Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Fábio Fernandes, an SFF writer living in São Paulo, Brazil. Fábio has several stories published in online venues in the US, the UK, New Zealand, Portugal, Romania, and Brazil. He also contributed to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s “Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded”, and has a story coming up soon in Lavie Tidhar’s “The Apex Book of World SF Vol. 2″.
This is the story’s first publication.
Deadly Quiet on the Western Front
“What did you do before the war?” asked the soldier in the trench.
“Was?” the corporal mumbled, distracted and disgruntled.
“What did you do before coming here, man?” the soldier asked again.
The corporal pretended he hadn’t heard the question. First, because the intimacy his subordinate showed him was very bothersome. And also, because he had more to do besides listening to the man babbling: binoculars in hand, he tried to look across the wasteland separating the two large areas of trenches. He couldn’t see a thing, and it was still light. When night fell upon that no man’s land, the hell of the bombs would torment them again.
“I was a painter,” he finally deigned to answer, still without looking at his brother-in-arms. But the soldier was gone.
So much the better. He wasn’t in the mood for idle chatter. And he needed the rest of the light to sketch.
He had almost added he had been a painter in Vienna. But that wasn’t important.
Unlike the other brothers-in-arms, the corporal wasn’t German but Austrian. Not that it mattered in the least: both countries shared the same language and practically the same culture.
The problem was in the practically.
Vienna was considered an enlightened capital, one of the greatest cultural centers of Europe, comparable to Paris. Its cafés and cabarets reunited the cream of the crop of the Viennese intelligentsia: poets, actors, musicians, painters.
All degenerate people.
The fact was, he didn’t like to talk to his fellow soldiers because of his temper. He couldn’t disguise his accent, typical of the suburbs of Vienna. The Wiener Vorstadtdialekt had always been a hurdle in life. More than a hurdle; a veritable curse.
The corporal was ashamed to be Austrian.
For him, Austria was a minor country. Germany was what really mattered, with its thousand-year culture, its powerful, vigorous music, its Germanic history, the Rheingold. How had Vienna contributed to the history of music, for instance? Mozart?
You didn’t want to get him started on Mozart. Little degenerate man. Confusing tunes. Too many notes. To him, Wagner was good. Yes, Wagner. Parsifal. Now that was music all right!
What about painting, then? Klimt, with his ill-proportioned women over geometric backgrounds with no meaning whatsoever? The paintings with biblical themes were passable, he conceded, but the final result, oh, the final result!
And what about Schiele? Who the hell was Egon Schiele, mein Gott? Painting sick women, syphilitic dancers, corpse-like whores, showing unashamedly their pudenda? Outrageous! And to think the little fellow had been accepted by the Akademie der Bildenden Künste!
The corporal’s application had been refused by the Akademie almost at the same time.
Not long ago – around 1906 – he had been selling his paintings in the cold streets of Vienna. Or at least trying to.
Nobody ever bought a single painting of his.
If the corporal had liked Van Gogh, he could have compared himself to the Dutch master. Not in quality or even technique, but in the fact that in years and years he never managed to sell a single painting.
But the truth was that he hated Van Gogh.
And all the Impressionists. Monet, Gauguin, Seurat. Especially Seurat! What kind of nonsense was that pointillism?
When the war was over, the corporal would follow the advice of the Direktor of the Akademie. He would be an architect. No modern art for him, thank you very much.
Alas, the new age didn’t seem to acknowledge the great painters of the last generation, like Feuerbach, Waldmüller, and Rudolf von Alt. Those men, the corporal thought, oh, they knew how to paint! The beautiful watercolors of von Alt, the living colors of Waldmüller, so realistic!
The corporal was a most realistic man. It was impossible to fight in a war and not be realistic, or at least so he thought. (The corporal was a most opinionated man.) He was well aware that he didn’t have an ounce of the talent of von Alt or Waldmüller. It doesn’t matter, he thought: destiny had other things in store for him. If he couldn’t be a painter, he would be an architect. And he would be an architect of great things.
But first things first. The thin shroud of light over the moonscape of Ypres offered to the corporal a phantasmagoria, something worthy of Gustave Doré. He thought Doré’s engravings for Don Quixote impressive works of art.
Using a tiny piece of charcoal, the corporal sketched. And planned for the future.
The corporal was, above all, an optimist.
If you happened to watch him from a distance, always serious and withdrawn, you certainly wouldn’t say that. But only an optimist would think everything would turn out right in the middle of an all-out war; the War to End All Wars.
(An optimist or a madman. But you couldn’t get caught saying that to his face, or he would go absolutely crazy. A raving lunatic, indeed.)
The corporal fulfilled his duties with the utmost seriousness. Maybe even beyond the call of duty.
Two years before, in October 1916, he had been wounded in France. Grenade shrapnel in his left leg during the Battle of the Somme. Nothing serious, but he was given a medal. He thought of refusing it – after all, it was his duty, nothing more – but you simply can’t shrug off a decoration from your fatherland.
They also gave him a bonus. He got a transfer to Germany and was stationed there for five months.
The worst five months of his life.
He had no family, no home to return to; he didn’t know what to do: it was the first time he had stayed away from the front in two years of war. His recovery was quick enough, but they insisted on an extended leave anyway. The corporal’s protests were useless. He was compelled to obey.
He spent part of that time visiting historical and architectural monuments in Berlin. And dreaming of, one day, himself being counted among the creators of such magnificent stuff. Sketching the Doric columns of the Brandenburg Gate and glimpsing the occasional dirigible transporting materiel – probably guns, and the new mechanical golems made by those Viennese steel manufacturers, the Wittgensteins – as near to the front as it dared.
Scheissköpfe, all of those Imperial Army Generals! How could they think that Jewish automata could replace real Menschen, real men like him?
As soon as he had fully recovered from his injuries, he was sent to Munich. To work in a supply division.
He almost had a hysterical fit. He was a man of action, not of idling around.
He had petitioned the War Office to return to the front as soon as possible. Now he was back in his true home, the List Regiment. Doing what he did best: running. The corporal acted as a messenger between the regimental staff and the outposts. It best suited his surly, solitary temperament.
Anyhow, the regiment was his home because he liked the pure, Spartan environment of the battle front. There he could revel in the hardships of the field, and the few moments of meditation and contemplation of the landscape.
That was more than he could ever have wanted. A fine home? A family? That he didn’t care for. Deep down, the corporal knew very well what his so-called brothers-in-arms thought of him.
No matter how hard he tried (and he tried very hard), he couldn’t disguise the fact that he was and would always be an Austrian. At the end of the day, in spite of being united by the same goal (temporarily, it was good to remember) – defeating France – the Germans never forgot their class system, a division similar to the complex network of castes in India, in the corporal’s opinion.
For the corporal, however, the entire situation only existed because of the degeneration brought about by that mixture. And the Jews were to blame for that.
The Jews were an ugly, impure people. They were a riff-raff of criminals and communists. The problem was that the German government did not turn away the Jews who wanted to fight for Germany on the battlefield. But that didn’t mean the corporal had to like them.
And he was quite sure that his Jewish superiors had barred his promotion to Sergeant First Class.
It doesn’t matter, he thought at meal time, eating bread and jelly, wiping the spatters with his hand to avoid smearing them even more over his uniform, already stained with mud and soot. To be a corporal was better. He didn’t want to be a leader. Not for now, at least.
One day, the war would be over. And, when that happened, he wanted to be part of the new order. Any little thing would do, since he would be able to help restore Germany to its position of prominence on the world scene. Deutschland über alles, he thought while eating his bread and jelly and petting the dog that rested at his feet.
He smiled, savoring the sweet irony. He despised any kind of intermingling of blood, but the dog was just a mongrel that had come from nowhere one day and had stayed by his side.
He called her Fox. She was a smart bitch, and could run almost as fast as he. A fine companion, she was. Better than his degenerate regiment colleagues.
The year 1917 was a particularly troublesome one for the List Regiment. Its members fought in the trenches on the French side of Flanders, in the Battle of Arras in the spring and in the Chemin des Dames in the fall. The corporal was one of the most vigorous fighters, and showed such a lack of restraint on the battlefield that he won even more medals.
That, of course, was of no consequence to the corporal. What he really wanted, in his heart of hearts, was to win the war. Only Germany triumphant would make him really happy, and free to realize his dream.
From time to time he received letters; never from his sister, with whom he had lost contact years before. One of his few correspondents was a painter who was also fighting in the War, Ernst Schmidt. In their letters, Schmidt and the corporal talked a lot about politics and the future of Germany. In their exchange, the corporal mentioned to Schmidt his recent interest in politics. After all, there were too many architects already. Of course, maybe he wouldn’t be able to give up architecture just like that; he needed to survive, natürlich, to earn his daily pumpernickel (something he had not always managed during his time as a painter in Vienna, and the memory of hunger still haunted him). But he would enter politics anyway, no matter what.
The corporal never gave up. He had the utmost contempt for several of his regimental colleagues. Not brothers-in-arms, no – he could never use such an expression, particularly for those who had families. Because those were the first to come up with reasons to be discharged from service, on the slightest pretext.
Not he, no. He had no family. And, even if he had, he wouldn’t give up his chance to fight for his country. His Heimat! No excuses for him, no sir. He would follow the call of duty to the bitter end.
The year 1918 was even better for Germany. In March, the Reich imposed on Russia the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and by April had virtually annihilated the Romanian defenses. The mechanical golems had been particularly helpful with that, even the corporal admitted (though grudgingly).
Things were so good that the List Regiment easily beat the Frenchmen in Montdidier-Noyon and, soon after that, in Soisson and Reims.
That was why nobody expected the mortar strike.
When the bomb exploded in his regiment’s tent, the corporal was leaving to get his dog, which stubbornly ran off around the trenches just at lunch time.
He was by the entrance to the tent when all hell broke loose. The last thought that crossed his mind was: I must punish that bitch, Scheisse!
Then he blacked out.
Only the first half of 1918 had been good for Germany.
The bloody battles, to which the soldiers gave themselves body and soul, were utterly destructive for the Army of the Reich. In early August, with insufficient soldiers and no food, which was even worse, the Germans in desperation stopped attacking. This gave the allied powers the chance to make a counter-strike.
So successful a counter-strike that, by the end of September, the German Chief-of-Staff, General Ludendorff, proposed an armistice, offering the surrender of Germany.
But not even Ludendorff knew the Germans’ ultra-secret weapon.
Gustav Noske did.
A member of the Sozial-Demokrat Partei, the German Social-Democratic party at the beginning of the century, Noske was a hardline military officer. Just before the War, he had become a member of the Reichstag, supporting a pact between Left and Right so that the country could face the harshness of war.
All bullshit, of course.
What Noske really wanted was power, whatever the cost. And power he got, with a new medical technique which went beyond the boundaries not only of imagination, but also of ethics and convention. After some political and corporate string-pulling, Noske created as early as 1917 a special group of fighters, the first military – and secret – force of the Deutsches Reich: the “Freikorps” (“freedom fighters”, or, in a more literal and less ironic translation, the “free bodies”).
The first group was a band of de-cerebrated soldiers. Literally de-cerebrated: only those brain-damaged and thus considered officially dead could be part of the Freikorps.
It was the first application of the Faust Auferstehung Methode on a large scale, outside research and development laboratories. If the French horse-eaters and the American doughboys were still fighting and resisting the mustard gas and even the mechanical golems – which were huge and sturdy machines, but, truth be told, very clumsy and prone to defects more often than not – nothing less than resurrected (and therefore unkillable) German soldiers could stop these Allies now.
But then, it was a dirty war.
At the cold chrome operating table, the German surgeons don’t stop to think: thinking is not their job; they are not there to think. Let others do that, while drinking Schnapps and eating Sauerkraut in the old, gay bars of München and Berlin. Long may they continue, is all one of the surgeons can think as he is stricken by a sudden desire to drink a large Glas Bier and look into the beautiful blue eyes of his fiancée, who waits for him in the Bavaria of his youth.
Not now, however. Now the doctor must concentrate and perform the surgery. It’s an experimental procedure, but one already performed successfully on animals. The next logical step, of course, was bound to be with humans, sooner or later – and war is always a good operating theater, a test tube, a Petri dish for the souls of men. These, naturally, are just metaphors: for the surgeons, there is no such thing as a soul. What does exist, however, is the mind. Without the mind, there is no life.
Therefore, the corporal who is on the operating table before them – he and several others caught by the shrapnel from the bomb that destroyed almost the whole of the List Regiment – is dead. And, if a soldier never usually has a say in anything, obliged to do whatever he is ordered, what then of a dead soldier?
A mere technicality. The soldier on the bed is not quite dead. His veins pulse; his heart pumps blood; his muscles react when stimulated by electrical impulses.
Only the brain remains dead.
But the body, ah, the body – is alive!
How strange is fate: if the corporal now being operated on on the cold chrome table had stayed inside the tent with the others, he would have been blasted into oblivion. Instant, utter, irretrievable death. On the other hand, had he taken just a few steps more, and distanced himself, say, eight, nine feet away, he would have had no more than a few burns, nothing serious, and would have been back on the battlefield in no time at all – or, with luck, could have obtained medical leave and a much deserved rest at home, where most certainly his loved ones would be eagerly waiting for him.
But that was not to be.
A piece of shrapnel penetrated the corporal’s frontal lobe, rendering him completely unconscious. He probably never even felt it.
Now there he was, his mind totally erased. The metal fragment had lobotomized the corporal’s brain.
The surgeon doesn’t think of what awaits the soldier if the surgery is successful. After all, things could always be worse. For one who loves and cherishes life, there is no fate worse than death.
The corporal doesn’t think any more. Thinking is not his job; he’s not there to think.
If asked, he won’t be able to answer. He can’t remember anything. Not even how to speak. For the corporal, everything is nebulous, everything is mist.
He has no other memory than the present moment, and the present moment is this: a tall, square-jawed man, yelling at him something he can’t understand.
The man points to him, and to others who, just like him, are sitting in folding chairs inside a tent, boards with faces painted on them. After some more yelling, the man opens a flap in the tent and shouts to someone outside. Other men bring another man inside, similar but different. The color of the mist surrounding him is different.
The corporal notices that the color of the man’s clothes is different from the color of the clothing that he and all the others are wearing.
The yelling man is still yelling. He gestures with his hand. The corporal doesn’t understand what the man wants. Until the man grabs a long, heavy thing with another thing pointy and shiny at its end, and shoves it into the corporal’s hands. He points to the man with the different color mist, and then to the pointy shiny thing now in the corporal’s hands. He begins to spear the belly of the different man with his fingers.
Then the corporal gets it.
He lunges forward and pushes the pointy shiny thing he’s carrying into the belly of the different man. The different man screams a thing that the corporal doesn’t understand. The corporal smells a very smelly smell. The different man falls to the ground.
The yelling man opens the flap again. He pulls the corporal by the sleeve of his jacket. Outside, a line of other yelling men forms a corridor that hurriedly pushes the corporal and the soldiers, everyone now carrying the same heavy things with the pointy shiny thing at the end. At the end of the corridor, a ladder. The man at the foot of the ladder shouts and points to the top, to whatever there is beyond the ladder.
It’s a small ladder. The corporal climbs its rungs with some difficulty because of the heavy thing in his arms, but he does well. And he gets to see what’s at the top of the ladder: a field of dead, dark earth. No plants, no sign of life.
But, in the distance, the corporal sees something.
Mists of a different color.
Now he knows what he must do.
Grenades and mortars fall all around, showering the corporal with black earth and body parts. The ones who don’t lose too much – an arm here, a leg there, half a torso gone but their heart still beating fine, an eye, ach, what is an eye after all? – keep on going inexorably.
Then, when the undead soldiers are close to the enemy trenches, the machine guns start spitting fire.
The corporal feels impacts on his legs, arms, shoulders, belly, face. He feels his body wet. He smells the same smelly smell of the different man when he stabbed him.
But nothing matters now. In fact, as soon as the corporal is reminded of these things, he forgets them.
The only thing that matters is the different colored mist. And what he was just taught to do to it.
Inside the tent, the sergeant in charge of the special attack group receives the report of the charge on the enemy trenches.
A total success. Every single Englishman killed.
On their side, no losses among the soldiers. That is, among the living ones of the second platoon.
Among the undead soldiers, as they are already beginning to be called by the superstitious and ignorant Army riff-raff, things are quite different.
Of the twenty-seven soldiers who served as guinea pigs for the experiment, nine got back to the German trenches unharmed. Twelve suffered considerable damage (loss of limbs, mostly), but the field doctors especially sent by the secret project guarantee that, after blood transfusions and replacement of the lost limbs with cheap prosthetic ones, they will be able to fight again in a couple of days with the same efficiency as they did today.
Six soldiers were deemed completely unrecoverable. Among them, the leader of the squad, the corporal wounded in the mortar bombing a few days earlier. The sergeant met him once: a bad-mouthed, bad-breathed fellow, who used to talk to himself. He had already seemed a lunatic even before the accident, Gott in Himmel!
But at least the son of a bitch had taken a lot of lives to hell with him. Judging by the report, Corporal Adolf Hitler was responsible for a veritable massacre in the enemy trenches before his body finally hit the ground.
Ach! the sergeant thinks to himself. War is war; one bastard more, one bastard less, what’s the fucking difference? A mediocre Scheisskopf like this Hitler would never have survived much longer anyway.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Crystal Koo. Crystal’s latest publications include short stories in First Stop Fiction, The Other Room, and Corvus Magazine, while forthcoming publications will be in Philippine Speculative Fiction 7 and Lauriat: An Anthology of Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction. Crystal was born and raised in Manila and has also lived in Beijing and Sydney. She is currently working in Hong Kong, where she has been involved in independent theater and film productions and a jazz band. She maintains a blog at http://swordskill.wordpress.com.
This is the story’s first publication.
Waiting with Mortals
The neon in Hong Kong is like the past, an image of blurred points of light and haste and shallow focus where the only certainty is a vivid experience eventually misremembered.
In the morning the neon tubing is a tired present, dirty and impotent. Like tracing paper laid over the woodcut that is the city, the ghosts sit on unoccupied café tables, jaywalk, and wait with mortals for the double-decker buses that sway in the wind like sunflower heads.
Squeezed next to a small arcade is a splinter of stairs leading underground. Businessmen and sales clerks mill outside, numbered stubs in their hands. The receptionist in front of the stairs is speaking into her headset, telling the manager there are so many people waiting that he might need to bring the extra tables out. I walk past everyone lining up and take the stairs down. No one stops me.
In the teahouse, a real estate agent slurps up sour-and-spicy noodles from a bowl next to a small plate of thick slices of radish cake. To me the smell of food is blunt but haunting, a lost luxury. Waiters walk through the ghosts lounging by the kitchen window. The ghosts and I don’t know each other and they glare at me: Don’t stare like you don’t watch mortals eat too, what else are you here for? I follow a middle-aged mortal waitress in uniform, Sin Yi printed on her name tag, as she carries dirty bowls into the kitchen.
No other ghosts here. Sin Yi dumps the bowls into the sink and tells a boy to clean it up. She plays coy with the tall, musky cook with the dirty apron, saying he wouldn’t leave his mainlander wife for her, would he? and goes to the toilet outside with a bag from one of the cupboards. When she returns, she’s out of her uniform and dressed in a patterned tunic two sizes too small, adjusting the strap of her bag. I slide my fingers into her ears and her nostrils and hike my foot onto her right hip. She quivers and I tear into her.
I slam her consciousness into a corner before it knows what’s going on and it goes immediately to sleep. The body is tired and heavy. I stretch my limbs to fit hers, careful not to rip her apart. Her skin covers me with the earthly warmth of wool, solidifying the ground beneath my feet, and it feels like I have surfaced from underwater to find myself in a different teahouse with brighter colors and ruder people. Everything is sharper. Cheap porcelain bowls crash, gossip ricochets against walls tacked with printouts of the day’s menu, and the dish boy reeks of onions.
Sin Yi is bigger inside than she looks. I sink my head into feathery dreams of being a news anchorwoman, and bump against hard little notes about this month’s alimony. In curiosity, I try to find a picture of the ex-husband, but a fraying bag of tears gets in the way and I avoid it.
The cook with the dirty apron asks the waitress if she’s all right – I get her to say she is. The cook tells her to go home and get some rest. A waiter carries a steaming plate of pork and chives dumplings in front of me and it aches not to reach out and scarf the dumplings down.
I steer my waitress to the metal door at the corner of the kitchen, and up the stairs that lead to a small lot above ground where the garbage bins are.
J.G. Ip is sprawled on the concrete floor on her side, wearing a loose v-neck sweater over her leggings. Her nose is bleeding. Her mouth is pursed, as though she’s sucking on an invisible cigar, and she’s slowly exhaling and licking her lips. Her eyes are closed and she rocks herself feverishly like a buoy in the harbor.
There’s no difference between her breath and the ghost. The ghost streams out of her nostrils and her mouth, reconstituting himself as J.G. steadies her breaths, keeping in time with her rocking motion. The blood drips on her lip. I wait until J.G. finishes exhaling and the ghost’s face is a little clearer. I don’t recognize him. He looks old enough to be my father and his face is mottled, as if he had died of liver disease. J.G.’s face has taken up the same splotches he has, down to the dark mark below his ear. He picks himself up and watches uncomfortably as the splotches on J.G. start to fade. It takes a while and for a moment even I think they’re going to stick on her face.
The old ghost leaves the other half of the money next to her hand. He hovers around her for a moment until he decides he doesn’t know what to do with her, and turns around to sidestep me, the blank-looking waitress too mortal to see him, and leaves by the metal door.
J.G. vomits. A yellow-orange geyser overflows onto her neck.
The waitress has a pack of wet tissues in her handbag. I take a few and start wiping J.G.’s neck.
Hold your hair for me, I tell her in the waitress’ voice and gather the vomit into the little dip of J.G.’s clavicle before scooping it up.
J.G. squints against the light in the same lazy way she did the last time I had seen her drunk and asleep. Her face looks more like herself now than the old ghost’s. She looks straight at Sin Yi and says, Hi, Ben.
They’re after you, I tell her gently.
She had fallen asleep in the pot of a large houseplant in a hotel five years ago. We had been in a small bar across the road earlier, obnoxious and not supposed to be there. J.G. had been seventeen, I had been sixteen. That night I had walked out of an argument with my father and joined her in a cheap chain bar.
She worked part-time selling cosmetics at the mall to help with her family’s bills. She had just finished her shift and still had little blooms of rouge on the back of her hand next to a whitish cigarette burn. She ordered a slew of drinks.
I’ll have the same, I said, trying to look like I understood what I was getting into.
An old American rock song played softly through the speakers, and J.G. was dressed in a tight blouse and a denim miniskirt. The mascara around her eyes was thick with adolescent drama.
The bartender had given us diluted swill but we were drunk in fifteen minutes. A responsible waitress dressed down the bartender and threw us back out into the summer night. I saw the gleam in J.G’s bloodshot eyes, a cold quick light, like a flash of the sun on someone’s glasses. She was intoxicating in the darkness, beautiful and free from any obligation to be anything but herself.
Then she had thrown up. After I helped her clean up, she stroked my face and said, There will never be another boy like you, Ben.
I wanted to know what she meant. I wanted to know if she recognized I had something the seniors at school who paid for her cab rides and the perfume men who stole samples for her from the ladies’ section would never have. I wanted to take her to a kebab place nearby, where it was clean and well-lit and I knew the owner and the Nepalese staff and the pungent, gamey meat, and I could impress her with my familiarity with all of them. Instead she dashed across the road between two shrieking cars. I was close to vomiting myself, and the alcohol had stuffed up my nose. I barely followed her into the slightly damp lobby of the small hotel, where I found her at the reception desk.
How weird would it be if we got a room, she asked me.
Should we, I said, the alcohol making me bold.
She rolled her eyes and smiled. Don’t be an idiot, she said, you’re drunk. I didn’t know what the smile meant, and I covered my humiliation by mirroring her smile back.
I sat on the sofa but she insisted on climbing into the potted plant next to it. She stuck her feet into the mulch and sat on the rim of the gigantic clay pot. I remember furiously summoning hopes, schemes, impossibilities, dreams of courage, before falling asleep. Two days later, the apartment where my family and I lived caught fire at three in the morning.
J.G. is twenty-two now and hosting ghosts.
* * *
People are stupid.
I don’t want to listen to this, I say to my father.
You’re turning into one of those people, he tells me. My father had always been a big man with a face people call pugnacious, though it could be just them projecting it onto him. I don’t think so. A cop’s postured violence is a stereotype, but that doesn’t make it any less true for my father. Even when he had worn pajamas he retained that aggression reserved wholly for people who had no intention of provoking him.
People are stupid, he continues. They’re not happy because they don’t let themselves be. Suck it up, like the rest of us, and keep up.
We’re in an empty parking lot close to the station. This is where my father and his friends used to smoke during breaks when he was alive. When he speaks, he addresses the news magazine in front of him instead of me. Property prices are up again, and there’s a new scandal of capitalistic heartlessness on the mainland. This is one of the days when he says something about the general spinelessness of people, so his intended audience can contradict him and start a fight. This habit has become worse since the fire. Sometimes I think it’s his way of trying to feel alive again, the closest he can get to the buzz that cigarettes used to give him.
Tuesday is his day off from the force’s ghost division. He sits on a big rubber tire, the glossy news magazine on top of a cardboard box, and turns the page only when the breeze comes because he’s afraid someone would notice, but he’s too proud to read it indoors with no mortal around. We pretend it’s just the pace of his reading. I wonder if he appreciates my never calling him out.
How’s the hosting case? I ask.
We’ve found out it’s a girl, he says. She’s crazy.
A lot of ghosts like it, I say. They get to eat, drink, have sex, smoke, talk to mortals. Fix some old business. Stuff I heard.
Perverts. Ghosts who can’t suck it up. Are you hanging around them?
It’s consensual. People have done worse for money.
If she doesn’t do it for money, she’s really perverted. Maybe she likes blanking out and having us play with her body like she’s a puppet. Some kind of bondage, domination, whatever trash they call it now. Disgusting.
The breeze flips a page for my father and he says, If that’s the kind of rough-housing she likes, we’re getting the old boys at the mortal division to cuff her soon, so we’ll find out how far she goes.
I tremble. How soon?
Ah Kit’s going in as a client. Lucky bastard. The things we’d like to do inside her. Are you interested? Is that why you’re asking all this?
He looks at me hopefully. He thinks he’s found some kind of frightful common ground with me. That he assumes I’d have anything to do with the plans he and his friends have for J.G. makes me recoil. I don’t say anything.
There’s always an open position for you in the force, he reminds me. Tell me when you’re ready to be an adult. Ready to get off the streets and make yourself useful.
He probably thinks he’s being tactful. I squash the old panic I feel at my father’s disappointment in me. My father has always tried to recruit me, dead or alive, and I’ve always managed to refuse. I’m not a child, I say, feeling like one.
It’s not the same rules here, I say, wanting to wrestle the laughter out of his mouth. You don’t need a job or an education. None of that can help you cross over. They don’t matter.
He says, I have a job making sure that sick people don’t harm other people who want to do right with their lives. Are you saying I don’t matter?
You like your job, that’s different. Maybe that would help you but it doesn’t work the same way for everyone.
Ma didn’t have much of an education and she barely had a job. She crossed over the same night.
If my father had been mortal he would have gone red. He doesn’t like being reminded she beat him to it. I was surprised she had crossed over in the first place, being married to my father till her death, until I found out later that earlier that day she had gone to legal aid to file for divorce. I don’t blame her. My father would arrest me on the spot just for knowing J.G.
You’re a criminal, J.G. tells me, nudging the crook of my arm with her toe. Do you know what forced entry can get you?
I’m in the body of a man only a little older than her, his face clean-shaven and sharp. He fits me like a glove and I want to keep him and his apartment, with J.G. and me stretched out on the L-shaped suede couch looking at a view of the racecourse.
We can live here, I had told J.G. I can take him to his small new office with its increasing share prices and Swedish furniture. This guy’s rich, you wouldn’t have to host anymore. It’s been okay so far but you shouldn’t push your body. Ghosts leave a lot of residue. You can stop now.
This was when she had called me a criminal, and I sensed the nervous retort behind her words. I was so close to her I could have traced the pink shell of her ear with my fingers and put my lips into it and asked if my death has made her miss me. Her eyes are duller now from having ghosts use them everyday, and her skin looks bloated and wan, like a drowned body. I grab her foot to massage her ankles and she lets me.
I don’t think Ah Wai would like it, she says.
Wai is her fixer. He hosts her clients for a few minutes when they negotiate. He gets fifteen percent. I don’t know if he will like her living with me or having my hands all over her foot or not. I’ve never met him but with a body like this I feel I can take on anybody.
Do you know his name? she asks.
His. She taps the hand I’m using to weave through her toes. Then she pulls her foot away and grabs the wallet sticking out of my back pocket. Brian Kwok, she reads from his ID, then shows me his symmetrical face, saying, He’s cute, even in pictures.
I draw J.G. closer to me, taking her by the waist, but she rolls away to the other side of the couch.
You’ve changed, she says, lip-smiling.
I’m Brian Kwok now.
What happened to the waitress?
I got out of her in the toilet and left her a paracetamol. She was sick all over the place.
Do you like it? Getting in people that way? Is that why you do it?
I don’t know if she’s mocking or provoking me. I answer, How else would I be able to talk to you and keep you from getting caught?
She angles her head with the lip-smile still on. Wouldn’t it be funny if I hosted you? she asks. Can you imagine that? When was the last time you tasted food, Ben?
I don’t answer. The question cunningly strafes between an invitation and an innocent new topic. I don’t know why she’s asking this. It’s the hotel five years ago all over again.
She says, It isn’t true that girl ghosts are more curious. They leave you alone and do what they came to do. But the guys come into you and they run through everything in you like a bulldozer. Frantic. Almost desperate.
J.G. makes an outward, splaying movement with her hands. It takes a few minutes with girls but with guys, I black out immediately, she says. Like they just can’t wait to look at you from the inside. I like that about them.
She carefully picks a spot on the couch where a little wine has spilled, not looking at me. Her movements are perfect, almost like a performance put on for my benefit.
I’m not doing it for the money, she says. I like it when they take you. You don’t have to decide, you don’t have to be in control. You take a break from the world and let someone else do your living. Your body becomes someone else’s and there’s no responsibility, no making mistakes, because it’s not you, it’s someone else with their own plans and you’re just there for the ride. A girl I had last month, she died on her fifteenth birthday. She had wanted to join her friends in the city but her parents wouldn’t let her out past midnight. She climbed out the apartment window and tied a bit of rope to her waist and tried to lower herself down. The rope around the window frame snapped and she fell from the fourth floor. She goes in me, and the next thing I know I’m waking up from a table in McDonalds with cheeseburger in my mouth and a milkshake in my hand. Tasted wonderful. Everything tastes better in a burger wrapper. Don’t you miss that?
J.G’s laugh is phlegmy, and she turns away to wipe the spittle with the side of her palm. I realize she looks different from a certain angle. When I don’t see the eagle-like cut of her eyes, her face looks vague and undefined, like a composite of dead people’s lives and faces. The contours of her nose and her cheekbones have blurred into each other.
You need me, I tell her, while thinking, I need you to need me.
You’re a sweet, special boy, Ben.
She faces me and looks like her roguish, pixie self again. She says, I’d miss you if you crossed over.
She gives me a little air kiss as her cellphone rings. When she sees who it is, she mouths to me, Ah Wai, and goes to the balcony to answer him.
In the shock of our first few days as ghosts, my father had lost his belligerence and had grown depressed. He became open and frank, which made me uncomfortable, and one time he sat me down and told me he’d heard that the difficulty of crossing over wasn’t in the resolution of whatever issue was keeping you in the living world, but in finding out what the issue was. Forced entry was the easiest way to get started finishing your business; it happened more frequently than the ghost police admitted, and most of them did it themselves. But pinning down the right issue was like trying to figure out what was causing you to keep dreaming that your teeth were falling out, and most people forced entry and ended up wasting their time resolving a minor problem because they didn’t know themselves well enough or, more frequently, didn’t want to admit they had made a huge mistake at some point in their lives.
I was a little overcome by the warmth in my father’s voice, and didn’t know what to make of it, so I just listened and nodded. But as months passed and he was reinstated to the police force in his new position as a constable in the ghost division and started coaxing me to join him, he forgot this, and returned to being the father I had grown up with.
J.G. doesn’t return to Brian Kwok’s apartment the next day. Hurt, I leave the young entrepreneur retching into his kitchen sink and decide not to have anything to do with J.G. while I try to find out what it is she wants from other people that I can’t give her.
I break into the body of a university senior with arms roped with muscles and take him for the ride I never got to have. We go to parties, sleep with sophomore girls, drink and share a few joints until he passes out and I’m stuck in his dead weight of a body, getting bored, so I enter another student with a matinee idol’s face and a higher tolerance for alcohol, and make him go to the claustrophobic bar area downtown. I put words in his mouth to chat up a forty-something Australian woman from an international insurance company, tell her jokes about the ghosts of Hong Kong, which she is too drunk to find in bad taste, and we do it in the toilet and later again in her apartment, where I leave them both.
Even at the height of his sexual gratification, I don’t cross over. I move into the apartment of an IT consultant to wash away the stale scent of overspent passion. I find a small space on the ledge of their bay windows and sit there with my legs up, watching his family with the protective silence of a cat. Every afternoon the eight-year-old comes back from school and plays video games. When the shadows grow longer the maid turns the stove on and sizzles the pan with sunflower oil and garlic, humming a pop song over a plate of marinating prawns. Then the father comes back home, flings his briefcase at the sofa, and goes to the master bedroom to undress. He plays a little with his son on the felt-balled rug before he turns on the news on the TV. His wife returns from the education bureau, they have dinner. I’ve been tempted to enter each of them but I never do. Sometimes there’s a small argument between the parents, a little more TV-watching with the son, then they trickle to bed until all the lights are turned off and I’m alone on the ledge of their bay windows, watching the glowing numbers on the microwave oven change, and like clockwork it’s always at this time of the night I miss J.G the most.
* * *
One time I saw J.G. while I walked past one of the betting shops of the jockey club. I stopped among the children who stood outside the door, tugging on the security guards’ uniforms while they waited for their parents.
J.G. looked like her half-sister might have, if she ever had one. There were traces of J.G. in the jaw, in the curve of her nose, but nearly everything else was washed away by the features of another woman. She must have been taking more clients than usual.
She was with a slightly stocky man and they were buying tickets from a booth. He paid for them both and created a little fake fight between them with her insisting to pay her share and him refusing.
If I had let the jealousy overcome me, I would have forced myself into Wai in the most painful way possible, and torn him apart from inside. He wears glasses and his hair is swept back with gel. Then they were laughing, looking for birthdays on the numbers on their lottery tickets, and he placed a palm on the nape of her neck, squeezing with his thumb and his index and middle fingers.
I restrained myself. But a week later, I return to my father on his day off.
If he’s surprised to see me, he doesn’t show it. He looks at me, registers my presence, and returns to his newspaper. I ask how the hosting case is doing.
The girl’s gone off the radar, he says.
I don’t know if my father’s being euphemistic. Does he mean the police have run her off?
Where is she, I ask, trying to keep my voice calm.
My father lets the breeze flip the page, and his lack of concern enrages me. Savage images of J.G. in the hands of my father’s friends fill my mind, and a bag of tears bursts in me. It’s Wai, isn’t it, I say.
My father snaps to attention. You know her fixer?
Where did you put her? I’m going to get her out.
My words are irrevocable. My father searches my face. A minute later he says evenly, We don’t have her.
His voice has dropped, and this is a sign he is testing new waters, but I’m too sick with worry to care.
I won’t let you hurt her, I say, relieved and horrified at my inability to stop myself. The fever in my brain tells me it’s better this way, all the cards on the table. The waiting is over. My father has forgotten about his newspaper, which the breeze has swept off his cardboard box. The only thing I can do now is take advantage of my father’s shock to get a head start.
Nobody has seen her, my father finally replies, his words three steps behind his thoughts. Realization is suffusing him like a ghost in J.G.’s body, filling each orifice, lifting her, taking control of her limbs.
She’s stopped seeing clients, my father continues. She’s taken a lot of money with her.
It’s Wai. He’s done something to her. I’ll kill him.
Come with me to the station, Ben. You can help us find her.
I can’t read his voice. So this is what my father is like when he is about to arrest someone: enigmatic, provoking, so easy to trust until you find your face against a wall and your arms twisted with his full weight behind you. He reaches for my shoulder and I scream at him to get off me.
I leave, half-expecting him to follow, but he doesn’t.
* * *
I spend the next week looking for Wai. I remember what J.G. said about him before, a man of opportunity. He likes dipping his hands into the rivers of money that flow past him. I look for him in the girly bars, the betting shops, all the teahouses. I cross the sea to Macau and look for him in the casinos, where money is dressed in colors – gold, jade, silver, the poppy red and lacquer black of roulette – and where people come to be bewildered by disguises, to take a mask themselves and plunge into heady pleasure. I rip their masks off, but I don’t find him there.
Exhausted and insane with helplessness, I return to Hong Kong, where money has no color and people compensate by lighting their nights with neon burning with the ambition of an entire population. I find Wai in a noodle house, hunched over a plate of stir-fried vermicelli.
I don’t wait for him to move to a private place. I explode into him and taste the beef slices in his noodles and run into a fragmented slideshow of images in his head of J.G., which infuriates me more. Wai’s nose starts to bleed and he groans, falling to the floor and losing his glasses. His consciousness gives up immediately, and a man on the next table tries to help him up, but I stretch out Wai’s arm and bat the intruder away, picking up the glasses myself. I haul Wai up to his feet so violently it looks like his knees are bending the wrong way. I drag him to the toilet, where I lock the door in a cubicle. I dip his finger into the blood pouring out of his nose and write on the door, Where is she?
I wrench myself out of him. He comes to and the vomiting begins.
He’s had enough ghosts in him before to know what’s going on. He sees the writing and says, I don’t know.
He’s losing liquid in floods. He turns around grabs the toilet seat to steady himself. He is shivering and his face has turned white.
I snake a hand into his nostrils and up in his nasal cavity and he doubles over.
She’s sick, he gasps. I told her to stop. She wouldn’t listen. She’s gone.
He starts to choke. I leave him, a sobbing mess of vomit, snot, blood and tears, his fashionable hair in disarray. For a moment I wish I could be him, and give myself physically and completely over to my grief. A group of men have started crowding around the cubicle, and I walk past them out of the toilet and into the dining area, and ignore the ghosts below the paper menus tacked on the wall giving me curious stares. A waiter near the toilet door is calling for an ambulance.
* * *
Even after the fire, I still imagined I’d take her to the kebab place. It’s irrelevant whose body I’m in because I never get to see what I look like. It’s not a movie. In the picture in my head I only see her smiling and talking to me and the only thing traceable to me is my voice, in the same way everyone’s never aware of what they look like until they catch their reflection somewhere.
My father used to go to the kebab place too. He was the one who took me there when I was young. He had the boy at the rotisserie put the spiciest curry sauce on our lamb kebabs, always lamb kebabs because apparently chicken wasn’t real meat. The only reason I could still return to that place afterward and want to take her there is because I had managed to withstand the sauce, and had surprised myself and my father.
He didn’t say anything as I munched half of my kebab triumphantly in front of him. He only smiled, but it looked so foreign on him I thought it would break his face. He started unwrapping his kebab and kept that strange, proud smile as I ate my way through the fire.
It’s my father who finds me now in the small hotel next to the big potted plant J.G. had fallen asleep in five years ago. I am lying on my back in the same sofa, wondering what would have happened if I had asked for the room myself, unafraid to hold J.G. to her ambiguous hints and mixed messages. I think I would have already crossed over if I had, but even the prospect of that feels insignificant now.
She’s with us, my father says. We found her.
I expect him to take me to the station, but instead we go to the parking lot next to the warehouse where he reads his papers. It’s past midnight. I can make out a few ghosts around the place where his big rubber tire usually is, and the way they acknowledge my father tells me they’re his colleagues. I vaguely realize I don’t know any of my father’s friends. A mortal constable stands on the side, the vermilion look of bribery on his face. A girl is slumped on the tire and leaning against the cardboard box, where a half-eaten fried rice takeaway and a foam cup of coffee rest.
It takes me a while to realize it’s J.G. because it’s not her anymore. When Wai said she was sick, I had imagined her cheeks gutted, her face aged, and her skin sagging like an old jacket from being slipped too many times. She looks fine here, tired, her mouth open, some dried vomit on her lip, but all right. What’s different is her entire face. Her cheeks are broader and her forehead has lengthened a little, and her eyes are a little closer together and more deep-set. Her nose has grown smaller and her lips a little wider and fuller. I don’t recognize her until with a rush of panic and guilt I see the cigarette burn on the back of her hand and realize I don’t know who she has finally turned into.
She looks asleep but when I come closer, I hear her murmuring. I see a slight bruise above her left eye.
You hit her, I say to the policemen, not with anger but as a quiet question. My father shakes his head though he doesn’t try to explain. He puts a hand on the shoulder of the mortal constable, who can’t see any of this, and the man gives a jump. It’s a sign. The constable comes over to J.G. and rouses her. When she groans, he waves a wad of notes in front of her and says, For Ben Siu.
It’s only when she hears my name and her eyes fly open, eyes I’ve never seen before, looking wildly around for me, her savior, her sweet, special boy who will always be there in spite of everything, that I finally understand. I make no move toward her. All she sees is a constable handing her money and nervously hooking this thumbs into his belt loops, waiting for something to happen.
I look at my father and he stares back at me with pleading expectation, and it occurs to me that this is a gift. I feel an ache somewhere.
I imagine sliding into J.G.’s mouth, wrapping her warmth around me, lodging inside her darkness, luxuriating in her every thought of me, but I find myself thinking of how much trouble my father must have gone to to ask favors from his friends and bribe a colleague to delay the arrest of J.G. Ip, whom I barely recognize; of the risk my father has taken that could strip him of his badge and his name. I don’t know what to do. I feel my father’s eyes on me.
The ache in me grows stronger, and it must be showing because hope drains from my father’s face. They’re all waiting for me. I look at the woman supposed to be J.G. counting the money and glancing up occasionally in bewilderment, and I try very hard. I think of her hair lifting and revealing her dangling earrings, I think of her passionate defiance of the limitations of her own life. I think of the furious, uncontrollable obsession with her that had consumed me until my heart had broken.
I remember how the obsession feels but I can’t recall what had started it. I can only think of how J.G. had pushed and pulled me into a position of limbo, how she had hurt me knowing I would never leave, this woman who my father is risking his reputation for.
My father asks what’s wrong. His face is twisted, and I know he can tell everything’s been for nothing. The pain on his face reminds me of the time when he had sat me down and talked to me about crossing over.
I try to tell my father it’s all right. I try to thank him and raise my arm to touch him, but my vision blurs. That can’t be right because ghosts have no tears, until I realize everything is melting into everything else, J.G.’s new face and the mortal constable’s discomfort, my father and his colleagues coalescing into a gas, the sky collapsing into the ground, and the glass of the buildings pooling like a liquid mirror; and I feel myself spreading thinner and lighter, like the neon when it fights against the dawning sun, until everything disappears.