A pitch-perfect K-pop rom com! Fame and friendship can get complicated, especially when there are more than platonic feelings at play.
Seventeen-year-old Lulu Li has her last summer before college all planned out. But her plans go awry when she learns that Kite Xu, her old next-door neighbor and childhood friend, will be returning home from South Korea.
Lulu hasn’t seen Kite since eighth grade, after he left the country to pursue a career in K-pop, eventually debuting in the boy group Karnival. When Karnival announces that Kite will be taking a break from K-pop activities for mysterious reasons, the opportunity to rekindle their friendship arises.
Star-struck and nostalgic, Lulu tries to reconnect with Kite. As they continue to bond and reminisce over the past, Kite’s sister, Connie, warns Lulu not to get too close to her brother. The harder Lulu tries to deny her feelings, the stronger they get. But how could a K-pop star ever fall for a nobody from home? And even if he did, is there any way for their relationship to end but badly?
Release date: June 7, 2022
Print pages: 320
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#karnival #fireworks #kiteismybias #xiaomingislove #karnivalstan #someonepinchme #suddenlyanorgandonor #willkillfortickets
There’s nothing more satisfying than stretching your arms out after a three-hour exam, confident you nailed the last question.
I roll my shoulders and look around at my classmates as they crack their knuckles and massage the kinks out of their hands, each and every one of us eager to abandon the little folding desk chairs we’ve been confined to all morning. Our proctor organizes our exam booklets into one neat pile on his desk before glancing at his watch.
“You’re dismissed,” he says without making eye contact.
All at once, every occupied chair in the room screeches back against the floor. Footsteps shuffle toward the door, trailed by a cacophony of ringtones and alarms. I make a small victory fist as I exit the library and head over to the language wing to retrieve my things for next period.
Something unusual, though not entirely unfamiliar, is in the air. It’s not dust or mold, or the potheads and vapers who sneak off to the bathroom during study hall.
It’s the smell of freedom.
I am done. No more late-night study sessions hunched over a six-hundred-page book! No more cramps in my hand as my writing devolves into chicken scratch with every tick of the clock! No more AP exams! All that’s left is finals, but no amount of free bubble tea can make me care—not when I’ll be kissing high school goodbye next month.
Summer vacation can’t come too soon. I can’t wait to unwind at the beach, get my sun-kissed glow on with my toes in the sand and a bowl of shaved ice in my hand.
Of course, Stephanie will be joining me. It’s her duty as my best friend to help me fulfill my summer itinerary. Who else is going to rub me down with sunscreen in those hard-to-reach places? Definitely not some opportunistic creep ogling me from behind his aviators.
Up ahead I see Stephanie waiting at my locker.
“You have that dreamy look in your eyes again,” she says. “It’s terrifying.”
“Hello to you, too.” I brush her aside, twist my lock open, and check my reflection in the little mirror mounted on the locker door. I dab my face with an oil-absorbing sheet and click my teeth at how greasy my hair is. I kept touching it during the exam, after someone pointed out the powdery residue of my dry shampoo—one of the disadvantages of having black hair.
Stephanie also just got out of an exam. Unlike me, she took the time to curl her hair and dress as if she’s ready for a lunch date, with her denim dress and lacy off-white blouse; whereas I’m in a sweatshirt and leggings, the epitome of cozy.
“How was world history?” I ask while searching for my red lip tint, lost in my backpack.
Compared to the calculus and biology exams Stephanie took earlier this week, world history must’ve been nothing more than a brain teaser.
“Like taking an afternoon coffee break,” Stephanie says, pantomiming a yawn. “How was comparative gov?”
“It was a race against the clock, but I know I scored at least a four.” All that last-minute cramming paid off. “You could’ve taken it blindfolded with time to spare.”
Counting today’s, Stephanie has taken a grand total of five AP exams, three more than me. The last two weeks would’ve been hell for anyone else, but for her, standardized tests are like drugs. She derives a masochistic pleasure from tricky multiple-choice questions and convoluted word problems that leave other people scratching their head.
Stephanie leans against an adjacent locker with a cheeky grin on her face.
“Oh boy, what is it?” I prep myself for what’s to come.
“Lawrence wants to take you to prom,” she says.
“Isn’t he dating Ariel?” I ask.
Prom is next week, and I have no intention of going, regardless of who wants me as their date. I love formfitting dresses and high heels that make me taller than five foot two, but I’m not about to shell out hundreds of dollars to look like a superstar. And dancing? Not my thing.
Besides, I already turned down Kellie Blair, and that was emotionally draining.
Beauty and brains aside, Kellie is ambitious and compassionate. Not only did she serve as student council president all four years, but she founded the Children’s Hospital Volunteer Club and revived the Environmental Club, which had fallen by the wayside after continuous harassment from climate-change skeptics. While I know a lot about her accomplishments, we only had an occasional class together and collaborated on a handful of student council events.
So when she asked me to meet her on the football field the other day and gave me a box of cookies that spelled be my girl & go to prom with me? I was as flabbergasted as I was flattered.
I almost said yes, but I just . . . didn’t feel it.
“According to the juicy grapevine, Ariel broke up with Lawrence to date Mia, and now he’s frantic for a date,” Stephanie explains as I give up on the lip tint, grab my notebooks, and slam my locker shut.
“Hurray! I’m his backup!” I give myself a round of applause.
Slowly we make our way to honors English at the opposite end of the school.
“More important, did your mom finish altering your dress?” I ask.
“She’ll have it done by tomorrow. Cross your fingers it fits.”
Stephanie has been dreaming of prom ever since we became best friends in eighth grade, going so far as to design her own dress. Her ideal dress has changed more times than I can count with my fingers and toes. After an unreasonably long phone call, where I had to talk and pee at the same time because she wouldn’t let me hang up, Stephanie finally decided on an off-shoulder emerald gown that flares out at the knees. Her mom, who runs a tailoring service, made Stephanie’s dream dress a reality and is currently putting the finishing touches on it.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” I assure her.
We reach Room 284 ten minutes after the bell, and Ms. Greene is too nose-deep in her book to notice. She can disguise the book with a fake Toni Morrison cover, but everyone knows she’s reading another steamy bodice ripper with sexy fallen angels warring against bloodthirsty demons.
The end of the year is almost upon us, and Ms. Greene has made it abundantly clear that she doesn’t want to teach anymore. For the last couple of days, her classes have turned into study halls. At least she’s honest and doesn’t bore us to tears with documentaries as Dr. Campbell does. The guy takes himself too seriously because he has a PhD.
As Stephanie and I settle into the back row, Ester, who should be in art right now, slips in after us. Ms. Greene doesn’t bat an eye as Ester clomps over in her combat boots and claims the desk in front of me, her legs spread wider than necessary as she straddles the chair backward.
“Someone here paid a visit to the salon,” I say, looking Ester over with approval. Overnight she got rid of her auburn highlights and dyed her hair back to its natural color. Her hair now falls to the middle of her neck in tight black waves.
“I wanted to spice things up, lose the long hair. Mom threw a fit when she saw the perm,” Ester says through a mouthful of bubble gum. “So, did you hear?”
“You have to be more specific than that,” I say. “Just a bit.”
“Karnival might do a world tour this summer. Before it was just rumors, but it seriously might happen now. The three of us have to go. No matter what!”
“What do you mean by might?” I ask.
“There hasn’t been an official announcement.” Ester shrugs. “I bet they’re delaying it on purpose to rile everyone up—publicity stunt, you know.”
“No announcement means no one knows when tickets go on sale, and isn’t it late to be planning a world tour? It’s already May. . . . What if their concert falls on a day I made plans for?”
“Lu.” Ester fixes me with an incredulous look. Her liberal use of eyeliner makes her gaze even more pointed. The gray contact lenses don’t help. “The Jersey Shore is going to be here this summer, next summer, and the summer after that.”
“A hurricane could wipe it out. You never know,” Stephanie chimes in.
“Not helping!” Ester tells Stephanie to zip it with a theatrical flourish of her hand before returning her attention to me. “As I was saying before I was rudely interrupted, you can hit the beach whenever you want. How many chances will you get to see Karnival live?”
“But we don’t know if they’re performing. That’s my point. Whoosh!” I swing my hand over my head to emphasize the whoosh.
Ester shoves her phone into my face. She has Karnival’s Twitter pulled up. Five hours ago, they tweeted, Stay tuned, Fireworks. Whatever that means.
“Let me know when tickets go on sale. Then we’ll talk,” I say.
“I wish you’d be as excited as I am.” Pouting, Ester sinks into her chair. “You’re the one who introduced me to Karnival, and look what I’ve become. I used to be a devout Catholic. All I do now is pray to Karnival every night.”
“You okay with all the hyperbole?” I crack a smile as Ester pops her bubble gum and playfully shoots me a wounded look.
Ester’s the furthest thing from a Catholic, but it’s true that, while I don’t think she worships Karnival, I did introduce her to them.
She didn’t even know what K-pop was until last year.
Her life was nothing but anime soundtracks until she came over to my house the first time to work on an assignment. I played TWICE, BTS, and EXO while we dissected the literary representation of women in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. She liked the music enough to ask me who the singers were, but it was after she listened to Karnival that she died from an eargasm and was reborn a Firework.
Fireworks is the name of Karnival’s fan club. Membership comes with certain perks, like early ticketing for fan meets and access to exclusive merchandise, but registration is restricted to fans in South Korea, much to Ester’s disdain in this unfair world. You can find other online communities, ones that are friendlier toward global fans, but according to Ester, it’s not the same as being part of the official fan club—which I understand.
I used to be quite the fanatic when Karnival debuted two years ago with “Lights Fantastic.” It was the most downloaded song in South Korea in the first week of its release. The song’s catchy, leaning more toward old-school funk than pop, but the MV is what won me over. Having five living definitions of eye candy serenade me with smooth vocals and even smoother dance moves—how could I resist putting these guys on replay?
For months my browser history was an endless log of image searches, fan forums, gossip blogs, and websites, all in Korean (which I can’t read). Every night I fell asleep to Karnival’s music, and after Stephanie grew sick of them, I bribed her to listen with me during our sleepovers.
It embarrasses me to admit this, but I used to dream up these scenarios where I’d be out and about like any other day, and by chance I’d bump into all five Karnival members—on the streets, at a coffee shop or bookstore, in an elevator, sometimes on a postapocalyptic space colony—and unwittingly I’d find myself in the center of a Karnival love pentagon. I further fed my obsession by buying posters and stickers at obscene prices, no thanks to international shipping fees. One time I almost begged my mom to get me life-size cardboard cutouts of my favorite group members.
And then, after a year of thirsting over unobtainable guys, I mellowed out. With college on the horizon, I realized I was wasting too much time and energy on a bunch of guys I’d never get to know beyond what they wanted me to know.
Well, except for the one I do know. Or at least, I used to know . . .
“Can you at least watch the ‘Lights Fantastic’ MV with me?” Ester says, extending one earbud to me. She cuts me off before I can ask why. “So you can fall in love with them all over again.”
Thoughts of strangulation darken my mind as Ester sings along to “Meteor Shower” on our ride home. Every time she hits a high note, she sounds like a screeching pterodactyl on the brink of death. The veins in Stephanie’s hands are popping as she grips the steering wheel and fights the urge to drive us into a utility pole.
I angle the rearview mirror toward me and watch Ester in the backseat as she rocks her body to the music. Her movements are wild, violent even. If she waves her arms any faster, she might dent the ceiling. For a moment, I am convinced that a demonic possession is taking place and that perhaps I should call a crisis hotline or order a bottle of holy water off Etsy, but then I remember that this is normal for Ester, so I let her do her thing.
Minutes later we pull up to my house: a dark teal bungalow with a cracked driveway and a bed of tulips and daffodils out front. I have one foot out of the car when my next-door neighbor pops out from behind the rose hedge dividing her house from mine.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Xu.” I wave at her as Ester stands awkwardly close to me.
Mrs. Xu waves back before fanning herself with her gardening hat. “Connie told me a senior asked her to prom today. Do you know a Lawrence in your grade?”
“Doesn’t ring any bells.” I shake my head as Stephanie coughs into her hand to mask her laughter. “Did Connie agree to go with him?”
“You know my daughter. She likes soccer, not boys.”
“She knows what she wants.” I give Mrs. Xu a thumbs-up before skipping up the steps to my front porch.
“I fried some scallion pancakes earlier,” Mrs. Xu says, waving hello to Stephanie and Ester. “Want me to bring some over? There’s enough for everyone.”
“We’re fine, thank you,” Stephanie answers for me as I fish for the house key.
Ester giggles nervously behind me as I unlock the door.
One by one we shuffle in. I take off my shoes and dump my backpack onto the floor, grateful for the relief. Soon the three of us are chilling on the living room sofa, our legs stretched out on the coffee table. No one else is home to correct our bad manners.
“Are you always going to be this shy around Mrs. Xu?” I ask Ester.
Shy is the last word I’d use to describe someone who pushes the boundaries of our school dress code daily with fake-leather miniskirts that upset all the conservative moms who drive by in their minivans.
“Can you blame me? It’s unbelievable!” Ester exclaims, throwing up her arms. “To think her son, the kid you grew up with, is the Kite.”
“We know. It’s not like you haven’t said this before,” Stephanie says, disappearing into the kitchen to pour herself a glass of water. “Isn’t Kite your least favorite member?”
“I don’t have a least favorite,” Ester says, aghast at the thought. “Wayne is my bias. I like everyone else equally.”
So, as I said, Karnival consists of five members.
There’s O-Kei, one of two main vocalists, born in Incheon, South Korea, and twenty years old as of this January, making him the oldest member and by default the group leader.
Yoosung is the other main vocalist and the second oldest, born in Seoul and a resident of Australia for six years before returning to his home country to pursue music.
Then we have Xiaoming, the rapper and best dancer of the group (depending on who you ask). He hails from Taiwan and learned Korean for three years before his debut. He turned nineteen last month, two weeks before Wayne.
Wayne is a sub vocalist and the best dancer (also depending on who you ask). Fans refer to him as a “spicy maple cookie” because he seems intimidating on the outside but is sweet and soft on the inside. Being Korean Canadian has something to do with it, too.
Finally, there’s Kite.
Kite is many things. He’s the youngest member, at eighteen years old. He’s a sub vocalist and a gifted pianist. He’s an old classmate, an old friend, and my former next-door neighbor who is very much talked about to this day despite his absence.
“Does Mrs. Xu know anything about Karnival doing a world tour?” Ester asks as she tries and fails to sound uninterested. “Is Kite visiting anytime soon? If he is, maybe he could bring Wayne, and I could get a selfie—”
I reach for the pillow on the nearby recliner and bop Ester over the head with it, in time for her stomach to start growling. Mine does the same. I regret not taking Mrs. Xu up on her offer of scallion pancakes.
Stephanie returns with a glass of water and a take-out menu. “Let’s order pizza.”
“A splendid idea.” I whip my phone out from my back pocket. “Tell me what toppings you want or forever hold your peace.”
“I want pineapple and bacon with a drizzle of Wayne,” Ester says, wriggling her brows, “if you catch my drift. Yum yum.”
I bop Ester once more.
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