Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Victor Fernando R. Ocampo. Victor is from the Philippines, and his work has been published in the Philippine Free Press and the anthologies Philippine Speculative Fiction (Volume 6), The Ayam Curtain, and Fish Eats Lion: New Singaporean Speculative Fiction. His story “Here Be Dragons” won first prize at the Romeo Forbes Children’s Literature competition in 2012 and was published by Canvas Press. He lives in Singapore, by the side of foggy Bukit Timah hill, with his lovely wife and two spunky daughters.
The story was first published in Bewildering Stories in 2012.
Victor Fernando R. Ocampo
For the third time since he had crawled out of the wreckage, Felix pressed the power button on his phone. He hoped against hope that something, anything, would happen, but nothing did. It was exactly the same as the last time. His phone was inert, impotent.
“Why am I even alive?” he groaned, oppressed by the silence, of the shapelessness of evening.
Frustrated, he removed the back cover and took the battery out. He placed it between his palms and shook it desperately. For added measure, he prayed to St. Isidore, the patron saint of the Internet. “Help me,” he asked softly. “Spare me one small charge, please, just enough for a status update, just enough for a text.”
The young man required only enough power to send a quick word for help—one small blip to tell the world where he was and that he was okay. But St. Isidore’s help line, it seemed, was otherwise engaged. His phone remained stubbornly, obstinately dead.
Despite the wracking pain, he knew that he had no choice but to walk if he wanted to be rescued. “Forgive me,” he asked his passel of precious saints. “But if you wanted to really help me, you should have just killed me. At least I’d be with her.”
Felix had totaled his car on a remote and desolate stretch of highway. He hadn’t gone on a road trip in a long while, not since he’d lost his wife in the nightmare of the previous year. Now his foolhardy journey had almost cost him his life. “You’re not the type to travel by yourself,” she had once warned him. “We’re so used to being together. It would be hell to be on the road alone.”
He shook himself from the prison of memory and inventoried his things. The watch she had given him for his birthday had stopped ticking. There was a big, ugly gash on its beveled glass. His messenger bag, the one she had lovingly picked out from the recyclables store, was badly scratched but still intact. Nothing else in his car seemed worth saving.
Felix stared at the dark road that stretched out towards the horizon. The sodium vapor lamps had been spaced apart too far apart. They left only small islands of light in the vast ocean of darkness.
Before he took his first unsteady step, he made a sign of the cross and offered a prayer to St. Jude. Felix felt his soul sallow and threadbare. He needed to arm himself against the shadows. The night was still young and he worried about what further troubles lay ahead.
“Stop using prayer as a good luck charm,” his wife had chided him. “It’s not a religion for you anymore. It’s voodoo.” His little leaps of faith unnerved everyone he knew. But he didn’t really care about what anyone thought anymore. Pain and loss had a way of turning even the smallest of comforts into crutches and somehow his constant calls for intercession made him feel less desperate, less powerless, less alone.
Felix squinted and followed the thin line of orange lights that seemed to lead towards infinity. To his relief, he spotted a bus stop about half a kilometer away. “Someone will pass by for sure,” he thought. That would be his ticket back to civilization. The young man felt for his bus card in his pocket. He took it out and stared at it for a few seconds, as if to assure himself that it was really there. Satisfied, he started walking towards his lonely destination.
The night was neither cold nor excessively humid but Felix turned his collar up as a precaution. He had walked about a hundred meters when he remembered that he’d left something of heartbreaking importance, something that he couldn’t live without. He slapped his forehead in dismay and quickly ran back to his car.
“Where is that glove compartment?” he thought, as he searched the wreckage frantically. The front of the car was hopelessly crumpled. For a minute, he thought that what he was looking for was lost forever and started to hyperventilate.
“St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things… please help me find it. St Jude, patron saint of lost causes. Please have mercy on me.” He closed his eyes and repeated the litany in his head like a nervous tick. He forced himself to take deep breaths until his feelings of panic were checked. “I can’t have lost it,” he repeated, cracking his knuckles. “I won’t ever lose it.”
Felix took a step back to calculate where the glove compartment lay under the car’s twisted frame. When he settled on a spot, he started to remove as much metal and plastic as he could. What began as a careful, studied process slowly escalated into a frenzy of destruction. He tore through the wreckage until he found what he was searching for—a woman’s red turtleneck, carefully preserved in a still-intact plastic package. It had been protected from the crash by a magazine and an old rubber sleeve. The young man slowly pulled out his shrink-wrapped treasure. He opened the package then gently stuck his nose in. His wife’s sweet scent still lingered on the fabric.
Felix put the keepsake inside his bag and resumed his solitary walk to the bus stop. The terminal was unlike any he had ever seen. There was no sign indicating what station it was, nor in fact, any identifying marks at all. There were no bus schedules detailing arrival and departure times, or none of the billboards that cluttered other shelters. There was only a small laminated notice, attached to one post, reminding commuters to “Select Option 2 for a return ride.”
Felix didn’t have to wait too long before something appeared in the distance. Like the stop it attended, the city bus that arrived was odd and strange. It was a heavy-duty Hino coach, with a low non-step floor and a spacious box-like interior. He remembered seeing a vehicle like this before, somewhere in the lumber of his grandfather’s dusty photos. An unsettled feeling came over him and he had to stop himself from running away.
The vehicle was painted sky blue all over, except for a white stripe that wrapped around the cabin, below the large plastic windows. A sign on the windshield said “AIRCON” and above it was an LED board that read “Non-Stop.” Both flanks were decorated with three white hearts. The smaller ones said “Save Gas,” while the big heart had “Love Bus” in bold, red and yellow lettering. As it pulled up in front of him, he noticed that despite the vintage design the bus seemed newly manufactured. So new, in fact, that the chassis was spotless and the rubber on the tires showed no signs of wear. The surreal cleanliness added to his growing anxiety and his body made an involuntary shiver.
He made the sign of the cross three times before getting on board. As he entered, he asked the crisply-uniformed driver where the bus was headed. The man shook his head and did not speak. He pointed instead to the modern ticket reader behind him. Felix tried to engage him in conversation, but as soon as the driver’s gaze fell on him, Felix shut his mouth. The man’s eyes blazed like hollow furnaces, burning away all questions, cauterizing all speech.
Felix flashed his bus card. Two options appeared on a small screen, simply labeled with the numerals “1” and “2”.
“You are young. Choose Option 2, my boy,” the coach’s solitary passenger told him. “I’ve selected Option 1 already. That way one of us will see where each one goes.”
“Thank you, sir,” Felix said as he moved uncertainly down the cabin. He sat opposite his fellow commuter, an old European man dressed in a black cassock, with a white Roman collar around his hearty neck.
The young man whispered another prayer of thanks. What luck that he was traveling with a priest. The presence of a man of God dispeled much of his naked fears and for the first time since his accident, he felt the faint flicker of hope.
“Thank the Lord that you are here,” the priest said. “I was slowly going mad by myself. What is your name, my son?”
“My name is Felix del Mundo,” he answered softly, nervously, like a child’s prayer.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Felix,” the old man said, in a deep reassuring voice. “I am Father Vladimir of the Society of Jesus.”
“I’m pleased to meet you too, Father,” he replied, as he dusted the chair with his handkerchief. “There’s something creepy about the bus driver. He didn’t want to talk to me.”
“I don’t think he can speak. I’ve tried to converse with him for the best part of this ride. He simply took my last obolus, my last coin, and sent me to my seat.”
“Do you have any idea where he’s taking us? The sign on the bus says ‘Non-Stop,’ but where is it non-stop to?”
“I wish I knew, my son,” the priest said. “Your stop is the only one I’ve seen since coming aboard. The odd thing is that this isn’t the same bus I started riding. I distinctly recall boarding a white LiAZ tourist coach.”
“I’m not sure I get what you mean. But, yes, something isn’t right,” Felix concurred. His dusting became more frantic. “I’ve never seen this kind of bus before. What stop did you board at, Father?”
“I… I don’t remember, actually,” Father Vladimir muttered. “I was coming back to Estragon from a big Semiotics conference. At some point I think I was in a car accident. I still have my luggage with me.”
“Estragon?” the young man asked. “Where on Earth is …oh my God! We’re dead, Father. I think we’re dead!” The young man said with a start, seized suddenly by the unforgiving inevitability of mortality. “I saw this in a movie once. Think about it. We were both in car accidents, in different countries! How did we get here? That can’t be a coincidence. My God, we’re dead!”
Felix hung his head with the grim realization, and raked his hands through his hair repeatedly, trying to overcome a sudden urge to scream. “Here I was thinking how lucky I was to escape without a scratch.” Felix took out his hanky and brushed the back of the seat in front of him. He cleaned it thoroughly before banging his head against the foam cushion.
The priest let a few moments of silence pass before speaking. “Calm yourself, my son. We don’t know that for sure, do we? I certainly don’t feel dead, but then again I’ve never been dead before. There could be other possibilities.”
“What other possibility is there?” Felix asked, befuddled by the unfamiliar logic of their situation. “We must be dead, and this bus is our hearse. It’s too much of a coincidence to ignore.”
“There is… there is coincidence, and then there is synchronicity,” Father Vladimir continued. “When two things happen together, that doesn’t always need to mean anything.”
“Sorry, Father, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the young man said, cracking his knuckles anxiously.
“Sometimes things just happen together, and there’s really no connection between them. That’s called ‘coincidence.’ However, if you do find something, like an idea or a plan that connects the two, that’s actually called ‘synchronicity.’ I believe what happened to us was pure coincidence. My accident and your accident are not connected. Yes, we’re on a strange bus heading to an unknown destination, but that doesn’t mean we’re on an omnibus to the afterlife. Think about it, if we’re dead, shouldn’t there be more people on this bus? Thousands of people die every day.”
“Are you for real, Father? I’m sorry, but you don’t talk like a regular person.”
“Well, this is far from a regular situation,” Father Vladimir said. “I’m not sure we are even in the regular world anymore. We could be dreaming, or unconscious.”
“So are you saying that this is only in my mind?” Felix asked uneasily. He looked out the plastic windows with uncharacteristic diffidence as the bus swept by endless fallow fields wrapped in darkness. The pall of night reminded him of the vacancy, the finality of oblivion, but something in his heart told him this wasn’t death.
After a period of reflection he said, “Maybe you’re right, Father. I always thought that there would be a big tunnel of light when you died, and that the people you loved would be waiting for you somewhere. No, I don’t feel like we’re dead at all.”
“Don’t be too put out,” Father Vladimir said quietly. “This is all much too strange, even for me. I wouldn’t blame you at all for feeling moribund.”
The old man droned on about death and the persistence of memory but Felix just couldn’t focus enough to listen.
“It’s moving too fast to jump off,” the young man remarked. “I just want to get off. Perhaps if we rush the driver together we can overpower him.”
“And then what?” the priest asked. “We would just be lost. It would be better for us to reach a destination first, at least before we contemplate such actions. I don’t think either of us would like to be trapped out there. It’s nothing but a brutal wasteland.”
Felix said nothing. This had been the second time in his life that he had wanted to jump from a moving bus. The first was in New York City, a little more than five years ago. With his student visa expiring, he had no choice but to return to the land of his birth. The young man had been so used to life in America, that Promised Land for all Filipinos, that his trip back home had seemed like a punishment, an exile to limbo after his brief taste of heaven. On the bus he had fought a great urge to run away, and he would probably have done so, if a beautiful young woman hadn’t sat right next to him. Like Felix she was also on her way to Manila. By some odd twist of fate, they ended up spending the next fifteen hours together. In those long golden hours, they became fast friends. Before they knew it, their relationship blossomed into something else. A year later, the two of them were married.
“We feel most mortal before dawn, they say,” Father Vladimir said, trying to comfort his brooding companion. “Let us keep our wits about us and not lose hope. Who knows what destiny waits at the end of this ride?”
“Thank you, Father,” Felix sighed. He knew that the old man was trying to make him feel better. “It’s just that being trapped on this bus is driving me nuts. I wish we knew where we were going. It doesn’t really matter where. I just want to get somewhere and get the hell off.”
“I can’t honestly say that I am not worried,” the old man mumbled. “But Milton said that the mind is its own place. In itself it can make a heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven. Perhaps we can lighten our mood with a change of topic. Let me think… hmm… my life’s work, my magnum opus if I may, is a lexicon of dreams. I have been compiling it for decades. Shall we talk about dreams instead?”
“You study dreams?” Felix asked, momentarily distracted. He had dreamed of his wife every single night since her death. Different dreams, different situations, but always with one thing in common: every night she would tell him to come and find her. His anxiety returned, and Felix took out his handkerchief and started folding it into a four-point pocket square.
“Yes, I study them, looking for a common language to define their meaning.”
“So can you interpret dreams, Father?” he asked, tucking the pocket square back into his pants.
“In a manner of speaking, I can,” the priest explained. “For example, according to my research, if you dream of riding on a bus to nowhere, it means that you feel you’re being carried along by events beyond your control.”
“So…you think that we are in a dream right now?” the young man said, looking around the strange bus and weighing the unreality of their situation. “I suppose that’s possible. I could be in a coma somewhere.”
“When you wake, or think you do, what would you say of this evening?” the old man asked. “I have an interesting thought experiment. Let’s say that we are indeed just dreaming, and you are dreaming that you’re riding a bus to places unknown, what is your inescapable tragedy, my son?”
“I haven’t said a prayer to St. Christopher yet,” Felix said abruptly. He had wanted to ask the old man about his dreams, but couldn’t bring himself to open his heart to a stranger.
“Sorry? What do you mean?”
“St. Christopher. He’s the patron saint of travelers.”
“And buses, I imagine,” the priest added. “Forgive me, but I feel as if there is some truth that you are denying. However, I suppose Carl Jung can wait, if you’re not comfortable with confessions.”
The old man looked out to the manifold darkness and became lost in his own thoughts.
After a while, the young man began to feel irritable and a bit lightheaded. “Father,” he asked. “Do you have anything to eat?” In his rush to drive back to the city, Felix had forgotten to have dinner. Now he felt the deleterious effects of hunger, as his blood sugar started to drop precipitously. “Is it possible to feel hungry in a dream?” He thought, “If I die now, this won’t be suicide. The saints will let me see her. Please St. Jude, St. Anthony, let me see her. We need to be together.”
“Ah, hunger…another great leitmotif. Knut Hamsun used it well,” Father Vladimir murmured, still lost in his thoughts. The priest had spent too much time in the bus alone, and succumbed readily to the temptation to forage in his mind for conundrums and verities.
“Father, I have diabetes,” Felix cried out. He knew that his wife wouldn’t have approved of a diabetic coma, not after she had spent so much time mothering his illness. “I feel dizzy.”
“Oh! I’m sorry. Where is my head today?” the priest said, with much embarrassment. Father Vladimir opened one of his large valises, inside which he had an enormous bag of chocolates, bottles of mineral water, and a crumbly cake packed securely in a sturdy Styrofoam box. “I was on my way to a party for the children of my orphanage. I suppose this is as noble a use for these victuals.”
The priest took out some paper plates and used the handle of a plastic fork to cut the cake. He carved out a big piece and handed it to Felix, along with a bottle of mineral water. “Smačnoho!” he exclaimed. “That means bon appetit.”
“Thank you. That was surprisingly delicious,” Felix said, gobbling his share with desperate gusto. “What kind of cake was it?”
“Kiev cake,” the old man answered proudly. “It’s a divine confection, isn’t it? It’s made of two airy layers of meringue with hazelnuts, chocolate glaze, and a butter-cream filling. It’s very rich, like the culture of my people.”
After they finished eating, the young man excused himself to take a nap. When he woke up it was still night time. In the bus he did not dream, and that bothered him greatly. He realized how deeply he needed the comfort of seeing his wife every night, even if it was just a shade of her memory.
The young man noticed that Father Vladimir had also fallen asleep. He wondered how long they had been traveling. He looked at his watch but remembered that it was still broken. He tried to recall the details of his accident, but his memory now seemed fuzzy. It was as if it had happened a very long time ago. He took his phone out of his bag and checked it again. “Please, I just want to see her picture,” he prayed, but his phone remained hopelessly dead.
A voice boomed suddenly in the darkness: “Come on, let’s get to work! In an instant it will all vanish and we’ll be alone again, in the middle of nothingness!”
“Dios ko po!” Felix cried out, startled by the old man’s declamation. “Sorry, I didn’t know you were awake, Father.”
“Nothing like a quote from Samuel Beckett to start the day,” Father Vladimir said gruffly. “Night and sleep came and went but we did not dream. At least I didn’t.”
“But it’s still night,” Felix protested. “In fact, I think it’s still the same night. Everything is exactly the same. Nothing’s changed since we ate and slept.”
“Forget the night, my son! Beckett said that nothing matters but writing and this applies to us now,” the priest said, with a distressed tone and an odd, vacant look. “I think I have figured out where we are. We are not dead. We are not dreaming. We are in a story. Oh heavens, this would be such a contrived, self-referential plot if that were true!”
“We are trapped… in a story?” Felix asked warily, as he got up and moved a few rows behind his companion. The young man wondered if their situation had finally taken its toll on the old man’s sanity. He started a silent litany to St. Dymphna, the patron saint of mental health, just in case.
“Yes, I believe so,” Father Vladimir repeated, suddenly livid at their situation. “We are trapped in a cliché. I had hoped if someone ever put me in a story I would be in something literary, not genre—some novel of ideas or lofty philosophical fiction. But two strangers trapped in a single point in space and time, waiting for Godot all eternity? Maybe this is purgatory…”
“Father,” Felix cut in. “I’m a Business major with an MBA. I’m not so deeply into Philosophy. I have no idea what you’re rambling about and, frankly, you’re scaring me.” He crossed himself silently and said another prayer to St. Dymphna. For good measure, he added another to the martyr St. Sebastian, the patron saint of cranky people.
“I… I’m sorry.” Fr. Vladimir apologized profusely. The young’s man’s worried tone had returned him to his senses. “It’s just that I have dedicated my life to words and meanings. If my absurdist conjecture was true, then this would be the equivalent of hell for me.”
“Hell on a bus? This is hell?” Felix asked. He hadn’t thought about that possibility. Now it became his turn to get upset. There were things that Felix had done in his life that he wasn’t proud of, and Catholic tradition wasn’t particularly kind to sinners. Besides, there was no truer hell for him than any place where his lost love wasn’t.
“This ride… this infernal ride has both of us undone,” the priest reflected. “Let us talk about more pleasant things instead. I myself love to read. Do you like to read, my young friend?”
“Sometimes,” Felix answered, fitfully. “Business books on my tablet mostly. It’s more convenient to read them in the toilet that way.”
“Touché,” Father Vladimir said, suddenly tired beyond belief and without a single word to say.
They remained silent after that. Felix felt his fellow passenger didn’t really converse, but rather lectured; Father Vladimir lamented the decline of Philosophy in an age of restless, clueless youth.
The young man looked out through the dark windows, searching for the moon or the stars, anything that would help him determine the passage of time. There was nothing in all directions but a desolate landscape, one that mirrored the hollowness in his soul. “Just take me away, my love,” he whispered, longingly, forgetting which saint reunited soul-mates and lovers.
After a while, the oppressive monotony of the road began to affect him. Without the company of his wife or the distraction of his phone, Felix’s mind started to root for something to do. Eventually, he decided to move back towards his companion and brave another conversation.
“Father, you mentioned Waiting for Godot earlier. I saw that play in college. Isn’t it the one about the two bums who wait for this guy who never shows? I remember it.”
“You do?” the old man said, his face lighting up. “Godot is a difficult work. Not everybody likes it. Why do you remember it?”
“My wife played one of the characters, the one called ‘Lucky.’ I could never forget it.”
“Is that so? Where is your wife now?” Father Vladimir asked.
Felix absentmindedly reached inside his bag. He squeezed the plastic with her shirt tenderly, before continuing in a pained, halting voice. “She died of leukemia a year ago. Her… her scent is still with me, though.”
He pulled out the precious, shrink-wrapped relic, and showed it to the priest. “It’s like I’ve vacuum packed her ghost.”
“I am so sorry to hear that, my son,” Father Vladimir said sadly. “And I am sorry for intruding on your personal life again.”
“No, it’s alright,” Felix said. “I like talking about her. It keeps her memory alive. Her life was all about that —keeping memories alive. She was an ethno-linguist. After we came back from the US, we traveled around the provinces collecting stories from indigenous tribes. She had wanted to record them all, before they faded away forever.”
“That is a worthy endeavor,” Father Vladimir said solemnly. “Oral traditions are important and they must be preserved.”
“That’s what she always told me,” the young man went on. “She used to dream about a giant computer somewhere in the clouds. It was a place where she could store all these dying stories. In my own dreams my wife keeps asking me to come and find her. I guess in a way I’ve been doing that ever since.”
“I have heard of such places,” the priest whispered, “at least in literature.”
“Anyway… getting back to Beckett,” Felix continued, somewhat embarrassed he had revealed so much. “I was thinking about what you said about synchronicity. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m in a situation that’s just like the only play I can remember. I believe there’s some greater design at work here. In the tribal stories my wife collected, there’s always a man that goes on a quest to the land of the dead. Father, what if this wasn’t coincidence but synchronicity?”
“That’s… not how it works,” the priest said, “How do you know that what you perceive is true and not simply what you would like to see?” Besides, these Orpheus-type stories always end in tragedy. Haven’t you suffered enough? She’s dead, my son. Let her go.”
“I can’t do that, Father,” the young man said, turning towards the darkness. “I have nothing but my faith left. I’m… scared out of my mind… but I have faith that this bus is where I need to be right now. I also have faith that I will find my beloved Dolores again, no matter how long it takes me.”
“‘Dolores’—what a lovely name,” Father Vladimir noted. “It means ‘sorrow’ in Spanish, and your name ‘Felix’ means ‘happy’ in Latin. Happiness is searching for Sorrow. That is all so tragically poetic.”
Felix said nothing and excused himself. He couldn’t tell if the priest was being sympathetic or condescending. He grabbed his messenger bag and moved again to the rear of the bus. After he sat down, he took out his phone and removed the battery. He warmed it in his hands, praying to St. Jude to give him one last burst of power. He returned the battery to his phone and hit the power button. It was still dead.
The bus continued on in the darkness. There were no other stops.
After their third cycle of sleep, Felix finally saw something that looked like a destination, a gigantic tower looming in the distance. As they got closer he realized that it looked oddly familiar. In fact, it looked exactly like something from his childhood prayer books, a picture of the Tower of Babel.
“Incredible!” Father Vladimir exclaimed. “It is Brueghel the Elder’s painting come to life!”
The digital signboard above the driver flashed three times. The words changed from “Non-Stop” to “The Infinite Library.” Finally, the bus passed through the building’s soaring gates and came to a halt near a low parking garage. There a group of monkeys were waiting with a notice board. The sign read: “Welcome Father Vladimir of Estragon, SJ—Semiotician, Philosopher and Dream Bibliographer.”
“I guess this is our stop,” the priest said cautiously.
“Father, those monkeys are dressed like people,” Felix said. “Who are they? What are they? What is this place?”
“Hmmm…our bus says we are at a place called the Infinite Library,” Father Vladimir ventured.
“Those creatures… They seem to be expecting you,” Felix said. A pang of suspicion began to gnaw at his mind. “Did you know that we were headed here?”
“This is as much as a surprise to me as it is to you, my son,” the old man answered. “But as it happens, I do know where we are. I first read about this place a very long time ago, when I was but a child. My family had a complete set of the Anglo-American Cyclopedia. It was all there, in a thick volume for the letter ‘I’, along with ‘India,’ ‘Idiom’ and the ‘Immaculate Conception.’ I remember that the ‘Infinite Library’ is where all that has ever been written and all that will ever be written is recorded and preserved for all eternity. If that’s true, I cannot wait to step inside.”
The LED display flashed three times again before changing to “Please wait for the Return Bus.” All the lights powered down and the driver stepped out for a smoke. It was then that Felix realized that the man on the wheel was almost skeletally thin, a shadow of death himself.
The leader of the monkeys boarded the bus and greeted them in perfect, if archaic, English, one pregnant with meaning and epic formality. They extended an invitation for the old man to visit the library.
“I must follow my guides,” Father Vladimir said, collecting his luggage.
“What about me?” Felix asked. Though he was terrified of the strange creatures, the young man refused to be left alone in the dark. “You can’t leave me Father, please.”
“You chose Option 2, did you not? That means you have a return ticket. Just wait for the bus to be ready,” the priest reminded him. “My son, I’m afraid that your grief is still very much in denial. Your beloved wife is gone. This is not your story, go back to the real world. Find yourself someone else. Don’t let your tale end in tragedy.”
“No. There must be a reason I was brought here,” Felix insisted. “Take me with you, please. Someone here may know how to find Dolores.”
“Well… I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t,” Father Vladimir said, turning to ask the monkeys for permission. “However, if you miss your bus, you may not be able to go back.”
“I’ll take my chances,” the young man insisted.
“It’s a fair bet,” the priest said. “In a place like this, where only infinities matter, I suppose your bus can wait indefinitely.”
They stepped into the library together. The interior was even more massive than the building itself, with endless rows of galleries and hallways that seemed to extend all the way to the clouds. Each gallery, in turn, was connected by a multitude of pillars and spiral staircases that linked everything together into a gigantic labyrinth of knowledge.
Felix noted that each hall and gallery had a brass nameplate over its entranceway. He did a quick survey and read some labels at random: “English 51st Century Fiction,” “Flash Fiction,” “Algorithms and Equations,” “Internet Memes,” “19th Century Erotica,” “Maps and Cartographic Materials,” “Songs and Song Lyrics.” He could not find any sign for an Oral Traditions section. He tried to ask directions from the monkey guides, but each creature pointed to a different doorway.
Their motley group walked to the central rotunda from where each of the halls for the living languages radiated like spokes. They stepped into a mirror-like portal, and suddenly the signs in the library changed. Instead of language families, the two of them now passed row upon row of galleries dedicated to individual authors. Father Vladimir stopped by the entrance to one of these, a doorway with a brass plate that read: “The Works of Karl Rahner,” and spoke to one of the librarians.
Felix wondered where the priest’s own writings were located. From his companion’s great eloquence, he imagined that it would be a huge gallery. He tried to ask the librarian a few questions, but he seemed only interested in theological polemic. The strange man barely even acknowledged his presence.
Felix left the gallery and began to wander aimlessly through the labyrinth of books. Eventually he came across the room that housed Father Vladimir’s work. Unlike Rahner’s numerous lexicons, this collection consisted of only one bookshelf. There was a thick encyclopedia of dreams, and various books on Faith and Theodicy, as well as many slim folios investigating Liturgy, Charity and the Importance of Sacrifice. He noticed that for some reason there was not a single volume on Love. Felix wondered if the old priest had ever known true love.
He stepped into another mirror-like door and found that the hallway signs had changed to modes of communication. He was in a gallery called “The Cradle of Literature,” where to his delight there were hundreds of music players laid out neatly on the tables. He picked through the gramophones, walkmans, iPods, and strange listening devices that looked like quivering crystals, until he saw one whose power source was compatible with his phone. He pried the back cover open and removed the battery.
Just then a librarian came out of a side door and accosted him. “Sir, you are not allowed to do that,” she said. The young woman looked into the intruder’s face and her eyes widened in stunned recognition. “Oh, my God,” she whispered. “You… you found me.”
For what seemed like an eternity, Felix and the librarian stared at each other, not stirring, not talking; for fear that the other might disappear like a dream. They stood apart, separated by a hyperbolic space, as if they could not touch each other without shattering.
Finally his heart could bear no more, and the young man jumped towards his lost love. He gathered her in his strong arms. “Dolor,” he cried softly. “I’ve missed you so much.”
No words or explanations were needed. The two remained locked in an embrace, cocooned in the library’s strange twilight, when Father Vladimir and the bus driver found them.
“I am truly sorry to break you up,” the priest said, “but I am told that Felix has to go back now.”
“Can I stay, please?” he begged the bus driver. But the skeletal man just shook his head, his face impassive as chalcedony, as he pointed a bony hand towards the exit. Felix felt a shiver that chilled him to the marrow.
“Father, help me! We can’t lose each other again,” Felix cried, his tears flowing freely. He got down on his knees and took the priest’s hand. He whispered a silent prayer to his favorite, St. Jude, and to St. Raphael, whom he now remembered as the patron of soulmates and lovers. His mind composed a desperate canticle to his beloved saints, calling for their intercession, and the compassion of their sacred thaumaturgies. “You said my story shouldn’t end in tragedy,” he said to Father Vladimir. “You have the power to change that.”
The priest heaved a sigh and looked away into the distance. He seemed older, a man filled with the melancholy regret that came with age. “Have you seen my gallery?” he asked. “It’s not as big as I’d hoped. I suppose I still have much work to do before they compare me to Rahner. Right now I feel like that Kiev cake we ate on the bus, all filling and no substance. After watching you and your wife here, maybe I should go back and write about Love.”
Father Vladimir held onto the young man’s hand, contemplating the fragility of existence and the resilience of lovers.
“It’s my story that’s not yet complete,” he said, finally. “Give me your ticket, my son.”
Felix wiped the tears from his eyes, and fished the ticket from his pocket. He picked up the battery he had dropped and slipped it into his phone. It turned on with a full charge.
“This is a multi-band phone,” he said, as he handed it to the priest. “Wherever you are in the world it will pick up the nearest signal. You should be able to call for help. Thank you. Thank you so much!”
“I am a man of the cloth and a soldier to Ignatius. To give and not to count the cost is our motto,” Father Vladimir declared. “Besides, what fool would not do this for love? It trumps all religions and philosophies. Your Godot has come, my son. I must go and find mine.”
As he was about to leave, the old man started chuckling, out of character. He turned back towards Felix and said: “Do you know why your batteries ran out? You had your music playing in a nonstop loop.”
“Yes, I know, Father. I forgot to switch it off,” Felix answered. “I think I was listening to The Police.”
“How prescient,” Father Vladimir mused, as he read the album’s name from the phone’s music player. “Synchronicity.”
Please pass along and consider donating!
World SF Travel Fund Fund-Raiser
A combination of genre professionals and fans from the international scene and the United States have gathered together to create the World SF Travel Fund. The fund has been set up to enable one or two international persons involved in science fiction, fantasy or horror to travel to a major genre event. This year’s recipients are:
Csilla Kleinheincz is a Hungarian-Vietnamese writer living in Kistarcsa, Hungary with her husband and daughter. She is the author of two novels and a short story collection. Her stories can be read in English in the anthologies Interfictions, Heiresses of Russ 2011, and The Apex Book of World SF 2. Some of her stories were translated into Portuguese, Finnish, Czech and Estonian. Csilla is also a translator of works by Peter S. Beagle, Kelly Link, Ursula K. Le Guin and Catherynne M. Valente. She currently works as the editor of the SF/F publishing house Ad Astra, and in her free time edits the Hungarian online SF magazine SFmag.
Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is a Filipino writer of science fiction and fantasy. A graduate of the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop, Rochita was the recipient of the 2009 Octavia Butler Scholarship, and the first Filipina writer to attend Clarion West. Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of online and print publications, including Interzone, Fantasy Magazine, Apex Magazine, Weird Tales, and the anthologies Robots: The Recent A.I., and The Apex Book of World SF 2. In the Philippines, her short fiction has been published in Philippine Panorama, Philippine Speculative Fiction 2, and Philippine Speculative Fiction 4. Rochita currently resides in the Netherlands with her husband and her two children.
The Fund has set up a Peerbackers Project with the hope of raising $3000, enabling two years of running. The Board, tasked with selecting future candidates, is composed of Lauren Beukes, Aliette de Bodard, Nnedi Okorafor, Ekaterina Sedia, and Charles Tan, reflecting the truly international nature of the SF world today. For inquiries and further information please contact co-administrators Lavie Tidhar or Sean Wallace at email@example.com.
I’m delighted to say we’ve been nominated for a BSFA Award in the non-fiction category!
And very happy to see two international writers, Aliette de Bodard (France) and Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (Philippines) in the short fiction category.
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus)
Empty Space: a Haunting by M. John Harrison (Gollancz)
Intrusion by Ken Macleod (Orbit)
Jack Glass by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
2312 by Kim Stanley-Robinson (Orbit)
Best Short Story
“Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld #69)
“The Flight of the Ravens” by Chris Butler (Immersion Press)
“Song of the body Cartographer” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (Phillipines Genre Stories)
“Limited Edition” by Tim Maughan (1.3, Arc Magazine)
“Three Moments of an Explosion” by China Mieville (Rejectamentalist Manifesto)
“Adrift on the Sea of Rains” by Ian Sales (Whippleshield Books)
Ben Baldwin for the cover of Dark Currents (Newcon Press)
Blacksheep for the cover of Adam Roberts’s Jack Glass (Gollancz)
Dominic Harman for the cover of Eric Brown’s Helix Wars (Rebellion)
Joey Hifi for the cover of Simon Morden’s Thy Kingdom Come (Jurassic London)
Si Scott for the cover artwork for Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden (Corvus)
“The Complexity of the Humble Space Suit” by Karen Burnham (Rocket Science, Mutation Press)
“The Widening Gyre” by Paul Kincaid (Los Angeles Review of Books)
The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge University Press)
The Shortlist Project by Maureen Kincaid Speller
The World SF Blog, Chief Editor Lavie Tidhar
Grasping for the wind has just posted a new interview with me about international speculative fiction and editing The Apex Book of World SF 2, with some comments from anthology contributors Rochita Loenen-Ruiz and Silvia Moreno Garcia.
SFFWRTCHT: How long does it take you to edit and assemble these anthologies?
LT: A long time! If you think about it, The Apex Book of World SF came out in 2009, while The Apex Book of World SF 2 came out in 2012–that’s four years between volumes! There are all kinds of reasons for that sort of time difference–and a lot that has changed in SFF in general over that period–but a part of it is certainly that it takes time and patience to put together an anthology of this kind.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you have plans to do more in the future? And what are outlets for readers intrigued by this to find more non-Western SF to read?
LT: Jason and I are very hopeful we get to do at least one more volume in the series. It depends on sales making it worthwhile for Apex, though. I’m keeping my eyes open and flagging interesting stories for consideration. We also have an idea for a separate–but very exciting– anthology with a more specific focus, which I hope we get to do. – read the full interview.
We featured one of Dean Francis Alfar‘s stories yesterday, and here’s another! From the latest issue of Expanded Horizons: Terminós:
Mr. Henares thinks about time
From the moment he opened his eyes in the morning to the instant before he fell asleep alone at night, Mr. Henares thought only about time.
He reflected about how time slowed down when he was engaged in an unpleasant activity, such as dyeing his thinning grey hair over the broken antique basin installed by his son-in-law Alvaro in his blue-tiled bathroom; and how time went faster during the rare instances when he felt happy, such as when his brace of grandchildren came for the cold weather holidays, their hypnotic music invariably loud and invigorating.
Mr. Henares recalled days when time did not move at all: waking up one morning convinced that it was the exact same day as the day before, watching the red display of his tableside clock blinking fruitlessly. The experience of the twin miércoles was to be repeated thrice more, adding jueves, viernes and sábado to his list of repeating days. He endured the repeated conversations and graceless routines, read the same stories in the newspapers and watched the same interviews on television.
Once, when he was a much younger man, Mr. Henares went back in time. The incident caught him completely unaware – he realized he was walking backwards and thinking thoughts in reverse. This unfortunate event flustered him so much that when it was suddenly over, he broke down in tears and resolved never to travel back in time if he could help it. – continue reading!
When the boy inevitably grew up, married and moved away with his own growing family, the toymaker decided to make a girl. He did it this time in secret, afraid of what his neighbors would think, fearing the potential unjust accusation of prurience when all he wanted was someone he could talk to, whose conversation would eradicate the heaviness of his solitude.
He worked at night, carving wood with his spotted hands by the feeble light of low and fat candles he favored from his youth, recalling how he watched his grandfather shape magic from wood and humming a song whose words he had long forgotten. He worked from midnight until just before dawn for five weeks, struggling with the impatience that old men with erratic memory suffer, losing himself in the methodology of his craft, shaving wood to reveal the delicate limbs and the small torso of his waiting daughter. Then at last he reached the part he liked best: shaping the girl’s face, determining the contour of her cheeks, the ridge of her brow, the curve of her chin, the hollow of her eyes. For her hair he chose the color of burnished bronze, planting and pulling the strands in and out of her hard scalp. For her eyes he selected the color of the bluest sky, fitting the glass spheres with a precision that only a master toymaker possessed. Just before he finished, he covered her polished nakedness in muslin and lace, cutting and sewing the sleeves and the hems and the ruffs, just as the sun came up.
The toymaker straightened up and grimaced at the creak of his aching back and looked at his new daughter, reaching forward to gently put an errant lock back in place.
“Now we must be patient, you and I,” he told her. “If my son could come to life, then certainly so can you.”
With all the gentleness his trembling hands could muster, he lifted her from his worktable and set her down on the low shelf where the boy came to life one memorable night many years ago. He blinked once against the memory, then left to make four dainty pillows from the scraps of the materials of her dress, to arrange around her and arrest her fall should she awaken early. – continue reading.
How to Traverse Terra Incognita is Dean Francis Alfar’s second collection of short fiction. An advocate of the literature of the imagination, he is the publisher of the Philippine Speculative Fiction anthologies, an annual showcasing Filipino fictionists that he began in 2005.
“Dean Francis Alfar’s stories contain fantastic worldbuilding, crisp prose, and contemplative, poignant storytelling. Several of these stories made me cry. If you aren’t reading Alfar yet, you should be.” – Hugo Award winner Lynne M. Thomas, Editor-in-Chief, Apex Magazine
“Dean Francis Alfar is one of the most inventive writers of speculative fiction today. It’s criminal that his often playful, sometimes serious, gloriously literate tales aren’t better known around the world. Although he’s a very different writer, his lyrical style seems to me to make him a Ray Bradbury for the 21st century.”
– John Grant, Joint Editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and author of Warm Words and Otherwise: A Blizzard of Book Reviews and many others
“Dean Francis Alfar is a wondrous storyteller, creating tales that take the reader far and wide. From reluctant dragon fathers and dueling weather gods to demanding, dying queens, he has a way of pulling you into his captivating worlds and never letting go. And really, who would want to leave anyway when there is something extraordinary around every corner?” – Hugo Award winner editor Ann VanderMeer
“Dean Francis Alfar’s ambitious but aptly titled collection is a revelation. In these wide-ranging stories you’ll find the melancholy magic of Kelly Link mixed with the clever wit and bite of Etgar Keret mixed with the unrestrained passion of Harlan Ellison. Yet, “How to Traverse Terra Incognita” is utterly original. It’s like that amazing new band that you fall in love with instantly and want to share with everyone. Then you and your friends will be gladly building replicas of your kingdoms, barricading the house against fathers, and packing for the moon.”–Paul Tremblay, author of The Little Sleep and Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye
“How to Traverse Terra Incognita is a kaleidoscope of strange realities. Dean Francis Alfar’s elegant prose offers tantalizing glimpses of broken fairy tales, urban magics, and everyday sadnesses.” – Ditmar Award winner Tansy Rayner Roberts, author of Creature Court trilogy and Love and Romanpunk.
“Dean Francis Alfar is an amazing talent. Profound, luminous and lyrical, “How to Traverse Terra Incognita” is the masterwork of an artist at the very top of his game. This collection is a must-read for anyone who cares about the magic of rubbing words together.” — Ted Kosmatka, author of The Games
“When Dean Francis Alfar is at his best in stories like ‘The Ghosts of Wan Chai’ and ‘Securing Doors from Fathers,’ he illuminates human emotion with deft surrealism that merges the familiar and the unfamiliar, allowing the reader to view both in a new light. His clever use of sustained metaphor allows him to play with subtext, memory, and the intersection between personal and communal experience.” – Nebula Award winner author Rachel Swirsky
Our own Charles A. Tan has been busy – not only is he nominated, for the second year running, for the World Fantasy Award (for his blog, Bibliophile Stalker) but US-based published Lethe Press have just released his new anthology, Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology.
About the anthology:
Filipinos and Chinese have a rich, vibrant literature when it comes to speculative fiction. But what about the fiction of the Filipino-Chinese, who draw their roots from both cultures? This is what this anthology attempts to answer. Featuring stories that deal with voyeur ghosts, taboo lovers, a town that cannot sleep, the Chinese zodiac, and an exile that finally comes home, Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology covers a diverse selection of narratives from fresh, Southeast Asian voices.
Stories by: Charles Tan, Andrew Drilon, Erin Chupeco, Kristine Ong Muslim, Isabel Yap, Christine V. Lao, Gabriela Lee, Paolo Chikiamco, Fidelis Tan, Marc Gregory Yu, Yvette Tan, Margaret Kawsek, Crystal Koo, Kenneth Yu, Douglas Candano
Rochita Loenen-Ruiz has a new story up at Philippine Genre Stories: Song of the Body Cartographer.
Siren traces the marks on Inyanna’s body. There are concave hollows in Inyanna’s arms, and there are connectors along her ribs that allow her to jack into her windbeast when she is in flight. Under Siren’s fingers, the patterns on Inyanna’s shoulders register as bumps—like tiny hills grouped together in circles that wind in and around each other.
“That tickles,” Inyanna says.
Her voice sends shivers along Siren’s spine and her fingers clutch and caress Inyanna’s skin.
“There is no one more beautiful than you,” Siren says.
She worships Inyanna’s body and follows the shape of muscle and bone with her hands. There is no fat on her body and Siren takes note of this too. Her fingers glide over her love’s hipbones, and she feels the muscles contract and hears Inyanna’s indrawn breath.
“There,” Inyanna says.
The shiver in her voice makes Siren smile.
“Here?” she asks.
She blows gently and watches Inyanna stretch and reach upwards.
In the moment when Inyanna reaches climax, Siren feels as if she has traced the road from Lower Ayudan to that place where the high gods dwell. – continue reading.
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.