn’t close. Things seem to be escalating inside. The man with the gun’s getting more and more agitated. Jia thinks she hears something about just giving it up.

Reaching the crates ends up being as easy as she thought it’d be. Hugging the shadows she sneaks along the wall until she’s in their shadow. She’s slightly taller than the stack so she ducks down to stay hidden. So far so good on the quiet front.

Brushing against the crates, she feels something poke hard into her side and break the skin. It takes everything she has to stifle a yelp. Pulling back and looking down, she sees a rusty nail sticking out of a crate, now covered in her blood. She prays she wasn’t heard. Glancing around the side of the crates, none of the men seem to have taken notice.

The man with the gun jams his pistol into the other men’s faces. He seems distracted and Jia figures this is as good an opportunity as she’s going to get. Taking one last deep breath for courage she moves from behind the crates and starts tip toeing closer. She’s ten feet away and no reaction. Then nine feet and nothing. Eight feet and still nothing. Seven feet and no reaction.

At the six foot mark, where she’s almost close enough to make a move, the man on the ground notices her and they lock eyes. He doesn’t say anything, he’s not trying to give her up. It’s enough though. The man with the gun turns and sees her out of the corner of his eye. He spins, trying to center his gun on Jia. Her life flashes before her eyes and all she can think about is why didn’t she wait for the police?

A woman screams behind her. That would be Carly. She hopes Hank kept his word and they’re running. Jia reaches toward the gun, trying to get her hand on his arm before it can fully be trained on her.

Out of nowhere the second man being held up jumps forward and rushes the gunman. He’s a large, thick guy and he hits his assailant like a ton of bricks. They go skidding across the ground and the gun flies out of the shooter’s hand. Jia makes a move for the weapon and kicks it into a corner. The two men roll back and forth, evenly matched. Jia decides to change the odds.

She waits until the shooter’s on top, circling behind him while he’s too occupied to do anything. She aims a hard kick right at the back of his left knee, driving all of her weight forward. The man screams and falls away. He grabs at his leg, rolling back and forth.

The man who did the tackling fights his way to his feet. He gets in a kick of his own, causing another scream from the now injured attacker. The attacker lays there and stops moving around. He’s not going anywhere. The large man turns to Jia. “Damn girl, that was one hell of a kick. Thanks for your help. I don’t know what we would have done otherwise. Name’s DeMarcus.”

He reaches out, offering a handshake which Jia gladly accepts. DeMarcus asks her to wait for the cops to help explain what happened and she obliges. So much for her and Carly’s fun day.

Carly rushes into the alley and practically tackles her. Introductions are made and within a couple of minutes the police arrive. The man with the gun’s taken away in an ambulance but doesn’t seem willing to give up any information. He’s clearly in a lot of pain though.

The cops take all their information as well as that of DeMarcus and his friend. It doesn’t take long to get their statements. Seems like a pretty straight forward mugging, though Jia notices DeMarcus is a bit vague about what the man wanted. She doesn’t have a clue what he was after, she couldn’t hear enough of what the man was saying. The police inform them they’ll be in touch if they need anything else before departing.

Jia looks over her small puncture wound and swears. Rusty nail equals tetanus shot and that’s going to hurt more than the nail did. She tries not to be too upset. Compared to what could have happened, they got lucky. There’s still time for a bit of sightseeing if they can get back in the mood. She figures the tetanus shot can wait until the next morning. No need to further ruin their trip.

The rest of the day’s a blur. At least watching the sea lions cheers them up. Getting drunk helps even more. By the end of the day they’re actually able to laugh about it, at least a little. Arriving back at the train station that evening Carly gives Jia one last hug. “I’ll let you know how the interview goes. Not a great first impression of San Francisco, but I think I might still be willing to give it a shot. After all, my best friend’s here.”

Jia tries to get some rest on the train. This was supposed to be a day of rest but she may be more exhausted than she was when she left. First thing in the morning she needs to hit up a local clinic and get that tetanus shot. She’s not sure when her last vaccine was so better safe than sorry. She texts her parents what time she’ll be arriving in Napa so she can get a ride home. No need to walk five miles if she can avoid it.

She thought about calling them earlier in the day to tell them what happened but she was afraid they’d want her to come home right away. She wasn’t going to miss the rest of her day with Carly.

Exiting the train, she’s surprised to see her mom waiting. Her dad has always been more the pick your kid up from the train station late at night parent. She’s relieved to see her mom and squeezes her tight before they head to the car. On the drive home she considers keeping this story to herself but finally decides to open up.

She tells her mom everything. She talks about how scared she was, about how she thought she could handle the situation. She even admits that if it weren’t for Demarcus intervening she’d probably have ended up dead. She’s admitting it to herself as much as to her mom. This is the first moment she really thinks about how dangerous things got.

After a long silence her mother asks, “So just to be clear, you found yourself in an incredibly dangerous situation where a man was pointing a gun at several other people. Instead of waiting for help you decided to get involved and try to help them yourself. Is that about right?”

The only thing Jia can think to say is, “Yes,” which results in a loud a sigh from her mother.

“You really are my daughter, aren’t you? Alright, we’ll start your real training tomorrow. If you’re going to put yourself in dangerous situations, you’re at least going to know how to handle yourself when you do.”

Part 7

Part 9

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Serenity Vol. 1 Scale the Mountain Part 7

Over the next month Jia’s mother keeps her busy day and night. Daily trips up the mountains for flowers become daily trips up the mountain for no reason at all. Some nights as she tries to sleep she’ll suddenly feel a shake. She opens her eyes to her mother standing over her. “One hour.”

It isn’t long before she learns the best paths up the mountain and that hour becomes easy. Once her mother realizes this, the time begins to shrink. One night she’s woken and told she has an hour. As she walks back into the house 48 minutes later, her mother tells her she needs to do it again and this time she only has 45 minutes. She makes it with under a minute to spare.

The mountains are only the start. Every day her mother keeps her up later into the evening than the day before and wakes her earlier in the morning. She cleans the house top to bottom. One day she’s given the challenge of cleaning their kitchen with a toothbrush.

Expecting the challenges to start focusing on martial arts she pushes forward but her mother continues to avoid teaching her a thing. Every day she gets closer to breaking. It didn’t take long to figure out her mother’s whole strategy is to break her. She doesn’t want to teach her but wants it to be Jia’s fault and not her own. The woman won’t even give her an idea how long is left in the training. It’s a lot easier to keep pushing when there’s an end in sight.

One day she’s sitting on the couch mid-morning, trying desperately to nap after her mother woke her only two hours after allowing her to go to sleep, when the phone rings. She practically jumps out of her skin.

It’s Carly, Jia’s college roommate. The investment firm who hired her after graduation is sending Carly and her boyfriend Hank to San Francisco to meet with a potential new client. It’s a business trip but she’ll have a free day and she’d love Jia to drive over and hang out. Jia’s first thought is excitement, they haven’t seen each other for over six months and after living together for four years, that feels wrong.

Her excitement doesn’t last long as she realizes her mom will probably have her climbing a tree with a piece of dental floss. There’s no way she can go. She wants to see Carly but not enough to make the last month be for nothing.

A whole day thinking about how to get the time off yields no better ideas than asking. After dinner she finds her mom drinking a glass of wine and reading a book in her room. Her dad went out for his weekly poker game so they have the house to themselves. “Mom?”

“Yes Jia?”

“Do you remember my roommate Carly from school? You and dad met her a few times when you came out to visit.”

“Of course I do. Nice girl. A bit obsessive but nice.”

“That’s Carly. She’s going to be in San Francisco in a few weeks for business and she wants me to drive over and spend a day with her. I’d like to see her, but I know I have training. I was wondering if there’s any way I can have the day off. I’ll do any training you want before I leave and you can make me work all night after I get home. It’s been way too long since I’ve seen her though and I’d feel terrible telling her no.”

“I’m not without a heart Jia. You’re giving me notice and it’s a rare thing for your friend to be in California. Doesn’t she live on the east coast somewhere?”

“Boston.”

“She’s coming a long way then. Of course you can go. I’ll even let you sleep the night before so you’re rested. What day is it?”

Fighting back the urge to rush to her mother and wrap her in a bear hug, Jia says, “It’s in three weeks, on Wednesday.”

Her mom’s kind look turns to a frown when she hears this. “Wednesday isn’t good. I can’t lend you the car that day. I’m meeting a company about possibly selling their wine glasses in the winery. I spent six months trying to get this meeting, I can’t reschedule. You can still go of course, you’ll just need to take the train over and get a cab to wherever you’re meeting. I’ll give you a couple hundred dollars for the trip, you’ve been working hard for nothing but room and board for awhile now.”

Jia searches for her jaw which is now resting on the floor. With that settled she lays down next to her mom like they used to when she was younger. It’s time for the evening news so her mother sets her book down and flips the television on.

The lead story tonight is about the presidential election. It’s only a couple of days away. Richard Hughes is facing off against the heavily favored Senator Gilles. Jia isn’t sure she’s even going to vote. She doesn’t like either candidate, though Gilles is definitely the better of the two. He’s a long way from perfect but he isn’t a lunatic. The experts seem confident Gilles has the election won but that hasn’t stopped the Hughes campaign from rocketing around the country, promising to defend the borders and fight terror. A major plank of his campaign is a push to legalize vigilantism so citizens can police themselves.

Every time you turn the TV on you hear this loud mouth but tonight Jia’s seeing his policies in a new light. “What do you think about the vigilante thing? You used to basically do what he wants to legalize. He’s crazy but maybe it could work. You and grandpa helped people.”

Her mother takes a big sip of her wine. “As someone who has been a vigilante, I’m certain what this country needs isn’t more vigilantes. Your grandpa did good in the war but he was a soldier then, not a vigilante. I’m not sure how much we helped anyone after that.”

They watch the news for a few more minutes until a sudden yawn sneaks up on Jia. She suddenly realizes how tired she is. Stretching out she considers heading to bed. Just as she’s about to say good night her mother turns to her. “Jia, get some flowers from the mountain before you go to bed. You have forty five minutes, starting now.”

Infuriated that her mother used her yawn as an opportunity, Jia flings herself off the bed and runs for the door stopping only long enough to put her shoes on.

Part 6

Part 8

Serenity Vol. 1 Scale the Mountain Part 6

Jia’s up early the next morning, getting cleaning done at the winery before they open. She stayed up late looking through her mom’s photo albums and she’s feeling it this morning. She almost forgot she had to open today. Luckily it’s a rainy weekday during their slow season. She’s unlikely to have more than a few customers.

One of their regulars did show up an hour before opening wanting a glass but that’s the only person to stop in so far. The lady insisted Jia share a drink with her and she’s certainly not one to turn down a regular. Nothing changes when they technically open. She keeps cleaning while sneaking a sip of wine every now and then. This continues until just before noon when her dad pokes his head in. Having spent the better part of the morning planning what to say, she’s ready to ambush him.

“Dad, did mom talk to you about what I found last night?”

He grins, glancing around to make sure they’re alone. “She did. I’m not surprised you figured it out but nice job. That’s your family’s history and you deserved to know. Wasn’t my place to tell though.”

“Did she tell you what I asked her?”

He nods, knowing where his daughter’s taking this. “That’s up to your mother. I’m not getting involved.”

“That’s fine dad, it can be up to her. She seems to think you’d have a problem with her training me though. If you don’t, can you just tell her so she’ll consider it?”

Her dad pours himself a glass of wine. Jia loves to drink with the customers but her dad never does unless a customer really insists. For a wine maker, he’s not a big drinker. He certainly never drinks at work when there aren’t any customers around. It’s before noon. Half his glass of pinot’s gone in one long swallow. “It’s not a problem with me. If she wants to train you, I’ll support you both. I don’t want you doing the rest of it though. The martial arts part is fine but don’t go putting on a costume and doing anything like that. I saw what that did to your mother and I don’t want that for you.”

It’s all Jia can do to keep a straight face. “Dad, I’m not deranged. I have no desire to go fighting crime or anything like that. I don’t have a death wish. I just want to know my family’s history. Plus, I love martial arts and a new style would be interesting to learn. Can you put in a good word with mom for me?”

“No need.” They both turn to find Jia’s mom walking in looking completely rested. You’d never know she was up half the night. She closes the umbrella that’s kept her mostly dry despite the pouring rain outside. “Jia, please don’t discuss this in public. I’d rather not discuss it at all but if you have to, do it at home. I don’t want someone overhearing you and looking into my past. Our family’s form isn’t practiced today but there are a lot of people who would be very interested in learning about it. If the wrong person overhears you, that could be dangerous for our family, maybe even for your grandfather. Do you understand?”

Jia nods and her mother moves on. “If your father is truly okay with it, I’ll consider training you. You’ll need to prove you’re serious though. It’s not something I’m going to teach you lightly. I have to warn you, the training will be very difficult. You’re not going to like me very much by the time we’re done. Is that okay?”

Jia practically jumps up and down she’s so excited. She can always make her dad do what she wants but her mom’s an unmovable force. Winning feels almost wrong. That doesn’t mean she isn’t grateful for a victory. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she tells her mom as she rushes to hug her. With a sly smile her mother says to her, “Your father and I will watch the winery. It’s time for your first task. I want you to run to the top of the nearest mountain and retrieve some of the purple flowers that grow there. I’ll give you an hour. That should be enough time if you push yourself. Make sure to bring back at least a few of them and make sure you keep them safe on the way down. I want a nice centerpiece for the table tonight.”

“It’s raining really hard mom,” Jia starts to say before realizing that’s probably the point. Starting off her training by arguing isn’t the way to prove she’s serious. Her mother’s eyebrow goes up but before she can respond Jia says, ”Can I at least have time to go put on a raincoat?”

Her mother’s smile gets a little more wicked. “You can use your hour however you want. But keep in mind that your hour starts,” she looks down at her watch, “now. Taking ten minutes to run to the house and change would probably make completing this task impossible but that’s up to you.”

Jia considers objecting before realizing there’s no point. Her glee has turned to anger but she immediately flies out the front door of the winery and starts heading for the nearest path up the mountain.

Back inside the winery, Jia’s dad gives his wife a disapproving look. “Do you have any intention of actually teaching her Lia? Running up mountains isn’t what she has in mind.”

The wicked grin is now in full force and she bursts out laughing. “I wouldn’t say no intention. You could have done a better job of backing me up on the ‘your dad would have a problem with this’ thing.”

He shrugs. “Sorry, you know I’ve never been good at lying to her. She figured things out so fast after I slipped up. She’s our daughter.”

“If she does everything I ask, then I’ll teach her. I’m going to make it as hard as possible though because I really don’t want to do this. If she pushes through everything I’m going to put in her way, I won’t have much choice. She’s tough, but I think she’ll break before I do.” Pouring herself a rare daytime glass of wine, she offers cheers to her husband before downing the entire glass in one long gulp.

Part 5

Part 7

Serenity Vol. 1 Scale the Mountain Part 5

Sitting on her attic floor, surrounded by boxes containing her mother’s most sacred secrets, Jia’s frozen as her mother stares down at her. She snuck into the attic looking for evidence of her family’s recently discovered history of martial arts. Her dad slipped and revealed her mother and grandfather were once great fighters but when he realized what he said, he immediately clammed up.

Attempts to get either parent to elaborate proved futile. Her curiosity eventually led to this attic and the boxes of evidence her parents hid away. Evidence of a history she never suspected until she started digging.

Now her mother’s standing there. Neither of them is sure what to say. Finally her mother breaks the silence. “So, you found my stuff. I guess now’s as good a time as any to have a little chat about it.”

Jia waits for her to continue but she’s seemingly waiting for a response. “Okay.”

Walking over to Jia, her mother looks into an open box containing two similar costumes. She has a strange look of sadness on her face. Crouching down, she runs her hand over the costume on top, the one that looks meant for a young woman. Turning again to face her daughter, she asks, “What would you like to know?”

Trying to pick one of the millions of questions rushing through her head seems impossible. It takes a few moments to narrow it down. “What is all of this?”

“As good a question as any I suppose. It’s a long story though. We might as well start at the beginning. At least the beginning for our purposes. This art has been passed down in our family for generations. Your grandfather was taught martial arts by his father at a young age. You never saw that side of him.” She moves the first costume aside and looks at the one underneath it.

“It’s hard for me to imagine him hurting anybody.”

“He was very dangerous at one time. You’ve probably seen some of the evidence of that in these boxes. He joined the army as a way out but he planned on keeping his head down and serving out his time. That didn’t really work. He fell backwards into fame and before long he was part of the most important mission of the war. When he got home, he found he enjoyed the fame, maybe too much. He tried to help people for a few years here but that was always difficult with the public mindset of the time and eventually he retired.”

This doesn’t seem real, but nothing in her mother’s demeanor suggests she’s lying. She seems more at peace than Jia’s ever seen her. “He kept living that life for a lot longer than he should have. It was a long time before he met your grandmother and settled down to have me. They wanted more children but then your grandmother died and I was all he had. He didn’t want to remarry and since he wasn’t going to have a son, I was his only choice to keep his legacy alive. He didn’t just pass down skills and training though. He gave me his whole identity. He wanted me to be Serenity.”

That’s the name she’s been waiting to hear escape her mother’s lips. The hair on her arms stand on end. “I trained until I was strong enough to take even him on. Eventually he wanted to go out, to return to his old life. He wanted me with him. By that time it was the 70s. There was so much more danger on the streets than he’d seen twenty years earlier. He didn’t care at all. He decided I was going to prove myself and there was no other way.”

Her mother seems to be struggling through this part. The lighting’s dim but she can hear the emotion in her mother’s voice. “We don’t have to keep going if you don’t want to mom.”

“I want to get through this so I don’t have to do it again. At first I was excited to learn from him. My whole life was about getting stronger; I was so proud of everything he taught me. I felt like the luckiest girl alive. When I got out on the streets though it was different. It was no longer about learning. I had to hurt real people, people doing bad things but that didn’t make it easier. I hated it.”

She pauses and takes a few deep breaths. “I couldn’t let my father down so I kept pushing, for far longer than I should have. Things got bad. I was afraid I was going to die almost every night, or that I’d have to kill someone which seemed just as bad. Then I met your father and I quit. I don’t think your grandfather ever really forgave me. He said he was okay but I knew that was a lie.”

“Mom, seriously, we can let this drop for tonight. Why don’t we talk about it later?”

He mom shakes her head. “No, I want to get through this now. After tonight I’d prefer to put this all back in the past where it belongs. I swore off martial arts and decided I’d never wear that costume again. I put it in a box and packed it away. I almost burned both of those costumes but I couldn’t quite bring myself to erase it, to act like it wasn’t a part of me. I swore you and your brother would never be pushed into that life, never learn to fight even.”

“Is that why you never told me you knew how to fight, even when I started competing?”

Her mother nods. “When you started getting older, my father begged me to train the two of you or at least let him do it but I refused. The day you decided to get involved in martial arts was one of the worst of my life. I’d been so careful to keep you away from martial arts. I always talked badly about fighting, I wouldn’t let you watch the movies, none of it mattered. I was so sure my father got to you somehow that I drove to his house and screamed at him. He swore he didn’t do anything but it took hours before I believed him. Your dad convinced me I should let you learn even though I didn’t want you to. He said it wasn’t the same as what I’d trained in and it was good to know how to protect yourself.”

Jia sits there unsure how to react. “That’s a lot to take in.” Now it’s her mother’s turn to nod. “So to be clear, when you were younger, like my age, you dressed up in this costume and fought criminals in the streets.”

Her mother starts laughing, putting her hands behind her head. “Sounds crazy doesn’t it? I can barely believe it myself. I just couldn’t do it anymore after a while, and when I met your father I saw a different life. One I’d never even considered.”

Her mother pauses at this point, taking yet another deep breath before continuing. “Right at the end, there was a terrible murder I was looking into. The police were having no luck solving it. I’d heard awful things about the killer and how dangerous he was from a friend. I didn’t want anything to do with the case. I’d already started cutting back on the vigilante thing and I thought the police could handle it. Your grandfather wasn’t having it. He saw an article in the paper and he called me asking if I was looking into it. I told him to let the police handle this one, that was their job after all. He told me it was my duty to try and save anyone I could. He even threatened to suit back up himself and go out there.”

“How old was he at this point?”

“Well, this was the late 80s, so probably in his mid to late 60s. He was too old and I didn’t want him getting hurt so I agreed to at least poke around. Things went badly. That’s all you really need to know. I was so afraid, not of dying but of living after what I saw. Your father, well that’s a story for another night but he knew about me. He convinced me I deserved a life where I could have peace, where I wouldn’t be risking my life every day. That’s just how he put it too. Saying it that way, it sounded as ridiculous as it was. Why couldn’t I just be myself? My father talked about legacy but running around fighting crime wasn’t our family legacy. Martial arts maybe, but he was the first one to put on a funny costume and go fight crime. I learned the arts, I told him that would have to be enough.”

Jia doesn’t know what to say so she keeps her mouth shut. Instead of talking, she stands and walks to her mom, squeezing her in a hug. They stand like that for several minutes. “I know you didn’t want me to go into martial arts mom and I get why now. I did go into them though. I got really good. If this is our family’s legacy, why don’t you train me so I can pass them on?”

Her mom ends their embrace and practically shoves her daughter away. “Not a chance. That is only going to lead you down a bad road. I made that decision a long time ago.”

“Mom, I’ve been sitting around here doing nothing and going nowhere for six months now. I can’t figure out what to do with my life or even with my days. I need something to grab onto. This could be it. If grandpa trained you then you can train me. I don’t want to run around in a costume. That’s crazy. Richard Hughes is a maniac, talking about bringing back vigilantes. I just want to know our family heritage. Then I can pass it onto my kids someday. If the legacy is enough then we should keep it alive, right?”

“Martial arts can bring focus but you don’t need these. You can practice what you’ve spent ten years studying. A little family history isn’t going to give you a purpose in life. You don’t have some destiny. Your life is what you make of it. Your grandfather may have disagreed but it isn’t like it led him to a lifetime of happiness. Trust me honey, I know what I’m talking about here. You wanted to know our family history and after you found all of this, I figured I should tell you. That’s it though. This stuff’s going back in boxes and we’re going to keep living our lives like we always have. Besides, if I taught you any of this stuff I don’t know how your father would take it.”

Jia is caught off guard by this last part. “Dad doesn’t want me to learn? I thought he was the one who was okay with me learning martial arts. He’s always been so supportive.”

“Your dad was supportive of you learning to defend yourself. He did tell me I could teach you the arts if I wanted to years ago. That was before though. He knows I don’t really want to and with everything going on in the world right now, I think he’d get scared that you were going to follow in my footsteps. Maybe I’ll reconsider someday but not now.”

She walks to the box of costumes and puts it’s lid back on. Picking the box up, she sets it back in the stack where Jia found it. Once that’s done, she heads for the stairs, pausing only long enough to say, “Good night honey. I’ll see you in the morning. Make sure to close up the attic when you come down.” With that she’s gone.

Part 4

Part 6

Serenity Vol. 1 Scale the Mountain Part 4

Over dinner Jia’s completely unable to concentrate. Her dad’s pork chops are good, slightly sweet with a salty after taste. She can’t stop thinking about the attic and how much she wants to go back up and explore whatever was in those boxes. It could be nothing, maybe just one of her parents rearranging their terribly overstuffed attic. It doesn’t feel like nothing though. The old articles and the Serenity boxes in particular being pulled out seems significant.

After finishing her meal Jia makes an excuse about turning in early to get some reading done. She refills her glass and grabs the half bottle of rosé she stuffed in the fridge. On the way to her room, she notices the attic’s still open. She wants to go back up but decides now isn’t the time. Once her parents fall asleep she can make her move.

Trying to concentrate on her novel proves pointless, no reading’s getting done. Mostly she sips wine and plays on her phone. After a half hour she lays down and starts to doze off. It’s been a long day and the soft mattress under her feels amazing. She’s roused about an hour later when she hears a light knock at her door. It’s mom telling her that she and Jia’s dad are headed to bed. A quick good night later and Jia’s back in bed.

She gives them a twenty minute head start on falling asleep before deciding to do recon. She goes to the bathroom and on the way sees the attic’s closed. She thinks about heading up now but there’s always a risk she’ll make noise when pulling the stairs down and her parents probably aren’t asleep yet.

Heading back to her room she’s mostly just staring at the clock at this point. The minutes tick by slowly. Finally she decides enough time has passed and she can safely make her way to the attic. A part of her thinks this whole thing is stupid. If her parents really didn’t want her to find something they wouldn’t leave it sitting in the middle of the attic with the stairs down. Then again, maybe they just forgot to put the stairs up and didn’t expect she’d have a reason to go up there.

Creeping down the hall, Jia’s as careful as she can be when pulling the stairs down. She doesn’t hear much noise when they hit the ground and she breathes a sigh of relief. Tiptoeing up each step, she realizes she’s never been up here so late at night. There’s a small window on the far side of the room, but no real light is coming in at this point. It’s a cloudy night and even the moon isn’t around to help.

She has no idea where the light switch is up here. The light was on earlier but she didn’t pay attention to it since she decided to leave it on. Usually the window provides enough light for her to grab something. Luckily she brought her phone and the flashlight on it helps her navigate around. After a minute or two of searching she finds a switch on the beam right next to the stairs. Of course it was that simple.

Before going further, Jia decides she needs an excuse for why she’s up here if she gets caught. Her parents’ bedroom is on the first floor so it’s unlikely they’ll hear her but you never know and if she gets caught she wants to be ready.

She searches until she finds a box of her old awards from high school and sets them in the middle of the floor. Opening the box, the nostalgia of these trophies and medals comes rushing back at her. These all represent important moments in her life when she succeeded. She spends too long looking through them before catching herself and realizing this is definitely not why she’s up here late at night. If she really needs to catch up with this stuff she can come back another time.

Finally Jia makes her way to the Serenity boxes. Lifting the lid off the first one, she starts digging out a variety of folders and old scrapbooks. Grabbing the first folder she sees, she finds it’s mostly full of old newspaper clippings from between 1943 and the mid to late 50s. It doesn’t take long for Jia to make the connection between what these articles are about and the label on the boxes. They’re all about the masked vigilante Serenity. Every kid who’s taken history class knows at least the basics of the five allies who helped save the world during World War II. She hasn’t thought about them in years but one of them was definitely a guy named Serenity.

Glancing through the other folders, she finds article after article about his exploits during the war, mostly filled with rumors and innuendo. She’s glad these are well maintained in scrapbooks because unfolding and holding the individual articles would be terrifying. At this age they’d be liable to fall apart in her hands. They talk about missions during the war he may have gone on, people he may have killed, things he may have accomplished.

What’s really interesting are the articles from after the war. There’s a gap of about two or three years and then articles start popping up about Serenity reappearing in the San Francisco area. Jia doesn’t remember learning that in school.

Vigilantes have been on a lot of people’s minds lately. A couple of months ago a reporter asked Richard Hughes, one of the candidates running for president, what his thoughts on vigilantism were. They brought up those who saved the day during World War II. He immediately launched into a long diatribe about how those men and women were the absolute best ever and how we all needed to learn from them. Most shocking of all, he promised to make vigilantism legal again if he’s elected president.

Again might not be the right word. If these articles are to be believed it was never legal. At first Serenity was tolerated around San Francisco since he was a popular war hero and he was taking down bad people. Drug busts, prostitution stings, bank robberies, a few bombings. There’s even a story about a Nazi sleeper group he personally tracked down and stopped, capturing a high ranking Nazi official who got away at the end of the war.

The tone of the articles is positive, though there are a lot of quotes from the police chief at the time that basically amount to thanks for the help, but go away and let us do our job. One article specifically mentions how San Francisco was actually quite easy going about this. Many cities across the country had started arresting, or even shooting vigilantes on sight if they were caught interfering with the police. Other cities were more or less tolerating people who were trying to do good and whose only crime was going after those committing more serious crimes. It seems like a power struggle and not one going the vigilantes’ way.

Most of the folders contain articles but Jia comes across a few filled with pictures. There’s Serenity, just as she’s seen him in the famous group photo from the end of the war, only a lot closer up and maybe a few years older. He’s clearly a relatively young man and while he’s wearing a brown and blue costume with a mask, his features that are visible look Asian. Things are starting to make sense. Her grandpa and later her mom must have been inspired by having an Asian hero running around and trained to be fighters as a result. After their talk the other night, her mom probably got nostalgic and came up here to look at the scrapbooks she kept in her youth.

Digging further into the articles she finds some from the late 50s where the San Francisco police finally cracked down and advised Serenity if he continued, they would arrest him. There are a few later articles but most of them don’t actually claim to see him. They’re about cases and situations that fit his style which the newspaper speculated may have been him operating in secret.

Opening another book, Jia finds the articles contained here are a lot more recent. Mostly from the late 70s. They talk about a teenage girl dressed a lot like Serenity showing up in San Francisco and involving herself in police investigations.

Since the crackdown in the late 50s there hadn’t been much vigilantism in the city, certainly no one who made a big name for themselves. The same police chief was still in place all those years later and advised that they still had a no tolerance policy against vigilantes. Reading through the articles, it seems this girl wasn’t active for long. Just a couple years. There are a couple articles from the late 80s and early 90s in here as well but nothing mentioning Serenity, which turns Jia’s blood cold. As she reads the articles, they fit the sort of case she’d expect to see Serenity involved in but no one made the connection to either the original Serenity or the female copycat. No one except whoever collected these scrapbooks.

Having skimmed through the first box, Jia opens another. Inside she finds items she assumes are souvenirs. What appear to be the pins to a few grenades lay on top of a few drawings. Beneath that what looks like part of a costume is wadded up. If it were brown and blue she’d probably run screaming from the attic but it’s purple and looks nothing like the one she was afraid of finding. Maybe someone related to Serenity?

The more she thinks about it the more she rationalizes finding this in her attic. It’s weird but clearly either her mother or grandfather were very into Serenity. Maybe they collected stuff related to him over the years. The same way others collect autographs, or things from a musician’s concerts, or in weird cases a celebrity’s hair. It doesn’t make a lot of sense but she tells herself that has to be it. She moves onto another box.

Opening this third box her eyes practically bug out of her head. She finds herself staring into a box filled with a variety of outfits, all brown with blue highlights. Pulling them out, she realizes they’re definitely costumes and they look like Serenity’s, or at least some of Serenity’s as there are pictures of him in various outfits. Jia tells herself these must be something her mom or grandpa bought on the collector’s market at some point. There’s a lot of them though and that really doesn’t make sense. There’s one that’s a lot smaller than the others and a few face masks sit in the bottom of the box. She starts coming to terms with the more obvious reason for what she’s seeing.

Lost in thought and already considering running away and pretending she never saw this, Jia almost jumps through the roof when she hears a throat clear behind her. Spinning as fast as she can, she sees her mother standing by the stairs, staring at her with a mostly expressionless look. “So, you found my stuff. I guess now’s as good a time as any to have a little chat about it.”

Part 3

Part 5

Serenity Vol. 1 Scale the Mountain Part 3

The next day is her day off and Jia Crawford’s determined to see her grandfather. She gets up first thing in the morning and feels relieved that for once she doesn’t have a hangover. The power of going to bed early and getting some real sleep. She’ll still have to bike to the nursing home today but she’s pretty used to biking at this point. She’s biked almost everywhere since getting home from school.

Her car was a real piece of junk and while it managed the cross country ride home, it broke down less than a week after her return. She didn’t have the money to replace a transmission or buy a new car but her old bike was just sitting there. It’s usually nice this time of year so it hasn’t been an issue.

In a few months she probably will want a new car and that will be an issue. She doesn’t have any money. She’s been working at the winery but isn’t getting paid. Her parents give her room, board, and a little spending money now and then but no steady wages.

Temperatures are already starting to drop and while afternoons are still nice, mornings are chilly the last few weeks. By January the bike isn’t going to cut it.

She knows she should start looking for a job in her field but she isn’t sure how much is out there for someone with a liberal arts degree. Already she regrets not studying a more practical field. Her parents didn’t want to be the stereotypical Asian family pushing her away from the arts. If they had been she might have a real chance at a job.

There are worse things than relaxing, drinking and spending time with family but in a few months when the temperatures get really cold and she finds herself biking home from the bar she might not enjoy it as much. That’s if her parents give her enough money to afford the bar.

For now the days are beautiful, filled with sun. By mid afternoon when she’ll be heading home it might even be a bit too warm. She’s lucky the ride to the nursing home is mostly uphill. She can handle that in the cooler morning and on the way back she can just cruise downward, enjoying the breeze.

Visiting hours don’t start until noon so she decides to swing by one of her favorite restaurants in the valley and get lunch for her and her grandfather. She has thirty dollars her parents gave her recently and one of the many celebrity chefs operating in Napa has a fantastic fried chicken lunch she can afford two of.

Picking up two portions, the aroma of fried chicken sends her to heaven. Just thinking about the crispy skin and the flaky biscuits makes her mouth water. Balancing two of these on a bike’s handlebars while trying to power her way up what is literally a mountain isn’t easy but it’ll be worth it when she bites into those biscuits. Jia relishes the burn. Her bundle slows her down, but not long after visiting time starts she arrives with lunch. Now she has to hope Grandpa Takeshi is doing well enough today to enjoy it.

After locking her bike to a tree, Jia makes her way inside. The scent of the chicken causes heads to turn in her direction the entire way to her grandpa’s room. The halls are filled with elderly people struggling along. Most appear happy but moans are coming from a room at the end of the hall. Arriving at the correct room, she pounds on her grandpa’s closed door to make sure he hears her. He shouts to come in and she enters to find him sitting in his ragged recliner staring at the TV. Grandpa Takeshi is 97 years old and on a good day he seems mostly like the same man who taught her to garden twenty years ago. Good days come less and less recently. Far too often he can’t figure out where he is, or even who he is. Any day he recognizes her is a decent start.

Takeshi’s lived in California his entire life and has rarely left outside of his brief stint in the army during World War II. With his family locked up in camps during one of the darkest hours in this country’s history, Takeshi volunteered to serve. He was eager to prove his loyalty to his home but he also wanted to feel free again.

It’s impossible to imagine him as some great martial artist. Then again, it’s equally difficult to imagine him as a military man. He was already old by the time Jia was born but he’s always been a gentle man. She grew up in his kitchen where his food always tasted incredibly fresh, mostly because he sourced most of his ingredients from his own garden.

His sense of peace and equilibrium was striking even to someone as young as Jia. Nothing got under his skin. One time when she was a baby and learning to walk, he caught her rummaging through his silverware, happily playing with a pair of steak knives. Maybe those should have been out of reach but the man barely blinked. He took them away and went about their day as if nothing happened.

Today he looks at her with confusion that never fails to sting. “Is it time for my pills already?” There’s no sign of recognition. Definitely not a good day.

That doesn’t necessarily mean this is a lost cause. There are days when he doesn’t know what he had for breakfast and doesn’t recognize anyone but he’ll still remember details of a little restaurant he ate at in Italy in 1946. She came here to talk about the past anyway. She desperately wants to understand more about her family’s history and her place within it.

Setting her bag down on his table, Jia starts unboxing their food. “I brought you some chicken for lunch. Thought you might enjoy that. I know you’ve always liked fried chicken.”

Despite her grandpa’s mental state having taken a turn for the worse the last few years, physically he’s still in fantastic shape. He takes a couple of pills but they’re more vitamins than anything. He’s allowed to eat more or less whatever he wants, which is why fried chicken can be on the menu today. Jia can only hope at his age she’ll be in such good shape.

Smelling the food across the room, Takeshi’s seemingly pulled from his chair and quickly reaches the small two seat table in the corner. “Smells delicious,” he says while sitting and tucking a napkin into his shirt. He doesn’t say anything about who she is and Jia is pretty sure he doesn’t much care at the moment.

Dishing them both up a nice plate, she sits down to dig into their meal and start digging for information. She knows she needs to be careful to not cause distress. Best to start with easy questions and build to the big stuff. If he’s not receptive or doesn’t remember she’ll let it go. He plows through the food like he hasn’t eaten in weeks, pausing only to say these are the best biscuits he’s ever had. Without prompting he starts talking about his morning. He’s been watching a marathon of the game show network for the last few hours. He’s able to recite the last four shows he watched and what the contestants won. Maybe this isn’t hopeless.

“Grandpa Takeshi,” she says before stopping to wipe the grease from her mouth, “someone told me that you used to be a great martial artist. Is that true?”

Looking up from his chicken he starts to nod vigorously. “I was the best. I could fight anyone, anywhere. I practically did too.”

“When was this?”

“When I was young. The war, after the war.” He shrugs, not seeming to give much thought to his answer. Jia was afraid he wouldn’t remember anything but these memories seem to come easily. He tends to do better when thinking about his youth and he seems to understand her questions so she pushes forward.

“What kind of martial arts did you do back then?”

This gets a big open mouthed laugh out of him with his mouth still full of baked beans. ”You don’t know it. No one knows it anymore. Or at least not many.”

He’s talking and seems lucid but if anything Jia has more questions than when they started. Maybe she’s not asking the right questions? “What did you do during the war grandpa?”

His face gets serious. “We did it all. Saw it all. I don’t want to think about that. It’s over. We won.”

He trails off and this line of questioning is clearly agitating him. Jia decides to stop for now and just get him back to enjoying his game shows. His smile returns as he makes his way to his chair and gets back to watching people win fabulous cash and prizes.

She sits with him for a couple hours. They’re mostly silent but every once in awhile one of them will comment on one of the contestants. She’s really not sure what to ask. She doesn’t want to upset him again. Her reward today may need to be getting to see him. She always used to make a point of stopping by his house at least once or twice a month when she was home.

Since she returned from college the visits have been less common. It’s hard to see him like this when there are so few good days now. She wishes she had a way to know when they’d be. It’d be amazing to look at him and see recognition in his smile.

Sensing her grandpa is reaching the end of his rope and will probably want to take a nap soon, Jia considers one final attempt at getting answers. That is why she came but she doesn’t want to leave on a low note. The only thing she can think to ask safely is, “Grandpa, how are things with your daughter Lia?”

It’s like watching him refuel before her eyes. His head straightens and his smile stretches wide. “Wonderful girl. Smart. Tough. Why do you ask? Do you know her?”

“Yes grandpa, she’s my mom. Does she know the same martial arts you do?”

His smile wavers a bit but doesn’t leave his face. It’s definitely sadder now though. “I taught her everything I could. She had the potential to be even better than me. Maybe she even was better than me, I don’t know. She never wanted it though. Didn’t want to follow in my footsteps or take over. My father taught me and I wanted to pass down my knowledge to her. I guess I did pass it down. She probably won’t pass it to her kids but at least it doesn’t die with me. My father would be proud I tried.”

There’s no more. Takeshi trails off and is soon absorbed in his show. His head starts to sag again and after a few minutes more Jia can hear snoring coming from his chair. He’s out cold and probably will be for the next few hours. That lunch could put anyone to sleep. She could use a nap herself but knows she has a long ride ahead. She sits with him for a few minutes before hearing a light knock at the door. She turns to see a nurse smiling at her. “I’m just going to leave his medicine here on the table. He’s better than most at taking it. I’m sure he’ll do so once he wakes up.”

Jia smiles and nods but at first doesn’t say anything. As the nurse turns to leave, she realizes the woman may be able to help her. “How’s he doing? He doesn’t seem to know me at all today. How many good days are there at this point?”

With a pained look the nurse says, “Today actually is a pretty good day. He knows who he is and kind of has an idea where he’s at. He doesn’t remember everything or much recent, but that’s about as good as he does at this point. Once in awhile he’ll have a really lucid day but no more than one or two a month. There are some days where he doesn’t have a clue where he is. Even a day or two where we’ve had to restrain him to stop him from leaving. That’s not as easy as you’d think with a man his age either. He’s really strong. He dislocated one of the attendants’ shoulders last week. No major damage but it had to be popped back into place.”

Glancing at her snoring grandfather, Jia almost laughs. He looks strong for his age but doing that kind of damage to someone young who does this all day? At his age? Thanking the nurse, it’s time for her to hit the road. Thankfully the trip home should be easier than her trip here, but she’s stuffed from lunch and it’s gotten warm outside. As she waves goodbye to the orderly at the front desk she’s glad she didn’t smuggle in the wine she almost brought. This is already going to be a volatile trip. Add booze to the equation and her last memory of that glorious lunch would be seeing it again on the side of the road.

Mostly Jia can let the mountain do the work for her. Drifting slowly downward, she knows she’ll eventually get home as long as one of these drunks on the road doesn’t side swipe her. That’s one of the downsides of biking in Napa Valley. There’s always a lot of drunk people driving around here. Practically the whole point of the region is to drink all the time so the cops tend to be lenient. As long as you’re not swerving back and forth across the road they give you a wide berth. Sometimes people don’t start swerving until it’s too late though. She’s never been hit but more than a few people have come close. It’s enough to make a girl nervous when hurtling down the side of a mountain.

As she pedals onto her street, Jia can’t wait to reach home and get that wine. Nothing washes chicken down like a nice pinot. A few more minutes and she can open a bottle. Pushing herself down this final road, a blue convertible rips past, though not close enough to worry her. She’s surprised to realize it’s her little brother Shin sitting in the driver’s seat. She thought he said he was leaving town for awhile the last time she saw him. Where’d he get a car like that? Last she knew he was unemployed and living in LA. How can he afford something that nice? Maybe mom and dad will know.

Reaching the winery, she hops off her bike and throws it in the shed outside the back door. The winery’s closed for the day but that’s not an issue. She has a key. Making her way inside, she doesn’t bother to flip on the lights before heading for the fridge to see what’s left from the day. They make a point of drinking the leftover bottles before opening new ones. Wine’s never as good the next day, better the customers get a fresh bottle.

Disappointment washes over her when she realizes there’s no pinot open. The only red is a barbera and she can’t stand it. The more she thinks about it, the more she realizes she isn’t in a red mood. It got really warm on the ride back and she wants something to cool down. That immediately sends her in the direction of their sweeter whites where she finds a half bottle of moscato. She also grabs a half bottle of rosé sitting there. They don’t make rosé but it was hot this year so they made a deal with a winery down the street to carry theirs.

Locking the winery behind her, she makes her way to the house. Entering through the side door, Jia announces her arrival and hears, “in here,” from the kitchen. Her dad’s standing at a counter pounding out pork chops for dinner while chatting with her mom who has already started a bottle of her own. Happy to see the party’s started, she grabs a glass and pours some moscato while throwing the rosé in the fridge.

“I saw Shin as I was pulling up. Is he back home? I thought he was heading back to LA a few weeks ago.”

Her dad shrugs. “Kind of. He’s staying with friends over in Sonoma. Just stopped in to say hi, let us know he’s alive, that sort of thing.” Shin has a tendency to go missing and not get in touch with them for days or even weeks at a time. He’s a couple years younger than Jia and at one point they didn’t hear from him for nearly two years. Her dad was a mess the whole time, though her mom mostly just shrugged and said she was sure he was fine. She’d been the same way when she was younger, needing to get out and explore. He eventually showed back up and acted like he’d never been gone.

Dad says dinner will be ready in thirty minutes so Jia heads upstairs to her room. On her way she notices someone has been in the attic. The stairway leading to it which tucks into the ceiling is still pulled down and she can see light shining from the hole. She considers going to her room but something tells her she needs to go up there. The stairs are creaky and she tries to keep quiet, sipping her drink the entire way.

Someone was digging through the loads of junk stored here. The boxes which are usually stacked neatly against a wall are in disarray. She finds a bunch of the boxes are labeled, “Serenity.” She pulls the lid off the first one she can lay her hands on and sees a bunch of newspaper clippings and notebooks. Just as she’s starting to look she hears her mother call from the kitchen, “Do you want wine with dinner?”

For some reason Jia freaks and throws the box’s lid. She knows she shouldn’t, she has things up here after all, but she can’t help it. She’s snooping and knows she shouldn’t be. She calls down that yes, she would like wine, before retrieving the lid, closing the box, and immediately going down the stairs. She makes sure to leave the light on and not put the stairs up. Whoever was up there, she doesn’t want them to know she was as well.

Part 2

Part 4

Serenity Vol. 1 Scale the Mountain Part 2

The next afternoon Jia struggles to keep her eyes open while pouring glasses of wine for eagerly waiting drunks. It’s the slow season and most of the customers are regulars. They’re easy; they know what they like and don’t ask questions. There’s still a few tourists and every time she has to explain the difference between a pinot and a cabernet her head pounds and she wants to scream. The only thing getting her through the morning is an occasional drink with a couple of the regulars. Their cabernet in particular is having a great year and she doesn’t mind taking a sip. It’d be rude not to.

Every few minutes she catches herself glancing at the clock, desperate for three o’clock when her shift ends. If she hurries she can make it to see her grandfather today but visiting hours at the nursing home only go through five. The first few hours this morning were so slow she drank more than the customers. With how slow they are she can get all her stocking and cleaning done. That way when her shift ends she can get out right away.

At five minutes to three her heart breaks. She’s washing the last of the glasses and getting ready to run out the door when a glance outside reveals a bus pulling up. Out pour at least twenty elderly customers, all eager to get a little more drunk than they already are. Most of the big tour buses know to call in advance when bringing a big group. Her dad just took over behind the counter and was about to relieve her but now the tour group is pushing past each other to cram in the door and they’re lining up behind the counter two and three deep. She can’t abandon him to this.

“Sorry kiddo,” he says. “Let’s get this group taken care of and we’ll get you out of here.” She nods and immediately goes into greatest server ever mode. Greetings, fresh glasses, crackers to clear their palates, she lines up everything they could possibly need.

One of the more sober of the group explains this isn’t actually a tour but rather a group of friends who rented a bus and set out on their own. The majority know nothing about wine and the next hour is agonizing, having to explain each variety to them and finding most of their best bottles sent back. There seem to be a few in the group who enjoy wine and know a little about it but the majority of their friends don’t. If the group’s vocal reaction is to be believed, the best thing they’re served are the complementary crackers.

By the time the last of them file out it’s after four. One man buys a case of their fruit wines, so at least that’s something. Good for on the bus he explains. The rest of the group buy only a few bottles. As much as Jia hated her last hour, she knows she’s happier where she is than she’d be on that bus.

Her dad gives the all clear and tells her to have a great day. She considers whether she can still make it to see her grandfather and decides it’s impossible. It’s at least a forty five minute bike ride and at best she’d end up with a few minutes to visit. Getting information out of him won’t be that easy. It’s just not worth it. When she’s about to head to the house she has one last desperate idea. “Hey dad, can I borrow the van for a little while? I won’t be late.”

“Sorry kiddo, your mom has it. Ran to do some errands. She won’t be back until after dinner.”

Accepting that fate has dealt her a tough hand and she isn’t going to make it today, Jia sighs and starts looking for the bottle of aspirin she stashes in the winery. “At this point my plans aren’t going to work out then. I guess I can help clean up around here if you want.”

He seems thrilled to have the help. They have enough glasses from this last group to load the dishwasher before Jia gets to work fixing up their shelves which the guests left in a state of disarray.

With her other plan out for now, Jia decides to try and make today less of a bust. She may not get anything out of her mom but her dad can be a little loose lipped. He certainly was last night. With her mom off on some errand, maybe he’ll crack.

“You mentioned last night that mom used to do martial arts. Why haven’t you guys ever mentioned that before? I’ve been competing for eight years.”

Her dad tenses immediately, trying not to look at her. “I don’t know. You know how your mother is. She likes to keep certain things to herself.”

“You said grandpa was involved too. Do you know what types of martial arts they were into?”

He seems awfully interested in the novelty wine glasses he’s straightening. He’s been working on one shelf since before their conversation began. “You know, I don’t. It was a long time ago and it wasn’t really my thing. Maybe you should ask your mother about it. She’d know more than I do.”

This almost elicits a snort. She knows better than that and so does her dad. “We both know very well how that would go. Getting information out of her is like pulling a crocodile’s tooth.”

He shrugs. “You know how your mother is.” He’s much more tight lipped than the night before. Is his guard back up after a good night’s sleep? Or did mom actually get to him and tell him not to talk about this?

She realizes she’s hit a brick wall here. Dad isn’t going to slip again. He’s not outright denying the conversation but he’s going to keep directing her back to her mom and her mom will shut the subject down as soon as she brings it up. She’s left with only one possible source of information.

Part 1

Part 3

Serenity Vol. 1 Scale the Mountain Part 1

Blocking a powerful high kick with her forearm, Jia Crawford’s knocked backward. Finding her footing, she sees her opponent is already advancing on her and another kick’s coming her way. Afraid a block will force her off the mat, she steadies herself and gets ready to use her favorite technique. It’s a risk, her timing has to be exact or this match will be over. As the kick flies her way, she catches the leg and uses her newfound grip to lift her opponent into the air and spin her to the ground. As her opponent hits with a crash, the referee calls ippon and the match is over.

Jia offers her opponent a hand but the girl waves it off, getting up on her own. Her shoulders slump and she won’t look Jia in the eye. She offers a brief bow as Jia’s named the tournament champion. Having spent the better part of the last decade as one of the top Judo competitors in Northern California, this isn’t an unfamiliar sensation. Anything less than victory would be a letdown.

Scanning the crowd, she searches for two familiar faces. Her parents brought her today to save her from having to bum a ride. Her car broke down a few months ago and having just gotten out of college, she doesn’t have the money to repair it. Since she’s living with her parents and working for them, that usually isn’t a big deal. Today’s tournament was a notable exception since it’s over an hour from home.

There are benefits to her parents providing a ride. It’s nice to have a cheering section. They haven’t been to any of her tournaments in years since she’s been clear across the country. She kept competing through college, not as often as she did in high school but she’s always remained active. Now that she’s home she’s eager to get back into the local scene. Putting it off for months, she finally talked herself into signing up.

Being able to nap on the ride home after a long day doesn’t suck either.

Running up the bleachers to her parents, her dad wraps her in a bear hug. “I am so proud of you. You’ve improved so much since the last time we got to see you fight. These other girls didn’t stand a chance.”

That’s high praise and Jia wouldn’t go that far. She feels rusty. Two of her matches went down to the wire and she’s fortunate to be walking out of this gym with a victory. Winning feels good either way and the only way to shake off rust is to get back to competing. Her mother even has a small grin on her face, a rarity when she’s fighting. “Nicely done Jia. Not perfect but still very nicely done.”

A compliment with reservations is the best one can hope for from her mother. She’s just glad it isn’t a truly backhanded compliment and that the message is mostly positive. On more than a few occasions her mother has found nothing but negative things to say, even within minutes of her walking off a mat as a champion.

Jia lets them know she’ll be right back before darting down the shaky bleachers. She needs to collect her medal. Once she has it they can pile into the van for their long ride back to Napa. She knows her parents are eager to get home. They left the family winery closed today and even though it’s a slow day most weeks, she knows how much that hurts them. They’ll definitely be opening first thing tomorrow.

Fighting her way through the crowds, Jia makes her way onto the hastily erected wooden stage. A quick ceremony filled with bowing later and she has a shiny new medal to stick in her trophy case. She’s earned a lot of medals over the years but a new one always feels good. It means she’s still at the top of her game.

As they pile into her parents’ purple minivan, Jia considers stretching out across the back seat. Her muscles ache and laying down would feel incredible, but she knows her parents well enough to know they won’t have it. Instead, she scoots all the way into the seat against the wall and settles. This will have to do.

Her dad cracks a joke about listening to polka music, but the stares both Jia and her mother send him show they’re not amused. There won’t be any more talk of polka on this trip.

They ride in silence for a good portion of the way back. It’s late and her parents are probably tired. Jia doesn’t feel any more awake than they do. Keeping her eyes open is a struggle. About half way home, her dad starts trying to make conversation, if for no other reason than to stay awake. Jia’s suggestion of a coffee stop is shot down immediately. The road’s doing a lot of winding at this point and falling asleep would likely send them flying over a ledge. “My daughter the champion. I’ve never gotten over watching you kick the crap out of anyone standing in your way.”

Jia lights up at this. She got into fighting as an angry teenager who needed an outlet. Being able to, “kick the crap,” out of others was a big help in channeling that without getting into fights at school. Her dad was always supportive and that hasn’t changed.

She wishes she could say the same about her mother. There are days where she seems to get into Jia’s fights, practically ducking and weaving in her seat. Other times she’s actively discouraged her from continuing with Judo. When she first told her parents she wanted to try martial arts her mother practically begged her to pick anything else. She wasn’t happy about Jia’s choice but to be fair, she didn’t forbid her from going into it and she certainly could have.

Her mother seems to be napping in her seat so her dad’s left to carry the conversation. “Your mother was quite the fighter in her day too. You must get it from her. I wish I could take some of the credit but I don’t think I could fight my way out of a paper bag.”

This is quite the revelation, though her dad delivers it as if he’s reading the paper. Her mother has never said anything about fighting or martial arts of any kind. In all the years Jia has been involved in Judo she’s never thought to bring it up? Why is her dad mentioning this now? Is he just tired and saying something he shouldn’t be?

At the mention of her history Jia’s mother tenses up, though she doesn’t say anything. Apparently her sleep wasn’t a deep one. Maybe she hopes her husband will drop the subject or that Jia hasn’t noticed what he said. Neither is the case. “She must have gotten it from your grandfather. He was incredible. I saw him fight once when I was young, before I ever met your mother. Incredible stuff. You could barely see him move. If you have their blood, I’m pretty sure mine won’t get in the way.”

At this her mother seemingly can’t stay silent any more. “Who’s opening tomorrow?” She’s happy to move on to a different subject.

Jia’s dad is quick to chime in. “I don’t know if I can get up that early. Maybe our champion daughter should take care of it for us. You know, as a thank you for driving her today.”

At this point Jia’s wide awake. “Can do dad. I’ll be glad to help. Now what were you saying about mom and grandpa being fighters?”

It’s no use. Jia tries to move the conversation back to her dad’s earlier revelations but he’s off on another rant. He can go for hours when given the chance. This leaves Jia alone with her thoughts. She tries to work through the reasons her mother and grandfather have never spoken about any of this. If this runs in the family you’d think she’d have been pushed into it. Instead she’s been fighting for almost a decade without a word.

She didn’t know her grandpa when he was young but picturing him as a great fighter’s funny. He’s the kindest, most gentle man she’s ever known. Her first memories of him are of tending a garden and meditating. She wants to ask more questions but her mother’s reaction tells her she won’t get anything else. She could try speaking with her grandfather but she doesn’t know how that will go. She just has to hope he’s having a good day.

It isn’t long before they come to a halt in front of their house. It’s a small three bedroom place behind the winery. The field surrounding the house is filled with flowers and row after row of grape vines. Even in the dark it’s hard not to get a smile on her face when the slightly sweet smell of the grapes hits her. There’s a reason she came back here after graduation. Climbing out of the car brings the ache in her muscles back. Her dad warns her she’d better get to bed. “It’s already after midnight and you need to have things open by nine in the morning.”

A groan forces it’s way out of her. Her sacrifice didn’t get her any extra information. She mumbles that it’s fine before drifting into the house, heading to her bedroom and finally collapsing into her welcoming bed.

Part 2

Serenity #2: Scale the Mountain Part 2 (of 6)

Serenity Vol 1

Sitting on her attic floor, surrounded by boxes containing her mother’s most sacred secrets, Jia’s frozen as her mother stares down at her. She snuck into the attic looking for evidence of her family’s recently discovered history of martial arts. Her dad slipped and revealed her mother and grandfather were once great fighters but when he realized what he said, he immediately clammed up.

Attempts to get either parent to elaborate proved futile. Her curiosity eventually led to this attic and the boxes of evidence her parents hid away. Evidence of a history she never suspected until she started digging.

Now her mother’s standing there. Neither of them is sure what to say. Finally her mother breaks the silence. “So, you found my stuff. I guess now’s as good a time as any to have a little chat about it.”

Jia waits for her to continue but she’s seemingly waiting for a response. “Okay.”

Walking over to Jia, her mother looks into an open box containing two similar costumes. She has a strange look of sadness on her face. Crouching down, she runs her hand over the costume on top, the one that looks meant for a young woman. Turning again to face her daughter, she asks, “What would you like to know?”

Trying to pick one of the millions of questions rushing through her head seems impossible. It takes a few moments to narrow it down. “What is all of this?”

“As good a question as any I suppose. It’s a long story though. We might as well start at the beginning. At least the beginning for our purposes. This art has been passed down in our family for generations. Your grandfather was taught martial arts by his father at a young age. You never saw that side of him.” She moves the first costume aside and looks at the one underneath it.

“It’s hard for me to imagine him hurting anybody.”

“He was very dangerous at one time. You’ve probably seen some of the evidence of that in these boxes. He joined the army as a way out but he planned on keeping his head down and serving out his time. That didn’t really work. He fell backwards into fame and before long he was part of the most important mission of the war. When he got home, he found he enjoyed the fame, maybe too much. He tried to help people for a few years here but that was always difficult with the public mindset of the time and eventually he retired.”

This doesn’t seem real, but nothing in her mother’s demeanor suggests she’s lying. She seems more at peace than Jia’s ever seen her. “He kept living that life for a lot longer than he should have. It was a long time before he met your grandmother and settled down to have me. They wanted more children but then your grandmother died and I was all he had. He didn’t want to remarry and since he wasn’t going to have a son, I was his only choice to keep his legacy alive. He didn’t just pass down skills and training though. He gave me his whole identity. He wanted me to be Serenity.”

That’s the name she’s been waiting to hear escape her mother’s lips. The hair on her arms stand on end. “I trained until I was strong enough to take even him on. Eventually he wanted to go out, to return to his old life. He wanted me with him. By that time it was the 70s. There was so much more danger on the streets than he’d seen twenty years earlier. He didn’t care at all. He decided I was going to prove myself and there was no other way.”

Her mother seems to be struggling through this part. The lighting’s dim but she can hear the emotion in her mother’s voice. “We don’t have to keep going if you don’t want to mom.”

“I want to get through this so I don’t have to do it again. At first I was excited to learn from him. My whole life was about getting stronger; I was so proud of everything he taught me. I felt like the luckiest girl alive. When I got out on the streets though it was different. It was no longer about learning. I had to hurt real people, people doing bad things but that didn’t make it easier. I hated it.”

She pauses and takes a few deep breaths. “I couldn’t let my father down so I kept pushing, for far longer than I should have. Things got bad. I was afraid I was going to die almost every night, or that I’d have to kill someone which seemed just as bad. Then I met your father and I quit. I don’t think your grandfather ever really forgave me. He said he was okay but I knew that was a lie.”

“Mom, seriously, we can let this drop for tonight. Why don’t we talk about it later?”

He mom shakes her head. “No, I want to get through this now. After tonight I’d prefer to put this all back in the past where it belongs. I swore off martial arts and decided I’d never wear that costume again. I put it in a box and packed it away. I almost burned both of those costumes but I couldn’t quite bring myself to erase it, to act like it wasn’t a part of me. I swore you and your brother would never be pushed into that life, never learn to fight even.”

“Is that why you never told me you knew how to fight, even when I started competing?”

Her mother nods. “When you started getting older, my father begged me to train the two of you or at least let him do it but I refused. The day you decided to get involved in martial arts was one of the worst of my life. I’d been so careful to keep you away from martial arts. I always talked badly about fighting, I wouldn’t let you watch the movies, none of it mattered. I was so sure my father got to you somehow that I drove to his house and screamed at him. He swore he didn’t do anything but it took hours before I believed him. Your dad convinced me I should let you learn even though I didn’t want you to. He said it wasn’t the same as what I’d trained in and it was good to know how to protect yourself.”

Jia sits there unsure how to react. “That’s a lot to take in.” Now it’s her mother’s turn to nod. “So to be clear, when you were younger, like my age, you dressed up in this costume and fought criminals in the streets.”

Her mother starts laughing, putting her hands behind her head. “Sounds crazy doesn’t it? I can barely believe it myself. I just couldn’t do it anymore after a while, and when I met your father I saw a different life. One I’d never even considered.”

Her mother pauses at this point, taking yet another deep breath before continuing. “Right at the end, there was a terrible murder I was looking into. The police were having no luck solving it. I’d heard awful things about the killer and how dangerous he was from a friend. I didn’t want anything to do with the case. I’d already started cutting back on the vigilante thing and I thought the police could handle it. Your grandfather wasn’t having it. He saw an article in the paper and he called me asking if I was looking into it. I told him to let the police handle this one, that was their job after all. He told me it was my duty to try and save anyone I could. He even threatened to suit back up himself and go out there.”

“How old was he at this point?”

“Well, this was the late 80s, so probably in his mid to late 60s. He was too old and I didn’t want him getting hurt so I agreed to at least poke around. Things went badly. That’s all you really need to know. I was so afraid, not of dying but of living after what I saw. Your father, well that’s a story for another night but he knew about me. He convinced me I deserved a life where I could have peace, where I wouldn’t be risking my life every day. That’s just how he put it too. Saying it that way, it sounded as ridiculous as it was. Why couldn’t I just be myself? My father talked about legacy but running around fighting crime wasn’t our family legacy. Martial arts maybe, but he was the first one to put on a funny costume and go fight crime. I learned the arts, I told him that would have to be enough.”

Jia doesn’t know what to say so she keeps her mouth shut. Instead of talking, she stands and walks to her mom, squeezing her in a hug. They stand like that for several minutes. “I know you didn’t want me to go into martial arts mom and I get why now. I did go into them though. I got really good. If this is our family’s legacy, why don’t you train me so I can pass them on?”

Her mom ends their embrace and practically shoves her daughter away. “Not a chance. That is only going to lead you down a bad road. I made that decision a long time ago.”

“Mom, I’ve been sitting around here doing nothing and going nowhere for six months now. I can’t figure out what to do with my life or even with my days. I need something to grab onto. This could be it. If grandpa trained you then you can train me. I don’t want to run around in a costume. That’s crazy. Richard Hughes is a maniac, talking about bringing back vigilantes. I just want to know our family heritage. Then I can pass it onto my kids someday. If the legacy is enough then we should keep it alive, right?”

“Martial arts can bring focus but you don’t need these. You can practice what you’ve spent ten years studying. A little family history isn’t going to give you a purpose in life. You don’t have some destiny. Your life is what you make of it. Your grandfather may have disagreed but it isn’t like it led him to a lifetime of happiness. Trust me honey, I know what I’m talking about here. You wanted to know our family history and after you found all of this, I figured I should tell you. That’s it though. This stuff’s going back in boxes and we’re going to keep living our lives like we always have. Besides, if I taught you any of this stuff I don’t know how your father would take it.”

Jia is caught off guard by this last part. “Dad doesn’t want me to learn? I thought he was the one who was okay with me learning martial arts. He’s always been so supportive.”

“Your dad was supportive of you learning to defend yourself. He did tell me I could teach you the arts if I wanted to years ago. That was before though. He knows I don’t really want to and with everything going on in the world right now, I think he’d get scared that you were going to follow in my footsteps. Maybe I’ll reconsider someday but not now.”

She walks to the box of costumes and puts it’s lid back on. Picking the box up, she sets it back in the stack where Jia found it. Once that’s done, she heads for the stairs, pausing only long enough to say, “Good night honey. I’ll see you in the morning. Make sure to close up the attic when you come down.” With that she’s gone.

 

—–

 

The next morning Jia’s up early, getting cleaning done at the winery before they open. She stayed up late looking through her mom’s photo albums and she’s feeling it this morning. She almost forgot she had to open today. Luckily it’s a rainy weekday during their slow season. She’s unlikely to have more than a few customers.

One of their regulars did show up an hour before opening wanting a glass but that’s the only person to stop in so far. The lady insisted Jia share a drink with her and she’s certainly not one to turn down a regular. Nothing changes when they technically open. She keeps cleaning while sneaking a sip of wine every now and then. This continues until just before noon when her dad pokes his head in. Having spent the better part of the morning planning what to say, she’s ready to ambush him.

“Dad, did mom talk to you about what I found last night?”

He grins, glancing around to make sure they’re alone. “She did. I’m not surprised you figured it out but nice job. That’s your family’s history and you deserved to know. Wasn’t my place to tell though.”

“Did she tell you what I asked her?”

He nods, knowing where his daughter’s taking this. “That’s up to your mother. I’m not getting involved.”

“That’s fine dad, it can be up to her. She seems to think you’d have a problem with her training me though. If you don’t, can you just tell her so she’ll consider it?”

Her dad pours himself a glass of wine. Jia loves to drink with the customers but her dad never does unless a customer really insists. For a wine maker, he’s not a big drinker. He certainly never drinks at work when there aren’t any customers around. It’s before noon. Half his glass of pinot’s gone in one long swallow. “It’s not a problem with me. If she wants to train you, I’ll support you both. I don’t want you doing the rest of it though. The martial arts part is fine but don’t go putting on a costume and doing anything like that. I saw what that did to your mother and I don’t want that for you.”

It’s all Jia can do to keep a straight face. “Dad, I’m not deranged. I have no desire to go fighting crime or anything like that. I don’t have a death wish. I just want to know my family’s history. Plus, I love martial arts and a new style would be interesting to learn. Can you put in a good word with mom for me?”

“No need.” They both turn to find Jia’s mom walking in looking completely rested. You’d never know she was up half the night. She closes the umbrella that’s kept her mostly dry despite the pouring rain outside. “Jia, please don’t discuss this in public. I’d rather not discuss it at all but if you have to, do it at home. I don’t want someone overhearing you and looking into my past. Our family’s form isn’t practiced today but there are a lot of people who would be very interested in learning about it. If the wrong person overhears you, that could be dangerous for our family, maybe even for your grandfather. Do you understand?”

Jia nods and her mother moves on. “If your father is truly okay with it, I’ll consider training you. You’ll need to prove you’re serious though. It’s not something I’m going to teach you lightly. I have to warn you, the training will be very difficult. You’re not going to like me very much by the time we’re done. Is that okay?”

Jia practically jumps up and down she’s so excited. She can always make her dad do what she wants but her mom’s an unmovable force. Winning feels almost wrong. That doesn’t mean she isn’t grateful for a victory. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she tells her mom as she rushes to hug her. With a sly smile her mother says to her, “Your father and I will watch the winery. It’s time for your first task. I want you to run to the top of the nearest mountain and retrieve some of the purple flowers that grow there. I’ll give you an hour. That should be enough time if you push yourself. Make sure to bring back at least a few of them and make sure you keep them safe on the way down. I want a nice centerpiece for the table tonight.”

“It’s raining really hard mom,” Jia starts to say before realizing that’s probably the point. Starting off her training by arguing isn’t the way to prove she’s serious. Her mother’s eyebrow goes up but before she can respond Jia says, ”Can I at least have time to go put on a raincoat?”

Her mother’s smile gets a little more wicked. “You can use your hour however you want. But keep in mind that your hour starts,” she looks down at her watch, “now. Taking ten minutes to run to the house and change would probably make completing this task impossible but that’s up to you.”

Jia considers objecting before realizing there’s no point. Her glee has turned to anger but she immediately flies out the front door of the winery and starts heading for the nearest path up the mountain.

Back inside the winery, Jia’s dad gives his wife a disapproving look. “Do you have any intention of actually teaching her Lia? Running up mountains isn’t what she has in mind.”

The wicked grin is now in full force and she bursts out laughing. “I wouldn’t say no intention. You could have done a better job of backing me up on the ‘your dad would have a problem with this’ thing.”

He shrugs. “Sorry, you know I’ve never been good at lying to her. She figured things out so fast after I slipped up. She’s our daughter.”

“If she does everything I ask, then I’ll teach her. I’m going to make it as hard as possible though because I really don’t want to do this. If she pushes through everything I’m going to put in her way, I won’t have much choice. She’s tough, but I think she’ll break before I do.” Pouring herself a rare daytime glass of wine, she offers cheers to her husband before downing the entire glass in one long gulp.

 

—–

 

Over the next month Jia’s mother keeps her busy day and night. Daily trips up the mountains for flowers become daily trips up the mountain for no reason at all. Some nights as she tries to sleep she’ll suddenly feel a shake. She opens her eyes to her mother standing over her. “One hour.”

It isn’t long before she learns the best paths up the mountain and that hour becomes easy. Once her mother realizes this, the time begins to shrink. One night she’s woken and told she has an hour. As she walks back into the house 48 minutes later, her mother tells her she needs to do it again and this time she only has 45 minutes. She makes it with under a minute to spare.

The mountains are only the start. Every day her mother keeps her up later into the evening than the day before and wakes her earlier in the morning. She cleans the house top to bottom. One day she’s given the challenge of cleaning their kitchen with a toothbrush.

Expecting the challenges to start focusing on martial arts she pushes forward but her mother continues to avoid teaching her a thing. Every day she gets closer to breaking. It didn’t take long to figure out her mother’s whole strategy is to break her. She doesn’t want to teach her but wants it to be Jia’s fault and not her own. The woman won’t even give her an idea how long is left in the training. It’s a lot easier to keep pushing when there’s an end in sight.

One day she’s sitting on the couch mid-morning, trying desperately to nap after her mother woke her only two hours after allowing her to go to sleep, when the phone rings. She practically jumps out of her skin.

It’s Carly, Jia’s college roommate. The investment firm who hired her after graduation is sending Carly and her boyfriend Hank to San Francisco to meet with a potential new client. It’s a business trip but she’ll have a free day and she’d love Jia to drive over and hang out. Jia’s first thought is excitement, they haven’t seen each other for over six months and after living together for four years, that feels wrong.

Her excitement doesn’t last long as she realizes her mom will probably have her climbing a tree with a piece of dental floss. There’s no way she can go. She wants to see Carly but not enough to make the last month be for nothing.

A whole day thinking about how to get the time off yields no better ideas than asking. After dinner she finds her mom drinking a glass of wine and reading a book in her room. Her dad went out for his weekly poker game so they have the house to themselves. “Mom?”

“Yes Jia?”

“Do you remember my roommate Carly from school? You and dad met her a few times when you came out to visit.”

“Of course I do. Nice girl. A bit obsessive but nice.”

“That’s Carly. She’s going to be in San Francisco in a few weeks for business and she wants me to drive over and spend a day with her. I’d like to see her, but I know I have training. I was wondering if there’s any way I can have the day off. I’ll do any training you want before I leave and you can make me work all night after I get home. It’s been way too long since I’ve seen her though and I’d feel terrible telling her no.”

“I’m not without a heart Jia. You’re giving me notice and it’s a rare thing for your friend to be in California. Doesn’t she live on the east coast somewhere?”

“Boston.”

“She’s coming a long way then. Of course you can go. I’ll even let you sleep the night before so you’re rested. What day is it?”

Fighting back the urge to rush to her mother and wrap her in a bear hug, Jia says, “It’s in three weeks, on Wednesday.”

Her mom’s kind look turns to a frown when she hears this. “Wednesday isn’t good. I can’t lend you the car that day. I’m meeting a company about possibly selling their wine glasses in the winery. I spent six months trying to get this meeting, I can’t reschedule. You can still go of course, you’ll just need to take the train over and get a cab to wherever you’re meeting. I’ll give you a couple hundred dollars for the trip, you’ve been working hard for nothing but room and board for awhile now.”

Jia searches for her jaw which is now resting on the floor. With that settled she lays down next to her mom like they used to when she was younger. It’s time for the evening news so her mother sets her book down and flips the television on.

The lead story tonight is about the presidential election. It’s only a couple of days away. Richard Hughes is facing off against the heavily favored Senator Gilles. Jia isn’t sure she’s even going to vote. She doesn’t like either candidate, though Gilles is definitely the better of the two. He’s a long way from perfect but he isn’t a lunatic. The experts seem confident Gilles has the election won but that hasn’t stopped the Hughes campaign from rocketing around the country, promising to defend the borders and fight terror. A major plank of his campaign is a push to legalize vigilantism so citizens can police themselves.

Every time you turn the TV on you hear this loud mouth but tonight Jia’s seeing his policies in a new light. “What do you think about the vigilante thing? You used to basically do what he wants to legalize. He’s crazy but maybe it could work. You and grandpa helped people.”

Her mother takes a big sip of her wine. “As someone who has been a vigilante, I’m certain what this country needs isn’t more vigilantes. Your grandpa did good in the war but he was a soldier then, not a vigilante. I’m not sure how much we helped anyone after that.”

They watch the news for a few more minutes until a sudden yawn sneaks up on Jia. She suddenly realizes how tired she is. Stretching out she considers heading to bed. Just as she’s about to say good night her mother turns to her. “Jia, get some flowers from the mountain before you go to bed. You have forty five minutes, starting now.”

Infuriated that her mother used her yawn as an opportunity, Jia flings herself off the bed and runs for the door stopping only long enough to put her shoes on.

 

—–

 

A few weeks later Jia steps off the train in San Francisco. Carly agreed to meet her at the station and then they’re going to cruise around town all day. This is Carly’s first time in the city so they’re hitting the tourist spots. She’s already meticulously researched everywhere she wants to go so Jia’s job is to recommend great places to eat and drink.

Carly isn’t hard to spot sitting out front in a bright pink convertible, practically beaming, while Hank sits in the passenger seat looking ill. Jia rushes to hug Carly before tossing her bag in the back seat and swinging her legs over the side of the car. “Not a fan of doors?” Carly asks.

“Nah, this way’s faster and makes me look cool.”

Cruising toward the waterfront they catch up on life. Jia thought this was going to be a fun day but before long she starts feeling inadequate. Carly works for a financial planning firm and a major company in San Francisco is considering hiring them. She won’t say who the company is but implies it’s a soda company who love holiday ad campaigns. If the car they’re cruising around in is any indication the job’s a good fit for her.

Carly keeps turning to look at Jia while Jia and Hank beg her to keep her eyes on the road. They almost hit multiple cars on the way and no less than three people flip them off. You’d think Hank would be used to Carly’s driving but he looks as green as the first time he rode in a car with her.

Suggesting brunch she asks Jia for somewhere fancy. Jia throws out a few cheaper options, afraid the money her mother gave her won’t cover things. After turning down a few options, Carly mentions she can write today off as a business expense so it’s all on her. Suddenly the options open up.

They decide on an upscale Mexican place Jia’s been to a few times. The food’s awesome and you get unlimited mimosas with brunch. Carly doesn’t need any more convincing.

As the drinks flow Carly dominates the conversation. She’s always been a talker and Jia doesn’t have anything going on she can talk about, at least not anything she can share. “Don’t get too excited, but me and Hank are thinking about moving in together.”

Jia practically snorts. “About time, you two started going out three years ago. What took so long?”

“Well I couldn’t abandon you to a new roommate our last couple years. They might have put you with a freshman. If all goes well and we get this client though, I actually might be moving out here to handle their account. I’d be on the west coast for good.”

Getting to see Carly more often would be awesome. They’ve tried to stay in touch since graduation but it’s hard when you’re living life on opposite sides of the country. It still stings. Carly’s thriving and moving forward with her life while Jia’s stuck. If they’re close they can actually see each other regularly and she can’t hide from that.

Jia turns to Hank. “How do you feel about that? Don’t you have a job where you are?”

“Nothing I can’t do wherever I am, I got hired programming for a big company but I work from home most days. I don’t think they’d have a problem with me working out here. I’d have to fly back and forth some but we can manage it.”

Time flies as they eat fajitas and drink mimosas. Once they have a half dozen drinks in them they decide it’s time to pay the check and move on. Carly has the whole day planned out in order. “We’re going to see the Golden Gate Bridge and then we’ll hang by the waterfront. Someone back home was telling me about the sea lions and I’m dying to see them.”

Thinking about how to tackle this, Jia says, “We can get to both of those without much trouble. Let’s start with the waterfront though. We can walk under the bridge and check out the vendors.” Jia’s favorite part of San Francisco has always been the sea lions. As nice as it is today, there should be plenty out. As they scarf the last of their food they decide it’s so nice they’ll walk. With how much they’ve been drinking, that seems like the safe way to go.

Hank’s quiet as they walk along. Once in awhile he’ll inject himself into a conversation but mostly he lets the girls talk. They’ve never been that close, but Jia knows him well enough to know something isn’t right. She thinks about asking, but doesn’t want to ruin what has otherwise been an awesome day. She figures Carly has to see it but she doesn’t say anything either.

As they get closer to the sea lions, Jia starts talking them up. With how close her family is to San Francisco she’s spent a lot of time here. She’s never really liked it though. Too many people. If they ever had to come into the city though all her parents had to do was tell her they’d see the sea lions and she was on board.

Nearing the water, they pass an abandoned building with the windows broken out and the door hanging open. Jia happens to look inside where she sees two men being held at gunpoint by another. None of them are moving, though the man with the gun seems focused. The men being held at gunpoint are wearing matching jean jackets. One’s Hispanic while the other’s a bigger black guy. The man with the gun’s wearing a mask that covers his face but is otherwise dressed like a businessman. His lips move like he’s saying something but between the sound of the water and how far they are away, Jia can’t make out what. Jia immediately jumps out of view, pulling Carly and Hank with her.

Afraid one of them is going to yell and blow their cover, Jia shoves a hand over each of their mouths. She gives them each a look that she hopes says, “Trust me,” before slowly removing her hands. Peeking around the corner, she can see the man with the gun shoving it in one of the other guys’ face.

She grabs Hank by the wrist and pulls him close enough that he can get a look. She decides not to show Carly. She isn’t good with stress. Jia still remembers a few years ago a frog got into their apartment. She walked in to find Carly literally sitting on top of her desk. She refused to get down until Jia caught the frog and removed it from the apartment.

Dialing 911 on her cell phone Jia’s relieved when she gets a quick answer. She whispers into her phone that there’s a man with a gun holding up two other men. She tries to describe their location but she only has a vague idea where they are. It’s hard to give the lady on the phone a great idea. She gives the okay to ping their GPS so hopefully the cops can figure it out.

Suddenly a gunshot rings out. Hank moves to get a hand over Carly’s mouth before she can give them away. Jia doesn’t want to look through the window and see what happened but the 911 operator heard the shot as well and she needs to know. A quick glance allows for a sigh of relief. One of the men’s now on the ground crying while the other leans over him. Neither seems to have been shot, at least not yet.

Jia looks around her environment, considering options. The next gunshot might be more serious. She doesn’t have a weapon and even if she did, she doesn’t know how to use one. She does notice the man with the gun’s facing away from her.

Looking to Hank and Carly, she says, “Stay here,” before handing her phone to Hank. “If this goes bad, run and don’t look back.” Carly’s eyes go wide. She’s always been pale but now she’s whiter than snow. Hank manages a nod. He seems to be holding himself together. Jia’s happy to see someone is.

A few feet into the building there’s a box of crates that could make good cover. Going out so much at night, she’s gotten used to operating quietly in recent weeks and she’s confident she can get there without issue. The other half of the way to the group’s going to be the tricky part. Even if she gets to the crates that leaves at least ten feet to cover without being seen or heard before she’ll reach the man with the gun.

Even if she’s quiet there’s no guarantee one of the men being held up won’t see her and give her away. She could wait; she probably should wait. There’s still no sound of sirens though which means help isn’t close. Things seem to be escalating inside. The man with the gun’s getting more and more agitated. Jia thinks she hears something about just giving it up.

Reaching the crates ends up being as easy as she thought it’d be. Hugging the shadows she sneaks along the wall until she’s in their shadow. She’s slightly taller than the stack so she ducks down to stay hidden. So far so good on the quiet front.

Brushing against the crates, she feels something poke hard into her side and break the skin. It takes everything she has to stifle a yelp. Pulling back and looking down, she sees a rusty nail sticking out of a crate, now covered in her blood. She prays she wasn’t heard. Glancing around the side of the crates, none of the men seem to have taken notice.

The man with the gun jams his pistol into the other men’s faces. He seems distracted and Jia figures this is as good an opportunity as she’s going to get. Taking one last deep breath for courage she moves from behind the crates and starts tip toeing closer. She’s ten feet away and no reaction. Then nine feet and nothing. Eight feet and still nothing. Seven feet and no reaction.

At the six foot mark, where she’s almost close enough to make a move, the man on the ground notices her and they lock eyes. He doesn’t say anything, he’s not trying to give her up. It’s enough though. The man with the gun turns and sees her out of the corner of his eye. He spins, trying to center his gun on Jia. Her life flashes before her eyes and all she can think about is why didn’t she wait for the police?

A woman screams behind her. That would be Carly. She hopes Hank kept his word and they’re running. Jia reaches toward the gun, trying to get her hand on his arm before it can fully be trained on her.

Out of nowhere the second man being held up jumps forward and rushes the gunman. He’s a large, thick guy and he hits his assailant like a ton of bricks. They go skidding across the ground and the gun flies out of the shooter’s hand. Jia makes a move for the weapon and kicks it into a corner. The two men roll back and forth, evenly matched. Jia decides to change the odds.

She waits until the shooter’s on top, circling behind him while he’s too occupied to do anything. She aims a hard kick right at the back of his left knee, driving all of her weight forward. The man screams and falls away. He grabs at his leg, rolling back and forth.

The man who did the tackling fights his way to his feet. He gets in a kick of his own, causing another scream from the now injured attacker. The attacker lays there and stops moving around. He’s not going anywhere. The large man turns to Jia. “Damn girl, that was one hell of a kick. Thanks for your help. I don’t know what we would have done otherwise. Name’s DeMarcus.”

He reaches out, offering a handshake which Jia gladly accepts. DeMarcus asks her to wait for the cops to help explain what happened and she obliges. So much for her and Carly’s fun day.

Carly rushes into the alley and practically tackles her. Introductions are made and within a couple of minutes the police arrive. The man with the gun’s taken away in an ambulance but doesn’t seem willing to give up any information. He’s clearly in a lot of pain though.

The cops take all their information as well as that of DeMarcus and his friend. It doesn’t take long to get their statements. Seems like a pretty straight forward mugging, though Jia notices DeMarcus is a bit vague about what the man wanted. She doesn’t have a clue what he was after, she couldn’t hear enough of what the man was saying. The police inform them they’ll be in touch if they need anything else before departing.

Jia looks over her small puncture wound and swears. Rusty nail equals tetanus shot and that’s going to hurt more than the nail did. She tries not to be too upset. Compared to what could have happened, they got lucky. There’s still time for a bit of sightseeing if they can get back in the mood. She figures the tetanus shot can wait until the next morning. No need to further ruin their trip.

The rest of the day’s a blur. At least watching the sea lions cheers them up. Getting drunk helps even more. By the end of the day they’re actually able to laugh about it, at least a little. Arriving back at the train station that evening Carly gives Jia one last hug. “I’ll let you know how the interview goes. Not a great first impression of San Francisco, but I think I might still be willing to give it a shot. After all, my best friend’s here.”

Jia tries to get some rest on the train. This was supposed to be a day of rest but she may be more exhausted than she was when she left. First thing in the morning she needs to hit up a local clinic and get that tetanus shot. She’s not sure when her last vaccine was so better safe than sorry. She texts her parents what time she’ll be arriving in Napa so she can get a ride home. No need to walk five miles if she can avoid it.

She thought about calling them earlier in the day to tell them what happened but she was afraid they’d want her to come home right away. She wasn’t going to miss the rest of her day with Carly.

Exiting the train, she’s surprised to see her mom waiting. Her dad has always been more the pick your kid up from the train station late at night parent. She’s relieved to see her mom and squeezes her tight before they head to the car. On the drive home she considers keeping this story to herself but finally decides to open up.

She tells her mom everything. She talks about how scared she was, about how she thought she could handle the situation. She even admits that if it weren’t for Demarcus intervening she’d probably have ended up dead. She’s admitting it to herself as much as to her mom. This is the first moment she really thinks about how dangerous things got.

After a long silence her mother asks, “So just to be clear, you found yourself in an incredibly dangerous situation where a man was pointing a gun at several other people. Instead of waiting for help you decided to get involved and try to help them yourself. Is that about right?”

The only thing Jia can think to say is, “Yes,” which results in a loud a sigh from her mother.

“You really are my daughter, aren’t you? Alright, we’ll start your real training tomorrow. If you’re going to put yourself in dangerous situations, you’re at least going to know how to handle yourself when you do.”

 

Serenity #1 Available Now

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Serenity #1: Scale the Mountain Part 1 (of 6)

Serenity Vol 1

Blocking a powerful high kick with her forearm, Jia Crawford’s knocked backward. Finding her footing, she sees her opponent is already advancing on her and another kick’s coming her way. Afraid a block will force her off the mat, she steadies herself and gets ready to use her favorite technique. It’s a risk, her timing has to be exact or this match will be over. As the kick flies her way, she catches the leg and uses her newfound grip to lift her opponent into the air and spin her to the ground. As her opponent hits with a crash, the referee calls ippon and the match is over.

Jia offers her opponent a hand but the girl waves it off, getting up on her own. Her shoulders slump and she won’t look Jia in the eye. She offers a brief bow as Jia’s named the tournament champion. Having spent the better part of the last decade as one of the top Judo competitors in Northern California, this isn’t an unfamiliar sensation. Anything less than victory would be a letdown.

Scanning the crowd, she searches for two familiar faces. Her parents brought her today to save her from having to bum a ride. Her car broke down a few months ago and having just gotten out of college, she doesn’t have the money to repair it. Since she’s living with her parents and working for them, that usually isn’t a big deal. Today’s tournament was a notable exception since it’s over an hour from home.

There are benefits to her parents providing a ride. It’s nice to have a cheering section. They haven’t been to any of her tournaments in years since she’s been clear across the country. She kept competing through college, not as often as she did in high school but she’s always remained active. Now that she’s home she’s eager to get back into the local scene. Putting it off for months, she finally talked herself into signing up.

Being able to nap on the ride home after a long day doesn’t suck either.

Running up the bleachers to her parents, her dad wraps her in a bear hug. “I am so proud of you. You’ve improved so much since the last time we got to see you fight. These other girls didn’t stand a chance.”

That’s high praise and Jia wouldn’t go that far. She feels rusty. Two of her matches went down to the wire and she’s fortunate to be walking out of this gym with a victory. Winning feels good either way and the only way to shake off rust is to get back to competing. Her mother even has a small grin on her face, a rarity when she’s fighting. “Nicely done Jia. Not perfect but still very nicely done.”

A compliment with reservations is the best one can hope for from her mother. She’s just glad it isn’t a truly backhanded compliment and that the message is mostly positive. On more than a few occasions her mother has found nothing but negative things to say, even within minutes of her walking off a mat as a champion.

Jia lets them know she’ll be right back before darting down the shaky bleachers. She needs to collect her medal. Once she has it they can pile into the van for their long ride back to Napa. She knows her parents are eager to get home. They left the family winery closed today and even though it’s a slow day most weeks, she knows how much that hurts them. They’ll definitely be opening first thing tomorrow.

Fighting her way through the crowds, Jia makes her way onto the hastily erected wooden stage. A quick ceremony filled with bowing later and she has a shiny new medal to stick in her trophy case. She’s earned a lot of medals over the years but a new one always feels good. It means she’s still at the top of her game.

As they pile into her parents’ purple minivan, Jia considers stretching out across the back seat. Her muscles ache and laying down would feel incredible, but she knows her parents well enough to know they won’t have it. Instead, she scoots all the way into the seat against the wall and settles. This will have to do.

Her dad cracks a joke about listening to polka music, but the stares both Jia and her mother send him show they’re not amused. There won’t be any more talk of polka on this trip.

They ride in silence for a good portion of the way back. It’s late and her parents are probably tired. Jia doesn’t feel any more awake than they do. Keeping her eyes open is a struggle. About half way home, her dad starts trying to make conversation, if for no other reason than to stay awake. Jia’s suggestion of a coffee stop is shot down immediately. The road’s doing a lot of winding at this point and falling asleep would likely send them flying over a ledge. “My daughter the champion. I’ve never gotten over watching you kick the crap out of anyone standing in your way.”

Jia lights up at this. She got into fighting as an angry teenager who needed an outlet. Being able to, “kick the crap,” out of others was a big help in channeling that without getting into fights at school. Her dad was always supportive and that hasn’t changed.

She wishes she could say the same about her mother. There are days where she seems to get into Jia’s fights, practically ducking and weaving in her seat. Other times she’s actively discouraged her from continuing with Judo. When she first told her parents she wanted to try martial arts her mother practically begged her to pick anything else. She wasn’t happy about Jia’s choice but to be fair, she didn’t forbid her from going into it and she certainly could have.

Her mother seems to be napping in her seat so her dad’s left to carry the conversation. “Your mother was quite the fighter in her day too. You must get it from her. I wish I could take some of the credit but I don’t think I could fight my way out of a paper bag.”

This is quite the revelation, though her dad delivers it as if he’s reading the paper. Her mother has never said anything about fighting or martial arts of any kind. In all the years Jia has been involved in Judo she’s never thought to bring it up? Why is her dad mentioning this now? Is he just tired and saying something he shouldn’t be?

At the mention of her history Jia’s mother tenses up, though she doesn’t say anything. Apparently her sleep wasn’t a deep one. Maybe she hopes her husband will drop the subject or that Jia hasn’t noticed what he said. Neither is the case. “She must have gotten it from your grandfather. He was incredible. I saw him fight once when I was young, before I ever met your mother. Incredible stuff. You could barely see him move. If you have their blood, I’m pretty sure mine won’t get in the way.”

At this her mother seemingly can’t stay silent any more. “Who’s opening tomorrow?” She’s happy to move on to a different subject.

Jia’s dad is quick to chime in. “I don’t know if I can get up that early. Maybe our champion daughter should take care of it for us. You know, as a thank you for driving her today.”

At this point Jia’s wide awake. “Can do dad. I’ll be glad to help. Now what were you saying about mom and grandpa being fighters?”

It’s no use. Jia tries to move the conversation back to her dad’s earlier revelations but he’s off on another rant. He can go for hours when given the chance. This leaves Jia alone with her thoughts. She tries to work through the reasons her mother and grandfather have never spoken about any of this. If this runs in the family you’d think she’d have been pushed into it. Instead she’s been fighting for almost a decade without a word.

She didn’t know her grandpa when he was young but picturing him as a great fighter’s funny. He’s the kindest, most gentle man she’s ever known. Her first memories of him are of tending a garden and meditating. She wants to ask more questions but her mother’s reaction tells her she won’t get anything else. She could try speaking with her grandfather but she doesn’t know how that will go. She just has to hope he’s having a good day.

It isn’t long before they come to a halt in front of their house. It’s a small three bedroom place behind the winery. The field surrounding the house is filled with flowers and row after row of grape vines. Even in the dark it’s hard not to get a smile on her face when the slightly sweet smell of the grapes hits her. There’s a reason she came back here after graduation. Climbing out of the car brings the ache in her muscles back. Her dad warns her she’d better get to bed. “It’s already after midnight and you need to have things open by nine in the morning.”

A groan forces it’s way out of her. Her sacrifice didn’t get her any extra information. She mumbles that it’s fine before drifting into the house, heading to her bedroom and finally collapsing into her welcoming bed.

—–

The next afternoon Jia struggles to keep her eyes open while pouring glasses of wine for eagerly waiting drunks. It’s the slow season and most of the customers are regulars. They’re easy; they know what they like and don’t ask questions. There’s still a few tourists and every time she has to explain the difference between a pinot and a cabernet her head pounds and she wants to scream. The only thing getting her through the morning is an occasional drink with a couple of the regulars. Their cabernet in particular is having a great year and she doesn’t mind taking a sip. It’d be rude not to.

Every few minutes she catches herself glancing at the clock, desperate for three o’clock when her shift ends. If she hurries she can make it to see her grandfather today but visiting hours at the nursing home only go through five. The first few hours this morning were so slow she drank more than the customers. With how slow they are she can get all her stocking and cleaning done. That way when her shift ends she can get out right away.

At five minutes to three her heart breaks. She’s washing the last of the glasses and getting ready to run out the door when a glance outside reveals a bus pulling up. Out pour at least twenty elderly customers, all eager to get a little more drunk than they already are. Most of the big tour buses know to call in advance when bringing a big group. Her dad just took over behind the counter and was about to relieve her but now the tour group is pushing past each other to cram in the door and they’re lining up behind the counter two and three deep. She can’t abandon him to this.

“Sorry kiddo,” he says. “Let’s get this group taken care of and we’ll get you out of here.” She nods and immediately goes into greatest server ever mode. Greetings, fresh glasses, crackers to clear their palates, she lines up everything they could possibly need.

One of the more sober of the group explains this isn’t actually a tour but rather a group of friends who rented a bus and set out on their own. The majority know nothing about wine and the next hour is agonizing, having to explain each variety to them and finding most of their best bottles sent back. There seem to be a few in the group who enjoy wine and know a little about it but the majority of their friends don’t. If the group’s vocal reaction is to be believed, the best thing they’re served are the complementary crackers.

By the time the last of them file out it’s after four. One man buys a case of their fruit wines, so at least that’s something. Good for on the bus he explains. The rest of the group buy only a few bottles. As much as Jia hated her last hour, she knows she’s happier where she is than she’d be on that bus.

Her dad gives the all clear and tells her to have a great day. She considers whether she can still make it to see her grandfather and decides it’s impossible. It’s at least a forty five minute bike ride and at best she’d end up with a few minutes to visit. Getting information out of him won’t be that easy. It’s just not worth it. When she’s about to head to the house she has one last desperate idea. “Hey dad, can I borrow the van for a little while? I won’t be late.”

“Sorry kiddo, your mom has it. Ran to do some errands. She won’t be back until after dinner.”

Accepting that fate has dealt her a tough hand and she isn’t going to make it today, Jia sighs and starts looking for the bottle of aspirin she stashes in the winery. “At this point my plans aren’t going to work out then. I guess I can help clean up around here if you want.”

He seems thrilled to have the help. They have enough glasses from this last group to load the dishwasher before Jia gets to work fixing up their shelves which the guests left in a state of disarray.

With her other plan out for now, Jia decides to try and make today less of a bust. She may not get anything out of her mom but her dad can be a little loose lipped. He certainly was last night. With her mom off on some errand, maybe he’ll crack.

“You mentioned last night that mom used to do martial arts. Why haven’t you guys ever mentioned that before? I’ve been competing for eight years.”

Her dad tenses immediately, trying not to look at her. “I don’t know. You know how your mother is. She likes to keep certain things to herself.”

“You said grandpa was involved too. Do you know what types of martial arts they were into?”

He seems awfully interested in the novelty wine glasses he’s straightening. He’s been working on one shelf since before their conversation began. “You know, I don’t. It was a long time ago and it wasn’t really my thing. Maybe you should ask your mother about it. She’d know more than I do.”

This almost elicits a snort. She knows better than that and so does her dad. “We both know very well how that would go. Getting information out of her is like pulling a crocodile’s tooth.”

He shrugs. “You know how your mother is.” He’s much more tight lipped than the night before. Is his guard back up after a good night’s sleep? Or did mom actually get to him and tell him not to talk about this?

She realizes she’s hit a brick wall here. Dad isn’t going to slip again. He’s not outright denying the conversation but he’s going to keep directing her back to her mom and her mom will shut the subject down as soon as she brings it up. She’s left with only one possible source of information.

The next day is her day off and Jia’s determined to see her grandfather. She gets up first thing in the morning and feels relieved that for once she doesn’t have a hangover. The power of going to bed early and getting some real sleep. She’ll still have to bike to the nursing home today but she’s pretty used to biking at this point. She’s biked almost everywhere since getting home from school.

Her car was a real piece of junk and while it managed the cross country ride home, it broke down less than a week after her return. She didn’t have the money to replace a transmission or buy a new car but her old bike was just sitting there. It’s usually nice this time of year so it hasn’t been an issue.

In a few months she probably will want a new car and that will be an issue. She doesn’t have any money. She’s been working at the winery but isn’t getting paid. Her parents give her room, board, and a little spending money now and then but no steady wages.

Temperatures are already starting to drop and while afternoons are still nice, mornings are chilly the last few weeks. By January the bike isn’t going to cut it.

She knows she should start looking for a job in her field but she isn’t sure how much is out there for someone with a liberal arts degree. Already she regrets not studying a more practical field. Her parents didn’t want to be the stereotypical Asian family pushing her away from the arts. If they had been she might have a real chance at a job.

There are worse things than relaxing, drinking and spending time with family but in a few months when the temperatures get really cold and she finds herself biking home from the bar she might not enjoy it as much. That’s if her parents give her enough money to afford the bar.

For now the days are beautiful, filled with sun. By mid afternoon when she’ll be heading home it might even be a bit too warm. She’s lucky the ride to the nursing home is mostly uphill. She can handle that in the cooler morning and on the way back she can just cruise downward, enjoying the breeze.

Visiting hours don’t start until noon so she decides to swing by one of her favorite restaurants in the valley and get lunch for her and her grandfather. She has thirty dollars her parents gave her recently and one of the many celebrity chefs operating in Napa has a fantastic fried chicken lunch she can afford two of.

Picking up two portions, the aroma of fried chicken sends her to heaven. Just thinking about the crispy skin and the flaky biscuits makes her mouth water. Balancing two of these on a bike’s handlebars while trying to power her way up what is literally a mountain isn’t easy but it’ll be worth it when she bites into those biscuits. Jia relishes the burn. Her bundle slows her down, but not long after visiting time starts she arrives with lunch. Now she has to hope Grandpa Takeshi is doing well enough today to enjoy it.

After locking her bike to a tree, Jia makes her way inside. The scent of the chicken causes heads to turn in her direction the entire way to her grandpa’s room. The halls are filled with elderly people struggling along. Most appear happy but moans are coming from a room at the end of the hall. Arriving at the correct room, she pounds on her grandpa’s closed door to make sure he hears her. He shouts to come in and she enters to find him sitting in his ragged recliner staring at the TV. Grandpa Takeshi is 97 years old and on a good day he seems mostly like the same man who taught her to garden twenty years ago. Good days come less and less recently. Far too often he can’t figure out where he is, or even who he is. Any day he recognizes her is a decent start.

Takeshi’s lived in California his entire life and has rarely left outside of his brief stint in the army during World War II. With his family locked up in camps during one of the darkest hours in this country’s history, Takeshi volunteered to serve. He was eager to prove his loyalty to his home but he also wanted to feel free again.

It’s impossible to imagine him as some great martial artist. Then again, it’s equally difficult to imagine him as a military man. He was already old by the time Jia was born but he’s always been a gentle man. She grew up in his kitchen where his food always tasted incredibly fresh, mostly because he sourced most of his ingredients from his own garden.

His sense of peace and equilibrium was striking even to someone as young as Jia. Nothing got under his skin. One time when she was a baby and learning to walk, he caught her rummaging through his silverware, happily playing with a pair of steak knives. Maybe those should have been out of reach but the man barely blinked. He took them away and went about their day as if nothing happened.

Today he looks at her with confusion that never fails to sting. “Is it time for my pills already?” There’s no sign of recognition. Definitely not a good day.

That doesn’t necessarily mean this is a lost cause. There are days when he doesn’t know what he had for breakfast and doesn’t recognize anyone but he’ll still remember details of a little restaurant he ate at in Italy in 1946. She came here to talk about the past anyway. She desperately wants to understand more about her family’s history and her place within it.

Setting her bag down on his table, Jia starts unboxing their food. “I brought you some chicken for lunch. Thought you might enjoy that. I know you’ve always liked fried chicken.”

Despite her grandpa’s mental state having taken a turn for the worse the last few years, physically he’s still in fantastic shape. He takes a couple of pills but they’re more vitamins than anything. He’s allowed to eat more or less whatever he wants, which is why fried chicken can be on the menu today. Jia can only hope at his age she’ll be in such good shape.

Smelling the food across the room, Takeshi’s seemingly pulled from his chair and quickly reaches the small two seat table in the corner. “Smells delicious,” he says while sitting and tucking a napkin into his shirt. He doesn’t say anything about who she is and Jia is pretty sure he doesn’t much care at the moment.

Dishing them both up a nice plate, she sits down to dig into their meal and start digging for information. She knows she needs to be careful to not cause distress. Best to start with easy questions and build to the big stuff. If he’s not receptive or doesn’t remember she’ll let it go. He plows through the food like he hasn’t eaten in weeks, pausing only to say these are the best biscuits he’s ever had. Without prompting he starts talking about his morning. He’s been watching a marathon of the game show network for the last few hours. He’s able to recite the last four shows he watched and what the contestants won. Maybe this isn’t hopeless.

“Grandpa Takeshi,” she says before stopping to wipe the grease from her mouth, “someone told me that you used to be a great martial artist. Is that true?”

Looking up from his chicken he starts to nod vigorously. “I was the best. I could fight anyone, anywhere. I practically did too.”

“When was this?”

“When I was young. The war, after the war.” He shrugs, not seeming to give much thought to his answer. Jia was afraid he wouldn’t remember anything but these memories seem to come easily. He tends to do better when thinking about his youth and he seems to understand her questions so she pushes forward.

“What kind of martial arts did you do back then?”

This gets a big open mouthed laugh out of him with his mouth still full of baked beans. ”You don’t know it. No one knows it anymore. Or at least not many.”

He’s talking and seems lucid but if anything Jia has more questions than when they started. Maybe she’s not asking the right questions? “What did you do during the war grandpa?”

His face gets serious. “We did it all. Saw it all. I don’t want to think about that. It’s over. We won.”

He trails off and this line of questioning is clearly agitating him. Jia decides to stop for now and just get him back to enjoying his game shows. His smile returns as he makes his way to his chair and gets back to watching people win fabulous cash and prizes.

She sits with him for a couple hours. They’re mostly silent but every once in awhile one of them will comment on one of the contestants. She’s really not sure what to ask. She doesn’t want to upset him again. Her reward today may need to be getting to see him. She always used to make a point of stopping by his house at least once or twice a month when she was home.

Since she returned from college the visits have been less common. It’s hard to see him like this when there are so few good days now. She wishes she had a way to know when they’d be. It’d be amazing to look at him and see recognition in his smile.

Sensing her grandpa is reaching the end of his rope and will probably want to take a nap soon, Jia considers one final attempt at getting answers. That is why she came but she doesn’t want to leave on a low note. The only thing she can think to ask safely is, “Grandpa, how are things with your daughter Lia?”

It’s like watching him refuel before her eyes. His head straightens and his smile stretches wide. “Wonderful girl. Smart. Tough. Why do you ask? Do you know her?”

“Yes grandpa, she’s my mom. Does she know the same martial arts you do?”

His smile wavers a bit but doesn’t leave his face. It’s definitely sadder now though. “I taught her everything I could. She had the potential to be even better than me. Maybe she even was better than me, I don’t know. She never wanted it though. Didn’t want to follow in my footsteps or take over. My father taught me and I wanted to pass down my knowledge to her. I guess I did pass it down. She probably won’t pass it to her kids but at least it doesn’t die with me. My father would be proud I tried.”

There’s no more. Takeshi trails off and is soon absorbed in his show. His head starts to sag again and after a few minutes more Jia can hear snoring coming from his chair. He’s out cold and probably will be for the next few hours. That lunch could put anyone to sleep. She could use a nap herself but knows she has a long ride ahead. She sits with him for a few minutes before hearing a light knock at the door. She turns to see a nurse smiling at her. “I’m just going to leave his medicine here on the table. He’s better than most at taking it. I’m sure he’ll do so once he wakes up.”

Jia smiles and nods but at first doesn’t say anything. As the nurse turns to leave, she realizes the woman may be able to help her. “How’s he doing? He doesn’t seem to know me at all today. How many good days are there at this point?”

With a pained look the nurse says, “Today actually is a pretty good day. He knows who he is and kind of has an idea where he’s at. He doesn’t remember everything or much recent, but that’s about as good as he does at this point. Once in awhile he’ll have a really lucid day but no more than one or two a month. There are some days where he doesn’t have a clue where he is. Even a day or two where we’ve had to restrain him to stop him from leaving. That’s not as easy as you’d think with a man his age either. He’s really strong. He dislocated one of the attendants’ shoulders last week. No major damage but it had to be popped back into place.”

Glancing at her snoring grandfather, Jia almost laughs. He looks strong for his age but doing that kind of damage to someone young who does this all day? At his age? Thanking the nurse, it’s time for her to hit the road. Thankfully the trip home should be easier than her trip here, but she’s stuffed from lunch and it’s gotten warm outside. As she waves goodbye to the orderly at the front desk she’s glad she didn’t smuggle in the wine she almost brought. This is already going to be a volatile trip. Add booze to the equation and her last memory of that glorious lunch would be seeing it again on the side of the road.

Mostly Jia can let the mountain do the work for her. Drifting slowly downward, she knows she’ll eventually get home as long as one of these drunks on the road doesn’t side swipe her. That’s one of the downsides of biking in Napa Valley. There’s always a lot of drunk people driving around here. Practically the whole point of the region is to drink all the time so the cops tend to be lenient. As long as you’re not swerving back and forth across the road they give you a wide berth. Sometimes people don’t start swerving until it’s too late though. She’s never been hit but more than a few people have come close. It’s enough to make a girl nervous when hurtling down the side of a mountain.

As she pedals onto her street, Jia can’t wait to reach home and get that wine. Nothing washes chicken down like a nice pinot. A few more minutes and she can open a bottle. Pushing herself down this final road, a blue convertible rips past, though not close enough to worry her. She’s surprised to realize it’s her little brother Shin sitting in the driver’s seat. She thought he said he was leaving town for awhile the last time she saw him. Where’d he get a car like that? Last she knew he was unemployed and living in LA. How can he afford something that nice? Maybe mom and dad will know.

Reaching the winery, she hops off her bike and throws it in the shed outside the back door. The winery’s closed for the day but that’s not an issue. She has a key. Making her way inside, she doesn’t bother to flip on the lights before heading for the fridge to see what’s left from the day. They make a point of drinking the leftover bottles before opening new ones. Wine’s never as good the next day, better the customers get a fresh bottle.

Disappointment washes over her when she realizes there’s no pinot open. The only red is a barbera and she can’t stand it. The more she thinks about it, the more she realizes she isn’t in a red mood. It got really warm on the ride back and she wants something to cool down. That immediately sends her in the direction of their sweeter whites where she finds a half bottle of moscato. She also grabs a half bottle of rosé sitting there. They don’t make rosé but it was hot this year so they made a deal with a winery down the street to carry theirs.

Locking the winery behind her, she makes her way to the house. Entering through the side door, Jia announces her arrival and hears, “in here,” from the kitchen. Her dad’s standing at a counter pounding out pork chops for dinner while chatting with her mom who has already started a bottle of her own. Happy to see the party’s started, she grabs a glass and pours some moscato while throwing the rosé in the fridge.

“I saw Shin as I was pulling up. Is he back home? I thought he was heading back to LA a few weeks ago.”

Her dad shrugs. “Kind of. He’s staying with friends over in Sonoma. Just stopped in to say hi, let us know he’s alive, that sort of thing.” Shin has a tendency to go missing and not get in touch with them for days or even weeks at a time. He’s a couple years younger than Jia and at one point they didn’t hear from him for nearly two years. Her dad was a mess the whole time, though her mom mostly just shrugged and said she was sure he was fine. She’d been the same way when she was younger, needing to get out and explore. He eventually showed back up and acted like he’d never been gone.

Dad says dinner will be ready in thirty minutes so Jia heads upstairs to her room. On her way she notices someone has been in the attic. The stairway leading to it which tucks into the ceiling is still pulled down and she can see light shining from the hole. She considers going to her room but something tells her she needs to go up there. The stairs are creaky and she tries to keep quiet, sipping her drink the entire way.

Someone was digging through the loads of junk stored here. The boxes which are usually stacked neatly against a wall are in disarray. She finds a bunch of the boxes are labeled, “Serenity.” She pulls the lid off the first one she can lay her hands on and sees a bunch of newspaper clippings and notebooks. Just as she’s starting to look she hears her mother call from the kitchen, “Do you want wine with dinner?”

For some reason Jia freaks and throws the box’s lid. She knows she shouldn’t, she has things up here after all, but she can’t help it. She’s snooping and knows she shouldn’t be. She calls down that yes, she would like wine, before retrieving the lid, closing the box, and immediately going down the stairs. She makes sure to leave the light on and not put the stairs up. Whoever was up there, she doesn’t want them to know she was as well.

—–

Over dinner Jia’s completely unable to concentrate. Her dad’s pork chops are good, slightly sweet with a salty after taste. She can’t stop thinking about the attic and how much she wants to go back up and explore whatever was in those boxes. It could be nothing, maybe just one of her parents rearranging their terribly overstuffed attic. It doesn’t feel like nothing though. The old articles and the Serenity boxes in particular being pulled out seems significant.

After finishing her meal Jia makes an excuse about turning in early to get some reading done. She refills her glass and grabs the half bottle of rosé she stuffed in the fridge. On the way to her room, she notices the attic’s still open. She wants to go back up but decides now isn’t the time. Once her parents fall asleep she can make her move.

Trying to concentrate on her novel proves pointless, no reading’s getting done. Mostly she sips wine and plays on her phone. After a half hour she lays down and starts to doze off. It’s been a long day and the soft mattress under her feels amazing. She’s roused about an hour later when she hears a light knock at her door. It’s mom telling her that she and Jia’s dad are headed to bed. A quick good night later and Jia’s back in bed.

She gives them a twenty minute head start on falling asleep before deciding to do recon. She goes to the bathroom and on the way sees the attic’s closed. She thinks about heading up now but there’s always a risk she’ll make noise when pulling the stairs down and her parents probably aren’t asleep yet.

Heading back to her room she’s mostly just staring at the clock at this point. The minutes tick by slowly. Finally she decides enough time has passed and she can safely make her way to the attic. A part of her thinks this whole thing is stupid. If her parents really didn’t want her to find something they wouldn’t leave it sitting in the middle of the attic with the stairs down. Then again, maybe they just forgot to put the stairs up and didn’t expect she’d have a reason to go up there.

Creeping down the hall, Jia’s as careful as she can be when pulling the stairs down. She doesn’t hear much noise when they hit the ground and she breathes a sigh of relief. Tiptoeing up each step, she realizes she’s never been up here so late at night. There’s a small window on the far side of the room, but no real light is coming in at this point. It’s a cloudy night and even the moon isn’t around to help.

She has no idea where the light switch is up here. The light was on earlier but she didn’t pay attention to it since she decided to leave it on. Usually the window provides enough light for her to grab something. Luckily she brought her phone and the flashlight on it helps her navigate around. After a minute or two of searching she finds a switch on the beam right next to the stairs. Of course it was that simple.

Before going further, Jia decides she needs an excuse for why she’s up here if she gets caught. Her parents’ bedroom is on the first floor so it’s unlikely they’ll hear her but you never know and if she gets caught she wants to be ready.

She searches until she finds a box of her old awards from high school and sets them in the middle of the floor. Opening the box, the nostalgia of these trophies and medals comes rushing back at her. These all represent important moments in her life when she succeeded. She spends too long looking through them before catching herself and realizing this is definitely not why she’s up here late at night. If she really needs to catch up with this stuff she can come back another time.

Finally Jia makes her way to the Serenity boxes. Lifting the lid off the first one, she starts digging out a variety of folders and old scrapbooks. Grabbing the first folder she sees, she finds it’s mostly full of old newspaper clippings from between 1943 and the mid to late 50s. It doesn’t take long for Jia to make the connection between what these articles are about and the label on the boxes. They’re all about the masked vigilante Serenity. Every kid who’s taken history class knows at least the basics of the five allies who helped save the world during World War II. She hasn’t thought about them in years but one of them was definitely a guy named Serenity.

Glancing through the other folders, she finds article after article about his exploits during the war, mostly filled with rumors and innuendo. She’s glad these are well maintained in scrapbooks because unfolding and holding the individual articles would be terrifying. At this age they’d be liable to fall apart in her hands. They talk about missions during the war he may have gone on, people he may have killed, things he may have accomplished.

What’s really interesting are the articles from after the war. There’s a gap of about two or three years and then articles start popping up about Serenity reappearing in the San Francisco area. Jia doesn’t remember learning that in school.

Vigilantes have been on a lot of people’s minds lately. A couple of months ago a reporter asked Richard Hughes, one of the candidates running for president, what his thoughts on vigilantism were. They brought up those who saved the day during World War II. He immediately launched into a long diatribe about how those men and women were the absolute best ever and how we all needed to learn from them. Most shocking of all, he promised to make vigilantism legal again if he’s elected president.

Again might not be the right word. If these articles are to be believed it was never legal. At first Serenity was tolerated around San Francisco since he was a popular war hero and he was taking down bad people. Drug busts, prostitution stings, bank robberies, a few bombings. There’s even a story about a Nazi sleeper group he personally tracked down and stopped, capturing a high ranking Nazi official who got away at the end of the war.

The tone of the articles is positive, though there are a lot of quotes from the police chief at the time that basically amount to thanks for the help, but go away and let us do our job. One article specifically mentions how San Francisco was actually quite easy going about this. Many cities across the country had started arresting, or even shooting vigilantes on sight if they were caught interfering with the police. Other cities were more or less tolerating people who were trying to do good and whose only crime was going after those committing more serious crimes. It seems like a power struggle and not one going the vigilantes’ way.

Most of the folders contain articles but Jia comes across a few filled with pictures. There’s Serenity, just as she’s seen him in the famous group photo from the end of the war, only a lot closer up and maybe a few years older. He’s clearly a relatively young man and while he’s wearing a brown and blue costume with a mask, his features that are visible look Asian. Things are starting to make sense. Her grandpa and later her mom must have been inspired by having an Asian hero running around and trained to be fighters as a result. After their talk the other night, her mom probably got nostalgic and came up here to look at the scrapbooks she kept in her youth.

Digging further into the articles she finds some from the late 50s where the San Francisco police finally cracked down and advised Serenity if he continued, they would arrest him. There are a few later articles but most of them don’t actually claim to see him. They’re about cases and situations that fit his style which the newspaper speculated may have been him operating in secret.

Opening another book, Jia finds the articles contained here are a lot more recent. Mostly from the late 70s. They talk about a teenage girl dressed a lot like Serenity showing up in San Francisco and involving herself in police investigations.

Since the crackdown in the late 50s there hadn’t been much vigilantism in the city, certainly no one who made a big name for themselves. The same police chief was still in place all those years later and advised that they still had a no tolerance policy against vigilantes. Reading through the articles, it seems this girl wasn’t active for long. Just a couple years. There are a couple articles from the late 80s and early 90s in here as well but nothing mentioning Serenity, which turns Jia’s blood cold. As she reads the articles, they fit the sort of case she’d expect to see Serenity involved in but no one made the connection to either the original Serenity or the female copycat. No one except whoever collected these scrapbooks.

Having skimmed through the first box, Jia opens another. Inside she finds items she assumes are souvenirs. What appear to be the pins to a few grenades lay on top of a few drawings. Beneath that what looks like part of a costume is wadded up. If it were brown and blue she’d probably run screaming from the attic but it’s purple and looks nothing like the one she was afraid of finding. Maybe someone related to Serenity?

The more she thinks about it the more she rationalizes finding this in her attic. It’s weird but clearly either her mother or grandfather were very into Serenity. Maybe they collected stuff related to him over the years. The same way others collect autographs, or things from a musician’s concerts, or in weird cases a celebrity’s hair. It doesn’t make a lot of sense but she tells herself that has to be it. She moves onto another box.

Opening this third box her eyes practically bug out of her head. She finds herself staring into a box filled with a variety of outfits, all brown with blue highlights. Pulling them out, she realizes they’re definitely costumes and they look like Serenity’s, or at least some of Serenity’s as there are pictures of him in various outfits. Jia tells herself these must be something her mom or grandpa bought on the collector’s market at some point. There’s a lot of them though and that really doesn’t make sense. There’s one that’s a lot smaller than the others and a few face masks sit in the bottom of the box. She starts coming to terms with the more obvious reason for what she’s seeing.

Lost in thought and already considering running away and pretending she never saw this, Jia almost jumps through the roof when she hears a throat clear behind her. Spinning as fast as she can, she sees her mother standing by the stairs, staring at her with a mostly expressionless look. “So, you found my stuff. I guess now’s as good a time as any to have a little chat about it.”

Serenity #2 Coming June 22nd

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