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Читать онлайн Son of the Tank Man. Wong Winfred.

Winfred Wong

SON OF THE TANK MAN

A novel 

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CHAPTER ONE

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My name is Ashton. I am now living in a peaceful and glorious place which is known as the house and has been living here for nearly two months – I know it should’ve been The House, but according to the words displayed on a pearly gate set before the house, the house should be the official name of it. In this place, we hardly have to worry about anything here and we can do whatever we want freely. There’s only one rule. We are strictly forbidden from doing anything that would make other people’s freedom shrink. Whoever break this rule will be exiled from this place permanently. But other than this, we can do all sort of things we wish, like getting married in a pond that would compel you to blurt out everything that comes to your mind, playing chess with a talking tiger and actually end up losing, inventing new games and challenging your friend to a ‘duel’, and whatever you can think of.

The only bad thing about this place is that not everyone is allowed to get through the pearly gate as it is so bulky – it’s literally the combined size of two aircraft carriers or even bigger – that only a man called Gradius can heave it open. And in order to persuade him to open it for you, you have to answer a question he raises, just one, and it’s usually a question that you have asked yourself once. And if you are able to come up with an answer that he finds ‘good’ enough, he will not only open the gate for you, but also he will help you retrieve one thing you love from the human world as a Gift he gives you.

But of course, my story doesn’t begin in a place this beautiful. And I can still remember there was a gust of howling wind coming through a window on that morning when my teeth were chattering with cold and when the shivering began to spread down to my toes.

At that time, I was perched comfortably on my second-hand leather sofa, the most costly thing I’d ever bought other than a phone, in my stuffy, gloomy living room, 200 square feet, with a glass of hot water on the arm of it, listening to the speech given by Prince Felix yesterday night.

“President Vincent Hobert, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen. Today is a day of celebration, not sorrow. Today is not only the New Year’s Eve, but also the day we finally attain freedom. This important and special ceremony marks the beginning of a new year and a new phase of Port Aroma’s history and also a major step forward in the history of mankind. In a few moments, the responsibilities and decision-making power of this government will be passed on to the people of Port Aroma, and the government will thereby be dissolved upon the arrival of the New Year. It’s a great change, but at the same time, a very essential step toward freedom.”

It was one of those chilly winter mornings I hated the most because the bitter coldness of the still air made it very difficult for me to wake up. I had to force myself to crawl out of my quilt immediately after I lifted up my eyelids – I would’ve used two toothpicks to keep my eyelids open so that I wouldn’t have a chance to fall back asleep again, but I would do it only if I weren’t able to sense pain – despite its willingness to stick close in order to make sure I wouldn’t be late for work. It wasn’t like I had never been late before, but on that day, I was entrusted with a special task to pick up someone.

“Switch off the radio. It’s seven o’clock on the first day of the new year,” my sister, lying on the upper bunk of a bunk bed, which the lower bunk belonged to me, situated to the left of the sofa, whimpered in a lazy but coarse tone of voice, which was quite the exact opposite to her usual lovely voice she’d adopt when she was chatting with some other boys, and it did divert my attention away from the radio for a moment.

Anyone else would have realized her disgruntlement, but it was the last thing on my mind. Perhaps I was too zeroed in on the radio, a habit that was deemed as a little peculiar in that era, which I had copied from my mum when I was little and had never ceased doing after then. My sister and Brian, my colleague and my best friend, had always asked me what was so intriguing about this tiny little box, but I never managed to come up with a decent reply. I guessed maybe I was just keen on listening to people babbling and prattling non-stop.

“It’s the firework display!” I said when a sound of explosion drew my attention back to the radio again.

“Turn it off! You idiot!” she protested in a sober tone and heaved out a long sigh, probably because I showed no intention of moving at all. “I am going to come down and hit you in the face, you idiot.”

I bet she hated me as much as I hated the coldness at that time because, if I remember correctly, that was the first time in my life I had ignored her, although I would say that our sister-brother relationship had never been bad; we are just somehow used to and both silently agreed to talking in a way that it would give others who don’t know us well enough a wrong impression about our relationship. And to make it worse, it was the first day of a new year, which to her, was supposed to be flawless.

“Wait, let me hear his whole speech.”

“Give me that ten thousand dollars you owe me, or you turn it off!” she shouted. “Turn it off now!”

She sounded like she was on the edge of falling apart, but it didn’t concern me.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I should like on behalf of President Vincent Hobert and of everyone who served in the government to express our thanks, admiration, affection and good wishes to all the people of Port Aroma, and to pay tribute to the people of Port Aroma themselves for all that they have achieved in the last century and a half. Without them, the miraculous rapid economic growth over the last few decades would have never been possible. And, at this precise moment, I hereby declare the dissolution of the government. I—”

I would’ve been able to see that coming if not for the brain-freezing coldness. But being too concentrated on listening, I didn’t even realize she had already climbed down the ladder from the upper bunk and by the time I realized, she had already thumbed off my favorite matchbox radio with two antennas atop, which I had been using ever since we were forced to immigrate to this country, I placed on the dining table in the exact center of the living room, the best position for the best signal.

“What are you doing!? Don’t you want to know what happened at the ceremony?”

“What are you doing!? Don’t act like you care now. You didn’t even cast your vote last year!” she said, as she was striding back to the bunk bed.

“Unsympathetic alcoholic,” I murmured, then retorted. “Don’t ask me to pick you up and take you home the next time you are drunk! And just to let you know, I will be leaving this country soon.”

“What? What do you mean? Leaving this country?” she said, on her way up the ladder to her bed, and by a twist of fate, bumped her forehead into the corner of a framed photo hanging on the wall depicting our father standing in front of a line of tanks, which was widely considered as one of the most influential images of all time, yet I couldn’t disagree more for what it had evolved into recently – one of the tokens of freedom greatly honored by a bunch of hypocrites, who called themselves freedom-pursuers and had everything to do with the dissolution of the government.

I was never a freedom-pursuer myself, or more precisely, I was dead against them as described by Brian, yet a part of me always found it awkward for him to say that, probably because he always held up to his principle of being politically neutral himself. Never did I hear him express himself in regard to anything political. But the main point was I really doubted if a politically neutral man could understand why I was against them. It wasn’t like I couldn’t understand the significance of freedom, but they had gone too far by voting to have the government dissolved just because of that.

“I mean I’m going to leave this country and start a new life at somewhere else, probably dad’s home country. I miss the food there badly.”

She twisted her face and resumed going up. “Why would you want to go back to that uncivilized country where dad was shot dead? He sacrificed his life for us and the people. Don’t tell me you’ve already forgotten what he had told us on the phone before he passed away. He told mum to get us out of there because the situation was only going to get a lot worse, which turned out to be true, and it was even worse than what he had predicted. And he warned us never to return to that place. He worried about us even he got a bullet in his stomach.”

“Yeah, very nice of you to remind me of that. I’ve already forgotten he was the hero, The Tank Man,” I said. “And that’s been decades ago. Just get over the past, will you?”

“I don’t understand you. Who would want to leave this beautiful country while everyone is looking forward to the big change?” She looked at me and tilted her head right against the wall like what a curious dog would do when she got to her bed.

“Beautiful, hum, beautiful, what a beautiful country,” I repeated and reached out for the radio. “Perhaps I just don’t see it that way.”

“Don’t you dare touch it!” she barked, and I drew my limb back with pursed lips, not because I thought she was more important than listening to the radio, but because she would definitely continue to yell aloud had I switched it on again.

“But the people there will discriminate you. Racism is entrenched in their society. And I have no doubt about this.” She lowered her anxious voice this time.

“They won’t. I was born there.”

“Let me remind you of another fact now because, apparently, you have also forgotten your mother is from Europe, and we were not issued a permanent resident card just because of it.”

“You don’t have to remind me of everything. I am well aware of my identity, and I’ve already got myself a visa. Approved easily.”

Then I remember she rolled her eyes in frustration before speaking again, and there was the tiniest bit of sarcasm in her voice. “Well, it seems nothing can stop you then, Mr. Son of The Tank Man. When are you planning to leave? By the way, are you going to visit the Door of Heavenly Peace?”

“I don’t know yet. I don’t have a schedule yet. But no. I am not going back there, even though it’s a tourist spot now.”

Then she pulled out a dubious face, one that made me think she didn’t believe me when I said ‘I don’t know yet’, and after a quiet minute of pondering, she said, “Are you still angry at what happened to you? Your vote? Is it the reason why you want to leave?”

I had never felt worse when someone saw through me with something like that, something like a Jedi mind trick. Quietly hissed to give vent to my boiling discontent engendered by the fact she reminded me of the reason why I couldn’t go to cast my vote, I had to draw in a deep breath through my nostrils in order to contain it because I knew I cared about it so much, so much that on that night I had wept overnight until my tears had dampened half of my spongy pillow only because of the unenviable outcome of the plebiscite, which was passed in favor of the dissolution of the government by a ratio of 4:1, a landslide victory for the obstinate freedom-pursuers, who didn’t have the foresight to envision what would happen when the maintenance of order in the country was broken and the so-called freedom they had been striving for became dominant.

“What would you have voted if you had the chance?” my sister went on, disrupting my thought.

That wasn’t the first time she asked me about it, but I just didn’t feel like answering her because I knew what she had voted – this magically didn’t have any impact on our relationship, I basically just accepted it with a nod when she told me about her decision – and so, I darted a quick sidelong glance at her, stood up, quickly swilled down the glass of warm water like I would do every morning, put the empty glass next to the radio like I would do every morning, grabbed my old-fashioned laptop bag lying horizontally on the sofa like I would do every morning and headed for the door, knowing it’s almost about time to go if I wanted to be punctual.

“Hey, talk to me,” she said, her impenetrable blue eyes fixed on me with her head sticking out of the railing of her upper bunk.

And I pulled open the pale yellow door in front of me and said, “You know what, I don’t want to talk about it now because I am going to miss the bus, which is very undesirable, if I don’t go now, and if I miss it, I will probably lose my job. So, maybe next time, and one more thing, I don’t owe you nothing.”

“Hey, I need my ‘fe-fee’ today!”

I could hear her clearly, but I then instantly hopped out into the dingy, narrow corridor that stretched wider to the right, and I walked down it slowly until I skidded to a halt in front of a decrepit elevator door and jabbed the down button. Then I glimpsed at my mechanical watch featuring a navy blue leather strap on my left wrist, which was the ‘fe-fee’ she was talking about; she called it ‘fe-fee’ because when it ticked, it sounded more like it’s ‘fe-feeing’ and she loved it, though this morning, when she came home, drunk, she almost smashed it against the corner of the dining table and that’s why it was on my wrist now. It wasn’t like I didn’t want to give it back to her – it was something like a heirloom mum gave her a day before she died of cancer – but I would probably be late for work had I stayed arguing with her.

We lived on the twenty-fourth floor of an apartment with no balcony, one bedroom, and only one porthole-like window, and there was only one elevator for the entire thirty-story high-rise, which was erected straightly in front of an abandoned pier built on the seashore where I had spent most of my childhood running around and having fun with my friends like Brian and Mike, albeit I never found the waiting mundane. To me, the creaky journey downward in the elevator had always been like an express train bound for Shangri-La because the air outside wasn’t as stuffy as at home and the outside world was properly governed until that day, but on that day, I felt it was more like a one-way ticket to hell.

My heart thumped, and I froze completely when the elevator door slid open with an absurdly quick speed like an athlete sprinting. There were three people inside, two men, probably friends because they were both champing on a ham sandwich like horses munching on hay in a stable, and a nice-looking young woman dressed formally with a silky, long white dress that unfortunately accentuated her paunch. Seeing that I was as still as a rock after the door was open, they all had their eyebrows drawn down and stared at me in a peculiar way, with disdains sparkling in their eyes, and I could tell they thought I was wasting their valuable time just by their looks.

“Good morning, Ashton,” the woman said, as she tucked away her dissatisfaction behind a forced smile smacked of hypocrisy, though it was as rigid as it could be. “Are you coming in?”

I bet she didn’t really care about me going in or not when she asked because her middle finger had never separated from the door close button since the door had begun sliding open, not to mention that she had never actively started a conversation with me before. It was apparent that all she desired was not to miss the bus to go to work, just like everyone else.

And by now, you might have already been wondering why on earth we were all rushing to work on the first day of a new year, which was supposed to be a holiday. The answer is simple. There wasn’t a thing called holiday back then. The foundation of the rapid economic growth mentioned by the Prince was entirely based on people’s perspiration, but that’s something I’ll need a whole different book in order to explain. Anyway, my point here is that we, the citizens of Port Aroma or simply, workaholics, had always been in a rush all our life and we hated it when someone got in our way.

“No, thanks. I’ll just wait for the next elevator,” I replied in the politest tone possible to point out her insincerity when she was repeatedly pushing the door close button like a woodpecker drumming against a metal roof, her smile never faded until the door began closing after a brief delay, and I had just enough time to finish my sentence, yet just before the door closed, I could see there was a frayed yellow ribbon, the most popular token of freedom, tied to her right wrist.

Found myself alone in the corridor again, the raw distress kindled by my intense distrust for the state of anarchy, which defined by the absence of a government, resurfaced because I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like walking down a street after the government had dissolved. Would there be armed gangsters randomly beating up innocent people on the street? Would robbery and kidnapping become everyday problems? Would I be able to make it to the office safely? I was afraid, my stomach was churning at the thought of it, and furious at the same time, purely because the freedom-pursuers had voted for destroying this country without even realizing. And I believed ignorance was my biggest enemy at that time.

But soon, when images of the three people in the elevator suddenly flashed through my mind, I figured it would probably be just another day at the office as they were all acting like it was, at least none of them were armed with anything more dangerous than a sandwich, and such thought helped ease my nervousness. So, gingerly, I pressed the down button again, and when the elevator door slid open, I ventured into it. The journey downward was quick, less than fifteen seconds, and to make up for lost time, I dashed out quickly and exited the building through a poorly-lit narrow hallway beautified with a sprinkling of ashes at the exact moment when the door opened.

The bus stop with a rudimentary shelter was located on the other side of the single-track road. Drew in a refreshing breath to soothe my impatience and hastened along the sidewalk paved with rectangular red bricks, which the gaps between bricks were filled with glue, by jostling my way through the crush to a crosswalk at the end of the street, I halted, grasping the railing that was half of my height for support at the edge of the road, and waited for the traffic light to change to purple. When it changed, the seething mass of crowd, including me, began crossing the street like a battalion of Trade Federation droids marching into battles; of course, we were all moving in a pace much faster than those droids.

Midway across the road, I noticed that a red double-decker was approaching the bus stop. And I instinctively ran toward it in the road to avoid getting caught up in the throngs of pedestrians on the narrow sidewalk and successfully boarded it. Despite the morning rush hour constituted by few dozens of private vehicles driven by egocentric people, I got off the bus at my usual stop at the usual time and headed for the Burlinger Tower, a forty-story commercial building that stood out from all of its neighbors because it looked ridiculously like a giant mirror from the outside, and waited in front of a modern cafe embellished with detailed maps of every countries in the world for a new colleague, Aaron Moore, the man hired to replace my position merely because I had rashly handed in the resignation letter a month ago, which I had always been yearning to do ever since the day of the plebiscite last year, and I never regretted it; on the contrary, I was overjoyed at it as it meant I could finally leave this place.

My eyes were gleaming with elation that made the world seem a better place to be in when a cool morning breeze brushed against my pale cheek, reminding me that it’s already quarter to nine, fifteen minutes past the scheduled time, but there was still no sign of him, and it frustrated me. Leaning against a road sign that showed the way to The Academy for Performing Arts, I began snapping my head around, looking for him, until a jet-black roadster with an engine emitting an intolerable deafening racket stopped at the edge of the sidewalk in front of me and engrossed me wholly. I gazed at the young motorcyclist, who was wearing a black coat with a pentagon-like reflective logo on his chest, as he planted his feet on the ground and was taking off his rock-hard, crimson-red helmet, revealing a head of brown curly hair.

“You must be Ashton,” the motorist said, staring back at me with a silly grin.

He seemed nice at first. “Yes, I am. And if I’m not mistaken, you must be Aaron,” I replied, in a corresponding tone of voice that fitted that occasion, moved forward and reached out to try to shake his, but never grabbed a hand.

He was busy double-clicking the touch screen of his overpriced phone, which he just pulled out from his left blue jean pocket, and was completely unheedful of my outstretched arm. The world seemed to have hushed at that particular awkward moment when I left my hand hanging in midair, and to shake off the awkwardness that had bloomed, I had to draw my arm back and cough twice intentionally to catch his attention while maintaining a dramatic visage of cheerfulness.

So he finally cast a cursory glance at me with widened eyes like he was puzzled at what was going on when I espied a filthy-looking furry rat racing past in between his feet, and instinctively, I flurried to take a step backward to stay away from it; the existence of rats was far worse than someone being ignorant.

“Yeah, nice to meet you, Ashton,” he said airily, as he swiveled his eyes down on the screen again and cocked his head slightly as though attempting to find a better angle, his eyes never deviated from it then.

I bet he didn’t really think it’s nice to meet me, so I flurried to take one more step backward again as though he was a rat, with my shoulders shrugging this time. It wasn’t the ungracious rudeness that agitated me, but the inexcusable phoniness that I found undesirable. And that’s how I then came to a conclusion that he must be one of those freedom-pursuers.

“Thank you. It’s very nice to meet you as well,” I said with a sarcastic grin, and on a whim, I looked up at the road sign and continued. “Are you a graduate of The Academy for Performing Arts?”

“No. Why?”

“Because you seem to have a natural acting talent, and your blue jean. It really makes you look like one of the students there, not to mention the phone you’re holding. It’s definitely one of the best, which every students would love to have one.”

Made a rolling motion with his phone like a kid showing off his new toy, “Thanks, but let’s not waste any more time standing here, shall we? I’m freezing.” He then scurried to the revolving door installed at the main entrance of the building alone and entered it.

I knew he felt flattered when he left, judging by the faint smile that flickered across his face. So, feeling triumphant, I walked behind him.

“Tenth floor, is it?” he asked, as he hit the up button.

“Yes. When we arrive, I’ll show you around the place first, though there’s not really much to see, but it’s a really good chance to get to know the people who you are going to work with and establish some positive relationships first,” I said when we were walking into an elevator.

“So, can I ask you a question please?”

Honestly ‘please’ was the last word I’d expect to hear from him after experiencing his rudeness. And I had thought he was that type of people who would speak out their mind directly without caring about others’ feelings.

“Uh-hm.”

“Why did you resign? I mean, did something bad happen?” he said modestly.

He being modest aroused my interest, and I decided to give him what he wanted to know. “No, it’s not like that. Nothing bad happened, don’t worry. People you are about to meet are really nice people. We always hang out together. The only thing you’ll have to concern yourself with is getting your job done and causing no trouble. It’s just like I woke up one day and I suddenly realized I didn’t want to stay in this company any longer.” The elevator stopped. “But perhaps it’s mainly because I am planning on leaving the country.”

“Leaving the country?”

“Yeah, I’ll be going to my dad’s home country, where the people there still value the importance of maintenance of order and where I was born.”

“Where are you from? You don’t have an accent.”

“Felomeim. I moved here when I was like two or three.”

“For real!?” he said in a dubious tone. “I mean it’s always a good thing to go on a trip back home, but Felomeim? Will you ever be able to come back safely?”

“What makes you think I’ll come back?” I asked, but never got an answer from him.

The office, which overlooked the front of the building, occupied a whole floor, which I considered unnecessarily large, except the fine red brick wall behind the reception desk, and we exited the elevator when I had my eyes on a delicate glass-made flower vase holding a Victorian carnation with gray-green leaves and ostentatious red flowers that somehow smelt like a lavender sachet on top of the reception desk.

“Good morning, Oli,” I said to an elegant, red-haired lady sitting behind the desk that veiled her face.

She stood up, revealing her adorable face. “Good morning, Ashton and—” She paused dramatically when she set eyes on Aaron.

“A—” I opened my mouth to speak, but he interjected, enthusiastically but impolitely; after all, to him, modesty was just a myth.

“I’m Aaron,” he said and stretched out his arm to shake hers.

“I’m so glad to meet you, Aaron. I’m Olivia. You can call me Oli,” she said, inclining her slender torso forward ravishingly.

“My pleasure, Oli.”

CHAPTER TWO

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It was not until their little friendly handshake that I discovered how cordial her wide smile was for the first time in five years of working together with her when she brought her enviable cheekbones into prominence, radiating confidence. I noticed she had incomparably tender skin, with one shallow line grooved on her left face, and an almost indiscernible small scar just a centimeter above the bridge of her pert nose. I reckoned it was because I had never really snatched at the opportunity to look at her long enough to study her countenance – every time when our eyes met, I would shy away from starting a conversation with her – without, inadvertently, being deemed as a lunatic despite the deplorable fact that I had always found her deadly captivating. It only occurred to me that I had been keen on her the whole time later and perhaps back then I was just too timid to be able to acknowledge my own feelings.

“It’s like a custom to start off with a handshake with the reception lady, and it’s always good to start off this way,” I said. “And now, if you would.” I motioned him to go inside with me.

“I like your hair,” Oli said as if she didn’t hear me.

“Thank you. I like your hair too. It’s so shiny,” he said, running his fingers through his outer hairs, giving out a confident beam that was nearly as cordial as hers.

I don’t know why, but I can remember there was a sticky bad feeling out of nowhere welling up inside me at that time and I just wanted to stop them from looking at each other, and so I then coughed twice deliberately to intrude.

Realized my patience had worn out, “Oops, sorry, let’s go,” he said, and then we walked away, though her eyes held his spellbound like their eyes were interlocked.

“She is beautiful, isn’t she?” I said on a whim when we passed by the red brick wall.

“Yeah, she is gorgeous,” Aaron said.

He was still looking over his shoulder at that time. And he only turned around until the red brick wall had completely blocked his sight.

“Be careful, Aaron, be careful. I think she is a maneater,” I said, partly jokingly, partly seriously.

“A maneater?”

“Watch out boy, she’ll chew you up,” I sang, but he looked bewildered, with his lips dipping down into a frown and his wrinkled lively nose. “Never heard that before?”

He shook his head, and I shook mine.

“It’s one of the most famous songs back in 1980s and I think it’s one of the best songs of all time.”

“Wow. That’s about, half a century ago,” he drawled, then gave out a vicious smile, which lasted only for less than a split second, as though he had discovered something ridiculous.

But I caught sight of it. And I thought he was disrespectful, like he thought old songs were not worth listening to purely because they were old, so I shook my head again


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when I suddenly heard something that I thought can only be regarded as a dreadful racket, but was described by him as his favorite song of all. And I figured maybe that’s why he could tolerate the noisy engine on his motorcycle.

“What!?” I said to myself, stunned by the discovery that someone was actually fond of it, when he was hurrying to the window.

Prompted by a wave of curiosity, I edged over to him and managed to convince myself to take a look out onto the road. And from there, I saw a pair of large loudspeakers relentlessly converting electricity into unpleasant noise on the backseat of a roofless black van moving forward at a very slow pace. It was like the attention-seeking driver was trying to show off his newly acquired toys by wittingly turning up the volumes to maximum.

“That’s your favorite song? You can’t be serious,” I said in a murmuring voice, as he was humming softly to himself. “I would’ve called the police already if it were yesterday.”

But when he heard what I said, he stopped humming theatrically and glared at me with deep furrowed brows and unspoken disapproval emanating from his visage, like I had just done something abominable.

“What!?” I said, not knowing what else to say or do, my eyes moving round on his patronizing look.

He swayed his head a little. “Nothing, just wondering where everybody is.”

His look then shifted abruptly from slightly angry to a bit wheedling, obviously trying to change the subject, as he started looking around, pretending to be as curious as possible with his arms unnaturally swinging back and forth. So I grasped the chance to pull down the noise-canceling blinds, which Brian snapped up from the December sales that got under way last week just because it’s cheap, before taking a good look around.

The plainly adorned office was so spacious that half of it was empty because we only had a small team comprised of five people, four gentlemen and one lady, working in this place, excluding Olivia, and as I snapped my head around, I found out that, bafflingly, none of my colleagues were present. ‘How couldn’t I have realized it before?’ that’s what had popped up in my mind instantly at that exact moment. But looking back now, the reason was quite obvious. The sticky bad feeling hadn’t even scattered a bit and had somehow blindfolded me until then.

So I turned back and took a glance at the ornate clock hanging high on the red brick wall, which showed it was already five minutes past nine. Knowing how much they value punctuality, I reckoned that they must be in the manager’s room having a meeting, or discussing some minor matters, or some sort of that.

The manager room was weirdly situated on the left corner of the empty half of the office, and if anyone ever wanted to get there, he or she would’ve to cross the ‘grassfield’, the empty half of the office, first. And strolling across the ‘grassfield’ alone without being summoned was something we all considered a taboo, except when you were going to deliver a resignation letter. There were many reasons why it’s a taboo, like because when you were in the empty half, everyone would automatically have their eyes upon you just because you were exposed as though you were a giant on an actual grass field and we all thought it was sort of not good for you to catch everyone’s attention for some minor matters, but that’s not the point here. The point is it’s safe to cross the ‘grassfield’ at that time as I had Aaron by my side.

“Come. I think they’re in the manager’s room,” I said, striding across the empty half, and knocked on the thick wooden door, painted gray with a brass knot.

“Come in,” said a masculine voice, which belonged to the manager, and I turned the doorknob and went in.

“Just in time. Where is he?” the manager, slouching all the way back in a reclining ergonomic office chair set behind an L-shape office desk, said.

I pointed my thumb over my shoulder at the door. “Right outside.” And I beckoned at Aaron.

“Well then, tell him to come in. What is he waiting for? He has to listen to what Betty is going to tell us. It’s very important,” he said and turned his head to look at a bulky man with an old-fashioned eagle tattoo on the back of his neck standing before the desk. “Brian, I don’t need you here now, you can go out, and, Ashton, thank you for bringing Aaron here, but I believe you still have many things to do, right? It’s your last day with us after all.”

“Yeah,” I said, wondering why he had such a dingy mood astride his cranium, realizing he had never told me to get out of his room with Brian before.

So, as Brian stepped out of the door while Aaron was coming in with a confident gait, head up, chest out, which contrasted greatly with Brian’s sullen, dejected look, I followed him to leave. And when I was done with the door behind me, I found he was standing in the middle of the ‘grassfield’ staring at me in his usual ‘popping’ way, which was whenever he wanted to talk he would stare at me with his eyes popped out to seize my attention. And as time went by, we would sometimes say things like ‘I’ve been popping for you. Where’ve you been the whole day?’ and that’s what I had believed to be some kind of a symbol of our friendship. Anyway, our usual practice was to wait for him to speak first, but in some occasions, like this time, I would take the initiative to break the silence first.

“Hey Brian, is everything all right with you?” I asked, hurrying over to him.

“Yes, everything is all right,” he answered after he let out an excessively long sigh of disappointment, which was his way of saying ‘hi’ – even on the usual practice occasions, he would do this to start a conversation – yet this time, it was something more than just saying ‘hi’. “It’s just, you know, he declined my proposal, again. He thinks Betty’s suggestion is much more feasible and effective than mine.” He hissed. “Anyway, I think I’m just a little bit disappointed with myself. It’s not the first time, after all. I wish I can do better.”

When it came to his proposals, which he would always ask for my opinion while crafting them, I would usually become speechless because, as a matter of fact, I could see his ideas weren’t really creative enough for him to stand out in this team, I had never told him that though.

And this was what I would usually say to comfort him, and I did say it that time as well, “Don’t worry. I believe one day he is going to find your proposal so impressive that he is going to kick Betty out of his room so that she couldn’t steal your brilliant idea, and you’ll be on top of the world.”

“Ha,” he uttered oddly, not actually smiling. “Oh, before I forget, I want to let you know that having the privilege of working with you for all these years has always been the highlight of my time here, my friend.” He kind of smirked and touched my shoulder twice.

“Thank you, Brian. I will be missing you.”

Then he frowned, his smirk switched into a pursed smile, “But why are you leaving? I have always wanted to ask you this. But are you not happy here?”

“Of course not. I’m not unhappy here. On the contrary, I do enjoy my time here, but I’m…” For a reason I didn’t know, I just didn’t feel like unearthing the truth that I was going to leave the country to him, probably because it would be too much trouble to explain; I wouldn’t have to explain anything to the newcomer though.

“Because you’re still mad at him, right?” he asked before I could make up an excuse.

I didn’t understand what he meant. “Mad at him?”

“Don’t tell me you don’t know who I am referring to. You’re still mad about what happened a year ago, aren’t you?”

“You mean Robert?”

“Yeah, I know you two haven’t been on good terms since that day. You never talked to him again. I can still remember, as if it’s yesterday, the angry look on your face on that morning when you finally managed to get aboard the plane and came back. You were so enraged that you reached out and nearly strangled him to death, yelling so loudly like a gorilla. I’ve never seen a man so angry. You literally lost your temper.”

Then a sudden flash of hazy memory drifted into my mind, reminding me of the reason why I couldn’t cast my vote last year, bringing up a burst of grief mingled with remorse and hatred inside me.

“I can never forgive him.”

“But hadn’t he apologized once?”

“Yes, yes, he had, but first of all, what he had said can hardly be construed as an apology, and secondly, I think he did it deliberately, and it’s unforgivable regardless of how many ‘I’m sorry’ he said. He wrongly deprived me of my right to vote just because I don’t share the same political ideology as him. It’s absurd.”

“Wasn’t the flight delayed because of inclement weather? I mean, no one could have seen the storm coming.”

He was obtuse. This wasn’t the first time we had this conversation, but he could never see from my point of view. So I went silent for a minute that seemed ages, then gave a perplexing sigh of indignation, feeling bothered, and scratched my head, as if it was the biggest irritation of all. I didn’t want to talk about it any more even though I was certain Robert had deliberately bought me the flight ticket of a flight that would be delayed, and I just wanted to have that irksome conversation terminated quickly because, considering him as a fervent supporter of the idea of the-best-policy-is-to-stay-neutral, I knew he would never understand my fury.

“I don’t want to talk about this any more, at least not today. It’s painful. Let’s just get to work.”

With my lips pouted, I then stormed away squarely toward the ‘barn’, the pantry, which appeared stylish with an elegant sliding barn yellowish door, built right opposite to the manager’s room, and I hauled open it, dragging it violently until it hit the wall, and entered. It was about the size of the ‘grassfield’, and it was the only place here where I could compose and seclude myself for a quick moment of tranquil meditation. Every time after picking a quarrel with someone, mostly Betty, I would go in there for some quiet moments to recover.

The rest of the day was just like another day in the office and was pretty uneventful as I just packed up my things and causally instructed Aaron as to what he needed to do in the next few days. Time flew so fast I didn’t realize the hour hand had already reached six and the sky had already engulfed the world in complete darkness when my mind was occupied with pleasurable fantasies of leaving the country soon. And when I gathered up my bag and stood up, ready to go, Betty, a mature-looking woman with a ponytail, who was well-known for never gossiping with anyone, approached me.

“We’ll all miss you, Ashton, keep in touch,” Betty said, gave me a quick, distant, friendly hug, and cackled with laughter.

She seemed really happy about me departing my post because that would mean one less contending competitor for her, and obviously, Aaron was not a threat looming to her, but that was not a problem I should concern myself with any more, so I glanced over her shoulder to the manager, who was seemingly hoping I would look at him, with a rueful grin on his big fat face, standing by the door of his room.

And he said, with an apparently forced smile, judging by the angle of how his lips parted, “Ashton, hope your new place is full of fun. Take care, and wishing you all the best.”

“Thank you, I’ll miss you guys so much,” I said, though I doubted if I would miss him, walked away and shot a sidelong glance at Brian, who was again smirking and standing by his swivel chair, and he ‘popped’ me furtively, with his back facing Betty, to come over.

So I went to him, leaned in as he requested, and he heaved out a sigh, then whispered, “Nine O’clock. Tonight. King’s Bar. I have something to tell you. Be on time.”

“Tonight?” I grimaced and kept my voice as inaudible to others as possible like we were conferring about a dirty little secret between us, this was our usual way of talking when someone else was watching.

“What? You are not free tonight?”

“Yeah, my sister has been saying she will throw away all my stuffs if I don’t tidy up the room. So…”

“Well then. What about tomorrow night? Look, what I have to tell you is important. So tomorrow night, same time, same place, okay?”

“Sure, of course.”

And I resumed heading to the elevator after he nodded. Back then, it never occurred to me that what he had to say would be something as far-fetching as something like him getting married in a few days because he had never even hinted he was seeing someone, and I had completely no clue that the bar he had chosen would eventually become my greatest nightmare. But I guess even if I knew in advance what was going to happen, there would be nothing I could do to change anything. Whatever can happen will happen.

Then as I jabbed down the elevator button, “Ashton,” Oli said, with a soft, alluring purr that compelled me to suck in a gulp of air in order to calm myself down. “Aren’t you going to say goodbye?”

Her charismatic voice was tinged with the perfect sum of gloominess and happiness, not too little, not too much, just enough to enthrall me, and was so magnetic and captivating that it literally paralyzed me. With my cheeks blushing crimson, I just couldn’t bear to turn around and look at her no matter how much I desired.

“Yes, I was about to—”

With every ounce of courage I can summon, I finally looked back at her, but when I tried to direct my eyes at the reception desk, I saw something that was too close to be seen clearly jumping right into my arms. Startlingly, I realized it was an enthusiastic goodbye hug from her.

“I’ll miss you. Call me when you are free,” she whispered in my ears seductively and wiggled out of my arms tantalizingly like a wet salmon, her hair soft and fragrant, but had an oddly salty smell, which fortified my impression that she was some kind of a fish.

When she was in my arms, my heart skipped a beat and I had actually forgotten to breathe. I wasn’t even aware of her wiggling away until my brain rebuked me for not respiring afterward, so I had to catch up with huge big gasps. “I’ll miss you, too,” I said with the softest voice I could emit, and I felt like I was falling in love at that moment.

Then she smiled when the elevator bell chimed and the floor vibrated slightly, signaling the arrival of the elevator.

“Goodbye, Ashton,” she said sweetly.

After some difficult vacillation between impressing her with a goodbye kiss and leaving just like that, I strode into the elevator and had my eyes riveted on her until the elevator door slid shut. “Goodbye.”

I wasn’t brave enough, but at least, I knew the feeling of the hug would remain imprinted in my mind and wouldn’t fade away for quite a long time, and to me, that was more than enough, I tried to convince myself.

The elevator bell dinged sharply again, which woke me up from a light trance induced by my erotic fantasy, as it stopped descending on the ground floor. The trip back home usually took longer than expected due to the nasty evening rush hour, which was the cause of a long line of vehicles getting stuck behind trucks and vans that clogged up the roads in this teeming city, and being single-track roads, there was no way to go around the traffic jam or to avoid the annoying din of unrelenting car horns.

Everything seemed outright ordinary on that day, except one thing very unusual I noticed as the bus jerked forward to a stop. A batch of naked freedom-pursuers was dancing in the middle of the road, singing the national anthem, apathetically and unnecessarily magnifying the impact of the congestion like they didn’t have anything better to concern themselves with, like the anthem could not be played at somewhere else more appropriate, but that wasn’t the most unthinkable thing I’d seen on that day, not even close, because very soon, dozens of irrational drivers, who were supposed to be the agitated victims, trapped in the jam actually began sounding horns in a way that it synchronized with their song while clapping appreciatively.

I thought I should have been furious about the stupidity I was witnessing, but instead I felt like dumbfounded, and I giggled. Perhaps I was the only fool who wanted them to go. So, harboring a feeling of detached from others, I pondered maybe it’s really time for me to set off on a trip back home, real home, back to a place with an effective government.

It was almost about eight when I finally got home, and mysteriously, the radio was already on.

“Breaking news. We have just been told that a homeless man, who has spent most of his life drifting from one corner on the street to another, struggling honorably to become the most creative man in the world, has just given up on his dream and has decided to embark on a career in finance, claiming he has had enough and he has been suffering for too long. He even threw a punch at our photojournalist, causing a nosebleed, and –”

I switched it off at the second when I almost choked on a swelling rage aroused by the outrageousness of what I just heard, and it stiffened my resolve to leave the country as soon as possible. It’s preposterous for them to report this story like they were trying to blame a helpless man for giving up his unachievable dream just because he yearned for a decent place to live, which, apparently, wasn’t even worth reporting. Giving him a helping hand instead would be the right thing for them to do. Didn’t they have better stories to report? I didn’t know, but there was one thing I was certain of, I was going to leave tomorrow.

Looking back, I would say it was a reckless decision, but I know that even if I have been given a chance to relive that moment, I would still have made the same decision as long as I don’t know about what will happen next. I guess what I heard at that time had only acted as a trigger. And about the homeless man, Alvin, I think I have met him once or twice in the house a week after I have arrived. He was telling stories about himself to some kids when I was wandering around looking for something interesting to do. So I joined the kids. Of course, he didn’t know me and I didn’t know it was him at that time. But as his story unfolded, it occurred to me that he was actually that homeless man. And I still remember how he described it when the story came to a climax, the punching a photojournalist part, and this is what he has said, “Kids, I was blinded.” It wasn’t something very deep or meaningful, but the way he said ‘he was’ did strike me as very intriguing because that’s something I could easily relate to.

But anyway, I then needed to get my suitcase packed, so I started dumping and shoving things, like razor, toothpaste, towels, papers, into my stainless silver suitcase I put in a wardrobe in front of the dining table I had bought a long time ago. After that, I placed a phone call to book myself an airline ticket, a one-way ticket, to my home country despite that I didn’t even know what I could do to earn a living over there or where I could stay for a night, but I guessed I would be able to figure everything out once I arrived. The packing took longer than I thought. It wasn’t until eleven o’clock that I could squeeze out a second to peek at the ‘fe-fee’, and as it ‘fe-feed’ over to eleven, the doorbell rang, twice.

“Coming!” I yelled, walked over to open the door and saw a fashionable man with a greedy look, one hand securely holding my sister, who was apparently drunk, her forehead and cheeks red, but was still half conscious, with his arm round her neck, the other hand clenching a key with a leather key holder that had my sister’s name etched on it.

His greedy look then instantly turned into a shocked expression like he wasn’t expecting to see someone behind the door, and by then it occurred to me that it was my sister who rang the doorbell. It wasn’t the first time she had been brought back by a complete stranger, and I’d seriously warned her about how dangerous it was for so many times that I couldn’t remember. But she just wouldn’t listen.

“I will take her from here. Thank you for escorting her back,” I said calmly, grabbed the key in his hand dexterously as if robbing him, pulled her into my arms and away from his hand, took a big step back while dragging her and slammed the door shut, all in one single fluid motion, before he was able to react.

“I thought you won’t be back until later. Today is Friday, isn’t it?” I said to her.

“Put me down!!” she piped, with a repulsive odor of alcohol puffing out from her short breaths, wrenched herself free of my grip, elbowed me away weakly and reeled her way in, stumbling and almost falling, and I had to grasp her arm to assist her to get to her bed, though the fusion of smell of alcohol and cigarettes on her was so nauseating that I had to cover my nose in order to be able to proceed.

“Leave me… alone!” she roared suddenly, flailing her arms wide to push me away, then flailed widely again as she sought to maintain balance as I lost my grip on her arm, but she still fell down flat on her rear, right in front of the bunk bed and next to the dining table, luckily it wasn’t too bad a fall.

“How many times have you been drunk this week!?” I whimpered.

“N… O…” She struggled to get up, but to no avail, as she could barely move with her weak-as-grasses feet. It was a rather ridiculous but hilarious scene to see her getting up and down continuously, and I chuckled as she eventually gave up on it and passed out, drunk, but then my chuckle gradually fizzled out in silence when I started to worry about her. And I imagined what would’ve happened if I wasn’t home at that time.

CHAPTER THREE

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The next morning was windy and peacefully soundless with only nourishing chirping of birds that sounded like a violin serenade reverberating across the azure sky, where thin streaks of cloud spread and slowly unfurled into a frizzy row of transparent vapor.

Grabbed the U-shape handle of my silver suitcase in my hand, I was fully ready to set off when my sister began to snore louder than a pig while asleep, just like what she would always do on a typical Saturday morning, but still, I had to leave. Every time when a vague thought of staying sneaked up into my mind, it would vanish into the black void of space right away as my resolute to leave was so unswerving that it didn’t allow me to give in to anything. I just couldn’t stand the people in this place, they were all so hypocritical, so short-sighted, so dull-witted, and so unsympathetic. And I left, without even leaving a trace of primordial regret, nor a notice.

That said, I remember I had cold feet about it a couple of times the night before when I was hauling her up to her bed and I decided to sleep on it. Leaving a place where I had spent all my life in wasn’t as easy as resigning from a position after all, and that unswerving resolute to leave hadn’t come to me until I woke up that morning. And this is what Kaylen has asked me when we were on a road trip nearly a month ago to a pond filled with some sort of golden liquid crystals, he asked, “Have you taken her into account when you were thinking about it?” I think I didn’t give a straight answer to him and just equivocated to get away with it. But yeah, back then, I didn’t really care much for many others besides myself.

So, lugging my suitcase behind on an unoccupied sidewalk, I sauntered to the usual bus stop and waited for the airport express bus, which approached in less than ten minutes. The bumpy ride to the grand airport erected on an outlying island was kind of poignantly nostalgic as I knew there wouldn’t be any red double-deckers in Felomeim, where, as far as I knew, cabs was the main public transport.

And as soon as I got off the bus when it came to a stop in front of the giant, see-through main gate of the terminal, I headed to the check-in counter to get the boarding ticket, then went to the departure level, lined up, put my carry-on luggage through the x-ray machine and slithered through the narrow metal detector. According to the information printed on the colorful boarding pass, there wasn’t much time left before the scheduled boarding time, so I scurried for it. Upon my arrival at the boarding gate, the final boarding announcement could be heard calling my name, and just my name, and, after showing the gate agent my pass, I hurried aboard the plane and was then urged into one of the five available seats on the first row.

Knowing it would be a tedious three-hour flight, I drifted off to sleep shortly after the breathtaking takeoff, making up for last night, and the next thing I knew was the rapid deceleration on the runway, which roused most of, if not all the passengers.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve arrived at the Felomeim International Airport. The door will be opened once the plane came to a complete standstill. Until then, please remain seated with your seat belt fastened.”

It was an announcement made by the captain, his accent made him sound like he was slurring every words together, like one whole sentence was one single word, probably because he omitted the little pauses between words. As the aircraft came to rest and the door creaked open, I, taking advantage of sitting at the first row, darted to the exit and waltzed through the grim jet bridge with a developing glee kindled by my illusory enthusiasm of feeling like going back home for the first time and marching into a new chapter of my life, and thanks to that, I wasn’t even perturbed even though I still hadn’t worked out where I was going to stay for the night when I queued up for the immigration clearance for foreigners, where only three people, including me, were lining up, and I proceeded forward when the officer at the counter beckoned at me.

“Hi, I am –” I said to the clearance officer, who had an impish poker face, behind a counter that looked like the reception desk at the office, as I had my papers ready in my hand.

“Documents,” he said in a solemn tone with a weird intonation that resembled the aircraft pilot’s.

“Of course.” I handed my documents to him, with both hands, sincerely.

After taking a brief look at my passport, he took out a document holder from somewhere and began reading aloud, “Now, repeat after me. I hereby swear, in my name and that of all my descendants,” he paused when he realized I wasn’t speaking. “Repeat AFTER ME. Are you deaf?”

He raised his voice menacingly, but his accent made it sound extremely amusing, and I had to hid my impulse to roar with laughter behind an awkwardly freakish giggle, which prevented me from speaking normally.

“I’ll have to arrest you if you keep on laughing and don’t start to comply,” he threatened in a low voice, his eyes protruding beneath his monolids, so I bet he meant it.

And although I found it very ludicrous, “I’m… I’m sorry. I hereby swear, in my name and that of all my descendants,” I acquiesced to his demand and pushed myself to repeat his words, yet the hardest part was not to laugh between breaths.

He resumed, “that I will never act to undermine the sovereignty of this state, and I will never try, aid, assist, abet, or encourage someone from this state to do so,” then he stared at me, prompting me to speak.

“That I will never act to undermine the sovereignty of this state, and I will never try, aid, assist, abet, or encourage someone from this state to do so,” I recited.

“Now sign.” He airily tossed the document holder onto the desk, and this stirred up my suspicion as I never knew a document had to be signed before entering and had never expected one.

Scrupulously, I scanned through the A4-sized document with a government watermark on it, which was written in a language I couldn’t comprehend, probably their mother tongue. It was a three-page document with no blank space on every page, even the headers and footers were used, and I flipped through it quickly, barely reading.

“What is this? I can’t read this. Do you have an English version?” I asked, flipping through it back and forth.

But there wasn’t a reply. He remained silent. And as the silence went on for so long that I had to direct a gaze of wonderment on him, he slowly placed the pen he had been holding in his hand the whole time on the desk, then interlocked all his fingers and gawked at me, with a snigger on his solemn-looking face. And we spent the next two minutes looking at each other purposefully in disbelief. He never talked. But that suffocating two minutes were long enough for me to understand there wasn’t an English version and there was no chance I would be allowed into the country if I refused to sign.

How was I supposed to put my name on a document that I couldn’t even read? I didn’t know, but I eventually signed it after a short vacillation in a pensive mood and put it back onto the desk. I knew it was foolish not to refuse it, but I couldn’t bear the risk of having no access to the country and being sent back by the authorities.

He seemed glad when the document holder reached the desk. “You’re good to go,” he said.

“Thank you.”

And after being further pestered by another stony-faced officer asking me the purpose of my visit


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right behind the clearance point, I strolled through a wide corridor carpeted in a gloomy shade of gray to the arrival hall, which looked much more shabby than I’d imagined, with already worn off paint and dull-brownish iron stains everywhere. It did give me a bad first impression on this place, but at that time I hadn’t really cared much about what kind of a condition the airport was in, probably because my mind was still filled with that false enthusiasm that made everything look a lot better in my eyes than it actually was. Anyway, the first thing I had done then was to find a map or someone to tell me where the nearest hotel was, so I headed to the information center located in the middle of the hall, which, I remember, was the first thing I saw, and maybe the only thing as well.

“Hey mister, can you please tell me where the nearest hotel is?” I asked the staff, wearing a black suit with an eye-catching but old-fashioned red tie that looked incongruous with the blue shirt he wore underneath, sitting leisurely on a short, hard bench situated behind a foldable plastic desk.

Reluctantly, the man withered me with a swift glance, jumped to his feet, turned to me and said in a firm tone, using signs and gestures to make himself understood, the ends of his tie dangling, “No, no, no.”

I bet he wasn’t answering my question, so I asked again in a different way, “Ho – tel.”

“No, no hottow,” he repeated in an even firmer tone, and my hope ebbed away. “No.”

Gazing at his waving arms, the opportunity of overcoming this insurmountable language barrier looked bleak, thus, I left slightly agitatedly and headed to a small booth covered with a large white cloth that had come into view just now. It looked like a SIM retail dealer selling SIM cards, judging by a banner holding up by a petite lady behind the booth saying “Telecoms”, though I was pretty sure the banner wasn’t up in the air when I first looked around and that’s why I said the information center was the only thing there.

“Good afternoon, madam, do you speak English?” I questioned.

“Good afternoon, sir. Can I help you with anything?” she replied deferentially with her naturally pouted lips parting into an enchanting smile, her black and smooth long hairs finding a way to curl behind her ears, her voice not as sexy as Oli’s but was sweet in her own way, but the most attractive thing on her had to be the watch, which looked like a red version of ‘fe-fee’, on her right wrist, and I bet she always smiled at customers.

“Perfect. I need a top-up card for my mobile phone.”

“For prepaid top-up cards, we only sell a $100 card that is valid for a year.” She put down the banner on the ground, hauled open a drawer under the booth, rummaged about every corner of the drawer before successfully fishing out a credit-card-size package and gave it to me.

“Great, thank you, just exactly what I need.” I gladly received the package, pulled out my wallet from my trousers pocket, removed a hundred dollar banknote and handed it to her when there was a short announcement in the background, probably broadcast of weather information, made in their language.

“Thanks,” she smiled, bent down to grab the poles of the banner and held it up again.

“By the way, do you know where I can buy a radio? I forgot to bring mine.”

“A radio!? The last time I saw a radio was about ten years ago.”

“Never mind.”

Then, promptly and a bit clumsily, I removed the original SIM card from my phone out, nearly dropped it onto the ground but managed to catch it midair, unwrapped the package and inserted the new one, and as it detected a SIM service, I got a prompt on my phone and tapped yes for confirmation. It was clear that the connection had been established when a 6GS symbol revealed itself on the top right corner of the screen.

So I tapped the screen to launch an app that was supposed to show me the locations of all the nearest hotels, but it failed to initialize properly as a message saying “Database connection failed” popped up. I tried again twice, but to no avail, the same message just kept popping up, and therefore, I hazarded a guess that the culprit was the stability of the connection, which was not as reliable as it seemed to be, especially in an indoor environment.

In order to test out my theory, I headed for the exit, walked out through an automatic door expecting nothing more than some fresh air, but then choked abruptly and hectically shielded my mouth and eyes with my hands at once when I found out the entire area around was actually engulfed in mist-like smoke and felt a never-before-experienced irritative, stinging sensation in my eyes, which was beyond doubt – judging by the tiny particles that were continuously grazing my eyes – a manifestation of the catastrophic consequence of decades of unbridled air contamination, though the insane amount of smoke had for a second made me wonder if it was the airport on fire or not.

And so, I had my eyes shut for about a whole minute, praying the air quality in other parts of the country would be finer, until it gradually got used to the poor environment. Then at the moment when I thought it was okay to open my eyes, a petrifying shriek from somewhere to my left caught my full attention.

Instinctively, I looked to that direction and saw a bolting man, with a headband adorned with a feather of a white pigeon fastened to his forehead, being chased by two fierce-looking police officers with batons in their hands. And unfortunately, I found myself standing in their way.

“走開呀!” (Out of my way!) the man yelled despairingly, then motioned me to get out of his way frantically and unwisely slowed down at the moment he set eyes on me with a delicate gaze that zapped into me then through me, as if he knew me, I was certain it was the first time I saw him though.

Although I didn’t understand a word he said, he did transcend the language barrier with his nimble hand movements, and I sidestepped back to the entrance of the airport in order to stay away from a collision with him, inadvertently triggering the automatic door.

Seizing the chance, the police officers caught up, shoved him down to the ground violently by punching him from behind and began kicking, pummeling and battering him mercilessly with their steel-made batons – mostly going for his already blood-stained forehead – while chortling wickedly. The hysterical wail of the defenseless man, who was futilely attempting to protect himself by hugging his bleeding head and squeezing his bruised inner thighs together, was so heart-wrenching that it made me feel like I could feel the pain being inflicted on him. It was so brutal I had to swivel my eyes away unwittingly so as to resume normal respiration when his groan dwindled into the sound of a breathless murmur, which presaged his death. It all happened in a flash of time, and that’s why I was just standing and watching for some ten seconds. And by the time I was able to react, I looked around for help, though I realized it was a mistake in no time.

The pedestrians, all had a heavy dusk mask clamped on, were acting like they hadn’t even registered the man’s presence; everyone just walked straight past him without even casting a glance at him. So I despised them all. I despised them all for turning a blind eye to such an atrocity. And I thought to myself, if no one would help him, I will. So I stepped forward uncompromisingly, my head shot up and my mouth parting. But as I was about to say something, I realized I was unable to produce a voice regardless of how much I wanted. It wasn’t like I was suddenly a mute, but it was my dramatically convulsing throat that prohibited me from speaking.

The quivering then began intensifying to a point that I had to clear my throat twice in a row to suppress it. But even so, even the quivering in my throat did mitigate, I couldn’t possibly stop the trembling from spreading down to my fingers and to my toes and to every part of my body. And it occurred to me that I had been frightened the whole time but I just didn’t realize. So I scolded myself, scolded myself for my untimely timidness – I could somehow understand why the people all turned a blind eye by then, maybe because the same thing that made them do so had permeated my mind too.

Then, as an irresistibly growing compulsion aroused by the grunt of the man stimulated me to at least give the two evil-doers a glare of contempt, one of them noticed it, glowered back at me with a pair of piercing black eyes, frowned, and strode toward me, flailing his arms quickly, and I had to admit he looked ferocious as I shivered more at each step he took.

And when he was close enough, he placed his baton on my shoulder intimidatingly, injecting terror into me by further unnerving me, as if he was goading me to punch him in his ugly face, “You got a problem with me!?” he then barked.

We were so close that I could feel his harsh exhalation, which was very stomach-churning, on my face. And he glared into my eyes snobbishly like he could do whatever he wanted, like murdering and beating me to death, without having to worry about the ramifications. And I reflexively craned backward to evade his piercing eyes and gulped nervously when my impulse to punch him petered away, tension was high though.

“Walk away, and you’ll be fine,” the officer whispered and tried to press me down with the baton on my shoulder, so I had to take a step backward to find my balance.

After emitting a coarse breath sound, he turned around, walked away and unleashed a kick, aiming precisely at the forehead of the suffering man, who had already passed out, probably ending his life with this one sharp blow, when he was within reach. And that’s the moment I knew I had to choose a side. Either I would simply walk away, staying out of trouble, or I would march forward and reason with them, knowing they would kill me. And so, a tranquil contemplation ensued.

But by the time my pondering ended, the two officers had already left, with the dead body together, and I swiftly snapped my head around because I wanted to tell them what they had done were completely wrong, at least it was morally unjustifiable, at least the last kick was unnecessary, at least they could’ve just handcuffed him and bustled him down to the police station, at least…, but then I suddenly realized one thing that gave me a terrible shock at that moment.

I didn’t even know what kind of a sinful crime the headband man had committed before jumping to the conclusion that they could’ve just handcuffed him. I didn’t know, but that’s the moment I first acknowledged the power of terror, and that’s the moment I realized my trembling had actually begun even before I took that step forward, and that’s the moment I found myself no different from those cold-blooded passers-by, and that’s the moment someone patted my shoulder and jolted me out of my dismaying panic. I believed I would’ve sunk into a more dreadful mood – for this matter I have made her a two-layered chocolate birthday cake a few days later after meeting her at the pond side on that same road trip with Kaylen, who had deliberately kept me from knowing that Kriss would be with us on that day just because he thought it’s funny, though I have never regretted telling her about my dreadful mood back then – if not for her.

“Hey, are you all right?” said she, with a coarse tone.

“Sis!?” I said without thinking, glimpsed over my shoulder at once and saw the SIM card dealer’s staff. “Sorry, I thought…”

“Oh, I’m sorry, it’s not your sis. But I just want to let you know you should have just walked away earlier. Never ever think about stopping them. There’s no stopping them alone,” she warned me kind of angrily like I was a child behaving badly, but her voice was wobbling dangerously.

I didn’t know what to say to her back then, maybe still in shock. So I had simply expressed my gratitude to her and showed her a helpless look. Then she walked off in a way I couldn’t tell if she was stomping, maybe half-stomping, when I noticed there was a blood-stained feather of a white pigeon landing right in front of my feet.

As I happened to see a puddle of blood on the edge of the pavement, I stomped on it resentfully.

CHAPTER FOUR

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After taking another few minutes to gather my mind, I shook my head and headed back into the arrival hall as I decided to approach the staff again.

“Hi, I’m wondering if you know why this message kept popping up every time when I tried to launch this app?” I asked and showed her the message.

“Wait, let me see,” she said with her sweet voice back and took my phone. “Oh, I’m sorry to tell you this, but this app is banned.”

“Banned?”

“Yes, as required by law, this kind of apps that will potentially disseminate confidential information of the country are banned, and, as a personal advice, I suggest you uninstall it now, before they find out you have it installed on your phone. You won’t be fond of what they will do to you when they discover it.” And she gave me back my phone.

I felt a little bit weird as what she had implied was kind of perplexing, though not as ludicrous as what I had encountered before. And at that time, I just wasn’t able to see the stupidity of acquiescently deleting the app just because the government wouldn’t like me to have it installed on my phone – perhaps I had already got used to this new culture I was drenched in back then, I don’t know. But anyway, I then quickly got my phone back and uninstalled it.

“Why did they do such a horrible thing to him?” I asked on a whim, then realized it might be an improper question to ask, and so stared at her to see how she react.

“Oh, the man with a headband?” she said. “He is one of – them. The freedom-pursuers. Have you ever heard of a place called Port Aroma, the state with no government?”

Out of startlement, I hesitated for a moment, wondering if it’s all right to reveal my identity, and finally decided it’s unnecessary to lie to her. “Well, yes. I’m actually quite familiar with that place.”

With an anxious visage emerging, she gave me a suspicious look and mumbled, “You’re from the Port?”

“Well, yes—”

“Are you one of them?” she interrupted.

“No, of course not. Honestly, I am not a fan of them, not at all. It’s now that they are in control of everything in the Port, leaving is the only option left for those who don’t support them. And that’s why I have traveled so far just to get here, a country with a strong government, isn’t it?”

“Pretty strong when it comes down to hunting down dissidents,” she said ironically, her gaze of suspicion tapering off. “But, yeah, the government here hates them, purely because they like to voice out their thoughts, which is, I guess, has been declared illegal. But the situation has only deteriorated after the news of the dissolution of government in the Port spread out widely here. Many people took it to the streets and chanted, demanding election reforms, and most of them ended up being rounded up and imprisoned while some of them got killed in a way similar to what you’ve just witnessed.”

“Great, that explains everything, though I think they have gone too far by beating him to death.” As my voice faded, her face turned pale in a second, and she frenziedly motioned me to stop speaking, as though she had had enough of what I was saying.

And I whispered when she stopped making all those weird gestures after a few seconds, “Did I say something wrong?”

She didn’t say a word and had her watery eyes narrowed in consternation as she kept staring at the floor with a somber look, which appeared to be portending something as bad as the atrocity I had just seen, and just by the thought of it, there was a drastic surge of adrenaline that paralyzed me happening in my body when an awkward ambiance of silence that wasn’t there before was springing up.

Whiffs of nervousness then inundated the atmosphere, and as huge beads of perspiration dribbled across my forehead down to my eyebrows, she finally looked up at me, puffed out a short breath as if she had been holding her breath the whole time and shattered the intolerable silence, “They are everywhere. You have to be very careful the next time you talk about them or the government, especially in such a disapproving way.”

“Disapproving!?”

“Yes, you said they have gone too far.”

“Is it illegal to say that? And what do you mean they’re everywhere?”

“It’s not illegal, but as I’ve told you, you won’t be fond of what they will do to you if they overhear it. Now turn around,” she said, leaned close to me and whispered in my ears, as I turned around. “There. See the man surrounded by several ranks of armed guards stepping out of the main entrance? The man wearing an old-fashioned red coat. He is the Chief of Police. Don’t you see? They’re everywhere.”

I turned to face her again. “But I haven’t done anything wrong, plus I’m not a freedom-pursuer, nor am I a citizen of this country.”

“In this place, you don’t have to be starting a revolution to be imprisoned,” she threatened in her coarse tone of voice, emphasizing the last word, and that’s when I first realized she didn’t have that slurring accent when she spoke.

And she seemed to be very aware of how things worked in this place, thus I surmised, “You must be one of them.”

Out of the blue, “OH! What!? NO! I’m not! What?” she raged and scowled at me sullenly.

“Why—”

“Go away! I don’t want to see your face! Go away from me, you idiot!” she said, as two cascades of tears rolled off of her eyes.

I was utterly bewildered about why she was suddenly so upset and was at a loss for words. It was apparent she had misunderstood something I had just said but I was clueless about what it was. Of course, now that I have already asked her why she was suddenly so angry with me at that time, I know that she was just pretending to be furious. She just wanted me to walk out of the arrival hall so that Kaylen could find me and pick me up. And when she was explaining this to me, she sounded like it’s just some trivial matters that she could barely remember. But to me, it’s something I’d never forget.

“Get out of my sight! Now!” she then barked firmly.

And it dawned on me it was better to give her space to cool off, so I tottered away and headed for the exit clumsily. Then as I planted my foot on the pavement outside, I shielded my face again, then moved to the edge of the street – carefully stepped around that puddle of blood – and looked for a cab, which was supposed to have a sharp yellow color for easy recognition, and waved at the cabs among a group of vehicles as they swooped by loudly. I remember half of them were cabs, but none pulled over no matter how hard I flailed my arms. I bet they ignored me on purpose. People there really had a tendency to disregard everything.

After five further minutes of incessant waving, I grew so frustrated that I had to curb my urge of rushing out to the road to stop a cab driven by a man wearing sunglasses by striking the back of my head. Just a moment before I was about to give up, a seven-passenger, two-door silver vehicle that appeared to be some sort of an extravagant limousine came to a stop right in front of me, and then the man sitting behind the wheel waved at me and said, with the window lowered all the way down, “Hey, need a taxi?”

It looked very much like a sophisticated swindle when every official cabs were paying no heed to you but an unknown car approached, maybe he wanted to lure me into his vehicle and rob me, but after weighting up the situation, knowing there was almost no access to the internet and the only person who spoke English in this place wouldn’t want to talk to me again, I decided to take the risk and answered, “I need to go to a hotel.”

“Which hotel? There are hundreds, if not thousands, in this city!” the driver exclaimed, sticking his head out the window with a trustworthy, subtly amiable beam, and I thought he must be someone’s good father.

“I don’t know. I just need a place to stay for the night,” I said, sizing him up as one of those criminals I occasionally heard about from the radio. “But do you have a taxi license?”

Tall and a bit rotund, with squinty, beady black eyes, glinting with honesty, and a flat nose, somehow he had already gained my trust with his signature smiley face when I first laid eyes on him. And I guessed I just asked it to make myself look smarter.

“A license!? It’s the last thing I would like to have. You honestly think a licensed cab would stop by just because you tried to flag it down? You must be kidding me.”

What he was trying to say seemed strange, yet, judging from what I had seen in this country so far, I bet he was being honest with me. So, found myself at a loss for words again, I rolled my eyes and simply nodded.

“Hop in,” the driver said and drew his head back, and I gladly hopped into the back seat, which had a spongy leather car seat, with my suitcase. “So, Golden Hotel? What do you think?”

“What do you think?” I said, my eyes automatically fixated upon a cumbersome-looking photo pendant that was reminiscent of some kind of an ancient metallic pocket watch that had a long attached chain, dangling from the rear view mirror, with the clean metal flip cover open, yet the dangling motion, which absorbed my gaze at first, prevented me from taking a glimpse at what’s inside clearly.

“It’s good, probably the best in this region. A superb place to unwind. You’ll love it,” he said, as he put his foot hard on the pedal, and the car started off with an amateur-like lurch.

“Great,” I said, as a sudden burst of curiosity prompted me to dig deep into the licensed drivers’ behavior. “Can I ask you a question please?”

“You just did!”

“Why did they ignore me? Do I look like a beggar or something?” I leaned in until I was in between the two front seats and asked.

“Wrong guess. It isn’t your fault, my friend. They just don’t want to pick up random customers who are trying to flag them down in the streets. Here’s the point. The licensed cab drivers’ wages are fixed. They earn the same amount of money wages regardless of how many customers they have picked up in that month, they just don’t have a decent motivational incentive to work, but, to me it’s actually a good thing. Their lack of motive gives people like me a chance to earn a living,” he said, resting his right elbow on the lowered window, brisk wind ruffling his trimmed brownish hair.

“But if their wages are fixed, who—”

“They’re hired by the government, and yes, the policy of fixed wages doesn’t make any sense, but the government’s reluctance to admit their own fault is hampering it from being abolished.”

Then I felt that how things worked in this place was decidedly quirky, first the document I was compelled to sign, then the staff, who couldn’t speak English, at the information counter, then the app, the headband man, the emotional young woman, and the licensed cabs now. Everything was just vastly distinct from what I’d imagined. But I thought I would just have to get used to it if I was going to stay here for a long period. After all, I knew no one would be coming after me since I wasn’t a freedom-purser, and more essentially, there wouldn’t be hypocritical and inconsiderate people singing and dancing in the middle of the road during rush hour or any farcical news, and that’s more than enough for me.

As my pondering came to an end, the particular word he had used floated up in my mind, and I stared at him through the rear view mirror, drawing my left brow down, and drawled, as I wondered if it was legal to say that, “Reluctance? Are you criticizing?”

From the mirror, I could see him smiling vividly, and he said after quite a few minutes – this few minutes were hard for me as the hushed environment was kind of awkward and I wouldn’t be too surprised if he then pulled out a gun from nowhere and blew my head off, “You’re one of them? Now they recruit foreigners as well?”

Having a desperate feeling of not wanting to be misunderstood again, “No, I’m not. Trust me. It’s just that I have witnessed what they’d do to people who criticize them,” I said, as the car turned right into a boulevard, which ran over sweeping meanders.

He stayed silent, yet I could see his sharp eyes roving furtively over me in the mirror, and I continued, “Trust me. I’m not what you think I am.”

“Out of my car,” he said in a horribly flat tone that didn’t quite match his smiley face and stopped the car abruptly when blaring police sirens could be heard. “Out!”

Realizing the high-pitched sirens had just ruined my only chance to prove myself, I fought against my willingness to explain and left the car hastily as a lethal car chase was the last thing I would like to get involved. At the second I sealed the car door, he immediately drove off like he stole it, with three police cars trailing along behind – I had actually doubted if it was a stolen car or not – and I truly hoped he would somehow manage to elude the police even the whole thing happened like it was me who called in the police. But then a mild choke brought me back to reality, and I coughed when a sour taste in my mouth made me retch. Without a doubt, the cause was the slightly better air quality that contributed to a thin layer of seemingly poisonous murk.

Pressing my nose into the palm of my hand, I scampered along the brick paved street, where there was a prominent fountain that looked dazzling but somewhat unattractive at the far end, while keeping an eye out for the hotel he mentioned, however, instead of the hotel, the first thing that absorbed my attention was the hostile peeps I was bestowed with from the local people around, and as I walked, the people all sidestepped away from my path in a hysterical way like I was infected with some kind of a highly contagious disease and glared at me with simmering contempt shimmering in their eyeballs; some middle-aged men even spat on the street when they saw me.

I was terrified by their hints of menace that weren’t as intimidating as the police officer’s but was already good enough to strike terror into me. I felt like I was a limping lamb wrongly caged in a tiger zone occupied by tens of thousands ravenous lions, and it made my blood curdle. Fortunately, I then spotted a golden-framed and elaborately carved signboard saying “Golden Hotel” right across the street, so I hurried forward and descended down a flight of stairs that led to a dingy tunnel, which would probably take me to the opposite side of the street.

It only occurred to me that finding that hotel right across the street wasn’t something purely by luck after I have first met Kaylen in the house a day before I met Alvin – it’s also the same day when he asked me to go on that road trip to that pond with him on a particular afternoon some days later. And on that day, when at a point we chatted about our first encounter, he admitted he was well aware of the location of the hotel when he asked me to get out of his car back then, and that he was just too disinclined to tell me about it. Perhaps it’s because he had been sidetracked by the sirens and had forgotten to tell me about it, but who knows?

So, after I had hurried through the straight rocky tunnel that looked like an air-raid shelter, I then walked up the staircase toward the street outside, headed directly to the main entrance of the hotel right underneath the shining signboard, pushed open the bulky golden-painted door, went in with my head down to avoid revealing my identity as a foreigner, which I considered to be the cause of people’s detestation, and proceeded to the check-in counter that was set right under a lavish golden chandelier with oriental ornamentation on the corner of a spacious foyer, which was even larger than the excessively sizable office I had worked in, though I have to say that, no matter how showy the decoration there was, it’s never comparable to the warm and shiny house, which is constructed behind a pearly gate and is surrounded by walls made of precious jewels, I am in right now. I don’t mean to brag, but I am sure you will love this place more than that hotel when you get to catch a glimpse of it. Okay, maybe I am really bragging now.

Anyway, the whole foyer had so much things that I could feast my eyes on and was delicately brightened up by merely golden things such as golden plastic flowers, golden armed chairs, and various golden ornaments. The least golden thing I could spot was actually a sumptuous piece of fine gold lying in a gilt plastic box set in the middle of the foyer protected by two guards.

“Good afternoon, what can I do for you?” a courteous-looking young staff, wearing a plain black suit and a star-shaped golden watch, asked with an indifferent smile that reminded me of the woman in the elevator, standing behind a well-crafted mahogany desk with a sleek computer monitor atop it.

“Good afternoon, I need a single room with a shower and a radio, for – a week.” I wasn’t sure about how long I should stay in this hotel, but I thought a week was enough for me to find an affordable flat.

“Do you have a reservation?” he asked while busy jabbing a keyboard concealed under the surface


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of the desk.

“No, I don’t.”

“So, I’m glad to inform you that we do have a single room available on the third floor, room 301,” he said. “Could you please show me your passport?”

“Sure.” I fished out my travel documents and gave it to him, but as I reached out, I noticed there was a piece of crystal-like camera lens, which was barely discernible through a tiny hole on the edge of the desk. “Is that a camera?”

He seemed shocked when I questioned him, but he managed to keep a rein on his nervousness and replied calmly, “Yes, it’s used to compare your facial features with the ones we’ve in our system in order to ensure your identity.”

“The ones you’ve? But I have never taken a photo of myself in this country. Where did you obtain it? Where on earth did you acquire my facial features, and, in your system!? Seriously?” I prompted.

“Sir, I am sad to tell you this, but I think you have,” he retorted and rotated the monitor horizontally so that it faced me, showing me a clear picture of me signing the incomprehensible document at the clearance point.

Stupefied, “What!?” I bellowed out my astonishment. “I’ve never agreed to this. Never.”

“I think you have agreed, sir,” he grinned smugly and swiftly glided his pale finger along the monitor to drag away the picture of me, so that I could see an electronic version of the document I signed on it. “You agreed when you signed.”

“But –” I interrupted myself by uttering a reflective sigh of remorse, knowing my reckless rashness was starting to take its toll on me, and acquiesced with a dazed look. “Yes, I agreed. Yes, of course I have.”

“So, here is the key card for you.” He gave me a key card, his indifferent smile never faded throughout the whole procedure. “The elevator to the third floor is just right behind you.”

With no delay, I took the key card in a haste, turned around, strode toward the elevators that were splendidly embellished with some glimmering decorative tapes and waited as a deep sense of insecurity was rising within me. Who knew what the other terms stated on the document were? It could be something far worse than I could possibly imagine, and I blamed myself for being so impetuous by rubbing my face with both hands until I dispelled that dark perturbation when the arrival of the elevator startled me.

CHAPTER FIVE

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Room 301 was located on the left wing of the third floor, at the end of a wide, well-lit corridor adorned with brilliant canvases, depicting young people accompanied by indomitable tanks and neatly uniformed infantry gathering at the Door of Heavenly Peace waiting to ascend to the heaven, hanging on the walls, and there was another chandelier that was less attractive than the one in the foyer but was emanating a unique sense of elegance that worked as an aura-changer, though the existence of a yellow tiny trash bin under the hanging light was, in my opinion, too discordant with the surrounding classic ambiance.

Then I gained access into the room by tapping the key card onto a dot-like scanner installed on the golden door knob and twisted it. And when I shoved open the door, a delightful trace of some kind of a soothing perfume eagerly wafted out from the opening of the wooden door and filled my nostrils. I felt indulged and was only able to resume walking after a greedy inhaling that gratified me. The room was not as aesthetical as it was in the corridor, but it had everything I wanted, a mini-fridge, a clean and private toilet, a white coverlet made of some sort of fur on top of the bed, and most importantly, a box-like radio on a coffee table beside the bed.

Nonchalantly put aside my suitcase, I rushed to the round coffee table, held the radio flat in my palms for examinations and switched it on.

“現在是晚上六時–” (It’s now six o’clock at night.)

I bet that, of all the frequency bands, there must be an English channel, so I quickly tuned to another channel by rotating a protruding circular object atop of it, heard a language I didn’t know, then switched it again, heard the same language I didn’t know, then switched again for about ten more times before giving up on it, yet I left it on despite the fact that I couldn’t understand a word so there was noise in the room.

Then I took a nap for a blissful hour. And after I woke up, I wore myself out unpacking my suitcase until a gnawing emptiness in my stomach crept up to my mind, encouraging me to fill my hungry stomach with some food, so I then picked up the key card and my wallet on the table, airily slipped them into my trousers pocket, loosened my limbs and left the room with a vacillating gait, without even figuring out where to go. Then as I was strolling down the corridor, the blood-curdling glares of the people on the street suddenly careered through my mind as though they were prompting me to devise a feasible plan to avoid being recognized before setting out. And the plan I came up with in the next minute was simple. I would simply go to the counter and ask for a surgical mask, which could veil my face and block out the sticky air particles, killing two birds with one stone.

So, after traveling down to the foyer in the elevator, I approached a tall and slim staff greeting me right next to the elevator door and asked, “Hi, I’m wondering if you know where I can get a surgical mask?”

“A mas–k?” she replied slowly while fidgeting modestly and pushed the small golden frames of her horn-rimmed glasses rested on the tip of her plump nose.

Assuming she didn’t understand the word, I made a rectangle shape with my two index fingers and two thumbs before my nose.

“Oh, a mask. Wait please,” she said and walked away.

After about five minutes, she came back with a roll of double-sided adhesive tape in her hand and stretched her arm out toward me. I was speechless.

“Here, your mask,” she said.

I honestly didn’t understand what she was thinking when she thought she knew what I wanted. Perhaps she was recommending me to use a tape to seal my mouth in order to avoid being recognized, I highly doubted that though.

“This is not a mask,” I said meticulously. “No. Not this.”

“Not?” she said in a surprising tone.

“No, it isn’t a mask.” I made a subtle X-shape with my arms to reinforce my message and peered at the check-in counter, looking for the staff who assisted my check-in. “Anyway, thanks for your help.”

When I was about to leave, she suddenly burst out laughing and said, “A mask! Wait please here.” And she walked away again.

I had tried to grab her shoulder to stop her from going, but her movement was so swift that I couldn’t even touch her. And after another couple minutes, she came back with a joyful look, holding a pale blue pleated surgical mask in her hand, and said, “Mask, sir.”

“Great, thank you.” I raised my thumb, received the mask and instantly put it on.

“Pleasure,” she said.

I guessed she meant ‘my pleasure’ when she said ‘pleasure’. So I gave her a smile and headed off to the street when the gnawing emptiness made me feel like there was a void in my center.

Although I had no idea where I could find some food, I thought I’d just keep walking toward the magnificent fountain and try my luck, however, as I stepped out of the hotel and happened to set eyes on a familiar seven-passenger, two-door vehicle that was similar to the unlicensed cab I had flagged down earlier today, except that the body of it was pitch-black now and there was an extra coating on the windshield, I heard a car horn emitting from it. So I edged closer and squinted to try to see through the side window. Then the driver rolled down the window and made another two consecutive car horns.

“Hey, you there,” the driver, sticking his head out the window with the same subtly amiable smile he had, said, staring at me through a pair of dark sunglasses, which made him look dumb at night, yet I could see that he was wearing it to avoid being recognized because he was a fugitive now – what I didn’t know back then was he had always been the most wanted fugitive in the country.

“I remember you. It’s good to see you safe and sound. It suits you very well, your sunglasses,” I said.

“Get in. I have some bad news for you,” he said.

“What?” I said, confused, guessing what he was up to.

“Just get in. I need to tell you something.”

It seemed much more like a swindle this time, so I just glared at him.

After a brief moment, “Okay. I see you don’t want to be in the same car with a fugitive, but you have to listen to me. You have to leave this country as soon as possible. A mask won’t save you,” he said.

I torqued my face into a grimacing look. “What? What are you talking about?”

“Recently, there has been a resurgence of xenophobia among the people, and the government has a plan to close the border in roughly two days, three days max.” He shifted his focus swiftly and peeped into the rear view mirror with a distraught look, then looked back at me. “You don’t have much time left. You have to go back to where you came from before they execute the plan, or you’re never getting out of here,” he said solemnly.

Intuitively, “Are you crazy?” I asked, as my confusion was changing into a black cloud of doubt in my mind, and so I walked off with a flounce, considering him as a lunatic.

“Well, maybe I am crazy. But you have to listen to me. You know I’m telling the truth, don’t you?” he almost yelled.

In fact, a part of me, mostly my intuition part, was somehow persuading me to listen to him at that time, maybe he was right, maybe I had already gained so much insight into how things work in this place to a point that I could tell he was telling the truth without the need of conscious reasoning, but another part of me just wouldn’t allow me to believe in such implausible and bizarre nonsense.

And he continued, moving his car ahead slowly so that the distance between us didn’t grow too much and he didn’t need to speak too loud, “Look, I can help you. Just listen to me.”

“I don’t need any help.” I walked faster and kept my pace for a while despite my intuition before realizing it was impossible to outrun a car.

So I came to a stop and marched toward him. “What makes you think I will believe in a stranger, or just as what you have said, a fugitive like you?” I said, reflexively turning the corners of my mouth down like I was looking at Frankenstein’s monster. “I mean, yeah, I am well aware of the people’s xenophobic attitudes, and I have to admit they don’t look too friendly to me, but I honestly don’t think they will close the border. Locking down the whole country to stop foreigners from coming in because the people are xenophobic just don’t make any sense. And besides, who would show up like this and say something like that to a man he barely knows? Do you really think I will listen to you?”

“When does anything in this country make sense?” he retorted quickly like he knew in advance what I would say.

Scratched my eyebrows, then my head, I attempted to stammer out some words, but paused, not knowing what to say, maybe he was right and was just offering a helping hand to me. I didn’t know, but I thought it’s always better to be skeptical in times of doubt like this.

“Look, I have a plan to get people like you out of this country, and it will be carried out on that day when they officially announce the closure of the border. Take this.” He then snatched up a paper plane from somewhere and propelled it to me, and I caught the left wing of it midair. “Call me if you need me. It’s the only chance you have if you ever want to go back home after they seal the border. But before then, try to buy yourself an airplane ticket and leave the country in a legitimate approach.”

With multitude of doubts wandering in my mind, I unfolded the plane, saw a series of numbers on it and asked on a whim, assuming what he said was somehow true, “But why are you doing this? It doesn’t make any sense. Risking your life for others, for someone you hardly know?”

He didn’t say a word before pressing the accelerator pedal down, but a yellow headband that came into view at the last second in his palm explained everything. I bet he must be one of those foolish freedom-pursuers who was bamboozled into believing in some sort of a far-fetched story fabricated by conspiracy theorists and was naively trying to act like a hero, and that what he said would happen was by no means real. Thus, I simply put the piece of paper into my pocket and resumed moving along the quiet street until I walked past by a well-lit, three-story convenience store, which looked like a lighthouse in small scale from outside, and that’s it. I went in, grabbed a handful of potato chips, cup noodles and a newspaper that had a job section, paid and went straight back to the hotel, and I was glad that I hadn’t raised too much attention during this short trip in spite of his unwelcome appearance.

And after I returned to my room and gobbled up my dinner, I lay down sprawled on the bed, stretching my sore legs, pulled out my phone from somewhere and suddenly began missing home. I expected the first day to be the hardest, but I never knew the rising melancholy and ruminative loneliness would be so overwhelming that it nearly outweighed my resolution to start a new life here, and somewhere deep down, I knew it would have crushed me if not for the heart-warming noise of the radio. Then I thought that it would be easier if I could talk to someone I knew, so I phoned my sister, who was most likely hanging out with her party friends.

“Sorry, the number you have dialed is not available at this time.”

The automated message proved me concretely right. And, not knowing who to call next, I went through my phone’s contact list until Oli’s name appeared and magically seized my attention, reminding me of her fascinating voice and the intimate feeling of the hug, which galvanized me into action; I did skip Brian’s contact before finding Oli’s – it’s in alphabetical order – but perhaps I was still unsure about how I should explain this to him.

“Sorry, the number you have dialed is not available at this time.”

Although the call didn’t go through, I could feel my heart beating faster and faster when I was waiting, and that’s when I first admitted to myself that I had always been in love with her. The softness of her voice, the warmth of the goodbye hug, the tenderness of her fragile skin, she was perfect. So I dialed her number once more.

“Sorry, the number you have dialed is not available at this time.”

So I exhaled a sigh that weighed more than just an eddy of air and subdued an instinct to call her once more when the disappointment mingled with drowsy enchantment was taking over me, and I yawned and simply gave in to sleepiness.

The next morning I was roused by someone rhythmically knocking at the door and yelling, “Room service.”

After several fruitless attempts to get up, partially awake with my eyes blurred, I yelled back, “I don’t need any room service,” then laid my head back down on the pillow like gravity was solely acting on me.

However, before my mind could drift back into dreams, a resounding but firm knocking alarmed me again. I felt like being badgered to open the door, and it did stir up my desire to do that due to the level of annoyance. Swaying slightly, I dragged myself to my feet and staggered to the door as whoever outside kept on knocking more urgently, and right before I reached out for the door knob, the door was bashed open, and I had to step back quickly to avoid being hit.

“早晨,” (Good morning,) a young, brawny man with broad shoulders and short trimmed beards, wearing a black suit that had a dragon-shaped badge attached to it, said.

He didn’t seem like a staff working in the hotel, and I couldn’t understand a word he said, so I asked, “Who are you? Do you speak English?”

“Yes. I’m a police officer,” he answered in a robotic tone with that particular accent and had his eyes wandering all over me.

“So, are you going to tell me why you knocked and bashed open my door, Mr. Police? Because I am actually very sleepy and would be very glad to get back to my bed now at once.”

“What do you know about this guy?” he said, as he was bringing up a picture of a man to in front of my eyes from the left pocket on his suit.

The quality of the image was so poor that I wouldn’t have recognized him if not for the signature smile he had on his face, but there was no mistaking that amiable beam.

“Yes,” I replied honestly and coughed twice to buy myself some time to think, because I didn’t want to be dragged into any kind of troubles, especially when it’s related to a freedom-pursuer or a fugitive. “As far as I know, he is a… taxi driver.”

“How did you get to know him?”

“Well, I don’t really know much about him. He is a taxi driver, and yesterday, when I was flagging down a taxi, he stopped his car in front of me and told me to get in, and that’s it. That’s all I know.”

“You flagged down a taxi!?”

His surprised look scared me. “…Yes. So what’s wrong with this guy?”

“It’s none of your business. I have one more question for you. Do you know where he is at this moment?”

“No, how would I know?” I pretended to be as surprised as he just had been.

“Thank you, Mr. Ashton. That’s it for today,” he said, nodded and left.

I instinctively felt weird when he called out my name, which I had never told him, so naturally, but the sheer relief that crawled into my head when his silhouette that shadowed the light from the chandelier vanished prevailed over it, and I closed the door and locked it before walking back to my bed with a bad feeling that kept me wakeful, wondering maybe I should just go back home now. And I thought of my sister again, so undeterred by my last attempt, I phoned up her again.

“Sorry, the number you have dialed is not available at this time.”

And I giggled at myself for being simple-minded enough to actually think she would be sober at eleven o’clock on an after-party Sunday morning until a half-suppressed screech that resembled the wrongly murdered headband man’s reached my ears. I was alerted at first, but the thought of it was just another freedom-pursuers being beaten up somewhere on the street quickly eradicated my alertness, and knowing there was nothing I could help, my anxiety alleviated in spite of the pangs of conscience that were echoing under my skin and constantly giving me goosebumps. Sometimes we just had to learn to accept, I comforted myself.

And although the scenes of violence that came on the heels of the initial scream could not be seen from where I was, it was easily conceivable, as the screech had triggered the brutal images of the blood-stained pigeon feather automatically, regardless of my unwillingness. Then as the following prolonged grimaces emitted by the victim that enhanced my imagination reverberated across the sky, I tried to block off my ears by plugging my fingers in. It was futile. His distressing grimaces had already infiltrated and etched a deep scar on my soul. And there was nothing I could do to get rid of a virtual wound. So I started grazing my spine with my thumb, then my forehead with my index finger, my chest with my toe, and, at last, my ankle with my pinky with my insensitive legs crossed until a minor skin eruption took place.

I thought I had already developed a fully functional immune system against this kind of barbarism after the tragic demise of the headband man, but I was proved utterly wrong by my reddened ankle and the applauding crowd chanting a spell-like incantation, “Peel off his skin! Burn him alive! Monster!”

Then my heart thumped hard as a bitter resentment soared through me, making me feel like the hotel was on fire. And I could feel my timidness being eroded by the flame. I couldn’t believe there were people actually advocating this kind of nefarious acts. They were even more loathsome than those despicable uniformed officers, who were carrying out their violent duties. They were beyond doubt reprehensible, yet at least they got paid for they did. But what’s in it for the crowd? Nothing. They wholeheartedly supported it from the bottom of their hearts, and this was what really made me feel like I was falling apart. Was it really a good idea to live with these monsters for the years to come? Turning a blind eye to the wickedness of others due to interminable fear was understandable, but supporting it from the bottom of their hearts was a whole different story.

CHAPTER SIX

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By the time the shouting crowd finally dispersed, I had already packed my suitcase and randomly shoved everything I brought here into it as though a war was coming. And as I was about to haul off, the fire alarm suddenly pulsated in a dizzy-making buzz that filled the entire building, and a clamor ensued. Astounded by the possibility that the raging fire in my heart had actually materialized, I flinched while blaming myself – by now I surely know it’s Kaylen’s fault as Kriss has told me that it was him who had ordered one of his men to set fire to the hotel so as to create a window of opportunity for them to kill someone in the hotel without being noticed and force me to go with them, but every time when I bring up about how I have blamed myself for the fire he caused, he will always laugh his head off and I will usually challenge him to a ‘duel’ for laughing at me, which is actually a card game we invented in the house together to kill time – and was unsure about what was going on until there was an awfully acrid burning smell gradually drifting into my nostrils, denoting the source of the fire was at somewhere below us, presumably at the foyer, as smoke would only billow upward.

Then I rushed out and I found that one-third of the doors along the corridor had already been swung open. Attendees were bolting out of their rooms like a flock of scared deer, all going in the direction of the emergency exits pointed out by the overhead emergency evacuation system, which most of the light bulbs were not functioning properly. Amid the chaos, my first thought was to go with the flow, but I hesitated when I saw a neatly uniformed lady with horn-rimmed glasses yelling loudly and straining her arms to usher people to the opposite direction of where the deer were dashing to, only very few of them were lucky enough to have decided to pay attention to her though. So I had dithered for a second or two before I decided to walk to her when the pungent smolder began invading this level and diffusing rapidly.

“Hey, why are you telling people to go the other way? Which way should I go?” I asked urgently, clutching my nose and mouth with one hand and my suitcase with another, when I realized she was that slim staff who provided me the mask.

“No there. No there. There no go. Here go go. Don’t there. There no open. No door, no door. Block. There block. Can’t go. Here has ladder. Ladder,” she blathered and seemed at a loss to know what to say with one of her fingers extending toward the direction of where people were sprinting to.

“There? Should I go that way?” I questioned, pointing to the same direction, and as I inhaled normally, the pervasive and suffocating smoke guilefully sifted through my sensitive nose and clogged up my lungs, giving me an actual feeling of being in mortal peril.

“Yes, yes, block.”

Her saying yes was the last thing I could discern clearly before I had begun gasping and gagging wildly. It was like there was a flamethrower tank rolling around and wreaking havoc in my vulnerable respiratory system and was definitely worse than finishing one whole pack of cigarettes at the same time. So, as my instinct urged me to get out of this place, I let go of my redundant suitcase and began moving vaguely in the direction of the crowd with my eyes shut due to the desert-like dryness, but was then pulled back violently by someone after several steps when I felt an irresistible grip of a slender hand grabbing the back of my shoulder, her fingers sinking into my flesh; I almost fell down and had to crouch a little so as to regain balance and staggered for the first few steps.

“No, no, no that way,” she squawked in my ears in a way that it sounded like Aaron’s favorite song, leaning so close to me that my arm could feel the touch of her chest.

But at that time I had already been blinded by the deadly smoke that had mutated into tear gas, which was even more irritating than the poor air outside, and was desperately uncertain about what she meant when she said ‘that way’.

“I can’t see. And I had absolutely no idea about what you’re trying to tell me.” I patted her arm to grab her attention, then lightly two-fingered at both of my closed eyes for three times, praying she would understand what I was conveying.

Thus she, holding my hand so tightly that I could feel the tiniest perspiration creeping its way through the pores of her hand, started leading the way, and I felt weird to be pulled here and there without actually knowing where the destination was by a complete stranger, especially in such a jeopardy. So, imbued with this immense sense of insecurity, I tried to lift up my stiff and dry eyelids with my thumb as the feeling of weirdness then inevitably evolved into a sense of doubt because I felt like we were just stumbling around on the same floor, instead of going down a flight of stairs or something like that to somewhere safe, but I couldn’t.

“Where are you taking me!? Aren’t we supposed to go down and leave this building!?” I asked, eagerly massaging my eyes with my thumb to help speeding up the recovery of my sight like I had just worn myself out by straining my eyes too much.

“No. No. This way to heaven. To heaven. Safe, safe,” she said.

With my adrenaline pumping, “What? I’m not going to heaven! I don’t want to die here!” I barked loudly and instantly hauled back my arm with every ounce of strength I’d ever possessed, sending her to the ground, with my fist clenched.

And I stormed away, with my eyes fully open in spite of the increasing discomfort stemmed from the thick walls of impenetrable smoke, and sprinted back to where the others had gone. The evacuation guidance light was much more difficult to find than before at that time since the entire floor was already engulfed. I could only grope my way around until I magically laid my hand on one of those melting canvases, which seemed very sarcastic at that moment, hanging on the walls, and espied a tiny margin of dying heavenly light emitted by the half-broken system.

Following its guidance, passing by the elevators, turning left, then right along the corridor, I reached a fire exit door and pushed it open without a second thought, then regretted for the massive wisps of dark smoke that swirled out from the sweltering emergency exit at the next second. The entire escape route was working like a chimney without an opening, which trapped all smoke, and was probably heating up at an unimaginable rate, and it forced me to recede a step before I could enter, nevertheless, that was not the most horrific thing I’d seen there. The most horrendous thing of all was seeing the piles of bodies of people stacked up at the bottom of the stairs that made me shudder.

It was only a quick glance, but still, I was able to see one of them floundering, trying to crawl out of the piles like a zombie rising from its tomb. He seemed to be sober, half alive and suffering greatly, but was moving like a turtle. I bet he wouldn’t last another minute without my help. My instinctive selfishness that made me tiptoe away from the door wanted me to find another route and get myself out of this blazing hell as soon as possible, but the contemptible shamefulness of not helping the headband man accumulated in my mind told me the exact opposite and prompted me to edge closer to the door. The internal conflict was tearing me apart and wasn’t settled until a voice within cross-examined me. How could I in all conscience justify the thought of turning a blind eye to someone in dire need of help again?

Looking back now, I know that’s the exact same question – a rather easy one when compared to others’ – that changed my life because that’s what I was asked when facing Gradius before the pearly gate for the first time. And I would say it’s kind of the most unexpected question I’d imagined. But my answer was quick and simple. There is no justifying anything for my hands have already been tainted with sin but confession.

That being said, at that time, I wouldn’t dare to rush in there brainlessly like mounting a final banzai charge and got myself a free ride to the heaven. Then I thought of one thing in my suitcase that could help me accomplish this, so I darted back to where I dropped it off, found it, unzipped it, rummaged around for the mask, and clamped it over my face. It wasn’t one of those polished fire resistant masks that could repel lethal smoke particles, but it was fairly useful in terms of alleviating the impact of brea


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thing in hot fumes of smoke. And I rushed back, pushed open the door and stomped down the stairs, crouching, to the crawling man, who had a crimson face that seemed to augur ill.

“Hey,” I said, jiggled his shoulder, checked his vital signs and found a throbbing pulse, his skin red hot like a branding iron.

“He… lp……” He, a man who appeared to be in his early fifties, emitted the word so weakly that I had to guess what he was trying to say.

“Don’t worry. You’ll be all right. I’ll get you out of here.” I injected confidence into my tone even though I was utterly clueless about how I was going to get out of this place with a fainted man on my shoulder and thought for a moment. I wasn’t sure about anything but that the thick layers of smoke would definitely kill us in less than ten minutes if I kept on being indecisive.

So, assuming it was a suicide mission to carry him further down the stairs, where the densest clouds of smoke could be found, I arduously dragged him back up to the third floor and grinded my teeth as my brain raced to think of a possible way out. Why did the staff want to get us to the other side? I pondered and decided to go back the old way, realizing maybe I had been wrong, maybe she knew it would be a fatal mistake to have gone to the fire escape but was just unable to conquer the language barrier. And I felt terribly ashamed as well as embarrassed for the gratuitous pain inflicted on her.

With the man on my right shoulder and my arm securing him in position, his legs dangling wildly over my spine, I, inch by inch, began hobbling along the way I’d walked once and let nothing stop me until a windowless dead end, where a despairing, solid-looking brick wall shattered my fragile hope, faced me. Initially I thought there was simply no way out and was then learning to accept my faith, but if it was true, where was she? Either she had vanished without a trace, or there must be a hidden way out of here.

A new hope was ignited, and I poked around vigorously and relentlessly, the floor, the walls, the ceiling, and keep on ferreting around despite the growing-grim situation. And when I bent over to check the corners, an unusually high-pitched air streaking sound that indicated there was a small crack somewhere on the walls around captured my full attention and reminded me of what she had said about a ladder.

“Find the crack, find the ladder,” I stood back up, removed the mask, put it into my trousers pocket, and mumbled. “Find the crack, find the ladder, find the exit!”

But then I tripped over something soft and clumsily stumbled forward. The momentum carried me to the brick wall, and I had to slam my arms against it to avoid smacking my skull into it.

And when I looked down to see what I’d tripped over, I discovered it’s his hand. The man had meekly held up his hand. He was awake.

So I went to him and tried to help him up with my arm round him, “Hey, how are you feeling?” I asked and was slightly surprised by a deep scar that went from the top of his forehead down to his right eye, which was unobservable back in the fire escape due to the stifling smoke. It wasn’t a fresh wound, but if he told me he had fought in a war, I’d believe him without a doubt.

“Water,” he, sitting upright, gently grasped my arm and moaned. “I need water.”

“You surely look like you could use a drink, but first of all we need to get out of here. Can you stand up?”

He looked around with his soulless eyes that made him seem very perplexed about the current circumstances.

“Look, we’re trapped here on the third floor of the Golden Hotel. I found you behind the emergency exit door. You were dying, so I carried you out. The fire has rendered all the elevators unusable, and the other means of escape has become impassable, except a ladder I believe to be at somewhere around this area. Find it, we find our way out.”

“A ladder?” He, sitting up slowly, gawked at me blankly and pointed to the bottom part of the wall behind me. “Is that the ladder?”

I directed my gaze in the direction he pointed, craned forward for a better look and noticed there was a ray of dappled light that could be easily overlooked streaming through a tiny vertical crack that would hardly fit my finger at the floor-wall junction, where I could barely see the top of a wooden ladder seemingly stretching down to the lower floor.

“It is!” I exclaimed, leapt forward, squatted down and fumbled over the section of the wall above it, trying to find some sort of a secret button, but tumbled down as I failed to keep my balance.

“It should be removable. Try sticking a finger through the crack,” he suggested.

I listened. At first, my finger was getting chewed by the thin crack, but luckily, the lower part was easier once I ran my first knuckle through.

“Then what?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Pull it, push it, shake it, whatever you can.” His voice was vivider than before.

I knew it was nothing short of a miracle when I somehow managed to rip that section of the wall off effortlessly by a simple tug. It was much more straightforward than I’d imagined, but the only reason why I could do it was mainly because it was already detached from the main concrete wall when I exerted force on it.

I felt relieved and turned around to look at him with a smile on my face. “I did it!”

“Well done,” he praised.

“I’m Ashton.”

“I’m Jack,” he replied. “It’s nice to meet you, Ashton. Thank you for saving my life.”

“Let’s get out of this place together, Jack,” I said in an encouraging tone that I once thought I’d already forgotten. “Can you stand up?”

“Yes, I am feeling much better now, thank you,” he said, as he almost pitched forward while trying to stand up, luckily, he managed to maintain his balance by tottering backward.

“Do you think you can make it down the ladder?”

“Sure. Don’t worry about me. After you.”

Thus, I scrambled down the wobbly ladder, gingerly and very slowly, as it seemed to be a little bit antiquated and shaky, not to mention how difficult it was to breathe and move normally in such an unlivable environment; my hand did slip off the ladder once, but I was able to hold on to it. And I was anxious about Jack when I set foot on the second floor, which the layout was identical as the third floor, but it turned out he was doing even better than me. Only by judging his swift and deft movements of limbs, no one, not excluding me, would believe he had just escaped death moments ago, and I wondered for a minute if he was a member of some kind of a special forces or not.

Realizing my concern was counter-productive and not needed, I chased it away and had my mind focused on searching for the same tiny crack on the floor-wall junction at the same spot. It took me almost no time to locate it, though the tug required more strength this time, and then we began climbing down the second ladder again.

“One last ladder,” I said to Jack, as I drew in a gasp of air and pulled out the removable part of the wall on the first floor, but was then dazed by what I saw.

The ladder connecting where we were and the foyer was not there. It was lying on the ground right below us as if it were one of those dead men I was seeing right besides it, and as an unparalleled but familiar tumult of ranting and raving broke out, my daze ceased.

“Are you hearing the same thing that I am hearing?”

“Yeah, it sounds exactly the same as the commotion I have heard earlier today,” Jack said.

CHAPTER SEVEN

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Neither one of us spoke a word, nor made the least audible noise, in the next ten minutes. It’s like we were anti-melting snowmen in a burning hell.

Gulped down the ridiculously hefty yet invisible nervousness, “I think…” I whispered at the lowest voice possible, bringing the quietness to an end, but paused when we supported each other with a profound exchanged look.

“I think we’re temporarily safe. They are just shouting crazily at somewhere outside the hotel. They’re not in here, at least, for now, and hopefully they won’t be able to find a way to get in,” he picked up at where I stopped, staring into my eyes.

“I think so, too.”

“So let’s forget about those protestors first. We’ll deal with them later. Now we should concentrate on finding a way to lift the ladder up off the ground so that we could get down there.”

“Maybe I could jump down there and lift it up for you?” I suggested, ruffling my hair.

“It won’t work. You will break your legs and won’t be able to walk again for a month.”

“So what should we do?” I asked when a nourishing breeze of fresh air that I had never really appreciated before, probably because I had always been taking it for granted for my whole life, wafted into my nose, and I placed my hand on his shoulder. “Wait, do you notice that?”

Deliberately making loud inhaling and exhaling sounds, he said, “Smells like fresh roses.”

“Perhaps the fire is extinguished. The fire alarm has stopped as well,” I said, as I happened to see a man pacing back and forth in an apprehensive gait through the opening part of the wall, it’s now or never. “Hey! Over here!”

The man looked up at me before I could finish my sentence, and a coruscating chain on his neck caught my eyes.

“It’s you!” The words automatically blurted out of my tongue when his subtly amiable grin then spurred my memory.

He seemed speechless because of astonishment for a moment, with his eyes popped out in the ‘popping’ way and the same went for me – that amazed face on him back then was exactly what he looked like when we first came across each other in the house and I did titter at him for that.

“I’ve been looking around for you, my friend. So glad to see you in one piece. I am worried about you,” he stopped walking and caroled, his smile gradually growing into a full beaming grin that completely manifested the sincere happiness he was experiencing; this beaming grin was much wider than that signature smile he had.

I didn’t know why he was so happy when he saw a man he barely knew, nor the reason why he was here, but it never bothered me as at that time I was only concerned with getting a helping hand, yet it seemed my lurking curiosity had found itself a place to make me remember this happy face. And that’s why when I later found out he knew Jack, I immediately figured out that the happy face had more to do with seeing Jack than seeing me.

“Well, I’m glad to see you too, driver,” I said despite feeling a strong disinclination to be considered a friend of him, especially after meeting the fearsome police, and so I veiled my reluctance behind a curtain of fake smile I learnt from the people in the Port. “Can you please lift the ladder up so that we can come down?”

“Of course,” he replied quickly and looked down on the ladder.

Then he crouched, tightly clenched both sides of the ladder and lifted it up like it was the weight of a feather. “I’ll keep it in place. Just climb down slowly.”

And after I threw Jack a jubilantly wondering look, “After you,” Jack said.

So I scaled down the rickety-rackety ladder energetically to the lavishly adorned foyer, where all the gold used in decoration was able to stand through the test of real blaze of fire and shined even brighter like a reincarnated phoenix out of its flaxen ashes, and was impressed by the view I was regarding at; make no mistake about this, it’s still incomparable to where I am now.

And when I made it down there and placed my foot on the solid ground, the ranting raving maniacs rallied right outside of an automatic steel gate that acted as the last barrier between us and them at the main entrance started striking, bashing and smashing the gate with whatever they had in possession and resumed roaring in a way that it resembled an ancient and primitive war cry uttered by a clan of vicious intruders from across the sea.

“Can someone please explain to me what is going on?” I said, as immense confusion flooded me.

I was eager to know what was going on. And I looked around aimlessly for my answer and happened to discover there were approximately eleven scared people, excluding me and Jack, scattered in this place, most of them had put on their masks, and multiple corpses strewn across this giant foyer. Also the surroundings were chaotic; the chandelier, which was supposed to be hanging in midair, was brought down and was viciously dismantled, only the wire linking the ceiling was intact, and the piece of fine gold was missing, the debris of the protective plastic box showered around.

“I’ve warned you about this. And obviously, you—” the driver, looking over his shoulder, said while holding the ladder for Jack.

Slightly enraged, “You told me the government would close the border in two days, but you never told me anything about this bad, and your appearance got me into a real trouble. A police officer knocked on my door this morning and asked me some questions about you,” I said, blaming him for what I’d been through because I deceived myself into believing he was the one who got me into this even I had no doubt it wasn’t his responsibility. Blaming others for what I thought I didn’t deserve just made me feel better. “Anyway, why do they hate us so much that it seems they want to barge in and slaughter us like we are the evil-doers instead?” Abruptly changing the subject after wrongly accusing someone was my usual tactic to avoid stirring up any further possible conflict.

“The appeal of extreme patriotism to uncultivated people with a fragile heart is irresistibly tempting when the government or, to be more accurate, the dominant party of the government is advocating it, maliciously hoodwinking people into thinking that the dominant party is equivalent to the concept of country itself and disseminating fabricated information to distort the truth. What you are witnessing here is beyond doubt one of the most convincing evidence of the existence of pure evilness,” Jack quipped when he got down from the ladder, his mature voice capturing everyone’s attention, though to me, what he said sounded far-fetched, and I had, for a moment, considered him as the conspiracy theorist, who was responsible for fabricating the entire closing-the-border thing.

“Jack!?” the driver bellowed surprisingly.

“You know him?” I asked.

He didn’t seem to be concerned with what I said.

“Long time no see, Kaylen,” Jack replied, wiping the dark black residue of smoke that covered his countenance fumigated on his face away with both hands, his action stimulated me to imagine how I looked like at that moment.

After running all my fingers around my face a few times, I stretched out my palms, which were as black as coal, and rubbed my hands against my trousers.

“Why don’t you call me? I would have picked you up at the airport myself only if I knew you’re coming back for us,” Kaylen said.

“I wasn’t—” Jack said, yet interrupted by a purring sound of a starting engine of a chainsaw.

“I don’t think now is the best time to catch up with an old friend,” I said, as I finished rubbing. “Is there a way out of this place? Like a rear door?”

Cast me a short glance before averting it back to Jack again, “Yes, there is a way out of here, a rear door exactly,” Kaylen answered firmly when the sound of revving engine became more and more terrifying.

But I instantly felt like I was stepping into another trap when he answered so promptly. What were they doing here if they had already found a way out of here? Why didn’t they make their escape? It was weird, but, on second thought, nothing about this place made sense at all. It wasn’t weird.

“We should go now,” I said.

Before he could respond, sparks flying hither and thither around one particular spot on the rigid gate suddenly illuminated the foyer, and the whirring cutting sound that occurred along with the sparks suggested the beginning of their first attempt to cut through the gate.

“Please, just lead the way. I don’t want to die here. You have a plan to get us all out of the country, don’t you?” I continued.

Nodded, “Of course. No problem. Everyone follow me,” Kaylen yelled and walked off.

As the rotating front tip of the guide bar of the chainsaw completely penetrated through a rift it cut open, all of us began scurrying behind him in the opposite direction of the rift to a rear door, which had an indistinguishable emergency exit signboard above it, set at the end of the foyer. I expected the escape to be a lot more laborious than simply walking out an emergency exit that I thought was awkward due to it’s ridiculously small size. I had to walk like a crab in order to fit through it, but that was it. We simply walked out of the hotel leisurely like ambling into our own apartment with a universal key ready in Kaylen’s hand.

Behind the door was a grim, filthy narrow rear alley, where bright sunlight couldn’t reach, winding back, carpeted with randomly discarded garbage between buildings. The stench arising from the squashy carpet was comparable to the acrid smoke inside the hotel, or even worse as it smelt like rotting dead rats. Despite the fact I hadn’t caught a glimpse of a rat, I wouldn’t be surprised if dozens of them suddenly came out of nowhere judging by the poor condition of that place. And we could only move along in single file because everyone wanted to minimize the risk of inadvertently touching the gray side walls, which looked extremely unhygienic with million-century-old stains on it.

Straggling right behind Kaylen, who was leading the way, “Did you come back for me?” I asked on a whim.

“What makes you think I would rush into a burning hotel for a man I hardly know?”

“Instinct.”

“Where are you from, my friend?”

“Port Aroma.”

“So what are you, a citizen of the Shangri-La, doing in this crazy country? You should’ve never come,” he said, voice trembling like he was restraining himself from weeping.

I could hear a little bit of jealousy in his trembling, so I bet he was upset because he wished to be born in a different time and place – he flat out denied this and claimed he was just feeling sad when I asked him about it upon arrival at the pond and he then rushed out of the car like a rabbit bouncing and leapt into the golden shining pond to prove that he’s being honest with me despite the fact that I had no idea how the pond-prove-you-honest thing worked at that time.

“I thought I would love this place,” I continued, closed my eyes, letting fragments of memories I had built up in this journey to flow through my mind like rotating a kaleidoscope, and paused, realizing how absurd my thought of coming back here had been.

“You want to live here? You want to immigrate to this country?” he said in an amazing tone like he happened to see the sun peeping out from the western horizon, and giggled, then laughed in a happily sad tone.

“I wanted to,” I stressed. “I was born here, but was then forced to leave when I was still a toddler. I have had enough of hypocrisy from the people in the Port. So I thought it would be great to have a chance to come back here, to go to a place, where people still value the importance of maintenance of order instead of fragile freedom that does no good to the society.”

“You hate to be free, don’t you?”

“I don’t hate it. I just don’t think it’s as important as it is said to be. I can live without it.”

“You can live without it? Like how? Like a robot without soul but has a free mind that allows it to want to emigrate?” he repeated my statement in a mocking way. “You’re taking it for granted.”

“Imagine you are in a place of true freedom, where everyone gets to do whatever they wish to, eats whatever they want to, plays whatever stupid games they like. They don’t need to wake up every morning to catch the bus in order to be on time at work and worry about any problems. Imagine you are in a perfect world like that, a literal Shangri-La. Sounds like a dream world, isn’t it?” I gulped down my saliva difficultly. “But when we are in such a flawless world, we are more prone to be attacked by our sloth and our unlimitedly expanding greed or craving, craving for more power, more wealth, both materialistically and mentally, which will make us sinful. Don’t you see? True freedom is just a pipe dream that should never be within our grasp because it will make us more easily corruptible. By sacrificing freedom and keeping orders, which are the only tool that can tackle with our never-ending desire, there is still a chance that we can be less sinful. The more freedom we enjoy, the more sinful we are. We don’t deserve it. So I can surely live without freedom. Plus, I just can’t stand the way how people are abusing their right to freedom to do anything inconsiderate, especially one that would disturb order.”

“Tell me you don’t mean it,” a familiar female voice behind me sobbed weakly and kind of freaked me out.

So I looked over my shoulder at her, saw the same old crying face of the helpful staff, who scowled at me in the airport, and was then dazed by an aghast feeling suggesting that she had followed me all the way from the airport to here and had never stopped crying. And I could only stare at her. Of course, by now, I know that she had done a lot of things, like informing Ciara about my arrival and aiding to set fire to the hotel, before regrouping with Kaylen at the foyer, and I have already gotten used to her fickle mood. Yes, she is still as capricious as she has always been even she is now living in the house with me. So I guess she was born that way. But luckily, yesterday, when she and I were sitting on our bed reading, I happened to find a way to help her gain better control of her emotions. And that’s simply done by letting her listen closely to her own watch, which was her Gift, ticking, and she surmised that it was because of the special ticking sound, which was like ‘te-teeing’, it had.

But back then, it wasn’t a real option, so I could only let her mutter on.

“Tell me you don’t mean it,” she repeated twice, with her head down, wiping tears in her eyes away.

“Don’t cry, my girl, don’t cry,” Jack, walking alongside her, said, patting her gently like he was her father. “You can’t blame him.”

“Sloth, greed, and any of that will never give up on making us sinful, no matter how much freedom we have,” Kaylen quipped. “These are only excuses. What’s the real reason behind it?”

So I turned my head back and looked at him when a holy shaft of sunlight from the end of the alley dazzled me like it was the end of a time travel.

Shaking my head with eyes shut, “Anyway, what should I do now? Is the border closed yet? I don’t want to stay in this country any more,” I said.

“Sadly it’s closed,” Kaylen said. “But don’t worry. As I have told you, we can get you out of here safely.”

I felt relieved.

After what I’d been through, that was the only thing I’d love to hear, “Thank you. What’s the plan?” I asked, as we were about to walk into the boulevard that ran over the sweeping meanders.

Kaylen stopped at the edge of the alley, craned his head out to look left, then right, and then commanded, “Kriss will tell you about the tunnel later. For now, we have to split up into two groups. It would be too suspicious for such a large group of people to stay together. Jack, pick five of them. You guys will come with me. Kriss, can I count on you to bring the rest of them to House Heaven?”

The telecoms staff smiled and replied, her smile after tears looked like a rainbow after drizzle, and it did hold my eyes steady for a moment. “You can count on me.”

“I will meet you at nine o’clock in the park in our usual spot. Be careful. Try not to get caught,” Kaylen said.

He sounded like they were spies dispatched to infiltrate this country rather than just ordinary brainless freedom-pursuers to me. I wondered maybe it was the reason why the government yearned to eradicate them since, according to what Kriss had told me, it banned everything that would potentially disseminate confidential information of the country.

So, “Who are you guys, really?” I asked Kaylen.

He cast me a nonchalant glance, with his side profile and his pair of glinting dark black eyes, and strode away with Jack and his men without saying a word.

CHAPTER EIGHT

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Plodding along the boulevard, from time to time, I would look back at the entrance of the Golden Hotel, which was still surrounded by a huge crowd of agitated people expressing hatred with unclassifiable violent acts. The itchy sound of cutting through steel only fizzled out when the sparks were no longer visible to me, yet, from my last glance, it seemed the steel gate was rigid enough to hinder them from swarming in even they were using a chainsaw.

“Who are you guys, really?” I asked Kriss, choked and searched my pockets for my mask but couldn’t find it anywhere.

There were in total six of us moving as a group, and I decided to walk alongside Kriss, who was leading the way, though I soon realized that she didn’t want me to fall into step with her; every time I caught up with her pace, she would change it abruptly so that I could only trail behind her and could only talk to her from behind.

“You already know that,” she answered with a coarse tone, picking up speed as if she was afraid I would try to fall into step with her again.

The street, where many lethargic-looking local pedestrians were smoking, wandering around, or crouching in the middle of the street, was seemingly densely packed, but the main reason why it seemed packed was because the street was becoming narrower and narrower as we proceeded.

“I thought you are a staff working for a telecoms company.”

“I am.”

“But how did you –” I paused when we walked past a local, and I receded to a dawdle, then resumed when I was sure he was out of earshot. “But how did you know they were going to attack this hotel?”

“There are many of us,” she said tersely.

I waited for her to go on speaking, but nothing led away from her statement.

“In the Port, the freedom-pursers are only capable of doing stupid things like dancing in the middle of the road, singing the national anthem during rush hour or playing deafening music along the road with loudspeakers in their cars. They never do anything constructive or lovable. But you guys are different. You guys are really in pursuit of freedom. I can feel it.”

“Are they not?”

“Are they not what? In pursuit of freedom?”

“Uh-ah.”

“No, they’re not. They are not in pursuit of anything. They are just a bunch of self-centered scumbags enjoying freedom. Ask them to risk their lives to save a man they don’t know, and you’ll see how selfish and contemptible they are,” I said, as we turned left at the corner of the street and saw two police officers patrolling down the street toward us.

After inhaling an uneasy deep breath that was conducive to composing myself when I set eyes on the fierce-looking duo – I had for a second mistaken them as the two officers who killed the headband man and quailed.

“Heads down, avoid eye contact, keep moving,” Kriss whispered cautiously, not too loud, not too weak, just enough for all of us to hear.

Her words didn’t help, nor the inhalation. I was scared to death and was quaking in my shoes. For each step taken, I had my toes curled a little bit more according to how much fear had risen within me. With my focus fixed on the cheap stone paved street, I just kept on walking, not too fast, not too slow, just like the locals. I didn’t even have the courage to look behind to check if we were safe. I just kept on walking and walking until I felt like I had reached the end of the horizon.

And as I finally came to a standstill and looked back, I was elated to realize all five of them were quietly tagging along close behind me like nothing special had just happened on this quiet street, which seemed to be off the beaten track.

“What?” Kriss said, arms akimbo, as she was about to collide with me. “Do you even know where House Heaven is?”

“Nope,” I said. “Maybe it’s better for you to lead the way.”

“Agree,” she said, and I sidestepped and made an after-you gesture in an exaggerating joking pose.

Thus we carried on trudging up along the steep street, which was much narrower compared to the boulevard, just a bit wider than that mucky muddy alley, in the same way we did on the boulevard with street lamps on the edge of the street.

“Where is that House something?”

“We are very close. We’ll be there in around five minutes.”

“Is that a secret base or some sort of a hideout? I mean, the name is cool. House Heaven.”

“It’s our prison,” she said with a hostile tone that had implicitly forbidden me from talking to her any more, or maybe it was me who didn’t want to talk to her any more, I can’t recall.

But at that time, when she said ‘it’s our prison’, I immediately thought she meant it’s where they would usually hide for a l


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ong time when the police was engaging in a hot pursuit after them and she called it a prison due to the long span of time they had to spend in there. However my assumption turned out to be wrong, not completely wrong, they did hide in there when they needed to, but the main reason for her to think of it as a prison wasn’t what I thought back then. And it wasn’t until yesterday – after I have discovered how to help her gain control of her emotions and at a point we started to talk about this prison thing – that it dawned on me that the main reason was because of my father, who spent the last minute of his life lying peacefully on a sofa inside and warbled this after a prolonged sigh ‘why am I in a prison that looks like heaven?’.

Of course, she wasn’t there when he said that, so she seemed unsure of how he managed to get there after he had phoned home, but she was certain that Kaylen’s father and her father, to whom she had alluded in our conversation, were with him the night he passed.

Anyway, the rest of the uneventful journey to the ‘prison’ was completed in dead silence. The house was a two-story, stone-built, obsolete cottage that stood out from the modern skyscrapers surrounding it, and it stood out for a good reason. It looked like the roof was about to cave in at any moment and was so out of shape that I had no clue how it managed to remain in midair; the physics-defying look of it was just as extraordinary as The Leaning Tower of Pisa, which had already been heaved down by gravity two years ago, though the wreckage of it was well-reserved in a museum named after it.

“This is the House Heaven!?” I mumbled.

It was quite different from what an average man would typically expect to see for a building called House Heaven.

“This is it,” Kriss said as if she was saying ‘are you not satisfied?’, striding toward a steel door.

I followed close behind her. “Are you sure it is safe to go inside?”

“That’s what you are about to find out.”

I couldn’t see her face from behind, yet I was certain she was smirking when she spoke. And as she turned the doorknob and opened the door, producing a gliding flute-like sound, a big fat rat quickly slithered past my left ankle and disappeared into the street.

“What was that!?” I piped.

She then looked at me madly, “Don’t make a fuss about it. It’s just a rat,” rolled her eyes and stomped into the house.

Why was she mad? I didn’t know. But it was clear that the two of us didn’t get along very well and I guessed she and me could never be friend, though this inference has been proved dead wrong when I decided to propose to her last week. And she said yes happily with three consecutive quiet but quick nods. Yes, I have to admit that I didn’t know her very well when I proposed to her – we weren’t even a couple at that time – and that birthday celebration I had with her was the first time we two had a heart-to-heart talk, but that’s already enough for both of us to fall in love with each other. There was no rose in my hand when I knelt down to ask the question. But there was that cumbersome-looking photo pendant that was seemingly identical to the one I had once seen in Kaylen’s car in my hand – this is what I have chosen for my Gift – and this is something I will explain later.

So, without protest, I went in after her, and she flipped open a light switch in an unlady-like manner after passing through a ten-feet long, straight hallway into a moderately furnished living room, which seemed fit to be put into any houses, and it was one that no one would like or dislike particularly. The bright light exuding from an unappreciated lamp seemingly whitened the yellowish wallpapers when she flipped the switch, and the feeling of warmth imparted by it made me feel like it was home. It’s the reason why it was called House Heaven, I guessed.

“Guys, it’s six o’clock now. We will set off at half past seven, so get some rest now while you still can. I promise you this will be a long, long night,” she said while I was exploring the place with my eyes, stretching my head up and down until the dangerously almost caved-in part of the roof, which appeared to be more flimsy observing from inside, right above my head heightened my awareness.

By merely judging from the degree of deformation it manifested, I believed I was ostensibly capable of punching through it with just one single mighty blow with my fist, but I guessed I would better keep it that way, for this could be one of the next most remarkable world heritages, perhaps The Falling Roof of Heaven.

Then when she finished and hurried away, “What’s the plan for tonight? How are we getting out of this country?” I asked, my voice kept bouncing back from the walls around, so I told myself to lower down my voice, peering at her, who was then tiptoeing up a spiral staircase twirling around like a tornado situated on the left corner of the house to the upper floors with a lightness that dumbfounded me.

And just right before she disappeared into the upper floors, “Why don’t you get some rest first? I will let you know about everything when we are in the park,” she said, not even throwing me a look, not even a flippant remark.

I can feel the resolution in her voice, and I reckoned either she was so running out of patience with me – the reason why she was so capricious had puzzled me since the first time she cried and the way she treated me made me feel like she held a grudge against me but I just couldn’t think of what was that made her so frustrated with me – that she had to hide upstairs, or she was up to something she tended not to confide in me. That said, I couldn’t care less about what she was up to as long as they were really able to smuggle me out of the country, and that’s all I was really concerned with.

Then, as an unidentifiable hollow feeling swelled, knowing my stay would be short, I nonetheless decided to sidetrack myself by taking my time to examine this place as I didn’t feel like taking a nap at that moment, perhaps I was anxious, and I moved forward and plopped down on a linen sofa I found right next to the staircase, sitting right between a skinny lady with a plump nose leaning against the arm of the sofa and a reliable-looking, blue-eyed gentleman with an anticlimactic hairy mole on his protruding square chin that was seemingly even longer than his nose.

It seemed to me they were both pondering over something serious enough to give them a meditating look when I became the third men sitting. I knew I shouldn’t disturb, but there was something about this lady with this familiar plump nose. And soon it occurred to me that I might have met her before but my memory was blurred. And for that, I just can’t help gazing at her like a retarded.

“Are you ok?” the gentleman on my left gave me a strong poke at my arm and asked, in a low gruff voice that imperfectly blended in with his cold tone.

I had never expected him to notice my peculiar behavior, hence I could only call forth an astounded face with interestingly broadened eyes to deal with his sulky facial expressions. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Would you please stop staring at her like that?” he demanded, stressing the word ‘please’.

But before I could even move my tongue, “”(Hey, it’s okay, darling.) the lady, who quited thinking at the right time, said. “我識佢架。” (I know him.)

I was baffled. I bet she was telling him to chill out, and so I scrutinized her face again and spoke out my mind. “Lady, have we met before?”

“Yes,” the man said quickly, the same old cold tone, giving her no room to speak.

“The mask?” I continued without averting my eyes despite the slight surprise I got from his quickness, making two open C-shapes with my forefingers and thumbs, bringing my forefingers close to my nose and placing my thumbs exactly on my chin.

And then they conferred about something in their language again, though I felt like they were just slurring non-stop.

“The mask,” the man repeated.

“The mask!?”

“The mask.”

“I remember now, you were wearing glasses back in the hotel! Thank you for your help. The mask you gave me helped me a lot. And I’m honestly sorry for what I’ve done to you. Please forgive me,” I said, as a thought that extinguished my urge to apologize dawned on me. “But wait. Wait a minute. You’re the hotel staff. And so I suppose you are from around here. And that means you are not a foreigner. So, why are you here? You are one of – them?”

“Won’t be here if we are not,” the man responded as quickly as he just did.

I turned round to face the man. “What do you mean? Aren’t most of us here foreigners trying to escape?”

“Yeah, I am… pretty sure… they are,” he drawled hesitantly while blinking like there was a gritty grain of sand in his eyes and pointed to the two men on the other side of the house standing and chit-chatting by a closed window overlooking the front.

One of them had his elbow rested upon an iron bar extended from the bottom corner of the window. He was of the height of an average man and was observably a beach-goer. Tanned and fit, wearing jean shorts and a tight plain black T-shirt that highlighted his muscles, I wouldn’t be too surprised if he told me he had fought a lion before.

“That’s Ryson you are looking at,” the man continued. “By the way, I am Frederick.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Ashton.”

“She is Ciara. My fiancée.”

And I got to my feet immediately like the sofa was made of lava and remembered the feeling I had when Aaron looked at Oli. With my glance fixated upon him, “Sorry, I didn’t know,” I apologized, feeling embarrassed, probably because I could somehow comprehend what it’s like when some stranger was staring at my fiancée.

Then I remember I saw him suddenly began biting his lower lip quickly like he was waiting for his wife to deliver, with all his fingers interlocked at the tips, left thumb covering over right, and “don’t be,” he said, gazing at somewhere blankly, with a terribly flat tone that failed to tuck away whatever that was going on inside his mind, and pulled out a thoughtful grin as though he was facing a dilemma so that there was a strange atmosphere that hadn’t been there before springing up.

And I could tell from his distraught look he was really thinking over something very serious and heavy as he had bitten his lip so hard that I had actually worried he would hurt himself, and even at the moments which he wasn’t biting, he would shrink slightly and flinch. And after all the little movements, he finally looked at me and said, “Can I have a private moment with my fiancée?”

“Well. Why not?”

Of course, the whole conversation we had back then wasn’t quite a happy one and I was perplexed by his sudden nervousness. So, when I had bumped into him somewhere around a kitchen in the house on that same day I met Alvin, I immediately asked him about this. He didn’t remember what I was referring to at first, but after I had waylaid him for about an hour, he did say this, “Tell me, Ashton. Have you ever had that feeling? That feeling when you try to cover up the truth after telling someone something you’re not supposed to tell?” I didn’t say anything regarding this and kept on chatting about something trivial with him on that day until he had to go, and I have never seen him since then. And although I would love to know what had happened to him after he had been abducted, I was never able to ask.

Anyway at that time, I had once thought that whatever that was going on in his mind must have something to do with me. But however onerous I tried to dig deep into my memory and look for clues, I just couldn’t come up with anything. Therefore I simply walked away.

And I strolled toward the two men. The man talking to Ryson was so much shorter and thinner than him that he actually looked like a trunk of a young maple tree from behind. I couldn’t see his face as he was facing Ryson, but I could picture him being a handsome man as he had brownish curly hair that I had always dreamed of owning.

When I was close enough to speak, “Hi,” I said.

The shorter guy then turned to me in a way like he was performing ballet, partly ostentatiously, partly enthusiastically. “Hi,” he, who turned out to be an Asian with dyed hair, said, with a smile that was as amiable as Kaylen’s but looked a little bit more like smirking, dimpling his cheeks.

“Nervous?” I asked.

Shortly after they exchanged a strange look, Ryson replied, “Hmm. A little. You? Are you nervous?”

And I noticed that when he spoke, he tended to pull the corners of his mouth down with some jaw movements and there were some sounds going through his nose.

“You guys are from Mexico?” I asked.

“Good try, but wrong guess,” Ryson said.

I had expected him to go on to explain more and so never made a second attempt, but they seemed shy, fidgeting with red faces and hands in trousers pockets, and I figured maybe they just didn’t want me here.

“Oh, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” I said.

And they laughed at the same time perfunctorily, giving each other another strange look, throwing me some hasty glances occasionally, and kept on laughing for quite a relatively lengthy moment until I found it incomprehensible and rather annoying.

I bet they had found my presence unpleasant but was somehow just too disinclined to say it out. Feeling like being swathed in an expanding vexatious atmosphere, I was forced to move away. I didn’t know what I should do then, but one thing was clear. I couldn’t get along with no one in this place. Realized all of them, all four of them, didn’t want me here, my desire to get out of this place then prodded me to go up the stairs to where Kriss had gone because at least, she was willing to talk to me.

But as I was inching like a turtle toward the staircase, I heard a heavy tread of someone bouncing down the stairs so urgently that I could tell there was a change of plan just by hearing that.

When she came into our sight on the staircase, she gasped, rushing down, with a mobile phone grasped in her hand, “Guys! Guys!” she said when she reached level ground, with her hands on bent knees, breathing unrhythmically. “Change of plan! They are in trouble. I just got a message from Jack saying they are now under attack and that we should act before they are captured. We have to go now, before they find out about us. Agree?”

“They are under attack!? Shouldn’t we go to help them?” Frederick suggested, and it startled me as I didn’t know he was suddenly somewhere close behind me.

Then as I sidestepped to avoid standing in his way, I saw him bridging up his eyes with his left hand, his right hand holding Ciara’s tighter than before, and continued, giving a grimace of pain, “Forget about what I said. I say we should just go without them. We have to finish what we have started.”

“Well, Ryson? What do you two think?” Kriss questioned with stabilizing breaths.

“You’re the boss, Kriss,” Ryson answered.

“Mack?” Kriss shifted her focus onto the Asian.

“You’re the boss.”

“Good. Ready to go now?” Kriss said.

The fact that she didn’t ask my opinion like I wasn’t part of the team was slightly upsetting, but anyway, even if she had asked, I wouldn’t have objected, so that’s fine to me.

CHAPTER NINE

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The five of us then calmly walked out of House Heaven. And when I was about to shut the door close behind me, I happened to catch a glimpse of a black silhouette scurrying rapidly past through in between my feet, skidding into the house.

When it became clearer in my eyes, “A rat in the heaven,” I flinched a bit and muttered, and regretted for not closing the door faster as two more of its fellows then slipped into the house quickly, same speed, same route, but of course, unlike that house, there are no rats here in this house I’m living in.

“Hurry up,” Ryson whispered to me from a distance as though his voice would expose his identity as a freedom-pursuer even though we were alone on that quiet pavement, and I closed the door and hastened over.

With Kriss leading the way, we veered left and continued trudging up in the same direction as before until the steep slope winding right ended at the edge of a flat plateau. From there, where I was sure I could have feasted my eyes on the impressive view of almost half of the city if not for the veils of poor air – the closer to the ground, the poorer the air was – hugging the ground, I squinted and had my eyes swept through everything I could distinguish, like the hissing streams of billowing dark smoke that was escaping the hotel from every openings it could find, making it look like a giant chimney with leaking holes.

“There, at the fountain. The park is over there,” Kriss said, pointing, presumably, to the prominent fountain I had once seen, distracting me, and I was then stunned by the keenness of her eyesight because I literally couldn’t see anything that was shorter than the hotel.

“Why is it so important for us to get to the park?” I asked.

“Because there lies the only entrance of the tunnel,” she said and walked off. “Let’s not waste another minute standing.”

And I hurried up until I walked at her side, then she picked up her pace again, but I wasn’t going to let her win this time because I wanted to make sure she really had a feasible plan. So I tried my best to catch up with her constantly changing pace. “Where does that tunnel lead?”

“It’s an underground tunnel connecting the border areas and the center of the country. It’s the only possible way to smuggle you out safely.”

She seemed annoyed by my persistence as she stopped altering her walking speed soon. “What about after we reach the border areas? We can’t just walk past the borderline assuming the border patrols won’t spot us.”

She raised one corner of her mouth, making a half smirk. “Yes, we can’t.”

“Well then, what?”

Raised another side of the corner of her mouth, she made a subdued but extended full smirk. “We can’t walk past it on land, but there will be nothing stopping us if we are in a boat,” she said.

She sounded like she had underestimated the difficulty of getting past the coastal defense forces without being noticed.

So I frowned. “What about the coastal defense forces? Won’t they be able to detect us?”

“Don’t worry. The small armed patrol vessels that have the greatest access to the shallow shoreline areas have all been sent out on a mission to defend an outlying island. They are not going to be a threat to us as long as we sail with care and avoid bumping into one of those big ships with big guns mounted on it.”

“How do you know they have all been sent out? Aren’t you—”

She broke in. “As I’ve told you, there are many of us.”

It sounded like a plan if her intel was reliable. So, after thinking it over and over again in my head, “Sounds like a plan,” I agreed, with an unusual deep-set tone that I rarely adopted, though there was an unknown uneasiness developing within. “But there is one thing truly perplexing. Why are you helping us? I mean I appreciate everything you guys have done for me and I know I might have already been dead without your help, but why? I just don’t understand.”

Then, an embarrassingly thorny moment of unwanted silence emerged. I thought she would eventually say something. I was wrong. No one spoke a word like I’d asked the most difficult question in the world and I guessed maybe they just wanted to help without a particular reason – this is not true as she has explained later that she’d only remained silent because my question seemed daft. And that awkwardness wasn’t torn apart until we heard some whining engine sounds of some kind of a large group of bulky vehicles. It was like there were thousands of racing cars speeding up at the same time and was so deafening that it was like the continental itself was drifting. At that time, I had no idea what we were facing, but it was beyond doubt something unimaginably bad.

“What is happening?” I said, frantically. “An earthquake?”

“It isn’t an earthquake,” Kriss replied coldly, with placid eyes and deep breaths, and I remember she had intuitively ceased blinking for a minute or two before she continued. “It’s much worse.”

“What could have been worse—” I kept my lips sealed when Kriss motioned me to look in her direction she was gazing at.

So I turned away from her and immediately saw the barrel of a tank attached to the front of the turret of a tank covered with urban camouflage paintings. It was climbing up a steep road on the other side of the plateau, where the street began sloping down back to the boulevard. And I was sheerly astonished, didn’t know what to say or what to do, feeling like the world had abandoned me.

As the tanks were still climbing up with their upper front plates skyward, Kriss jolted me out of my panic, just like what she had done to me at the airport, and said, as I lurched forward, “I need you to walk. Walk behind Ciara and Frederick. They will be walking in front of you. Bear in mind that you have to pretend you don’t know them. Walk like you haven’t noticed anything out of ordinary. Walk like a local. Do you still remember how indifferent the locals are? Do not draw any attention. Do not show fear, and most importantly, do not interfere no matter what happens. Can you do that for me? Can you?”

Gaping at her, I had a hard time processing what she just said.

“Can you?” she prompted.

As the whining engine sounds grew louder, I shook my head and massaged my temples with my thumbs. “Yes, sure. I can do that. What about you?”

“Don’t worry about me. I will hide. Just walk.”

With my heart beating hard against my chest, I pushed myself to act just the way she had asked. I wasn’t even sure if the tanks were sent to capture us, but I felt safer without any one of them around me because if the tanks were here solely for the freedom-pursuers, I should be able to walk away without troubles, and this thought alone bolstered up my bruised confidence.

So I walked. I tiptoed with a casual pace, trying my best to imitate the local’s gait in an inept way, and never looked back. Then as the first few tanks finished climbing up the steep road and moved in our direction, I saw two fully armed soldiers climbing out from the hatch on the turret of the leading tank, which was slowing down. And I went on walking calmly even when they were then sprinting toward Frederick and Ciara intimidatingly, which in some ways resembled the officers’ chasing behind the headband man at the airport. And I continued to walk even when they punched him right in his face twice without saying anything beforehand and dragged him all the way back to their tank by gripping his frivolous hair with one hand. I walked even when I saw Ciara attempted to stop them but was kicked and shoved to the ground thrice, contusing her limbs. I walked even when I saw Ciara struggled to get up but still somehow managed to limp forward lamely and stand defiantly right in front of the tank after they had shut the hatch close, literally blocking its way with human flesh, with her arms stretched outward firmly and her chin jutted out with determination, glaring at the view point of the tank, her shoulder length hair tangled beyond repair but was dancing in the wind, setting her feet parallel to her shoulders.

Never before had I witnessed such a grand exhibition of heroic valor, which looked like a fine reproduction of the scene captured in the framed photo at my home and nothing else. But of course, witnessing it in real person was so much different from just looking at a photo. And she looked so entrancing that I just couldn’t take my eyes off her, not until the effect of mesmerization dwindled after some moments, nor before I gathered my mind and resumed walking.

But soon as it occurred to me that it wouldn’t end well for her, I decided to shield my eyes with my hands because the trepidation about what was going to happen had easily preponderated over the perturbation brought by the darkness of shielding my eyes. Then I prayed for God’s mercy when the rolling engine sounds were petering out, though I knew it was just a matter of time before they would reignite the engines. I was right. Shortly after taking a couple steps forward, vrooming sounds reverberated across the gloaming sky again. I bet Ciara was still standing at the same place, but I didn’t have the courage to confirm, or I just didn’t want to confirm at all, I am not sure.

And as the track of the leading tank happened to pulverize a pebble while moving, making a muted exploding sound that stuck out from the whining rumble, I urged my legs to go faster so as to avoid hearing the most stomach-churning thing that was just around the corner, I supposed so, possible. But I was too late.

An extremely repulsive prolonged bang, which sounded like what you would hear while violently flattening and grinding minced meat into dust-like smaller pieces with a super hefty steel rod that could only be wielded by the God himself and was like a dozen of gigantic bulls was stamping on that same crushed minced meat incessantly at that same time, waltzed into my ears. And it gave me goose pimples that I felt like I could never get rid of. Then, after a vain attempt to cover my ears with my hands to mitigate the overwhelming impact on me, I rocked backward and forward and inevitably ended up retching up a stream of vomit at the roadside when I reached out fumbling around for something that could support my weight.

The traumatizing upheaval of emotions significantly disrupted my rhythm of breathing. And I was completely transfixed and was unaware of the surroundings when I was disgorging, mostly mixture of stomach acid and thread of saliva. After unwittingly emptying my entire stomach, I staggered forward like a drunken man, with my upper torso inclining forward, as though I were depressed and somewhat suicidal. My head was empty, my soul as well; they were well drained.

Then I wondered if God would spare a minute to save someone as contemptible as me like someone had once told me he would, and I pleaded him I would be genuinely glad to be a believer if he showed up. But I bet handling other matters had already occupied every white spaces on his schedule and that’s why there was no faith in me. So I thought I was asking too much. Seeking solace was too much, or I simply didn’t deserve it. So, dropped my knees to the ground and sat back on my heels, I instead prayed for his mercy to undo what had happened, with my fingers interlocked and my head craned skyward, soliloquizing aloud, until someone shoved me to the ground from behind angrily, almost breaking my nose, tiny shards of rock on the street scraping my forehead.

I was resentful. No one should interrupt my praying, especially when my faith in the prayer was about to be heard. And I got to my feet quickly and spun around like I was trying to lash out when a stream of fresh blood was trickling down on my face.

“Are you out of your mind!?” I barked before I was able to identify who it was.

Kriss seemed startled; my fury outweighed hers, I thought. “What!? Didn’t I tell you to remain a low profile?”

“You did! But where were you when… they… when they…” I stuttered.

“What?” she said. “I was hiding in an alley behind House Heaven. I can’t let them see my face.”

“Hiding? They took him away! God knows what will happen to him now. And she—” I choked back a wave of nausea.

I tried to continue, but every time when I was ready to emit a syllable, the same queasy feeling would catch me.

And she had blinked twice rapidly like she didn’t know what I was talking about before she blurted out. “She? Ciara? Where is she? And Frederick? What happened to them? Where are they? Huh?”

Informing others about this tragedy was the hardest part as there was a warm and sticky feeling that clogged up my air passageway bubbling up from my chest through my throat to my eyes, thwarting me from uttering a word.

“They were… She was…”

“What!? Say it clearly! You are stuttering!” Kriss prompted and strode toward me, shortening the distance between us to a point that I could feel the warmth exuding from her body.

“They took him.” I finally managed to let out a terse sentence.

“What do you mean they took him!? What happened!?” she asked, her eyes started out of her skull.

“They took him! They punched him and dragged him all the way back to their tank! And – and she, Ciara dashed out and tried to stop the tanks from going, standing right in front of the muzzle of the barrel! And—”

“And what!? What happened to her?”

But I then burst into tears spontaneously when I found them suddenly prickling my eyes. And I covered my face with my hands and knelt down before her like I was sinful.

“Sorry. I am sorry. I am so sorry,” I wept repeatedly.

She then had remained silent for quite a while that seemed ages, probably imagining what could’ve happened that made me feel so guilty, before I heard her stomping away swiftly, and I reckoned that she might have guessed what had happened by the time she acted, though I have never directly confirmed this with her even we are getting married now. I guess we just d


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on’t think it’s necessary to bring it up. That being said, I think we have once hinted at this tragedy when we were talking about Ciara by the pond side, and I can still remember that amazed look on Kaylen – he seemed to be amazed by the fact that Ciara has become The Tank Woman now – when he finally realized what we were alluding to.

Then, as Kriss was far away from me, “Hey,” Ryson’s voice said, his voice emotionless and unenthused.

I was slightly surprised that I didn’t hear him approaching me at all, maybe I had confused his footsteps with hers, and he patted me. I unveiled my face and found him trying to help me up by grabbing my left arm, which I found uncomfortable. So I politely rejected him, stood up, turned away from him and everyone, and expressed my gratitude, with remnants of tears evaporating on my cheeks.

Standing steadily, I tried my best to avoid catching a good glimpse of the remains of Ciara by keeping my head down like there was anything interesting on the street. And I didn’t dare to imagine what it was like, but even so, just the thought of it was already dreadful enough to make me shudder and cringe.

“Are you hurt?” Ryson asked.

Wiping the trails on my face, “Nope. I’m fine. I’m fine,” I said.

“Great. Because we have to get going now,” Kriss said loudly and firmly at somewhere behind me, in a way that made me think she had already accepted what had happened to her in such a quick time and had never had any strong emotions, her voice growing louder as she was walking toward me. “I am afraid they will return when they find out there are more of us.”

And I was slightly frustrated by the firm serenity she demonstrated in her voice and found it unbelievable that someone as moody as her could actually be this normal after knowing what had happened. But when she floundered past me, I instantly felt relieved at that particular moment when I saw her dampened cheeks, because that proved she was just pretending to be completely unaffected so that we were less prone to indulge in sadness and that proved she was a human.

So, with a strangely mournful atmosphere that had seemingly frozen the air solid around us, we resumed proceeding along the street and descended on the other end back to the boulevard. But this time I never tried to catch up with her pace again and intentionally kept a short distance from behind them as I wanted to seclude myself for a moment.

The park was just right across the street at where the slope ended. From there, nothing was obstructing our sight at the park, except the overgrown box hedges encircling it like ramparts. And the fountain that added charm to this place was located in the center of this small local leisure park with a broken swing, a slide and a dry pond, and just by the desolate look of it, I could tell it was abandoned for a long time.

Then we crossed the road and entered the park by pushing open a rusted tall gate with spikes of iron along its top. We did it quick so as to avoid attracting too much interests from the pedestrians then concealed ourselves behind the hedges immediately and waited for any minimal interests aroused to fade. By the time Kriss thought it was all right to move, I happened to set eyes on the prominent fountain, which I had always wanted to take a closer look, with two tiers, and it was like a giant rock sculpture designed by Mother Nature herself; the ground-basin junction was seamless like it was a natural extension from the ground, and was undecorated. The burbling jets of water were being pumped up high into the air, so high that when water plummeted back down, few drops of it would splash out of the basin, dampening the pebbled ground nearby. And the splashing and burbling sounds of it did somehow make me feel less gloomy.

“Where is the tunnel?” I asked when Kriss was leading us straightly toward the fountain.

She pointed forward. “Just right behind that thing.”

After we walked past the fountain from the right side, a small rectangular-shaped box of house, which looked like one of those at a toll gate, covered with layers of dust became visible right next to the edge of the pebbled ground. There was a window on the door of it, but no light could pass through as though it was a one-way mirror.

“This is where the park-keeper used to work at,” Kriss explained.

“So, where is it?”

“Down there,” she said, as she reached out for the doorknob and heaved open the thin timber door.

And I peeped into the house, half expecting to see something that would blow my mind away. But there was nothing inside, nothing noteworthy at all, only a pitch-black carpet placed on its wooden floor. I was a little bit disappointed, but as Kriss went on and squatted down, I got an inkling about where it was. And she proved me right when she pulled the carpet away, revealing a dark hole, which was wide enough for two men to fit through at the same time easily and was utterly lightless.

“This is it,” she said, and flipped over the carpet, showing us a dozen of traditional handheld flashlights glued to the back of the carpet, and took one of them seemingly randomly. “Pick one, and we will start crawling.”

Then I squinted at the hole, which was too dark for anyone to perceive anything, so I went on to scoop up one of the electric torches, switched it on and pointed it at the hole, trying to drive the darkness away. But, remarkably and creepily, not a single ray of light was reflected back, as though it was a condensed black hole sucking in everything. And I wondered apprehensively if there were rats inside or not.

“Where does this tunnel lead?” I asked suspiciously.

“You know the answer,” Kriss replied, waiting by the hole.

“Yeah, border areas, but where exactly?”

Then she suddenly glared at me disdainfully when the others were ready to go and were waiting for her to say something and said, “You know what. I am becoming somewhat doubtful about helping you out.”

“Doubtful?”

“Looking at you, I honestly don’t understand why Kaylen wants us to do this. He kept saying that we must get you out of this country safely at all costs and something like that. I really don’t understand why you are so important in his eyes that he doesn’t even care about risking our lives. We have all been fighting side by side with him for like a decade. We’re like a big family, but I have never seen him like this. He always told us—”

“Hey, Kriss,” Ryson interrupted and winked at her.

And I thought she was going to cry again, but I was wrong. She was just giving vent to her fury, which had always been there the whole time.

Then, as I was about to say something to defend myself, she exhaled a gust of exhaustion, head down, and pulled out a faint smile with pale lips. “Sorry guys. But just one more thing, Ashton.” She paused until she had my full attention. “Don’t talk to me no more. The next time you piss me off again is the last time you’ll be able to talk again.” Then she frowned, thumbed the switch of the torch angrily, bent down and vanished into the black hole.

I knew she was emotional, but I just didn’t feel right when she attributed every fragments of her unpleasant feelings to me because I had never asked them to do anything for me. Kaylen came to me first. And the way Ryson winked at her like he was her friend was strange. I felt like there was some kind of an unfathomable connection between them. And for a second, a thought of leaving without them did streak through my mind. But, ultimately, I banished that thought, knowing the chance of escaping on my own was close to zero, and sluggishly, I then crawled into the hole following the heels of Ryson.

And inside the tunnel, at first, I felt like I was sliding straight down to the core of this planet, then as the tunnel twisted up and turned flat, it became wider than before. I could almost crouch if not for the tapering icicle-like structure hanging from the roof of the tunnel, like stalactites. The muggy feeling that came along with some muddy puddles, which I would occasionally put my elbow into and withdraw instantly, was the only thing I found unacceptable inside, but overall, it was better than I’d imagined, though the crawling part was a bit too much for someone who rarely exercised like me.

With constant eel-like wiggling motions, we glided blindly – all the flashlights ran out of power very soon except Kriss’s, so we were literally gliding blindly – forward for what I felt like an hour until the tunnel twisted up again. I believed we were all badly covered in dirt by that time, but no one whined a word, and we never rested and just kept dragging ourselves up – I’d love to know how far did we still have to go actually but just didn’t feel like speaking after what I’d been told.

“Almost there.” Kriss broke the long-sedated silence, her voice echoing through the tunnel in a way that if I didn’t know she was ahead of me in the first place, I wouldn’t be able to tell where she was. “I can smell a scent of roses from outside.”

And I could smell it too. It was reminiscent of something very popular back in the Port, something like a lavender sachet but was more intense and sweeter. My memory was hazy. But I did find this scent particularly refreshing.

CHAPTER TEN

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As Ryson’s feet left my eyesight, I knew I had already reached the end of the tunnel. I felt like I was in a bear cave when I was trying to stick my weary hands out of the tunnel dumbly and when the view of the somber sky caught my eyes. The sky seemed to be so much smaller when you looked at it from inside a cave, so small that you had to use your imagination in order to picture what the rest of the universe was like, and that’s what pushed my imagination to its limit in a way that I’d never experienced back at the Port despite living in such a city with a great renown for the night sky view it had. Perhaps I had somehow developed a tendency to pay no attention to things I could enjoy at any moment. “Free sky,” I said to myself, and questioned myself if I’d for once really appreciated anything before. The answer to it does later become a source of shame that I have never disclosed to anyone, but at that time, I came to a conclusion that maybe that’s why people said the grass is always greener on the other side.

“Give me your hand.” Kriss’s voice broke my thought.

And when my hands were finally out of the cave, I felt a warm and strong hand grabbing my wrist pulling me up.

And after I pulled myself out of the tunnel, when I got to my feet on solid ground, “This way,” she said coldly and walked off at once.

We were in the middle of some bushes. There were no sight of modern buildings, nor hubbub of human activities, just some screeches from wild cicadas around us and some fragile red blossoms right besides my left foot. I felt like we were suddenly transported from the modern world back to the Stone Age. And the surroundings was so dingy that I wasn’t able to look clearly. But then, I heard a vague sound of waves hitting boulders along the shore from a particular direction, and that’s how I figured out where to go.

So, as I was then straggling behind Ryson, “Ryson,” I said.

We were moving in single-file, not because we intended to do so, but was a natural outcome when we found ourselves engulfed in darkness.

“Hmm?”

“Who are you, really?” I asked on a whim.

“You know that.”

“But who are you, like really really? Do you know Kriss?”

“Sure, I—”

“I mean before everything, before everything happened.”

He remained speechless.

As a strange silence was about to humiliate him, “Ashton, you know, we are grateful for everything, Ryson and me,” Mack, walking in front of Ryson and behind Kriss, said. “We are grateful for being given a chance to get out of this country. We are grateful for their… sacrifices, and we will never forget their names. So why don’t you just keep your lips sealed and be grateful for everything?”

He never looked at me when he spoke, but I did feel a timid sense of melancholy conveying in his tone. Maybe I was wrong about the connection between Kriss and Ryson, or maybe I was just being too sensitive. Either way I thought it would be better for me to stop being curious about everything.

So we moved all the way down to the shoreline quietly. And when we arrived, I expected to see something like a pier by the edge of the sea, or at least a crude facility for boarding, but instead there was only a beach slanted uphill to the right to a rugged cliff that looked like the beak of a white pigeon. The sand was coarse but fine, and at the junction where the lines of blooming bushes ended abruptly and the beach began, there was a big turtle lying.

Standing next to that turtle, looking around, “Come on. Over there,” Kriss commanded, and we headed left.

I could see there was a streamlined white speeder boat, a two-seater, which seemed to be able to go through a huge wave without difficulty, with almost no stern and a curved wide windshield right behind the V-shaped bow, floating steadily next to a short line of pillars projecting from the beach to the sea not too far away. I was excited. But upon approaching it, a man suddenly rolled out from behind the bushes to the beach in a way it seemed he had just been kicked out by an elephant. The man was seemingly fainted. None of us recognized him at first, but when Kriss pointed her torch at the face of him, we almost shrieked together.

“Jack!” I said, smothering my surprise just as my sense of danger pleaded me to, and hurried over to him.

I crouched down at his elbow and checked his breath. It was weak, much worse than when I first found him in the hotel and was like it would stop at any moment.

“What do we do?” I asked, as Kriss crouched down by my side.

“I don’t know either. Is he wounded?” she said.

And I scrabbled his body and found nothing notable.

“No. There is no blood and no wound on him. I—”

“R…n,” Jack suddenly whimpered, but I didn’t quite catch that.

“What? What did you say, Jack?” I prompted.

Then Kriss suddenly grabbed my arm, leaned in and whispered with her eyes ablaze with justifiable fear that had somehow conveyed what she was going to say to me, “Run. Now.”

So when she hauled me up, I was able to react instantly. And we sprinted toward the boat like there were hungry tigers on our tails even though we didn’t know what kind of a threat was looming. I never had a chance to look over my shoulder during the run, but on an occasion when I found Kriss staring at me, I did throw her back a petrified look, and from her calm facial expressions, I knew she wasn’t bolting so fast because she felt dreadful. She was just there running alongside me because I was running. So, midway through the beach, I did intentionally slacken my pace a bit to see how she would react, and the result was exactly what I’d expected. Perhaps she just wanted to make sure I could make it to the boat safely.

And while I started sprinting, I assumed that Mack and Ryson would be just right behind us. It had only occurred to me that they weren’t anywhere close behind us until we boarded the boat; I tripped over the gunwales but managed to regain balance when it swayed under the new weight I added. Then I looked afar at where Jack was, grasping that gunwales tightly, and saw the two of them engaging some fully geared soldiers emerging from the bushes with empty hands. I had absolutely no clue what they were thinking trying to take them down by force and of course, they were knocked down on the ground before I even blinked, but I was truly grateful for the extra few seconds they bought us with their lives.

“Hey, Ashton. Help me with the anchor. Pull it up. We won’t be able to go anywhere with that thing sitting deep down in the sea bottom,” Kriss urged, taking the helmsman seat behind the windshield.

Her voice was like an alarm reminding me of what sort of a situation we were in. And I hastened and jumped over to the stern, found a metal anchor chain lying on the edge of the boat and tried to pull it up, yet I couldn’t even make it move an inch no matter how hard I tried.

“Kriss! I think it’s stuck!” I yelled anxiously when I saw a batch of stern-looking soldiers marching toward us on the beach.

“Hey! Kriss!” I shouted in panic and looked back at her.

But the seat was empty. I was tremendously frightened. It occurred to me that she had abandoned me for a split second.

“Idiot! Don’t you see there is a red button beside your left foot? Press it down with force and hold until I tell you to let go!” Kriss, at somewhere on the boat out of my sight, shouted back, her voice made me feel glad to have her with me.

By the time I found the red button, bent down and jabbed it down with my middle finger, a mixture of vrooming engine sound and clanking metal sound appeared out of the blue.

“Are we good to go?” I asked aloud, my body shivering out of fear, while crouching.

“Wait! Don’t let go.”

Sensing the finger-numbing vibrations transmitting from the moving metal chain through the button to my finger, “Okay now?” I thundered even I knew the anchor was still on the move, because yelling was a good recipe to ease my mind.

“Be patient!”

As I was about to shout out loud again, the clanking metal sound and the vibrations both ceased at the same time, and before long, a high-pitched, continuous noise produced by the rotating turbine blades rolled across the night sky. The boat started off with an amateur forward lurch that made me fell down before steadily sailing ahead fairly well. I stumbled clumsily when I tried to stand up, though, as to what I could see, the waves weren’t really strong. So I deduced my stumbling was partly due to the relief that prompted me to let my guard down.

At my second attempt to stand up, I hunched over with my hands on the floor, leaned my body against one side of the boat, doing it all in one motion, and stood up when I was ready. Then when breezy wind began ruffling my hair, I looked back at the beach, which was already too far to be discernible. So I laughed triumphantly, feeling on cloud nine. But my blind happiness didn’t last long as I soon realized I was the only one feeling good about the escape, so I pulled a scrutinizing gaze at Kriss when howling wind was racing past my ears.

“Kriss?” I said, my voice muffled by the strong wind.

And she didn’t answer. She was just sitting quietly, with both hands on the outer edge of her thighs.

“Are you all right?” I continued, weighing her up, but not a word would slip out of her tongue.

She was only about two feet away from the windshield so I could understand why her hair wasn’t flipping around like mine was, but her strange posture, her head resting on the top of the seat kept swinging left and right as the ship moved like a dangling rope, triggered my suspicion. Thus, I scampered to her.

And as I was close enough to see the front part of her torso, I gawked vacantly and had no choice but to sit down on the assistant seat in order to avoid a bad fall. She was stabbed to death by a kitchen knife that pierced through her heart, blood oozing out from the wound all over her chest, staining her clothes, and I could be certain she was dead just by her pastel-colored lips.

Knowing there were only she and me on this boat, I dug deep into my recollections and tried to come up with one single thing that hinted she was becoming suicidal, yet there wasn’t even a single trace. So, for an instant, I was actually convincing myself to believe her suicidal thoughts must had something to do with her bafflingly fickle emotions, but after giving it a second thought, I came to a conclusion that it’s very unlikely she would commit suicide just because she felt gloomy suddenly. The main reason for that was if she would, she would’ve already done that a long time ago.

And then I deduced it was mainly because of the unbearable heaviness of the deaths of her friends; every one of them, like Mack, Ciara, Jack, were either captured or killed after all. But I cast away that thought right away as I happened to see she was holding something shiny in her right hand. And I became curious again. It occurred to me it must be something she desperately treasured for her to be clenching it even after she killed herself.

So I prised her hand open cautiously and placed it on my palm for inspection. And I was surprised to recognize it as the cumbersome-looking photo pendant I had once seen in Kaylen’s car, though the tarnished look on the cover of it made me wonder if it was the exact same one I had seen before or it was another one. There was no way to know. But this discovery alone had further boosted up my curiosity. Then, I had for a hard time vacillated between teasing out a clue about what’s under the cover and putting it back into her hand but not for long, as my spirit of enquiry prevailed very soon.

Sneakily, I upturned the cover like I was pickpocketing, angled my head to peep into it before it was fully opened and started suddenly. What came into my view was very shocking, so shocking that I knew I could have never guessed it right by chance. It was a picture of me.

Of course, I am now aware that she killed herself because she would rather die than to fall into the soldiers’ hand; she knew there was no getting away on her return trip after dropping me off on that island that I’ll come to later. And it’s clear to me that she got that picture of me from her father, who had received it along with a watch from my father just before he passed. And I remember how Kriss explained this to me by the pond side, and this is what she said, “Your father was so worried about you and your sister that he had to give my father that pendant with your picture on it and another one with your sister’s picture on it to Kaylen’s father so that at least someone in the country would be able to recognize you and tell you to get out of there if we happen to come across you strolling down a street someday. And for that to happen, we did make sure every freedom-pursuers would be able to recognize you when they happen to see you. But anyway, when I first heard about this from my father, my first thought was it was kind of stupid for him to do so, because even if you have gone back there, the possibility that we would meet is close to zero. But after all, he’s your father and he was just afraid that his children would somehow return to that place and get caught, and I can understand his feelings now. Anyway, somehow you did return to that place. But luckily – do you still remember the Chief of Police? That man in a red coat? On that day we met, I was there to assassinate him, and I was waiting for him to show up. But luckily, I saw you. And I immediately recognized you, that photo pendant had been with me all my life after all, and you looked very much like the picture.”

And then the three of us talked on and on about everything like, how too golden the hotel was, what happened to Kaylen’s team, why did I go back there, but at a point, when I could no longer hold back my urge to ask her this question, “Why were you holding a grudge against me back then?” they both went silent as if I had gone too far by asking that.

After a minute or two, Kaylen finally said, “Do you remember the headband man who was killed in front of you?”

I nodded.

And he continued, “He’s Shaman, her boyfriend.”

Then I remember I could only stare at Kriss for another minute or so while recalling how the headband man had stopped because he had recognized me before saying this, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

And perhaps this is why I have proposed to her directly instead of asking her to be my girlfriend on the other day. But the conversation didn’t end there.

Seeing Kriss was in a deep thought, Kaylen then continued, “What about the man who was tortured and killed somewhere near the hotel? Did you hear his screams?”

I didn’t nod, but he went on, “He was one of us. And he was caught when he was about to set fire to the hotel.”

I couldn’t quite concentrate at that moment, maybe I was totally blown away by what he just said, but on a whim, I asked, “Why did he try—”

“Because by setting fire to the hotel, we could kill two birds with one stone. To force you to come with us, and to create a window of opportunity for us to kill that Chief of Police,” Kriss pulled herself together and interrupted.

“But how did you know I would survive it? You couldn’t have—” I paused as something came to my mind. “That’s why Ciara was there? She was there to make sure I could get out, wasn’t she? But what about Jack?”

“Yes, she was there to help you escape, and we were all so worried about you when Ciara climbed down the ladder alone. But Jack, he wasn’t part of our plan,” he said. “And I was honestly dazed when I saw him with you. It’s the last thing I could have imagined.”

“So, who is he really?”

“He was there with your father in front of the tanks. The man riding a bike. And he was there with your father when he passed away as well,” she quipped. “And by the time you saw him, he was a professor working in one of the universities in the Port. But we, Kaylen and me, have known him since we were small. He was a friend of our fathers.”

“But did you ask him? Did you ask him what he was doing there?”

“Of course I asked, he never answered me though,” he said. “My guess is, maybe he knew they were going to close the border, and that’s why he went back, to help us.”

And I remember on that day we had kept on babbling and chattering like we were suddenly old friends for more or less a day before we headed back to the house.

But anyway, at that time, I had no idea why she had my picture in her palm when she ended her life and felt disoriented trying to rationalize my findings when the boat staggered forward, disrupting my knotted thought, making me realize the boat, which had been moving as fast as a dinghy for the whole time, was currently sailing with no one in control. I was afraid the boat would run into some kind of a big rock that could rip it apart and get me killed, and so, I discarded that thought, returned the pendant to her, lifted her cold, pale-turning body up and laid her down on the floor with care, putting her head down first, then her torso. I didn’t have the basic concept of how to maneuver a boat, but obviously, for me to learn it quickly was the only option I was given.

And I took the helmsman seat and, nearly shiveringly, put my hands on a small wheel, which looked more like the one in a car than that of it on a real boat I’d often see on the big silver screen, this actually uplifted my confidence because I’d earned my driver’s license on day one after I had just turned eighteen on the first try, yet steering a boat that had a car-wheel-like wheel was not as simple as I’d thought.

It took me a couple of wild attempts of randomly changing the course of it; I, for once, had it turned halfway upside down before successfully reobtained balance, before I began grasping the most fundamental sense of how to use it, like how much should I turn the wheel when there was an obstacle up ahead, when should I apply the pressure, and something like that. And the idea of slowing it down a bit had never come to my mind before I happened to take a glimpse at a speed meter, which indicated the boat was proceeding with three-fourth the maximum speed, on a control panel to the right side of the wheel.

And instinctively, I looked down at the corner before my feet, trying to find a pedal-like thing for deceleration, assuming it was somehow identical to a car. Of course there was nothing noteworthy. Then I shifted my attention to a short control handle that stuck out below the control panel; it was so short that it seemed to have been truncated and perhaps that’s why I had failed to notice it until then. It’s so short that I had to lean forward in order to get hold of it. But when I placed my hand on top of it and tried to tug it down, which I couldn’t, then tried to lift it up fruitlessly, my fingers felt something like a lock from under the handle. I guessed maybe it was a protection gear, or some sort of that, working to prevent something bad from happening.

So I tried to move it left and right, up and down, in literally every directions I could think of as if it was a joystick of a game, it didn’t even move a bit though. And I thought there must be an easy way to unlock it if whoever assembled this craft had ever intended to make it usable. Thus, on a whim, I tried to shove the handle inward into the panel, I couldn’t, then pulled it outward, and then I heard there was a sound of cracking open something. And after that sound, I moved it like a joystick again and fathomed out that tugging it down meant deceleration while lifting it up meant picking up speed.

Everything went smoother after spending some more time on becoming more proficient in maneuvering it adopting a trial and error method, my experience in driving a car helped a lot, and as I thought I was ready, it occurred to me there were still two things I had to figure out before I could actually set off on my way home and they were my current location and a detailed map, which made m


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e think of the cafe embellished with detailed maps of every countries. Then after trying to shake off my homesickness, a thought dawned on me as if it was the upshot of the shaking. There was no way Kriss wasn’t carrying a map with her if she was supposed to be the one piloting this craft in the first place; after all, I thought she was the only one among us who had been involved in hatching up this escape plan.

Therefore, I pushed down the handle, letting the propeller did its magic, until it fully stopped with some dying engine sounds, left the seat, walked over to her, squatted down and searched her really nicely and gently by patting here and there, and frankly, searching on a corpse – hers, as I remember, hadn’t started rotting or else I would’ve given up this idea straight away – was by no means a pleasant thing to do, and so I did it quite roughly. But, fortunately, when I got my hand over her trousers pocket, where people tended to put all sort of things in, I found her phone. And I slid it out and unlocked it by tardily holding up her right hand and kind of unwillingly pressing her right thumb against the sensor on the bottom of the phone; not because I found it disgusting to touch a corpse, but the spooky feeling I got when I realized she was still talking to me a moment ago.

Behind the lock screen was exactly what I had been looking for, an electronic map, a detailed map with the sea route from the beach to a dock on an island due east to Port Aroma drawn out on it, and I thought it would be better for me to stick to her plan if possible as she hadn’t pointed out where that dangerous outlying island currently surrounded by military vessels was on it. And for that to happen, now I needed to know my current location. And after a few more pats, I was sure there was nothing else helpful on her. So I rummaged around the ship and heaved out every drawers and every secret compartments I could find, leaving no stones unturned, the drawers and compartments looked as empty as a granary after a famine though.

Then I prayed for help and sat on the floor to think as the boat was floating around along the growing wrath of the waves, causing it to rise and sink every now and then, and every time when a wave smashed at the side of the boat, some splashes would mysteriously end up in my mouth and I had to spit it out; I could still recall the saltiness of seawater for quite a long while after that. But that didn’t last for too long.

As I had had enough of the seawater-end-up-in-my-mouth thing, I hissed and got to my feet. I wasn’t expecting anything when I looked around. But when I did, I caught sight of the beach that we were on. I guessed the waves had brought me back there. And to me, it’s like a miracle, or even something like a deus ex machina that would only appear in a novel. So I laughed and screamed while throwing my hands up like I had just won a game seven, “Thanks, God, for saving my life!”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

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After obtaining everything I needed to set off on my way home, I didn’t hesitate to rush back to the pilot seat and started the engine. It was a long lonely journey; maybe not lonely as Kriss was still on the boat at that time, but during that journey, I had developed a lurking happiness in my heart as if I was on an express train bound for Shangri-La. But as I had approximately covered half of the distance from the beach to Port Aroma, I realized her corpse would be a real problem. If I got caught by the border patrols, what would be the officers’ first impression of me when they found her corpse? It would be greatly detrimental to me.

I didn’t have too many options, and I just wanted to get it done quickly. So what came up to my mind later was as simple as dumping her into the sea, but this thought had really given me a good chill despite knowing she was totally dead by then; dumping someone you knew, even though she wasn’t breathing, without proper cremation beforehand into the sea wasn’t as easy as just lifting up and throwing out a bag of garbage after all. And of course, if I got to choose again now, I wouldn’t have done that. But back then, I was overtaken by fear, a stupid fear I had scolded myself for feeling several times after that incident – luckily she has never asked me about her corpse or else she would’ve probably dumped me already.

And I acted. I tiptoed over to her, lifted her up, carried her over to the gunwales and prayed. My prayer had gone on for what I felt like half an hour before I summoned up enough courage to do it with my eyes closed; I thought I would feel more sinful if I witnessed it, though the heart-wrenching splashing sound full of lament and sorrow produced when she vanished into the sea was loud enough for me to feel that sinfulness. Then I began weeping silently for a reason that was not clear to me till lately. It wasn’t me who killed her. She killed herself. It wasn’t me who killed Jack, Ryson, Mack, Ciara, Frederick, and any others, but I knew I was the one who must take all responsibility; they had all sacrificed their lives in order to help me after all. And from time to time after that, when I was alone at home, I would wonder how on earth did a son of an honorable man who is willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of others end up being the one being helped, and every time when I went through this in my mind, I would usually shrug it off in the end, realizing it’s a daft thought leading to nowhere.

And I remember I had stood there like a statue with the same posture, bending down with my elbows on the gunwales and supporting my chin with two fists, for another half an hour of praying before returning back to the helmsman seat, and when I sat down and slightly turned the wheel so that it didn’t deviate too much from the course drawn on the map, I felt the boat was lighter than before; I never dug deep into this seemingly false feeling even after everything, because I’d cringe badly every time when the thought of trying crept up into my mind. And I am cringing right now.

And the rest of the journey to my destination seemed as fleeting as an elevator ride. The sun had already peeped out from the horizon when I was close to the island, which had a weird war-ship-like shape and was shrouded in sea mist. According to the map displayed on the phone, I was supposed to find something like a dock, where I could disembark. But sadly, it didn’t show its exact location, not to mention that the occurrence of poor visibility was hindering me from observing.

As the boat kept moving forward into the mist, I kept squinting to see what’s up ahead, but before I was able to perceive anything, I heard an alarming siren and someone yelling through a loudspeaker, the ear-piercing electronic echoing sound buzzing like a bee, “We are the Coastal Defense Forces of Port Aroma. Whoever is listening to this please stop the boat and kill the engine, or else we will have to do it by force.”

The pure excitement surged through me when I heard he said ‘Port Aroma’ was almost as mesmerizing as the warm hug Oli had given me before. I’d never thought the most mellifluous thing in the world would be something like this instead of a good old song. I didn’t remember if I had cried or not, but I was pretty sure I was beaming and looking around like a maniac while obeying his instructions in spite of the fact that I couldn’t see him anywhere.

As soon as I had killed the engine, a middle-sized armored vessel that was almost triple the size of mine with a bowsprit and two unmanned guns mounted on each side of the bulwarks came out of the mist from behind and stopped precisely just inches away to the right from my ship, just about the distance so that the two ships wouldn’t collide even while floating arbitrarily. And the next thing I saw was a bearded mid-aged man wearing a blue windbreaker and a typical pale white fisherman hat, with a flashy pair of sunglasses, emerging from the mist on its deck. He then boarded my ship by simply leaping over the bulwarks, which were half the height of me, like he was a superman, landed on the stern of my boat, making it sway, and walked over to me slowly.

“Hey. What are you doing out here alone? Are you a resident of Port Aroma?” he said nonchalantly while strolling and looking around, with all ten of his fingers, just fingers, in the pockets of his ill-assorted khaki shorts.

At that time, I had been expecting to see a group of well-trained uniformed officers marching onto my boat in an orderly fashion, instead of an athletic fisherman, and had thought they were going to arrest me for breaking a law I had never heard of, but then it occurred to me that the government had already dissolved when a doubt evoked by his strange mannerisms crossed my mind, and I suddenly realized now that no one was paying any more, no one was supposed to be enforcing the law any more, that’s why I had scolded myself several times for feeling that dumb fear afterward.

Then my smothered excitement instantly transformed into a fretfulness, which I had once felt when I was waiting for the elevator back then, and I said while sizing him up down to the very details, like what size of shoes he was wearing, any notable scars or tattoos on the exposed part of his body, if he was wearing a ring or not and so on and so forth, “Who are you? I thought the government has already dissolved, and the Coastal Forces has already ceased to exist.”

But he chuckled and shrugged.

“I was just joking. Sorry man, for the big confusion. Haha,” he said, gasping for air between laughs like a clown.

“You were joking?”

“Yeah, I’m sorry. I thought even a five year old would—” He suddenly stopped laughing and continued solemnly, glaring at me. “Unless you are a nasty smuggler.”

Considering I had already lost my suitcase, which stored every single piece of my personal identification papers, at the burning hell, the fretfulness intensified, because I knew if only he had asked me to prove that I was a resident of Port Aroma, it would look very suspicious for me to refuse. So I remained silent.

But he suddenly cracked a smile, then burst into laughter, when I was gaping at him like I was transfixed. “Hahaha, look at you. You’re really frightened, aren’t you?”

After a brief delay, “Well yeah, frankly, I am a little bit frightened, but who are you? And why did you tell me to switch off the engine?” I said.

He then giggled, held his hands up, motioned me to look at his vessel in a way like he was saying ‘Da-Dah’ and gazed admirably at it. “As you can see, I am a fisherman, who owns an armored boat. Have you ever seen something like this? Isn’t it extraordinary? I thought you would love to take a look at it. That’s why I told you to stop.”

He was speaking with a weird tone of voice, one like what your children would make when they receive a new toy. It seemed obvious to me that he was some sort of a deranged lunatic by then, though, looking back, I can understand that he was just too thrilled about what he was going to tell me. But at that time, I just wanted to get rid of him and went home. So I scrutinized his vessel dramatically, placing my right hand right over my two eyebrows and said, “Wow that looks awesome man. Where did you buy it?”

“Is it?” he shrieked and grinned like an overjoyed kid.

“Why don’t we go on board your ship?” I asked. “It’s much better over there than staying here, isn’t it?”

He looked oddly but sincerely gleeful when I was speaking, as if he couldn’t believe I actually liked his vessel.

“Sure. I am more than happy to have you on board, you know what, my only daughter is getting married tomorrow, but I am still unsure about how I should decorate her cabin. I am thinking maybe you can give me some ideas regarding that matter.”

“Well, of course I can. I have actually worked for a decoration company before.”

“Really? My daughter is working for a decoration company as well! And that’s why I am so confused!”

“Well then, let’s go. What are we waiting for?” I said enthusiastically. “After you.”

He then nodded, headed to the stern and leapt over to catch a badly frayed rope ladder, which only extended down to half the height of the ship, after a few preparatory bounces. I didn’t really know how he managed to jump so far and high, but I was sure even if I had wished to follow him, I would only have ended up drowning myself in the salty sea.

As he was climbing up the ladder nimbly – he was already halfway through it when I acted – I went back to the helmsman seat, ignited the engine and lifted the handle up to speed up the boat, and I remember a deceleration had never taken place until I had disembarked at the pier behind the high-rise at where I lived; of course, I had already given up on looking for that dock after meeting the man.

The tiny little pier was still as shabby-looking as it had been for the past few decades; the roof was rusted, the paint of the six supporting pillars with moss growing in some cracks was worn off, the stone staircase that acted as a junction between sea and land at the end of the pier was eroded. But overall, it was still intact, though when I was young, I had once wondered foolishly if I could hammer it down myself or not, but that wasn’t the most foolish thing, not at all. The most foolish thing had to be that I had actually spent a whole sunny evening testing its firmness with a wood ax a few days after, instead of going to Brian’s birthday party – he had only forgiven me for not going after a month – and it directly resulted in the largest crack at the very bottom of the first pillar. I used to think of it as one of those daft things that everyone would do at our younger age and had never told anyone about it. But back then, when I later laid my eyes on it, I realized that this kind of foolishness was exactly what made up the major part of my precious good old days in this place and this would never fade away, no matter how this place was changing. And so, the thought of emigrating has never come to me again for the rest of my life.

Then, as I heaved myself over the gunwales and landed on the eroded staircase in a batman way, I suddenly realized I had forgotten to moor it to the pier side. It was too late. The boat had already drifted away as though it was a giant piece of garbage thrown into the sea, yet I wasn’t too upset about it. I thought it was better for it to disappear in my life because I had absolutely no interest in owning a boat; however, it later occurred to me that maybe I was just averse to it as it would become a constant reminder of what had happened in Felomeim, which was a shard of memory I would like to bury.

And so, I strolled across the pier to the first pillar, bent down and examined it for quite a long while before heading home; the crack was still there but was filled with overgrown moss. And I found it weird that now I was finally back home, I wasn’t really as happy as I’d expected. I am not saying that I was unhappy, but I remember there was a gloomy feeling hijacking my heart.

Soon when I was moving in a flat, dingy tunnel connecting the seashore and the pavement in front of the high-rise, my phone buzzed. The default ringing tone echoed down the entire tunnel. I was a little bit shocked since it had been quite some time after it had last buzzed, but I still managed to slip it out and pick it up immediately after the third ring.

“Ashton? Can you hear me? Ashton? Ashton?”

I failed to recognize this impatient male voice at first, so I had to take a quick glimpse at the name of the caller displayed on the screen before answering.

“Brian?” I said.

“OH, thank God you finally picked up the phone. Thank God,” he said, then let out a big sigh, which was supposed to come to my ear before he spoke.

And then, strangely, I could hear a muted chime-like ringing, like what you would hear when you accidentally crashed your ring into the back of your phone. I surely didn’t know he was going to marry Oli back then – I had only realized this after a year or so – so I was slightly baffled by that sound, let alone the head-scratching immense relief he had demonstrated.

“What happened? You are scaring me.”

He huffed out a gust of eerily soundless air. “Shit. Where to begin? I’m not sure how to put this. Shit.”

The relief he had a moment ago had suddenly dissipated wholly and was seemingly replaced by a newly developed anguish.

“Calm down, Brian. Calm down. Just tell me what happened.”

He huffed out another gust of air, probably making up his mind, and said clearly, “Listen, Ashton. What I am going to tell you is about your sister.”

“My sister? What about her?”

“She is… f… e… d,” he faltered.

“I can never understand you if you keep on stuttering. Say it clearly.”

After huffing out one more gust of air, “She was found dead last night,” he said.

I can still remember how the dismaying distress had then attacked me at that time and how I had refused to believe in it at first. The devastating impact on me had me knelt desperately in the tunnel and had deprived me of my ability to speak for almost ten minutes; the longest ten minutes in my life.

“Ashton? Are you all right? Ashton? Hello?”

“How? What do you mean she was found dead?”

“She was gang-raped, murdered and… dismembered. A bartender found her body this morning in an alley right behind the bar she works in, and she found my contact in your sister’s phone. I have been trying to reach you for a couple of hours, but I just can’t find you anywhere.”

“Where is her body?”

“King’s Bar. At the rotary on the Queen’s street.”

Then I hung up the phone, sat on my heels, had my eyes riveted on the ‘fe-fee’, which I was going to give her back, and tittered bitterly.

A Note from the Author

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Thank you so much for reading. I hope you have enjoyed this book, and so please kindly leave a comment on Amazon so that I can know what you think about this book.

If you have anything that you want to ask or inform me directly as I am happy to receive feedback from readers, you can contact me via email. You can talk about anything you want. It doesn’t have to be only about this book. And I am looking forward to talk to you guys.

[email protected]

I am currently working on another book and it will be released in six months. So please expect to hear from me very soon.

Copyright

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Text copyright © 2018 Wong Chun Wing

All Rights Reserved

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

For questions and reporting, please email to,

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