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11. kindness

EVELYN DIEDZ

So, here’s the thing — I really don’t like to be threatened.

I spent too much time in my earlier life running from threats. When I wanted to.  When I didn’t want to.  Real, imagined, whatever. But I quit that way of thinking a long time ago. Threats don’t stop me. But they do piss me off. Probably because of how I dealt with them back then, I know. But acknowledging it doesn’t make me feel any better. So I try to get rid of the anger as I walk down the tunnel toward where Shihong disappeared.

I try to focus on Emmett. I’m wondering if he’s the sort of kid who’s better suited to dealing with this kind of life. He seems resigned. Or, if not resigned, accepting. Big difference, that. Is it easier if you’re a kid? Do adults self-destruct? If the change goes down when you’re young — if you don’t have as much experience flesh-and-blood living — do you just adapt better to a different kind of existence? I’ve met more kids who’ve changed like this than adults. But I have no scientific way to know if that’s just what I’m experiencing or if it’s reality. I usually chalk it up to coincidence. And now I’m wondering — with Shihong clearly being able to change her shape … who knows what she looks like. Or if she even has a looks-like?

Being a detective on this side of the fence presents a whole new series of challenges.

Like, here. Consider. I’m noticing that the path is getting less wet and sandy ahead of me. And I’m realizing that there’s kind of an optical illusion — if it’s right to call it that in the down-deep landscape — the farther I go. The tunnel looked mostly-straight from where I’d been standing, but I find that there’s a sharp turn once I get to where Shihong disappeared from my view. Something about the haze causing it, maybe? I briefly theorize that the yellow pus in the walls evaporates into the haze. It’d explain why it has that hint of color when everything else is so grey.  Or maybe it’s the other way around, and the haze is absorbed into the walls to make the pus. Who knows?

What do I do with information like that? See — I long ago realized that trying to work out the logic to someone’s particular landscape could be pretty much a lifetime job. And not a job I’m interested in pursuing.

Sorry, folks. I just can’t prioritize one person like that. Unless it’s me.

Let some phantom psychologist take that gig. Spend a lifetime — an eternity, maybe — figuring out people’s damage by their tree-placement. ‘This snake means you were sad when they forgot your birthday.’ No, thanks. Can you imagine?

The haze gets thicker and thicker. I walk about thirty more steps, and that’s when the haze seems to give way unnaturally — more than makes sense.

And, past that point, the haze gives way to visibility, and I realize that I’m now standing in a giant cavern that looks like it was carved out of the spongy rock. I can’t see the other side of it from where I’m standing. I can’t see any of the sides, but I can make out stalactites and stalagmites all over the ceiling and floor, respectively. Those, I can see. And they seem to go on and on. I know that doesn’t make sense. But that’s how it is. The pus drips from the stalactites, thick in some places like yellow raindrops. There are pools of the yellow goo here and there on the cavern floor. The pools bubble, and it feels hot. The bubbles rise and then burst, releasing steam that dissipates after a few seconds. Likely explaining where the haze is coming from.

“Do you like what we’ve made?” It’s Shihong’s voice, and it’s coming from behind me. I turn and see she’s standing just past the tunnel opening I just came through.

The facts she’s doling out aren’t lost on me. “You made this.” I’m not even going to bother asking it as a question. “This isn’t Salat’s.  None of this.”

“He didn’t make much in the first place. Just a lot of space like this.  Not yet emptied out, even with his best efforts.  He managed to make the sand.  There was a lot of sand, in the start, I think.  Like a whole beach of it.  Every grain was different.  It was going to be some beach.  But a problem — it would’ve been pretty, but not so functional.  A lifetime doing what Salat does wore it down and emptied it out, mostly.  All for the benefit of his boss.  A few things we’ve left behind from what he’s made.  The yellow ocean was his.  And there’s a little cave on the beach he’d’ve called home.  Not that he’ll have much use for it.”

I’m horrorstruck.

I take a too-long pause. Then, “You–”

She doesn’t let me finish. “We.” She grins, claws stretching silently out from her fingertips as she folds her hands together in front of her. “We didn’t do all this.  Take it away, I mean.  This is professional.  We’re anarchists compared to them.  We dug a trench.  So the water would fill the cave.  We needed it in there.  And then we made some of these tunnels.” She jumps in place, once. “It’s better than a big empty grey, though, isn’t it?”  She gestures broadly.  “Oh, and we played with the sky a little.”

Why?” I can’t possibly think of a reason to do any of this.  “Why would anyone?”

“The breakdown?  You’d have to ask Salat’s boss.  The trench — …  well, you dig a trench for war, dear.”  Her eyes positively glitter.  “And the water keeps things moving.  We need things to keep moving.  The sky — well, sometimes we get bored.  We got bored waiting for things to happen.  It’s been a while, waiting all this out.  And it’s better for Salat, now, anyway.” She frowns.  “Where he was headed is no life.”

“But he’d feel it.” It’s all I can say. “It’d hurt him.  It hurt him?” I try not to sound as accusatory as I’m thinking: “Did you hurt him?” Not even a priest deserves to get such an intimate part of himself all torn up like this.

Shihong waved a clawed hand at me dismissively. “Oh, please. it doesn’t hurt that much.  They do it to themselves, mostly.  It only hurts if you’re not careful about it. We were careful and we were gentle, too.  We have a plan. Plans demand patience.  We’re patient.”

“How long have you been at this?” I ask.

“With Salat?  A while.” The claws disappear from her fingertips and Shihong takes two steps toward me with both hands outstretched, eyes twinkling again. “You never really know how long it’ll take or how things’ll turn out.  But things are moving now.”  She claps her hands together.  “Come on, though  — I told you I’d introduce you to the others.”

‘Help!’ comes the call again. ‘Help! Help!’

I look down at her outstretched hands. They look like normal hands. Like any kid’s hands, if they haven’t had to work to eat.

Shihong calls out into the misty yellow haze: “I’m coming, Rangi.” She reaches out again toward me, this time with only her right hand. “Come on. It won’t hurt. You saw us with Daniel. If we wanted to hurt you, you’d get hurt.”

She says it without malice. And that kind of makes it worse.

“I’m good,” I say.

She shrugs. “Okay,” she says. Then, with the barest hint of a smirk, she asks “Do you want to lead the way?”

“You go on ahead.”

She’s facing me now, walking backward, pointing her right hand over her left shoulder. “But you’re coming, right?”

I stand where I am, until the moment when I see the smirk disappear from her face. Then, I start walking toward her.

Now, I get that you could think how that’s just me being petty. But, you know how you get a feeling for some people about what they prioritize, especially when it’s something very specific? Well, I’m getting that kind of feeling from Shihong, already — that what she prioritizes is having people go where she wants and do what she says. Obedience. And I’ve got literally zero interest in feeding that. Even if it means dragging things out a little more.
And I guess that she might quickly become aware of what I’m doing — if she isn’t already — and I seriously don’t care.

I decide when I come and go. Nobody and nothing else but me. It’s not negotiable.

Shihong is looking away from me now, facing forward and walking away as I start to follow her. “So — I’m curious about you.”

“Me, too, about you,” I admit.

“We should probably introduce ourselves more properly than before, by the way,” she says. She overstates the words, as if making fun of diplomacy the way a kid might.

“Sounds okay.” Anything I can learn, I figure, could be useful. And I might be able to see if she has a tell when she lies, if I catch her in one.

I decide that it’s time for a bit of a gamble about how to get the situation back under my control as much as I can manage. And that requires me to think about what I know. And all I know about Shihong is that she looks like a kid and she’s somehow able to exist both inside and outside a landscape, seemingly at the same time. And, freaky as that is, I bury my worries about what that could mean and think about how Shihong is a shapeshifter and how she’s presenting herself: as a kid. Which means there are pretty much only two possibilities. One, she’s actually a kid and I’m seeing her true form. Or two, she’s choosing to present herself as a kid for reasons I don’t know.

So I begin:

“Is it a long way to your friends?” I ask, trying to make myself sound tired.

“It’ll take some heartbeats.”

The way she says it suggests she means it’ll take a while. I also store away how she tracks time.

“How about a game, then?” I suggest. “Until we get there.”

Shihong looks back at me from over her right shoulder as she continues to walk forward. “What kind of game?”

“How about, like — you tell me one thing about you, and I’ll tell you one thing about me.”

She smiles, and it looks genuine. “Okay,” Shihong says. She turns her neck bacK to face forward and resumes walking. “Should I make the rules, or do you want to?”

Good. “I do,” I say. “If something’s private, you can say that.”

“Okay. Or if it hurts to talk about.”

“Sounds fair,” I say.

“What’s the second rule?” asks Shihong.

“You go first.”

“Well, all right. So — where were you first born?” She asks eagerly, stretching her arms up over her head.

“No,” I say, as gently as I can manage. “You answer first.”

“Oh. Okay.” She sounds disappointed.

“Same question from me. Because of the misunderstanding.”

“I was born in Shaanxi Province.”

Fuck. Geography. I’m horrible with it. But I guess some context from the name: “That’s in China.” I try my hardest not to make it a question.

“Yeah.”

“I’ve never been there.” I say this by design. I want her to think I’m supplying her more information than she’s giving me. I hope it’ll make her more forthcoming, herself.

“Well, near Shaanxi Province, anyway,” Shihong adds, after a long pause. There’s a hint of laughter to her voice.

“My turn!” Shihong declares, stopping to hop up and down twice before she starts walking again. “Where were you, uh, first born?”

“Chicago, Illinois,” I answer, truthfully.

“In America? When?”

“It’s my turn,” I remind her.

“Oh.” Shihong takes a few more steps. Then, “That’ll be my next question for you.”

“All right. So I’ll ask you next to … tell me about your friends.”

“They’re not my friends,” Shihong insists. “They’re my family.” She doesn’t sound so much offended as displeased I didn’t somehow figure this out on my own.

“You’re all related?” I ask.

“That can be a question, later.”

“So,” she says, “there are four of us.”

“I remembered that much even before you did your little magic trick,” I tell her. I try to hide my resentment at being manipulated. I don’t want to disrupt the game, and I’m hoping my statement will manipulate her right back into telling me things I want to know.

“It’s not a magic trick,” Shihong says, sounding defensive. She reaches up to put both hands behind her head, crossing her fingers, elbows out. “It’s self-defense. You do it, too, you know.”

Her words surprise me, and I lose track of the game for a moment, anyway. “I– … ” I start to speak, but stop myself. I decide listening is better for right now.

“You made Jay them all forget you when you were asking around town. Back when you first got here. When you were asking around town.” She lowers her arms to her sides. “And you made CJ forget, even after she said your name.” Shihong turns completely around to face me, eyes wide. And, for the first time, that sense of wariness about her being a danger that I’ve been feeling fades away. “You don’t do it on purpose, do you?”

Carefully, I keep my voice as level as possible: “Is that the next question?”

“Yes,” Shihong says, sounding just this side of petulant.

So I answer: “No,” I say. Since I first encountered this girl, I’ve been getting the strong sense Shihong could tell if I was lying. But I don’t think she’s a mind-reader. Not in any way I understand.  And I see no point in not being honest. “I can’t do it on purpose. That’s why I was surprised when you did it to me. I didn’t know any of us could do that. I’ve never met anybody who could. The thing with my name is something different.”

I’m thankful that my idea of making this all a game seems to be working. However old Shihong is, I get the sense she is a kid. And, like I’ve said, those of us who are kids tend to be kids, no matter how old they are. Not all, but most. And I need to know as much as I can about Shihong and her family. Especially if we’re going to be running into each other around Drodden.

Which, you know … at this point? Seems likely.

Shihong keeps walking backward, seemingly sure of the way, easily and deftly sidestepping the bubbling pools of yellow liquid. “What’s with having CJ say your name like that, anyway? Why do you have that little card? The one with your name on it?”

My turn to tense up. That, I don’t want to answer.

“Why don’t you want to talk about it? It’s a part of you. Did you change it? Or did someone else?”

“That’s private. And it hurts to talk about.”

“Why?” More genuine curiosity from Shihong.

“Because it’s a really, really long story, kid. And that’s the rules.”

Disappointment from Shihong: “Awwwww.” Then, silence for a long moment, before she speaks again: “You must already know that I’m lots older than you are,” she says. “But, I get it. You can keep calling me ‘kid’ if you you want to. I don’t mind.” She hops in place again, once. Then she stops, looking at me. “You’re scared of me.”

I can’t tell if she’s forgotten about the game or not. I decide to proceed, and not to bring it up. “You seem dangerous to me.”

“I am,” she says, matter-of-factly.

“So why shouldn’t I be scared?”

“Because, I can tell that you’re like is — like my sister and brothers. That’s kind of why we’re interested in you. We’re pretty much some of the oldest. And you’re like us. So what’s to be scared of? We’re just new people. We should be friends.”

“Like when you were talking to the priest about me?”

Shihong stops walking forward. She whips her head back over her shoulder again, glowering at me uncomfortably: “You–”

“Yeah,” I answer quickly. “I heard that.” And I’m testing her, again, here. It’s true I could make out what was being said, but not as words. It’s hard to describe. I want to back and look in my book about it, at some point. Because it was like a wordless song. One that spoke of its meaning musically, rather than with words. Or maybe that’s just how I remember it now. Maybe Shihong — or one of the other three — messed with my memories of it.

“You couldn’t have,” Shihong says. She turns all the around now and walks toward me. “It doesn’t work like that.” Her eyes narrow and her head tilts a little. “What did you hear?”

I decide at this point that she’s either definitely forgotten about the game, or has decided to forego the pretense. Either way, I proceed: “You sounded like you were singing. You were all telling Daniel that something big is happening. Something great. That you wanted to happen. And that you think I’m going to try to stop it.”

“Maybe you will,” Shihong turns to look forward. “Well, maybe you’ll try,” she says, snippily. Then, she starts walking, moving faster than she was before. “I think that maybe you’ll try. That was me you heard singing that part. My brothers and sister aren’t so sure. I know it can be hard to tell who’s singing what part. It sort of all goes together, is what people say.” There’s hurt in her voice. “I don’t want to play your game any more, right now.” she adds.

“I’m sorry,” I say. And, for some reason, I mean it. I’m not sure exactly what impression I’m getting from her words there, about the song — but there seems to be a wound there. One I can feel, even barely knowing her.

Shihong doesn’t say a word. She just stops walking and faces me, reaching up her right hand and pointing to her side.

I follow the line of where she’s pointing. And I realize I can see the opposite wall of the cave from where we started — assuming we’ve been going in the straight line it feels like we’ve walked.

I look back to Shihong, but she’s gone.

I look back over to the cavern wall that just came into view. Shihong is there, now, and she’s standing with three other children. The yellow fog seems to part around them, and then bursts of flame erupt from right over their heads, before I can even react. The fire spreads out like waves of light, until each colored fire touches me in rapid succession, all before I can even blink to react. White fire, then black, then pale green. And I see them both here and in my memories, the gaps in my recollections refilled. The one with the white flame, walking away from where he sat with Mickey, Rick and Jay. The children playing basketball. One of the faces, always covered. Like it’s covered now — the one with the pale green flame. The other three looking right at me, without me being able to see them then. But now it’s right in front of me. Hints of them everywhere I’ve been, as I suspect, even — as Shihong had told me — when I first Arrived in Drodden. And it isn’t just my visual memory. I feel memories of them, too. They’ve hovered around me — surrounded me — looked over my shoulder, stood at my side, been above and below and all around me. I feel it all, rushing back, compacting into a single moment. I can feel their breath on the back of my neck from all those times they were there; it’s fast and hot, like a charging horse has been running in place right behind me this whole time.

I feel like I can’t move.

I’m overwhelmed.

I’m frozen.

And I hate it. I hate it.

But my hate isn’t enough, here. Not this time.

I watch as the figure with the white flame breaks from the others and moves toward me. I notice that he isn’t walking like Shihong was. He’s floating. He hovers before me, a child who looks like he’s about Shihong’s age with sickly, jaundiced white skin and bright white hair that’s a loose tousle on the top of his head. “I’m Bernard Erobern,” he says, and then he floats backward to the others.

The redheaded white girl with the pigtails takes a step forward from the others. “I’m Eleanore Erobern,” she says.  “You’re beautiful,” she says, stepping backward to line up with the others. But there is no warmth to it. Her words are clinical, analytical. It’s more an appraisal than a compliment.

And then comes the fourth one, wearing a long hood over its head.

“And this is my best friend, Rangi — Rangi Ihaka, formally.” Shihong says. “He doesn’t talk.”  She affects a playful, thoughtful look.  Then, “Well, not with words.”

From beneath the hood, I hear it: a long, mournful sound. ‘Help! Help!’ it seems to say. It could be a peacock. But it could be a woman’s voice calling for help. It’s both. It’s neither. it’s a voice. Just a voice. But a familiar voice now. My mother’s voice as she lies there, in her own filth, unattended and uncared-for, at the convalescent home. And as Rangi lifts his head, I look into the darkness of the hood and I see my mother there, covered in caked shit, her skin oozing from bedsores. ‘Help! Help!’ she says. ‘Help! Help!’ And Rangi walks closer to me, and the image gets bigger and bigger. And I see myself falling, now, spitting up blood as my head is split open and I’m reaching and twitching and dying on the wet grass with dew on my fingers as my fingers cut themselves raking across the ground, fingernails snapping on soil and bricks, and I’m trying to climb up and out from the darkness.

But the darkness wins.

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Published inpart 2

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