My name is Harper and in six months I am going to die.
I know this because I paid for the privilege. You can do testing for anything nowadays, and apparently your expiration date is one of them.
I had money to spare, I was bored, and yes, I foolishly thought the test would tell me some distant faraway age like eighty-two or maybe even one hundred and two. When I found out my expiry date was in six months, I began to have a really, really bad case of buyer’s remorse.
I went through quite a lengthy denial period, where I thought I could go through the rest of my life pretending that if I just do things exactly the same way and not change anything I would conveniently forget and everything would be fine and dandy. (This was by far my favorite coping mechanism. But it didn’t last. Eventually my anxiety bubbled up and exploded like a shaken champagne bottle.)
Next came an obsessive, defiant, planning phase. Everyday I would think of elaborate plans to avoid death like I could somehow scheme my way out of it. I mean, theoretically, it seems doable. Plane crash? Don’t go on a plane. Car accident? Just stay home all week. Heck, heart attack? Pop three baby aspirins and hang out in the hospital lobby, right next to the crash cart ready to wave a big sign that says “I’m having a heart attack.” Unfortunately the test didn’t provide the cause of death, just the exact time, so I couldn’t really plan in specifics.
Eventually all the planning became incredibly exhausting and I settled into a kind of defeated acceptance. My plan was still not to actively put myself in a situation where I could die, I was not quite ready to submit to my annihilation, but if I somehow still find myself in that situation anyway, I figured I should really work on trying to be okay with that.
So then I commenced on a hedonistic three months where I blew half of my life savings and did literally anything I could think of. I ziplined through the forests of Peru, skydived over the French countryside, drank the best wines and indulged in rich Italian food, snorkeled off the shores of Bali, shopped with abandon while perusing the streets of Tokyo, London, Dubai…
You get the idea.
The most pathetic part of this whole thing was that I didn’t have a family to spend my last few days with. Or close friends, really. My impending death would not be filled with earnest mourning and last minute tearful proclamations of love and reminiscing. Oh sure, my funeral would be packed, but nobody would miss me, not really. As an orphaned twenty-two year old who inherited too much money at an early age, not only was I kind of an entitled asshole, I also haven’t really lived yet. I haven’t fallen in love or had kids, wrote that great American novel, won a Pulitzer, or experienced any of that syrupy sweet stuff life is supposedly made of.
Anyway, that’s why I’m hanging out in the hospice ward.
My friend here is Lucas. He is twenty-nine and has end stage heart failure from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. He described it as his heart being too big - literally but I suspect it's also an accurate description of him figuratively. I befriended him five months ago when I found out I was going to die. And no, surprisingly, he does not have any wisdom to impart about acceptance and healing and the meaning of life. He is very not okay with his young, awesome life being cut short, thank you very much.
He did have some useful information for me though.
“It’s quite experimental.” Lucas warned in an ominous tone.
“They usually only accept terminal patients… you know, because of the ethical issues.” He eyed me warily. “But in your case, they made an exception.”
He was adorable. He said that last line like a late night infomercial. Or maybe a used car salesman.
“This is not some elaborate black market scam to harvest my organs, is it?” I raise an eyebrow at him. “I mean, no offense, but you look like you could use a new heart.”
Lucas had to grab his oxygen mask after laughing so hard at that one. The nurse at the station gave me a dirty look.
After Lucas recovered he looked me in the eye. “How much do you have left?”
“Time? Or money?” I joked. The look on his face was not amused. I cleared my throat. “One month. And as you know, money is not an object.”
“Well, one month can give you… at least eighty years in virtual time. So pretty much a whole lifetime, if you decide on it.” Lucas shrugged. “Once you jack in though, there’s no going back. Your clock will end as scheduled and that’s the only way out. Also, it’s totally immersive, so you won’t even know you’re in virtual. It will be like… you’re in a dream but you don’t know you’re in a dream.”
“So I would really believe everything was real? Like I would grow up to be ninety years old and I would actually think I lived all those years even though really it will only be one month?”
“How many of the other people will be real?”
“Most will be computer generated. You might meet some real ones, if they are in the same time dilation settings as you. There are very few people with the resources for a whole month, you know. Most people can only afford one day.”
“So there’s a chance that I will marry a program?” I furrowed my brows. “And then if we have kids, they will also be programs?”
Lucas cocked an eyebrow. “There’s a high chance, statistically. Like I said, there’s only a few real participants at any given time. Not that it would matter to you, you won’t know the difference.”
I thought about this. Would it really bother me if I didn’t know? I bet my computer generated kids would be adorable.
His expression suddenly turned serious. “There’s something else. It’s rare, but there are a few cases of people noticing little things not quite right and they become increasingly convinced they’re in a simulation. Which of course is true, but when you’re jacked in and you’re not completely sure if you’re crazy or just being paranoid, it can be terrifying. They call it Simulation Induced Paranoia, or SIP.” He paused. “Participants become really…. distressed.”
I chewed on this for a second. “I still want to do it.”
He looked surprised. “Really?”
“I really don’t have anything to lose.” I replied nonchalantly, like I just decided on a dinner entree. I should probably be alarmed that I was acting so cavalier. Lucas wasn’t exactly giving a stellar sales pitch. Then again, it was true, I really had nothing left to lose. I’ve done what I could with my twenty-two years. Might as well have another lifetime to try again.
Lucas stared at me for a moment then sighed. “That’s the thing. The longer you’re in virtual, the higher the chance you might experience SIP. Remember, Harper, a month is a lifetime. The chances are very low of course - less than 1%, the virtual worlds are very meticulously programmed after all. But if you experience SIP, there’s no cure, no safe word, you’re stuck until your clock runs out.”
“I already decided.” I said resolutely. Once I’ve made up my mind on something I was usually unshakable. It was one of my many flaws. “In fact, let’s do it tonight. I want to get my whole lifetime, not a year less.”
Everything was too bright, the sounds too loud. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t. Jacking in was a very jarring process, it felt as if all my neurons were firing up all at once. Somehow I felt tremendous pain and the heights of delirious ecstasy simultaneously. Like I was feeling every possible thing all at the same time. There was a terrifying moment when everything went black, and for what felt like an eternity but was probably only a few seconds, I truly wholeheartedly believed I was actively dying.
Maybe I was supposed to die on the table during the procedure. Or maybe I really did unwittingly offer to have my organs harvested for the black market. Damn it, I probably caused my own death in my extreme efforts to avoid it...
I blinked twice. The room slowly came into focus.
“Hey, sleeping beauty.” A familiar voice.
It was Lucas. But also, it was not Lucas. He did not have his portable oxygen tank close by. His lips did not have their usual bluish tint. He looked… healthy.
Everything came back to me at once.
“Oh shit, Lucas. That was nuts.” I shook my head, clearing the cobwebs. “That felt too real. I really felt like I was in there for twenty-two years.” I checked my watch. I’ve only been in Virtual for twenty-two minutes.
He chuckled, swiveling back and forth on the expensive office chair I bought him for Christmas last year. My boyfriend never could sit still. “You’re a champ, Harper, you were the one who wanted to push the time dilation to a year per minute. I was worried pushing it that far would compromise the world building, but your mind was amazing at meeting the program halfway to fill in the gaps. You made yourself a rich orphan, really? Money is no object? Hah!”
I disconnected my neurojack from the surgically implanted access port behind my right ear. That rich orphan stuff was my subconscious free at the wheel. I didn’t intentionally decide on it. I turned back to Lucas. “Why did you add all that stuff about Virtual in there, and SIP? Don’t you think that was a little too… meta?”
Lucas suddenly broke into that grin that melted my heart so many years ago when we met during undergrad at MIT. “Well, since you wanted to put the expiry dates into the program so people would know how much time they had left, I thought, what the heck, why not make it interesting? Why not make a virtual game in Virtual?”
I was not amused. Lucas had a penchant for bloated code and unnecessary side doors. Also, for not telling me about an adjustment until after he has done it. “That’s messed up. You should have run that by me. The expiry date was a suggestion from the beta testers and we all agreed on it. We didn’t agree on putting the game into the Virtual Universe as a side door..” I paused. “Also, what if I didn’t jack in? I would have died in a car accident or something?”
Lucas turned back to his computer and typed a few lines of code. “I had carbon monoxide poisoning ready to go, but I was prepared to improvise. And anyway, I didn’t actually think you would gravitate towards the game during the beta test, I just put it in there as an Easter egg of sorts. I figured most clients would only think about jacking in when they were close to their expiry dates, if they do at all. But on second thought, maybe I should take it out of the programming, it’s too much work to keep up.”
I jumped off the table and stretched my legs. My entire body felt stiff like I haven’t used it for months. “Yea, take it out. You’ll have enough work as it is when we start accepting our first commercial clients next week. We have four people scheduled on our first day which I already think is too much.”
“We’ll be fine.” Lucas was now typing more purposefully. “That reminds me, I need to finish debugging this before Monday. Do you mind picking up dinner?”
“Sure.. from that new Thai place again?”
I smiled as I gave Lucas a quick peck on the cheek before I grabbed my purse to pick up the take out. Everything was going well for our start up. It was hard to believe that only two years ago Lucas and I were broke PhD dropouts who took a leap of faith building Virtual from our one bedroom Boston apartment. And now… well, let’s just say our first official month in business is projected to generate six figures in profits even after subtracting overhead. Mid six figures. And as soon as we open up our second and third facilities the growth would be exponential.
To top it all off, I was pretty sure Lucas was planning on proposing to me next week on my birthday. I saw a charge from some jewelry company on his credit card statement while I was doing some filing last month. Judging from the amount, it could only be an engagement ring. Lucas never would have spent that much on a piece of jewelry otherwise.
I sauntered out of the elevator from our high rise office with a pep in my step. The weather outside was just the right amount of sunny. Even the Boston air didn’t feel as suffocatingly polluted. Yes, everything was going well. Perfect, even. I eyed a meticulously trimmed bush suspiciously as I walked by. Maybe too perfect.
I felt a sudden stab of panic. The smile dissipated from my face.
Attack and Achieving
Along the Atlantic, awful alligators sit aloof, anticipating the awakening of all anxious animals to alleviate an abundant appetite. The animal, arriving at autumn, approached an awful alligator awkwardly with an attack plan. The animal aroused the aloof and atrocious alligator and attracted his attention. All animals attuned their hearing at the arriving animal and an atrocious, and aloof alligator. The animal was being adventurously amazon at the amazed atrocious, awful alligator. In this area, the anxious animals are abundant.
The animal advances on to artistic apple artists and are acquainted with angles and amazing abstract art alliterations at autumn and arrive at AM. The abstract artistic apple artists attempt astronomy and are awed at aweing aliens, also attempting art. The alien art is atrocious, and amazing and abstract art. They ace art and can abracadabra aliens away. Abstract artistic apple artists also attempt amazing astronomy all after amping up apple art.
A ways away in Argentina, American Affenpinscher dogs are after American agents attacking Americans in Avalanches after falling ash. Agents are alarmed by American Affenpinscher dogs and are anxious and afraid. Avalanches alert arriving aspirational angels atop an astounding arch. Angels advance to avalanches and arouse appearing Americans ASAP. The affenpinschers alerted the angels to the angry American adults needing attention and assistance. Also at Argentina, Americans are artful artists at astronomical apples, advice and avalanches.
Also a ways away aching at an arrival of Anemone, an Anaconda awaits Anemone. Anacondas are also as atrocious and awful as atrocious awful alligators and are about to alleviate an Anemone at am. Anemone arrives and apprehended an attack. Anemone attacked at arrival. Atrociously awful Anacondas are alleviated. Anemones are advantageous and are amused at atrocious awful anacondas aren’t actually atrocious and awful.
Anemona and an animal are arriving at apple artists again and are acquainted around all, American affenpinschers are also arriving and are also acquainted. Anemona, an animal, And an american affenpinscher are alive and are amazing around anemona, an animal.
Anna arrives at Argentina and is aware of american agents and an awful avalanche. Anna arrives at apple artists and attacks Anemona, an animal, and an american affenpinschers attack also and are alleviated at Anna. Anna is as amazed as Anemona attacking atrocious awful. anaconda.
Anna’s Aunt Ava arrived to assist Anna and ate appealing avocados and awful artichokes. Aunt Ava attempted to avenge the animals and adventurous Avengers. Adventurous Avengers are avalanched alive at arrival at apple artists and Anna and Aunt Ava. Aunt Ava and Anna and Avengers are awakened by aardvark, Atrocious awful, Atrocious awful Alligator, and Anaconda. Aunt Ava and Anna, and Avengers, and Atrocious awful, and Atrocious awful Alligator, and an aardvark are arranging an attack also. Attacking artistic Apple artists and Aliens.
All are ashes after Aunt Ava and Anna, and Avengers, and Atrocious awful, and Atrocious awful Alligator, and an aardvark attack artistic apple artists and aliens. Aunt Ava appels at an arriving ash. Ash appels back. Ashes are arriving all around and Anna and Aunt Ava are arriving at Argentina again.
Advancing on American affenpinscher dogs, Ana and aunt Ava are American agents, attacking as well. Anna and Aunt Ava are autographed at an acknowledged association afterwards they are appropriately applying for an account at an achieving agricultural association.
An achieving agricultural association assemblyman arrives and aggravates Aunt Ava amazingly. Aunt Ava abominates an achieving agricultural association assemblyman, Aunt Ava appeases at an assembly for attacking an achieving agricultural association assemblyman. Aunt Ava is affirmed an anesthetic and Anna attacks Aunt Ava.
Anna accelerate as an accountable Anna and attracts an achieving agricultural association Ambassador. An achieving agricultural association ambassador absolutely appreciates Anna and adjusts Anna’s appearance and automobile. Anna admittedly attacked Aunt ava and an achieving agricultural association Ambassador admires Anna amazingly.
An achieving agricultural association Ambassador administers an aspirational antibiotic at Anna. Apocalypses are arriving and Anna and Ambassador are aspirational and afflict affectionate adventure at apocalypses.
An auctioneer arrives at argentina and Anna and Ambassador are arriving to attend at an auctioneer. Anna apprentices an auctioneer and are auctioneered. Anna accidentally applies as an astronomer also and abandoned an auctioneer apprenticeship. An Ambassador appraised Anna and applied as an astronomer also. Anna and Ambassador are astronomers at april.
Aunt Ava ambitiously attends April astronomers at april am. Aunt Ava amends an anesthetic Aunt Ava and advertises Anna And Ambassador and Astronomers. Aunt Ava Aviodes Anna anyways.
Astronomers accomplish an abstract agreement and Anna agrees. Anna authenticates an academic achievement and achieves an acquired audience. An achieving agricultural association, amazing, abstract artistic apple artists, and argentina agents all assemble and all agree. An achieving agricultural association, amazing, abstract artistic apple artists, and argentina agents, all applaud Anna. Aunt Ava’s ambition arrives and Anna, allergic avocados, attacks. Anna’s ambassador allows Anna an antidote. Aunt Ava attacks Anna’s ambassador. Ambassador are all ashes. Anna adveges Ambassador and attacks Aunt Ava also. Aunt Ava are ashes.
Angels allow Anna and Anna allows ashes. Ambassador awaits Anna. All ashes are agricultural and are almighty assured.
Anyways an arriving author allowed around ashes, artists an amazing, astonishing, abstract, awing, adapting, aspirational, astounding, awesome, affecting, ambiguous, amazon, angel, angle. Anna and ambassador are angels all around.
Anthropocentric archers arrows avail and archers arrows attack angels. Anna angel attacked at anthropocentric archers arrows. Anna abides anthropocentric archers and angel awashes airy aches. Afar anthropocentric archers arrive at air and Anna Angel annihilated. Angels are all annihilated. Anthropocentric archers’ arrows are absorbing angels and are accelerating. Anthropocentric archers aboveground affect abominations, and are attracting appealing angels as attacking.
Achieving agricultural associations, amazing, abstract apple artists, and american agents, are attacking an anthropocentric archers associations are antitakeover. Anthropocentric archers alternate and are achieving. Anthropocentric archers achieve. All are ashes as well, achieving agricultural associations, amazing, abstract artistic apple artists, and american agents, are all...are all...are all...are all ashes...ashes...ashes...ashes...ashes- anthropocentric archers are achievers. Achieving agricultural associations, amazing, abstract artistic apple artists, and american agents, Anna angels, Aunt Ava angles, Ambassador angels, atrocious Anaconda, anemona, atrocious awful alligators, american affenpinschers, advarks, avengers, aren’t achievers.
Anthropocentric achieving Archers are arriving all around, authenticating angels and attacking, acknowledging another anthropocentric achievers and attacking, and appreciating another anthropocentric achieving archer.
Acetophenetidin are amorphousness angels and amorphousness angels achieve at attacking anthropocentric archers at August at am at Argentina. Anthropocentric archers assemble and advise an attack. Attack anthropocentric archers and amorphousness angels are achieving. Achieving…Achieving…Achieving…Achieving…Achieving…Achieving… amorphous angels.
Angels appeared and approached again aboveground. Angels admirably assaulted anthropocentric archers adversaries all again. Angels ascended and arranged acceptance again, amongst all adventuring animals again. Angels are again accepted all around. All animals assumed angels are ashes, all animals are absurd.
Astonishing assault arrived All animals against all assorting absurd animals. Achieving agricultural associations, Anna and ambassador, amazing, abstract apple artists, angels, anemona, an animal, American Affenpinschers, art aliens, all against anthropocentric archers, atrocious awful alligators, atrocious awful anacondas, and american agents, an achieving agricultural association assemblyman, Aunt Ava and Aunt Ava’s apprentice appaloosa.
Actors act an astounding attack. Achieving agricultural associations, Anna and ambassador, amazing, abstract apple artists, angels, anemona, an animal, American Affenpinschers, art aliens, all against anthropocentric archers, atrocious awful alligators, atrocious awful anacondas, and american agents, an achieving agricultural association assemblyman, Aunt Ava and Aunt Ava’s apprentice appaloosa. Actors act achieving Achieving agricultural associations, Anna and ambassador, amazing, abstract apple artists, angels, anemona, an animal, American Affenpinschers, art aliens.
Anna asks an approaching animal for assistance locating American awful atrocious alligators assuming the animal wouldn’t answer. Anna and Aunt Ava are after an American awful atrocious alligator to research and alleviate the abundance of awful atrocious alligators already afloat in Atlantic waterways. The animal astounded Anna and Aunt Ava by answering abruptly.
The animal allowed Anna and Aunt Ava to follow along and astride it along the angry Atlantic. Anna and Aunt Ava are arriving at an abundance of awful atrocious alligators and are already about to alleviate abundant awful atrocious alligators. Awful atrocious alligators are attacking Aunt Ava, Anna, and an animal. Awful atrocious alligators aren’t awaiting ashes. Aunt Ava, Anna, and an animal are achieving. Aunt Ava, Anna, and an animal, are achievers. An abundance of awful atrocious alligators is less abundant. Aunt Ava, Anna, and an animal are astriding along the atlantic again.
At an afternoon hour in August, Aunt Ava, Anna, and an animal are arriving at an abundance of awful, atrocious, alligators again. An angry alligator attacked but Anna approached achievement by angling a trap and accepting an awful atrocious alligator, armored scale. Aunt Ava and Anna are still alive after the attempted awful atrocious alligator attack. Anna achieved an aim and an antibiotic for awful atrocious alligator attacks. An antibiotic was arranged for awful atrocious alligators with an aromatic aroma to deter and alarm alligators from attacking adults as well as adolescents and Anna and Aunt Ava. An abundant antidote mist will alleviate American alligator attacks all afternoon in August and April .
An animal allowed Aunt Ava and Anna to follow along and astrid. An animal attacks Aunt Ava and Anna as well. Aunt Ava and Anna also angle a trap for an animal. An animal’s ashes are adrift on air.
Aunt Ava and Anna arrive back at Argentina and are assessing and appraising an antidote with an aroma. An antidote to stop awful atrocious alligators attacking adults, as well as, adolescents and Aunt Ava and Anna. An Antidote ready for action. Adults, Aunt Ava and Anna, as well as Adolescents are alive and achievers. Anna and Aunt Ava achieve.
Aunt Ava and Anna are relaxing at an afternoon in Argentina and aren't assulted and aren't attacked and aren't active. Anna is bored and does amazing, astonishing, abstract, awing, adapting, aspirational, astounding, awesome, affecting, ambiguous, amazon, angel, art. Aunt Ava awakes and admonishes Anna for doing amazing, astonishing, abstract, awing, adapting, aspirational, astounding, awesome, affecting, ambiguous, amazon, angel, art. Aunt Ava ambels along, advacing at afternoon. All is well.
Aunt Ava and Anna are arriving at the end. Aunt Ava and Anna are achievers and ashes.
Confession: a sonnet
In early fall, you said you’d call me near,
And tell me toiling trials inside your mind.
A cutthroat gift, of words you cannot find,
An endless game of “say it next week” fear.
Once soft, now painful, dry and sharply clear
That feelings can be packaged, but the bind,
So rough and careless, fully silver line’d,
Is bursting tunes of erroneous leer.
Because, you think a different way by now,
And turn those trials on tails to run away;
You give the tender truth a gleeful bow,
And sit, with gentle hunched resolve you stay.
Yet, now I am so cruel, another trial,
Because your gift causes my denial.
Rag and Bone
The old man stands silent before the canvas, staring down the void. Every day, for seventy years - at least those he remembers, and he swears he remembers sitting on the floor as a three year old, paints and crayons scattered around, intent on bringing forth the colours he saw in his head - every day he created anew, and yet - and yet. Was it really all over? He thought he would die, hands stained in oils and turpentine blasting his lungs - but here he is, a blank; worse than failure.
He looks to his old companion - the collected Yeats, spine split open on “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”. Maybe it happened to others - but he’d once seen himself as a god, as Vulcan - molten, virile, endlessly generative. William B made it to seventy-three, his words pushed through with urgency, recreating the language of his youth into A Vision of age and ill-health defeated. And the painters he adored continued on - Picasso poured pure instinct, expressive to the end - lust reborn in ancient forms, consuming life in death.
But here, bordered by the remnants of his life’s work, he is alone. Windows that once poured light are now dulled with grime and nicotine tar. In the corner, the old grey tabby yowls - not quite alone, after all - but in her deaf-blind misery, a ragged ball of need. Food, water, toileting, occasional scratch behind the ear - but not too much, or she’d scratch back. A living being to keep him going when deserted by the creatures of his heart. But such a sad recompense, from so long and fruitful union! He strains at the glassy pane, yanks it open just a chink - then collapses into his grandfather chair, depleted by the feat. A low whistle through the crack; a zephyr lifts the wispy curtain, brings the scent of oranges and tea, a hint to Leonard Cohen - again, productive to the end. “Suzanne” on the record player, but no strength to make that walk across the room to replace the needle. Instead he leans down, picks up the book of poetry left just in reach, squints his eyes to draw out the words.
A rattle in his chest! more than a tickle; more like the frenzied stabs of a baby griffin shattering its prison shell. The shock of sensation rocks him, throws the book across the room, as he grips his heart to feel the knocking and rumbling within. Through skin paper thin protrudes the jabs of a creature desperate to escape. ’What is this?” he gasps through pain, unable to control the unruliness within - as talons tear, fierce and wild, a primitive anima clamouring for release. “For too long you used me - see me now!” it howls, as he rips open his chest and pours the dark clawed angel to the floor, savage and heaving, beating the black feathers of its blood-encrusted wings.
Out of Blue Dream
Steam rises from you,
As it rises from me...
...Hands clasp my
As you take on
Up in the sky
There is lightening,
...And there in
There's that glorious
...Jumps up off
Out of blue dream...
Your eyes are heavy,
But, right now,
All sides to heaven,
Far past the censors,
This vision of Zion
From us for
This is 11,687 words long, so grab a cuppa, find a quiet spot beneath a shady tree, and enjoy the ride. Inspired by my dad's childhood story.
Malaya, West Peninsula, 1944
A woman tears through the thick rain forest. She blinks, slaps her face into the next foliage, and the next, and the next. Sometimes she flinches, other times she ducks, but most of the time, she plows head on. Her breath is laborious. Her black hair mats to her head and her feet are red, but she can’t feel a thing. She’s going as quick as she can, but it’s not quick enough.
A loud bang forces her to skid to a stop.
Her ears perk up, she looks to the sky, trying to discern distance and direction. She’s panting. Her mind convulses. A pre-dawn shower had weighed down all the leaves, there's nothing but green everywhere. She’s hyperventilating. She leans backwards and her head thuds against the Yellow Meranti’s bark. Although fleeting, she's grateful for the support. Her hands strokes the growing bulge within her belly. It's been 38 weeks since that fateful day...
“Hey, Pei,” a voice said. “I've been looking for you all day. Where’ve you been hiding?”
The young woman looked up from her boiling pot of exposed chicken feet, through the plume of steam, at the person standing halfway through the kitchen door. It was the young man from the house down the hill. “You're not supposed to be here, Wei!” she whispers aloud.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ve got it sorted. I’ve asked Zhang to cover for me.”
She glared at him. Her mother always said boys were like Lychees, taking years to ripen, sometimes never. Wei was not the exception, but among the pink-red rough-textured fruits, he was one of the few good-looking ones.
“Come on,” he coaxed with his big brown eyes.
Pei, eighteen going on thirty, wiped the beads of moisture off her forehead. She dumped her hand-stitched mittens onto the nearby table and strode towards him. Grabbing a fistful of his collar, she yanked him away from the door frame, led him outside and down the side of the house.
“What are you doing?” he said, his legs failing to keep up.
“Having a break,” she mumbled. She paused when they were several feet away, her eyes surveying the entire walkway between the main house and the kitchen. No, she reasoned, still not secluded enough. Without warning, she grabbed and pulled his arm, the force almost dislocating the young man's shoulder.
“Pei!” he said. “You’re pulling my arm out—”
“Sshhhh…” She halted, turned, slapped her open hand on his mouth and shoved him hard against the wooden wall. “You stupid boy!” Her forearms pressed against his firm chest as she stared, her nose inches away from his body. His scent crept into her nostrils. It was impossible to tell where the sweat stopped, and where the pheromones started. She breathed in. Damn it, he smells sooooooo good…
A sense of betrayal seized her mind, forcing her primal self to relinquish control. But it was too late. Her heart was already pumping faster, her legs weak, and her senses teetering on the edge.
Pei didn’t know if she wanted bite his head off or shower him with kisses. “You will get us all in trouble again,” she said with her arms crossed.
“Trouble? Again?” he shrugged his shoulder, looking clueless, like he always did.
Oh my God! She cursed and cupped her face with both hands, the spark of rage returning. How could he not remember the incident? How is he standing in from me now, acting all ignorant, when he was the one who turned up late to the quarry… She screamed, but not as loud as she wanted, and shoved his chest again. Luckily, First Lieutenant Onishi was being generous.
“What's the matter?” Wei asked, touching her elbows. His eyes pleaded with compassion, his face glistened with sweat.
Pei was torn down the middle, unable to reconcile what she should and wanted to do. A pair of invisible arms kept her at bay, but every molecule in her body buzzed with energy. She hears her mother's voice echoing between her ears, You're a pretty girl, men will come. Heartache now is better than a future of lifelong regret. But this was different, the Japanese had occupied their homes, literally in her case, and conventional wisdom did not apply.
“Nothing,” she said without flinching. “I don't want you to get into trouble.”
He pulled her into his chest. His eyes found hers and melted her inside out, sapping all her strength. Her arms relaxed; and as if waiting for this last level of defense to erode away, he plunged his mouth onto hers and ravished her tongue.
“This is wrong,” she murmured when they gasped for air in between heated moments of passion.
“I know,” he replied, his voice caressing her ears. “But it feels so right.”
He squeezed her neck with a gentleness that belied his physique and drew her back into his warmth. Once again, their lips locked. They lingered in that moment, the sun above casting streaks of golden light through the shady enclave while the crisp morning breeze tempered the burning between their bodies.
Thoughts from beyond her reality bubble encroached. She hadn't even added any seasoning to the Lieutenant’s lunch. But she had time, didn't she? The chicken had just gone in. Should I check the broth? She wondered. How long has it been? I really should head back. Oh, his hands are moving down…
Electricity, coupled with feelings she never knew she could experience overpowered her. She reciprocated, reaching for the bulge in his pants. They moaned, eyes closed, their bodies were present but their souls were far away from this drudgery.
She jumped on him. “Not here.” She cocked her head sideways, indicating for them to go somewhere more private, where they could be safe from prying eyes. He glanced around, then like a man possessed, lifted both their weights and lumbered to the storeroom down the back of the house. They wasted no time shedding the layers off each other. He laid her down on some rags or fabric, whatever he could scavenge, and got on top. She didn’t care that parts of her bare back was touching the cold granite, all she could think of was him, every part—his rippled body, his kindred soul and his untameable spirit—including the throbbing heat between his legs.
Once again, he searched her eyes. She knew what he wanted. Submission. Total, utter, unadulterated acquiescence. But she couldn’t and she refused to accede. She looked away, but her fingers dug into his triceps.
He felt the acute pressure on his arms, gazed into her beautiful brown orbs, and plunged.
Pei hears barking from a distance. Her heart skips a beat; did that come from the East or West? She crouches as low as she could to the wet jungle surface, breathing hard. Strands of drenched hair stick to her face.
The woman twists her head in reaction to some rustling leaves. They’re everywhere! I’m going to die! She panics. They’re going to catch me. He’s going to rape and torture me, and murder my child!
There’s a kick from inside her belly, several more follow, and her focus renews.
She remembers where she is—somewhere halfway between the house and the river. She knows she’s got a chance if she can get to the river, but not if her legs remain trapped in a terrified stupor. She takes a deep breath and darts off through the leaves.
Pei’s only a few meters from her last position when she spots a rock the size of a Mango. She picks it up and lowers her profile. The woman waits for the right opportunity, then coils her arm and catapults as far as possible in the opposite direction. Her lower back cracks, and her arm goes limp. The rock skittles off several coconut trees, and thuds into the undergrowth less than ten feet from where she stands. It’s not far enough.
Shit! Her face is void of color. She holds her breath, focusing only on the shouts and cries.
“Asoko! Asoko!” A voice yells out. Over there! Over there!
Pei pivots on her feet, and dashes toward the river. A blunt pain sets her lower back aflame, getting worse with each subsequent step. She grimaces and stumbles, the pain is unbearable, but the young woman remembers what that evil man did to Wei and her resolve strengthens. She cannot let anything happen to her baby.
A sheen of sweat laced their skin. He was on top, she beneath, both maintaining their rhythm for an hour, his rigour never waning. They were connected in every way; their eyes, breath, hands and legs, even their essences were fused. All her worries had vanished—there was no space in her head left for anything else. This is perfect… she thought. I want to stay in this moment forever. She gasped as an escalating tension began building in between her thighs. She wrapped her arms around his torso, squeezed his waist with her inner thigh and stabbed her claws into his shoulder blades.
If he felt anything, it didn’t show. Instead, he grunted louder, adding to the intensity of his movements.
“Pei,” he said, surprising her.
“Yes, Wei?” her voice was dry.
“Am I your first?” he asked, his hips gyrates faster and faster.
“What?” she frowned, trying to keep up.
“Am I your first?” he repeated, his tone urgent, demanding.
“Yes!” Pei screamed, her face contorted.
Wei replaced his thrusting with slow, sharp, intense jabs—each one pushing her towards her threshold—and after several pushes, he pulled back for several seconds; waited for her consent, then buried the full length of his extension into her, apex to apex. She threw her head backwards and moaned. A quake of pleasure erupted below her navel, waves upon waves of euphoria permeated her petite nubile frame.
Pei gasped, holding her breath as she’s overwhelmed.
Several moments later, and the fire was doused. They laid there naked, side by side, his front to her back, keeping each other warm. The corners of her mouth stretched from cheek to cheek and her head rested on the inside of his bicep. Pei found herself struggling with the myriad of thoughts in her head, with different emotions tugging and pulling at her. It was all too surreal and she feared that it may have all been a dream.
“Kore hanan desuka?” an unfamiliar voice intruded. What is this?
Both Pei and Wei scrambled onto their knees, trying to protect their modesty. Several soldiers armed with bayonet-tipped rifles took up flanking positions. Pei reached to the floor and pulled the rag up, draped herself, and looked at the owner of the voice. She knew him even before she saw his face. It was Second Lieutenant Matsuda, one of Onishi’s indirect subordinate. A snivelling rat on two legs if there ever was such a thing.
“Young love is so delightful!” Matsuda said in Pei’s native language. A shivering tremor travelled up and down her spine.
“Second Lieutenant,” Wei greeted the officer and shuffled backwards with his head bowed down.
“Ah,” the Japanese man said, his moving mouth revealed rows of stained teeth. “Mr. Chen Wei,” he continued. “The scoundrel that cost us a whole day’s worth of production.”
Wei kept his eyes glued to the ground.
“First Lieutenant Onishi was lenient in your punishment,” Matsuda said. “And I believe it had to do with this lovely young woman here.” He turned to regard Pei, who also averted her eyes.
“Ms. Wong Pei,” Matsuda said, “That’s your name, isn’t it?” He took a step toward the blushing young woman, who cowered away. “Oh, nothing to be afraid of my dear, I’m not here to hurt you. In fact, I’m here as your friend. Your protector.”
“You stay away from her!” Wei lashed out, but as soon as he took a step forward, two of the soldiers forced him down onto his knees.
“Please,” Pei urged, “don’t hurt him!”
“Hurt him?” Matsuda said. “Oh, hurting him is the last thing on my mind.” He looked at her, his lustful eyes taking liberties with her beautiful soft skin. “However, you’ll do anything for young Chen Wei, right?”
“Stop this!” Wei yelled out. “This is insane! I’ll tell the First Lieutenant!”
Matsuda charged over to the young man position, grabbed a rifle from one of his underlings, and jammed the butt of the weapon into Wei’s face.
“Nooooo please!” Pei screamed. “Okay, I’ll do anything you want! Please, don’t hurt him!” She got down to her knees. Just being in the same room as the man made her stomach turn, and now she needed to submit to the bastard’s heinous will. “Anything!”
The Second Lieutenant smiled as he puffed his chest. “Excellent!” he said and wiped the corner of his mouth. “And since you’re already down there, you might as well put those delicate lips of yours to good use.”
Pei’s face shimmered as tears streaked down her reddened face. She was inches from the man’s crotch.
“Onishi always had the best,” Matsuda said, unzipping his pants. “Always the first choice of assignments, first choice of women… now I will enjoy the privileges of rank.”
Pei can taste bile rising into her throat as she the incident replayed in her mind. She had heard of women taking a man in their mouths, mostly for money, sometimes for love, but regardless of the argument, it is utterly repulsive. But had she stomached every second of the ordeal, resisted every urge to throw up, accepted every drop.
She hears another set of barking and she’s down at ground level again. This one is new, or rather from a new direction, an unexpected one. They’ve stepped up the search. She tries to keep hidden, in between two large boulders, but she knows they’ll catch up. The river had done its job in throwing off her scent, but it was only the halfway point.
She pokes her head out, enough to get her bearings. She tries to remember the landmarks. From what she can piece together, the three British pilots were somewhere northwest of the bridge, and south of the mine shaft. There are two, maybe three locations that could disguise well enough both during the day and night. All she needs is to pick the right location.
The throbbing pain in her back is almost forgotten, and she’s about to press forward when she realizes her feet are bright red, coated in a viscous liquid. Pei follows the ribbons of blood stains up her pant legs to her groin. She balks at the sight, her head spins, but she grasps onto reality, and to the large object behind her.
She coughed and spluttered when it was done, her face was several shades of green. She wanted pour boiling water down her throat. The girl in her had disappeared, only the angry, acid spitting woman persisted. Her eyes roared with contempt while hate spewed from every orifice. Her fists were white, fingers grinding tighter and tighter.
“Not the best,” Matsuda said as he zipped up, his face smug. “But I’m sure that with some practice—”
“You dirty piece of cow shit!” Wei bared his teeth and flared his nostrils. His nose was inflamed, the swell obstructing his sight.
Matsuda laughed. “Such spirit,” he said, then sauntered towards the young man.
Pei’s hands were shaking. She had seen this before, or she thought she had. The vile man’s nuances, body language, every syllable that went unsaid: all culminated into one inevitable outcome. Her stomach were in knots, and she felt sick. “Please, Wei. Stop talking…” she whispered.
“You want a piece of me?” Wei goaded his nemesis, struggling against his restraints. “You and me, man to man! Come on! Come on! Are you chicken?”
Matsuda grinned with a sparkle in his eye. He released the buttons of his cuffs and rolled each sleeve with great care, exposing his forearms. The Japanese man hovered behind Wei. “Man to man… he said, his voice trailing off. Then in one fluid motion, he reached for the concealed knife in his boot, hooked his arm around Wei’s neck, and slashed from ear to ear—red liquid squirting out. “Except I’m a man,” he spat, “and you’re just an insect.”
Pei howled, her lungs hemorrhaging as she watched her man gurgle in a pool of his own sanguine fluid, like a fish out of water.
“You animal!” Her arms trembled violently. “You—”
“Miss Wong!” Matsuda boomed and shot her a glare. “Perhaps you want both my men to take turns with you?” He pulled his sleeves down after making sure every splatter of blood was wiped clean. “Maybe both of them together?”
She hesitated, but anger prevailed, “I don’t care what you do to me! You’re a fucking pig!”
“Well then,” he said. “It seems you need lessons in manners and respect.” He gestured to his soldiers. They dropped their weapons and edged towards the hysterical woman, but an even larger commotion from outside the shed eclipsed their attention.
“Matsuda!!” a voice blared.
There was a flurry of activity. Half a dozen soldiers filed into the room, bayonets poised. Their leader entered last, and the first thing he did was to surrender his uniform jacket to the young woman. He then walked into the middle of the room, and was greeted by the Second Lieutenant, who stood half a head shorter.
“First Lieutenant Onishi,” Matsuda said in his native tongue. “How nice of you to join us. We found this peasant boy taking advantage—”
“Matsuda, I know what you did,” Onishi said.
“But sir,” Matsuda continued. “I was only trying to—”
“Enough!” Onishi said, his voice forbidding. “Dig no deeper Matsuda, unless you want to climb in yourself.”
“Sir!,” Matsuda continued in defiance. “That insolent boy was fucking your kitchen hand!”
“Silence!” Onishi bellowed and slapped the shorter man. “Second Lieutenant Matsuda,” he said after taking in a deep breath, “By the power vested in me through imperial edict, I hereby strip you of your rank, responsibilities and all privileges effective immediately!”
“You can’t do that!” Matsuda protested, his fists balled.
“Take him away!” Onishi commanded.
The soldiers loyal to the ranking officer acknowledged and dragged the disgraced imperial army officer away.
“My father knows the Emperor!” Matsuda shouted, his voice fading away. “You won't get away with this Onishi-san! Can you hear me? I'll be back! You better not be here when I do...”
“Worthless piece of shit,” Onishi said using the common tongue. He turned around to face the woman. “Are you alright…?”
Pei crawled over to where Wei was lying—his head soaked in dark red—ignoring the Japanese man. She rolled the young man onto his back and gently lifted his head onto her lap. “So much blood…” she said. “Wei, why is your face covered in so much blood? Don’t worry, Wei. I’ll clean you up. It’s okay. I’ll help. You’ll be handsome again”
“Pei,” Onishi knelt beside her, putting an arm around her shoulder and squeezed. “I swear, on my ancestor’s name and on my honor as a Samurai. I will not let any further harm come to you.”
Her face was dry, there were no more tears to summon. One of her hands was on Wei’s forehead, the other on his chest, still warm to the touch.
The blisters on her feet bite, but the pain had been gradual, and pale compared to the dull ache from her belly. Pei knows something isn’t right and the clock is ticking down fast. She arrives at the first location. Her sides are all stitched up. She’s bent over, one hand on a banana tree, the other on her lower back.
What do I do now? She searches the vicinity, trying to spot anything that doesn’t fit the landscape. Her plan was to get pass the river and to the next spot; she hadn’t thought about how she would actually find their hiding place. She didn’t know the men personally or why they would help—only they were white—but she’s here now. Should she call out to them? And what would she say?
“HALP?” She doesn’t know if she said it right. She feels foolish, imagining herself—a huge pregnant woman running around in the jungle like a headless chicken. No person in their right mind would risk their lives for a crazy like her. “Halp?” she says again but louder. “Halp!”
She pauses. Nothing but crickets and a cacophony of jungle noises, the errant orangutan mating call included. Her heart is hammering.
She looks down the hill. Several torsos the size of her thumb wade through the thick underbrush, cutting paths towards her. The dogs were slowing them down, but they’ll catch up before she gets to the next location. She looks to the horizon, not much daylight left. Pei is about to scramble up the hill again when a sharp pain stabs her abdomen. She traps the shriek with both hands, suffocating her trembling lips.
She looks down at herself, the crimson liquid had soaked through. A wave of nausea almost blacks her out and her legs turn to jelly. She’s on the ground massaging her temples.
Pei had heard the First Lieutenant’s daughter lumbering down the wooden stairs and into the kitchen, across the concrete kitchen bench where she stood. She had spent several minutes peering at the door frame where Wei had stuck his head through just weeks ago. She could still picture his crew cut hair, high cheekbones, and chiseled jaw in her mind. A rogue tear spilled out but she kept her back towards the girl so she could wipe her face in secret.
“Oh, sorry, Shizuka.” Pei turned around, an empty china bowl in her hands. “I didn’t hear you come in. What can I do for you?”
“Oh, nothing really,” Shizuka said with a cheerful smile. “Father wanted to know if you could start dinner a bit earlier tonight?”
“Dinner?” Pei said, still recovering from her thoughts.
“Is everything okay, Pei? You look tired…”
“I’m…” The young woman trailed off. She was unsure if confiding in the First Lieutenant’s daughter, who was a few years younger than her, was a good idea despite their growing closer after the incident. Onishi had adopted her into the family, first as an act of reparation, and second to keep his daughter company. “I’m fine. Honestly, I am.”
The older woman walked towards the dining table and tripped on her own feet.
“Pei!” Shizuka rushed to Pei’s side. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yes,” Pei said, clutching the offered arm and shoulder. “I’m… no, I think I’m going to—” She gagged and covered her mouth.
“Oh, dear,” Shizuka said. “You better sit down for a while. Don’t worry, it’ll go away soon.”
“It? What are you talking about, Shizuka?”
“My mother had the same thing before she became big with my sister, Akane.”
The bowl crashed onto the floor and shattered into a million pieces.
The dogs are barking again and she’s close enough to hear all three, gnashing away at her inner ears. Her fears reignites. She lunges upwards, for the low hanging branch, and catches it. Her center of gravity skews her balance, every movement is awkward, but she pulls herself back up.
Which way do I go? Left or right? Her heart races again. Just pick a direction and run! She leans towards the left, lifts her foot up, but she hesitates. What if I’m wrong? Her eyes well up for the hundredth time. Why is this so hard?
She’s frozen stiff. Her legs are like cast steel irons, burning through the moist dirt beneath her feet. Her breathing quickens. There’s no time to lose. She needs to run; any direction, it doesn’t matter if she’s wrong.
Finally, her legs obey. She puts one foot in front of the other, repeat, rinse, repeat. It’s all about getting to the next foothold, and the next, and the next.
“Wong Pei!” a voice floods the hillside. She pauses, the familiarity invoking discomfort beneath her skin. “Please stop. I promise I won’t hurt you!”
She doesn’t stop. Her feet have a mind of their own. The voice looms further behind as her pace hastens. The barking is almost inaudible. For a moment, her confidence surges. She looks ahead. There’s a wide gap coming up. She doesn’t slow down because she knows the feature. Wei was with her the last time, chasing her up the path. He wanted to show her this hidden nook. She forgets she’s carrying more weight and the pain in the small of her back.
She gasps as she falls feet first, her throat jumping out. Her arms stretch out from either side, grabbing and pulling anything and everything, but nothing sticks. Her heart leaps every time her body speeds downwards. She can’t see past her bump, but she can make out a dark object ahead. It’s a massive rock. She’s flying down towards the moss-covered mass. She raises her forearms to brace. Her knees buckle against the huge deadweight, but her momentum carries her forward and her forehead slams into the cold slippery surface.
It was an early morning, the sun still an infant. Even the cockerel hasn’t stirred. But Pei was drawn away from sleep. She had awoken in the middle of the night and all her tossing and turning only made things worse. There hasn’t been any kicking since the night before, shortly after dinner, and Pei decided it was time to wake the baby. Sugar cane always did the trick.
Pei descended the stairs, hobbling down as she navigated the steep steps. She was about to walk through the rectangular wooden frame when she heard a voice from the entry lounge. Without thinking, she tipped her toes sideways and concealed herself behind the wall.
“What’s wrong, father?” It was Shizuka, speaking in Japanese.
Pei peeked out. First Lieutenant Onishi was in the middle of the spacious enclosure with his torso was exposed and his shins flat against the floor. He was making an offering of fresh incense before his ancestor’s shrine. Her adoptive father was fond of sharing his memories, often over a pot of hot green tea after dinner. She remembered just a few days back, Onishi-san had spoken of his longing for his yearn of his homeland. Apparently, most if not all of his brethren that were sent inland from their island country—to secure various Southeast Asian strongholds—lacked the necessary prestige that would have guaranteed a more luxurious assignment. Like his peers, Onishi-san was here because his family name carried little significance among the social hierarchy. But Pei couldn’t care less, because to her, the First Lieutenant stood out among his peers. He was a man of honour.
“Nothing,” the man said. Then in a softer tone, he turned his head sideways. “Nothing, my dear. Why do you ask?”
“You always sit in front of our ancestors, for a long time, when you are troubled.”
Onishi sighed. “You are no longer a girl anymore, Shizuka. So, I will not treat you as one.”
The young woman scurried to her father’s side, both hands rested on his forearm. “What is it, father?”
“I have lost favour with the Emperor,” he said, his frame contracted. “I am being replaced.”
“Replaced, father?” she said. “Does that mean we are going… home?”
Pei gripped the wooden frame and broke a nail. A half dozen thoughts crammed into her brain. For one, she was now apart of this new loving family of hers and she loathed to be without them.
“Yes,” he said, managing a weak smile. “But…” Onishi paused.
“But what, father?”
“Nevermind,” he replied. “You have nothing to worry about.”
Shizuka sat next to her father, appearing to contemplate what the change might mean to her and her family. She had spent a few years in the jungle of Malaya, and had likely grown accustomed to the torrential rain and equatorial climate, but nothing could beat the familiarity and comfort of being home. Pei felt naïve, but she’d like to think her relationship with Shizuka had blossomed beyond friendship.
“What about Pei?” she asked. “Will she come home with us?”
“I’ll do my best to arrange for her to...” Onishi replied but his jaw dropped.
“What is it, father?” Shizuka beckoned.
“My replacement,” he said. “It’s Matsuda-san!”
Pei’s heart sank into her bowels. She wasn’t familiar with military protocol but she knew if Onishi-san was being replaced, then he was also being demoted, or maybe he already had. That filthy bastard Matsuda was not one to forgive or forget, and the evil man had likely already arranged so she couldn’t leave with her new family.
“What about my baby?” Pei walked out, startling both father and daughter.
“Pei!” Shizuka exclaimed. “How long have you been standing there?”
The pregnant young woman strode into the room—both father and daughter had stood up—and offered Shizuka a passing glance before coming face to face with her benefactor. “Onishi-san,” she greeted, her head tipped downwards.
The man was speechless, even neglecting to acknowledge the nod. Onishi was about to open his mouth when the pregnant woman wobbled onto her knees with unexpected quickness and caught him off guard.
“Please, Onishi-san!” Pei said. “Please take me with you! I will do anything!” The floodgates burst and tears poured out. “I beg you!” She fell onto her face. Shizuka was by her side a moment later, persuading her to return upright.
Onishi joined distraught woman on the floor. “Pei,” he said with sympathetic eyes. “I will do everything in my power to keep you safe. I promise. We will not abandon you.”
“Come, dear sister.” Shizuka said in her mother tongue. “You shouldn’t be on the floor.”
They were about to get up when one of Onishi’s soldiers, a much younger man, appeared from the outside. He half-ran half-walked through the main entrance and his boot caught the bottom lip of the door frame. “Sir! I have urgent news!”
The First Lieutenant sprung up and ushered the soldier back outside.
Pei and Shizuka locked gazes. “Help me up, please,” she said to the younger woman. They stood, supporting each other, waiting in anticipation. Minutes later, Shizuka’s father was back inside, his face sunken.
“It’s Matsuda,” he said. “He’s coming here. He’ll be arriving within the hour.”
Pei felt a sudden weight on her shoulders, forcing her to lean on Shizuka. Her mouth went dry, her palms sticky moist, and all she could hear was the sound of her heavy breathing. Both Shizuka and Onishi’s mouths were moving but nothing registered in her mind. Blackness forced its way into her surroundings, her field of vision tunneled closed and she succumbed to the darkness. The last thing she saw was Onishi’s bearded neck.
It’s warm. Warmer than she expects given it’s dark all around. Her double vision clears away and she notices the licking flames nearby, making crackling noises. Three persons huddled around the campfire in conversation. She strains to get a better view and alerts the strangers. She shudders as they rise up, but relaxes when she doesn’t see the rising sun insignia on their uniforms.
One of them says something she doesn’t understand. She tries to sit up, but one of the other men moves to her side, resting one hand on her forehead, coaxing her back down. The expecting mother pushes up regardless and the sudden elevation creates a vacuum in between her ears, and she gives in, letting the force pull her head back down.
Pei rouses. She had been dreaming. The scenes were vivid: she was right there in the cave with the three white men. It was icy cold. She had pulled out one of her hands from beneath the cotton blanket and explored the frigid surface. A wave of heat travelled up her forearm; the ash from the pit still glowing orange. Her ears expanded beyond the alcove, as far as they could. It was so quiet, she could hear the dead speaking.
Her abdominal muscles tightens and her eyelids fly apart, the whites of her eyes cutting through her dirt-crust face. It’s unbearable, unlike anything she'd encountered before, but a voice inside her head tells her to calm down, that it’s normal. You’re fine, relax. She breathes. Deep breaths.
The man who came to her before kneels next to her. He says something, waits for a few seconds, then uses his hands to gesture. He wants to know if she wants to sit up. She nods. Pei realizes it wasn’t a dream.
He raises a hand, joins the tips of his fingers and thumb together and puts it near his pouting mouth.
He smiles and picks up the crude saucepan off the top of the fire. He scoops out a spoonful of viscous white goop and slops some onto a piece of banana leaf.
Pei accepts the food. She hasn’t eaten since dinner the previous night and she’s starving. The pregnant woman wipes her hand on her sleeve, swabs with one finger and lets her tongue absorb the taste. It’s a few steps down from what she’s used to—gourmet dishes prepared by another cook employed by Onishi—but she doesn’t complain.
It’s all gone in two mouthfuls. She considers licking the substitute plate but when she notices the man’s sunken cheeks and worn eyes and a different pang creeps into her stomach.
He smiles and reaches for the pot again.
She lunges forward to grab his sleeve. “No,” she says. “Thank you. I’ve had enough.”
He gently pushes her hand aside, then tentatively moves it towards Pei’s belly, and when she doesn’t coil away, places it on her bulge and pats it.
If not for you, then for your little one… he doesn’t say the words, but she understands.
Oh no! She remembers. The blood. She tears the covers off, layer by layer, until only one remained. It was a dull army green trousers. The pregnant woman tilts her head up.
He touches his chest. They’re mine, she imagines him saying. It’s big on you, she adds that part herself.
Pei smiles; her eyes are moist, reflecting the vermillion glow of the smouldering ash.
“Sam,” he says, referring to himself. “You?” he points at her.
“Pei,” she replies.
His mouth moves. Nice to meet you, she imagines again. It was after all something a kind person would say. There's a familiarity in his smile. He's gentle, but strong. Kind, but confident. Only two people in her world fit that description, and one of them is dead. Murdered. She catches herself, starving her mind before her tear ducts overreact.
She pauses. Something isn't right. It's like she's surrounded in a black fog that chokes her from the neck down. It doesn’t feel at all like the first time.
Sam reaches for her shoulders. He’s trying to calm her, his mouth is moving, but there’s no sound.
Searing pain slices through her pelvis and everything attached to it. It grips her insides, like a tiny feral animal boring through, clawing its way all over. She cries out.
One of the other two men, the taller one, rushes over from where he was keeping vigil. He snatches the back of Sam’s shirt and drags him up to eye level. Their conversation is brief. Seconds later, Sam is back crouching on the ground. He touches his lips with both index fingers. Sshhhh…
Pei doesn’t know what’s happening, but she pieces together from the trio’s body language and nuances that danger was afoot. She watches them from further back. It doesn’t take long for her new friends to get into positions. Several moments later, faint voices travel to their hole in the hill. Beams of light cut through the night sky from below. There are at least a dozen torchlights, maybe a hundred, with dogs. There’s shouting and yelling, and the noises resonate louder with each second.
Another wave of nauseating cramping engulfs her abdomen. She clamps her mouth shut with both hands so nothing can escape. Her eyes snap tight, her eyebrows contract, she’s trembling. But it’s over as quick as it arrives. Pei lets out a deep sigh, relief sets in and her breathing returns to normal.
Sam scurries to her side. He pulls out a handkerchief and dabs her forehead.
“Pants,” she says. “Please help me take off my pants.” She tugs the garment.
He nods, hesitates, and complies with the request.
“Thanks,” she whispers, her smile unconvincing. She’s glad she’s not alone for this because she’s heard stories about women that labour for weeks. She remembers the fresh blood from earlier and she’s worried that something’s already terribly wrong with her pregnancy.
The next wave rips through before she could prepare. Her brain implodes. She tries to run away from the pain, but there’s no corner in her mind that’s safe. She reaches the next plateau soon enough. Her eyes are open, and she notices the look on Sam’s face. He looks down at her knuckles. They are blushing red with teeth marks.
Sam looks around. He picks up a piece of firewood. He tears some fabric off his pants and then wraps up the small branch. The man looks at her, waiting for acknowledgement. She nods and opens her mouth to accept.
Time flies. Hours, minutes, seconds. Everything's a blur.
Pei can’t remember if the Japanese soldiers are nearby or gone. All she knows, and experiences, is exhaustion. She’s flat against the wall, leaning alongside, on all fours; and everything below her waist shielded by the sheet she laid in.
It's time. She doesn't need the voice to tell her, she knows it. The woman prepares to bite down hard despite the soreness in her gums. Pei looks to Sam and grabs his hand, squeezing tight. She sucks in, filling her lungs with air, and searches for whatever strength endured within her embattled body and mind: and she braces.
Then, with all her might, she pushes.
The baby, snuggled in her arms, laid against her bare chest, imbued in a blue tinge; his delicate hands tucks against its expressionless face and his eyes appears still beneath its protective layer. The blood on its face is still moist, but there’s nothing, not a sound or even a twitch. Pei looks at Sam, but the young rifleman offers nothing in return.
“Why is my baby not crying?” she asks, tears roll down her cheeks. “Please, tell me why!”
One of the other men, the shorter one, rushes over. He picks the infant out of Pei’s arms and slaps the baby’s bare bottom.
The sound of new life fills the cave.
Pei’s face lights up the cave. She accepts the newborn into her protective arms, her smile is contagious. The baby’s mouth follows its natural calling, and she abides, letting him search for her nipple. He takes a while, but he gets there and latches on, suckling in comfort.
She’s engrossed with her tiny miracle and doesn’t notice Sam walking away. It’s not until the young man is back by her side that she takes heed of his long, sullen facial expression. He tries to explain but doesn’t persist. His index finger is back on both her lips and the baby’s. She nods.
The Japanese soldiers are back.
Only the crickets are out this time of the night; owning the jungle with their bold clicking consuming the void, inviting predators to a game of hide and seek. A thick fog rolls over the luscious landscape, encroaching on every square inch of the rainforest. Their hiding spot is obscured from view, but anyone can find it if they knew what to look for.
There’s some rustling nearby. It’s too difficult to tell how far, or how many. Just breathe normally, she calms herself. Just breathe. She watches her son. He’s sound asleep, cooing. But Pei isn’t taking anything for granted. Her heart is pulsing. What do I do if he wakes up? Her fingers are shaking. She knows what she must do in case the worst happens, but she doesn’t want to. She’s not brave enough.
Pei’s baby is in a light snore, but her heart is pulsating. She knows how reliable infants are when it comes to sleep.
She jumps as bits of loose soil trickle down the slope, pattering through the camouflaged facade, likely from an unsure footing from above. The baby stirs.
Pei stifles her son’s mouth in an instant. She feels the penetrating stares from Sam and his cohorts through the darkness and her ears burn hot. She doesn’t know what else to do. The baby struggles and squirms, his tiny forehead scrounges up. Still, she doesn’t relent. She knows she has to keep him quiet or they all die.
Stop crying! She screams silently, hoping her baby can hear her. Please, stop crying. Please, please, please… It’s no use; he whines and wriggles and squeaks, refusing to be quiet. She puts more pressure; not knowing he can't breathe.
Shut up, baby! Just, shut up!
Shut up… shut… up.
The young woman’s dozed off, but the sound of own her name sinks into her ears and lingers, just enough to keep her conscious.
“Wei?” She lifts her eyelids and the fleeting unfamiliarity of Sam’s face startles her awake.
Sam wraps his fingers around her wrists, attempting to calm her.
Pei relaxes. “Sam,” she hisses.
She spurs to life in an instant and rummages through the layers. He’s gone! She scrambles onto her knees, searching high and low. The hysterical woman gets up but her legs fumble. She grabs the man’s offered arm. He’s talking, attempting to make eye contact, but she’s having none of it.
“Pei!” Sam cups her cheeks and holds her head still. “Pei!” he shouts into her face.
She pauses, stunned by the ferocity. She nods. He’s trying to calm her down, she knows this now. He says something, then gestures to the cave’s opening. They walk over. The shorter of the other two turns around and steps forward to meet Pei and Sam. And right there cradled in his arms, was her day-old baby boy, awake, his eyes fluttering about at all the different sounds and sights, blowing tiny bubbles.
The men introduce themselves, or at least they try. Arthur is the lanky one, and Dick the stubby one—who tries to return the precious bundle—but Pei recalls the slap from the night before and throws her arms around man’s neck instead. “Thank you!” she says, offering half a dozen bows in quick succession. “Thank you.”
The stocky man returns the hug and pats her back. He quips in his guttural voice and chuckles, causing Sam and Arthur to join in the light-hearted moment. Your little boy is so cute, I want to eat him up! Pei translates with her wild imagination.
So, this is her life now. Three Gui-laos, or ghost-men due to their fair complexion, and her, a little Chinese woman with a baby. It isn’t what she expected—it’s not something a woman her age even thinks of—but it’s what she has. She’ll do anything and everything to keep her son safe, and if that meant being a single woman cohabiting with three strange men, then it’s a small price to pay. Her parents would not be happy, but they can sulk all they want from beyond their graves.
Pei’s stirring a pot filled with chicken fillets, Pakchoys, and dates. The water’s foaming out, but it’s not until the steam scalds her thumb that she realizes her mistake. She recoils, curses, and sucks her fat digit. The young mother shifts the pot, thinking to temper the heat, but she forgets the handle’s exposed; the pot overturns and dinner is all over the ground.
“Damn!” she said, her hands sift through her straight black hair, grabbing clumps of it. “What am I going to do now?” The chicken she can, or could, catch again, but the vegetables and dates came directly from the men. They had a stash but she didn’t know where. Her eyes landed on the cave entrance.
It’s only been a week, but Pei has amassed a trove of knowledge about the trio. For starters, they aren’t soldiers caught behind enemy lines. She knows this because each of them would alternate every second day, heading out before dawn and returning after dusk. Every night after dinner, they gather around a metal box that talked. She knew it was some kind of special device that allowed people across vast distances to converse, similar to the how the lights came on at home without kerosene.
A bird call penetrates the humid afternoon air. It sounds strange, but she doesn’t think twice. It’s Sam’s turn to venture out today, so Arthur and Dick are chatting inside. The bird is at it again but the frequency increases. Pei looks up into the canopy, wondering if she can spot this elusive feathered beast.
A twig snaps.
Pei jerks her feet and is up in a split-second, gasping at the intruder who had sneaked past the nearest tree line. It’s impossible! The traps didn’t go off!
Arthur rushes out. “No problem, no problem.” His Mandarin is bad, but it’s adequate. He pokes both thumbs up, a gesture that Pei picked up just the day before. He smiles at her and waits for her to nod, before he calls out to the hidden person.
The figure walks out, the leaves rustling beneath his feet. He’s wearing a conical straw hat that conceals most of his face. It’s not until he’s right in front when she discovers that he is a woman, and her face was familiar, like a lost shadow.
“Shizuka!” Pei blurts out.
The younger woman squeals, runs up and wraps her arms around Pei like a hand snug inside an old glove. Their delicate faces overflow; they laugh and sob, fingers clutching each other’s clothes. Is this real? Am I really here? Is she? Pei’s afraid to wake up. Shizuka’s scented hair, her soft skin, and her sweet voice; everything seemed too real and too vivid to be a dream.
“Pei,” Shizuka says, tears streaming down her cheeks. “You’re alive! I thought you were dead!”
“I thought I did too,” Pei replies.
“Your belly!” Shizuka squeals again, her eyes illuminating.
The new mother beams. She beckons Shizuka to follow and they walked into the cave. Pei brings her son out, passing him over to the younger girl. They bask in the baby’s innocence, sharing recent memories of their lives before things became crazy, laughing, crying, sobbing, more crying, until Dick and Arthur walk up. Pei’s eyebrows furrows at the sight—all three of them in a group, exchanging words and expressing thoughts, even arguing. It doesn’t take long for her to realize the obvious. A few minutes later, the girl storms away from the men.
“Are you alright, Shizuka?” Pei asks, one hand on the girl’s arm.
Shizuka takes a deep breath, but remains quiet, or hesitant.
“You speak English?” Pei asks, not knowing what else to say.
“Yes,” Shizuka replies. “I learned it back in Japan. It is the white man’s language. Father said…” she pauses, holding back the tears. "...that the white man will rule the world one day and—” the girl covers her face and falls to the damp grit-laced ground, weeping.
“Shizuka,” Pei gets down, a hand on the girl’s back. “What’s wrong?”
“My father,” the girl says. “That bastard’s going to kill him!”
“Oh no,” Pei frowns. “But why?”
“Father got angry at being insulted and punched Matsuda in the face.”
Pei pauses to think, her face surly. “What are you going to do?”
“That’s why I’m here,” Shizuka says. “I’ve come to ask for help.”
Pei looks to the two men behind. They weren’t smiling, which was unusual, and instead they appeared dampened. Shizuka’s plea for help has fallen on deaf ears, but she doesn’t know what to think, her brain is full of questions. How did Shizuka know where to find her? Why were they not surprised to see Shizuka? Pei glances up the hill again, and the odd couple, and then it hits her square in the face. No, Pei counters, Shizuka came here looking for them!
“I know about the soldiers even before I met you,” Shizuka breaks her silence, as if Pei’s thoughts were leaking out of her head.
Pei watches as Onishi’s daughter stands up and steps away, clearing her lungs, and of the immediate despair. “The soldiers,” she says. “How do you know them?”
“Father knew about them because of Wei.”
Pei withdraws at the mention of the name. “Wei? How is he involved?”
“I don’t know exactly why, but Wei used to sneak out at night, bringing supplies to the British soldiers. One of my father’s soldiers caught him during an unscheduled patrol. Under decree, father had to execute him for treason, but spared his life because Wei was the key. You don’t know this, but father had grown weary of the war, and he knew the empire was on the losing side. He wanted a way out. So, using Wei, father negotiated with the men: if he continued helping them with supplies and protection, they would return the favour when the war was over.”
“Pei,” the teenager says. “Are you okay?”
Flashing images of her dead lover takes her mind hostage. It’s been awhile since she’s had to redress that wound, cut deeper than any blade could, and it still stings fresh in her mind and heart, but she fights it. “And you took over Wei’s role after he was… killed?”
“So, why are they not helping you?” Pei asks, peering at the fair-skinned men.
“Because they can’t. They have orders to continue spying on the Japanese troops on the other side of the hill where they’re building an air strip. They can’t abandon their position, especially not for a suicide mission to rescue a man that has no value to them.”
“No value?” Pei perks up, her irritation boiling to the surface. She glares at the duo. “After all the help you and Wei have given them, every time, risking your lives, so they can what? Have a smoke every other day?” She’s staring at the men, her eyes fuming.
“Pei,” Shizuka says, tugging her friend’s forearm. “It’s not their fault.”
“No,” Pei replies. “That’s not good enough.”
“But what can we do?”
“I have a plan,” Pei says after a while. She faces Shizuka, her eyes steeled. “Listen carefully,” she says. “It’s not a perfect plan, but if you do exactly as I say, we might have a chance.”
The younger woman nods and leans in closer.
The lush tropical jungle is awash in a pearly glow. Once again, the boisterous chirping saturates the midnight air, hindering attempts at deep thought. The wildlife is remarkably tame despite the late hour, with only the odd scavenging possum poking in and out of the thick undergrowth. The sound of cautious footsteps interrupts the serenity. A lone figure wades through the veil of darkness.
The house she used to live in belonged to Matsuda now; the son of a bitch probably staked his claim immediately after usurping power. She counts two guards on patrol, each on opposite ends of the house and far enough apart that avoidance was easy. He’s not expecting anyone to come rampaging at the house, not at this hour, and not since Shizuka had rallied the troops for a special Geisha performance in the common hall a few hundred yards away. There’s a chorus of singing, and judging from the amount of slurring, most if not all of the men are halfway towards the point of passing out. Her final destination is the hole in the ground, an old well at the boundary of the open area, flanked by the main house and the adjoining kitchen. She can get there in one sprint, but her feet are not nimble enough and it hurts when she runs; so she needs to land somewhere in between to maximize stealth.
She estimates the time each guard took to complete their circuit. Four, three, two, one… Pei claws out from her hidden nook, and dashes to the space in between the main house and kitchen. She’s too distracted at first to notice, but when she does, her heart plunges. It’s the spot. It’s where they made out; where she gave herself to him.
Anger. Grief. Elation. And everything in between cascades out, churning her insides. She fights the urge to succumb, reminding herself that her adopted father’s life hangs in the balance. It’s fine Pei, the woman breaths in and out. In and out. But he butchered Wei! She clenches her fists, her knuckles whiten. He took everything I ever loved from me! Her brows wrinkle, her cheeks ashen and contorted.
She opens her eyes to the deep ethereal masculine voice.
A young man emerges from the shadows. His skin gleams under the moonlight.
“Wei?” she hushes. “Is that you?” She steps forward, hesitating.
Pei. The visage says. I’ll always love you. I’ll always be with you.
Her knees collapse at the sight of Wei’s boyish grin and she buries her face into her palms. The sting of reality fractures her broken heart and spiralling her down a slippery, windy path; she’s edging towards the chasm like a moth to fire. It’s chilling warmth offers solace to a lost, twisted, and confused soul, like a frog in a boiling pot of water.
Pei, come back! Stay with me!
A distant crash, accompanied by the smashing of glass, followed by wild exuberant laughter yanks her back into the real world. She drags her closed knuckles across her eyes, displacing the tiny pearls of moisture, then takes in a steadying breath.
She shuffles back to the edge of the wall, then closes her eyes to give her ears potency. Two murmuring voices, still far away, maybe? She can’t tell with any amount of certainty. Pei sticks her head out and sees one guard—he’s walking away. The second is nowhere in sight, but it’s a risk she needs to take. The woman counts to three and bolts.
She arrives two seconds later.
“Onishi-san!” Pei throws her voice through the gap of the metal sheet. She doesn’t know how close she came to crashing.
The ensuing silence is deafening.
She tries again. Then a third and fourth time.
“Pei?” a man’s disembodied voice floats back up.
“Onishi-san,” Pei says with too much excitement. “I’m here to get you out!”
“No, Pei.” The voice responds after a pause. “It’s too dangerous. Get away from here. Go, now!”
“I’m not leaving you!”
“Someone’s coming,” Pei whispers and gets up from her crouch. She spins around and heads for the nearest tree. It’s pitch black, but she makes out the form of a giant tree. She reaches for the bark.
A hand comes out from the darkness and seizes her mouth, muffling her scream. A second hand wraps around her waist and lifts her backwards against her attacker’s body. She yowls, thrashes her arms, and kicks out beneath her. Pei’s trying to break free and couldn’t bring her arms out in time as she smashes into the hardwood.
There’s a hot rancid breath on her face, stinking of alcohol. A pair of hands fumbles about with her outfit. His weight pins her waist down. All her instincts are crying out: fight, claw, bite, scratch, do whatever you can to stop this; but she overrules, lays limp, pretending to be out cold.
The man—she’s guessing one of the two soldiers on duty—rips her top to shreds but leaves her undergarment intact. He says something lewd and Pei imagines him leering at her half-naked body, savouring the moment. A few seconds trudge past. The cold air caresses her exposed skin.
What’s he doing? Why has he stopped? Her fingers grasp a rock the size of her fist. I can’t wait any longer, she reasons. I need to act now! Pei feels the weight on her abdomen lift off and she coils her arm.
She’s unprepared for the sight. Her assailant’s dangling from the neck down, both hands locked up with his neck. He’s desperate for air, twisting, stretching, but he has no leverage at all. Her would-be rapist is slowly choking to death.
The spasms stop. The man’s arms are limp and his head tilts sideways. Pei doesn’t give him a second thought, all she cares about is the dead soldier’s killer, and what he plans to do. She squeezes the rock harder.
“Pei,” her rescuer says, followed by a string of unintelligible words. Are you OK? She translates.
“Sam!” The woman jumps up and wraps herself around the man. “You came to help,” she says, still clutching onto the back of his neck. “I’m so glad. Arthur and Dick refused to come…” She pulls away suddenly when she hears noises. Two hidden figures appear from the shadows.
Pei is about to scream but Sam clamps her mouth. He whispers into her ear—she still doesn’t understand the language—but she recognizes ‘Arthur’ and ‘Dick’. Stay calm Pei, it’s Arthur and Dick, she deciphers. Sure enough, both men walk into the moonlight, smiling. Dick has a cheeky grin. The woman is filled with reprieve. The dark clouds in her mind evaporate, and beams of sunlight cut through.
“I know I was foolish,” she says knowing the men can’t understand. “But I had no choice. I had to do something.”
Sam spins her around and hugs her. He grabs her by the shoulders and says, “Sam, Arthur, Dick, halp Pei, halp Onishi.”
Pei grins and nods.
Dick walks up and removes a bundle from his back. Her ears glow red hot—she’s forgotten all about her baby! The young mother retrieves and inspects her baby; she sighs because his eyelids are fluttering. Dick’s running had done the job. That’s one less thing to worry about and she sighs again.
Pei attention is drawn to the common hall. The music is lively, glasses clink with gusto, and sporadic laughter fills the gap in between. Sam tugs her forearm and urges her to stay hidden. He mumbles and she extrapolates: stay here and wait, we’ll get Onishi-san out.
The three men head out, Arthur and Dick reaching the hole in two or three strides while Sam runs ahead, diving behind a tree and vanishes into the darkness.
Pei’s attention wanders back to the brightly lit building where Shizuka is busy entertaining the men, some of whom were probably still loyal to her father. Onishi had bled with these soldiers, putting his own life ahead of theirs on many occasions, even carrying one to safety on his shoulders.Those soldiers must be pained to know of their commanding officer’s humiliation at the hands of that sorry excuse of a low-life scum. Do they know Matsuda is going to execute their leader the next morning? Would they lift a finger if they did?
Her vision veers back to the action in front. Dick has pried off the metal plate and Arthur is tugging on a rope that leads into the man-sized cavity. The shorter man returns and anchors himself to the end of Onishi’s life line. She holds her breath. Time could not tick any slower.
Pei feels a tonne lighter when Onishi’s head pokes out. But the celebration will have to wait; the men must now put everything back as before as not to raise the alarm prematurely, allowing Shizuka to make good her escape in the early hours of dawn.
She readies to move but ducks behind the tree again. A garrison of soldiers—with their rifles primed—storm out from their hidden locations, exploiting the element of surprise.
Oh no! Pei wants to scream out but it’s too late to warn her friends. The squad leader yells out a warning cry.
There’s a flurry of activity as the men from inside the common hall filter into the open area. Search lights come alive, each targeting the trio, emphasizing the growing commotion. Onishi and the two British soldiers are on their knees with their shackled hands tucked behind their heads.
Shizuka weaves through the men in her Kimono, shouting in Japanese, “Please! Don’t shoot him please! Please don’t kill him!” The girl reaches her father and pleads with his captors. One of soldiers spins her around and grabs her in a bear hug.
Matsuda appears at the rear of the mob. He swaggers past his men, each step in deliberation, his face a portrait of triumph.
The bastard set this up! Pei’s mouth is agape. Her heart is racing and her mind agitates like a trapped possum. The image of Sam disappearing into the background pokes into her head. She peeks out and confirms that the young man is not with the group of captives. If she could keep her baby quiet long enough, she was sure she could make it back… no, the cave’s location would be compromised, the woman speculates. There’s nowhere to go but to confront the enemy.
Pei ambles out of from behind her bark shield.
There are gasps from the men as each of them turn to gawk at a young Chinese woman—baby in arms—strolling through their ranks.
“Ms Wong Pei,” Matsuda enunciates her name in full for the benefit of his audience. “You’re alive!”
Pei walks on, head high, ignoring the fanfare. The soldiers move aside, allowing her right of way. “Matsuda-san,” she greets when she’s within earshot. The young mother even manages a bow.
“I was certainly not expecting to see you,” he said. “How are you?”
“I am well,” she replies with a hint of annoyance.
“And your child, is it a boy or girl?”
“Boy,” she replies.
“Wonderful,” he says, “just wonderful. He is thriving?”
“I’m curious,” Matsuda says. “Why are you here…” but he holds back. He glimpses at Onishi and the two foreigners. “Wait,” he does a double-take at the woman and the prisoners. “You found them!” he exclaims, then laughs. “I see now, I understand. That morning when you ran away into the jungle, you managed to locate them, because he told you about them. He gave you directions to find them.” He stares at Onishi smugly.
Matsuda turns to his men and shouts something she couldn’t follow. The small man is standing a few inches taller as he addresses the soldiers. He’s being accusatory, trying to prove Onishi’s guilt by alleging that the former First Lieutenant was conspiring with the British soldiers.
Shizuka is bawling her eyes out. This could be the last time she sees her father alive.
“Matsuda-san!” Pei barks. Her audience hushes and everyone watches her in awe. “Please, spare his life,” she says, her tone solemn. “I’ll do anything you want. I’ll be your mistress. You can do anything you want. Anything.”
“You want to be my whore?” he asks.
“Yes,” the woman replies. Pei gestures for Shizuka to approach. Matsuda tips his head and the soldier releases the girl.
Pei hands her baby over to Shizuka, then nods for her to retreat. She steps closer to Matsuda, tugs at the knots on either shoulder and lets the last piece of clothing separating her bare skin from the chilling air slip to the ground. She stands, stark naked, her milky white skin radiating, permitting everyone to scrutinize every inch of her body.
The corner of Matsuda’s lips curved up, revealing a row of stained teeth, and his eyes brighten. He rubs his chin. “No. You squandered that chance when you ran away.” He pulls his ceremonial Katana from his waist. “But, I have a counter-proposal. If you put this inside you, I might reconsider. Your choice.” The man flips the blade around, pointing the hilt at Pei.
A cacophony of protests from Onishi and Shizuka interject, both petitioning for mercy, but they are quickly silenced.
She grasps the handle. If I could just thrust it through, she thinks, I can end this right now. But there’s a chance she might miss. No, it’s too risky, she reasons. Without further delay, she takes the weapon; her fingers curl around the solid grip, her palm in contact with the rough surface. It is going to hurt.
“I’m waiting, Pei.”
The woman looks up, her eyes colder than ice. That evil bastard holds all the keys and she needs to get on with it before he changes his mind. She squats carefully. The solid blunt shaft is in position. She wonders how best to do this.
She winces. Everyone’s looking. Ogling.
She cringes. I can’t stop. Not now.
She gasps. No, it’s too long. I can’t.
She breathes. Exhales. She can see Onishi and Shizuka from the corner of her eyes. Both with heads hung low, crying, weeping. The ground where they kneel is moist.
She breathes. Almost there.
She groans. I can feel the last bit…
She sighs in relief, shutting her eyes. She’s done it. It’s inside. All of it.
The sword clanks onto the ground.
Matsuda laughs with pure evil. It sends chills up her spine. He picks up his Katana. “Well done, Pei. You have proven your resolve. I will let you be my mistress, but Onishi was insubordinate and he must serve as an example!” He takes two steps towards his political rival.
Pei throws herself at the man’s feet. “Please, Matsuda-san! I beg you. Please.” The woman grovels, planting kisses on his shiny leather boots. She moves up his legs until she’s straddling the man’s knees. “Please, spare Onishi-san’s life, please don’t kill him. You promised.”
Matsuda is grinning from ear to ear. He sheaths his blade. “You’re lucky I’m in such a generous mood tonight. Very well, I’ll grant you your wish. I won’t kill him, but my soldiers will.” The man gives a sharp instruction to the armed men.
“No!” Shizuka cries out.
Pei sits on her heels and looks to Shizuka as she struggles against the lone soldier holding her back. “He’s going to shoot father!” the girl warns, her eyes big as saucers. The topless woman turns back in an instant, lunges for the man’s legs. A deluge of tears stream down her cheeks and she begs again, and again, and again. But it’s all in vain. There’s no swaying this demon.
The private marches up to Onishi. He cocks his rifle.
Pei’s petite body is heaving as she continues imploring her master from the ground. Her head shakes as her torso rocks to and fro. A glint from inside the lip of the man’s boot catches her eye. She knows right away what it is and what she needs to do. Her hand reaches down.
Matsuda lets out a high pitch scream as Pei slashes, missing his neck, but catches his chin. He backhands the woman’s face, staggering backwards, clutching his neck. She crumples onto the floor. His eyes reek of fury as he lets loose a chain of profanities. The angry man frees his sword and is poised to strike, but he doesn’t see the fast-moving object crash right into him.
The boom of a high-calibre rifle thunders at the same time. A single bullet whizzes into the melee of bodies, exploding through, tearing bits of fabric and flesh, spraying the air red.
Pei’s ear is ringing where Matsuda’s hand had impacted. Although her sight is blurry, she knows it was Sam who fired the shot. There’s turmoil around her. Arthur, Dick and Onishi had instigated a revolt, overpowering their subjugators. But she’s drowned everything out, only focusing on the man stirring a few feet away.
The naked woman propels forward, knife in hand, and lands on Matsuda like an injured feral Musang. Her instincts compels her to strike the man’s head, the least violent solution, but her vengeful spirit coerces her to press the end of the blade into his larynx instead.
Matsuda comes alive at the prickly sensation. He opens his mouth, but Pei pushes in.
“Shut up!” she screams into his face, fresh tears roll down, some dripping onto his face. The man’s neck and chest are bloody from the gash beneath his jaw.
“Please,” he gasps. “Don’t kill me.”
“I said, shut up!” Pei twists the hilt. He relents. “You killed Wei,” she says calmly. “And you wanted to rape me, and make me your whore. Then you threaten to kill Onishi-san and humiliated me in front of your men. I should kill you right now, you son of a bitch, the same way you murdered Wei.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Please. I’ll grant everyone pardons. You can—”
“I loved him,” she continues, staring right through him, “and you took him away, slaughtered like an animal. You are a bastard and a fucking asshole. You don’t deserve to live.”
She eases her wrist against Matsuda’s neck, closing the gap between her fingers and his lower jaw. There’s an initial struggle, involuntary writhing for a few seconds, and then everything stops.
The woman lifts her head off Matsuda’s expressionless face. She looks up at the person hovering above. “Sam,” she says. “Is it over? What’s happened?”
Sam protects Pei’s bare body with his own shirt. He guides her away from the corpse. Another scene unfolds before them. It’s Onishi, on the ground, cradling Shizuka in his arms, his hands are stained red. The man is sobbing. The girl isn’t moving.
“Shizuka,” Pei gasps. “Oh no.” She sinks down.
She leans her head on Sam’s chest. Her heart is hemorrhaging, but her eyes are lackluster, there’s nothing left to give. She looks around, at Arthur and Dick, the soldiers, and the grieving father and his deceased daughter. There’s no way to know how things will pan out, but she’s got a feeling that she’ll never have to run again.
Dad grins over at me, coffee stained teeth flashing through his bushy grey beard. I smile back, stifling a yawn until he looks out over the water again. He casts his line in a high smooth arch, his reel whirs as he cranks it in.
My cast is lazy. It lands the lure only a few feet from the base of the doc, in an oily patch of water. I balance the rod in my left hand as I lean down to pick up my travel mug off the low guardrail. The smell of fish bait on my fingers wrinkles my nose as I bring the mug to my lips, and I squint at the morning sun sparkling off the little peaks formed by the incoming tide. The salt scented breeze ruffles my bangs and the water laps gently at the wood pilings below us.
I have to admit that it’s all very lovely. But wouldn’t it have been just as lovely after ten am? I put my coffee down and slowly click over my reel, counting down the seconds to when my alarm would go off on a typical work day.
“Morning Mark,” each new comer greets Dad as they pass, grey, grizzled old men like himself.
“Morning!” Dad responds to each one, calling out their names as they pass, “Did you see? Arlana’s here for a visit!”
“Wow, look at you,” they say. “All grown up!” “I remember when you were only…”
I smile and nod politely to each one, though most I don’t recognize at all, and none have names in my memory. I continue to sip my coffee at regular intervals, ignoring the stink of my fingers in my need for caffeine.
“I’ve got one,” shouts an old-timer who Dad called Jim, down at the far end, “Someone give me a hand!”
I look around, confused, wondering what “someone” is supposed to do. One or two of the other men start reeling faster but I’m the only one without a line in the water. I look to Dad for an explanation.
“Grab one of those nets,” he gestures with his bearded chin to a heap in the middle of the pier, still reeling in his own line, “And help him pull it in.”
I put my rod and my coffee down on the deck and hurry over to the pile, grab what looks like an oversized wire mesh hanging basket attached to yellow nylon rope and hustle to where the hunched figure is struggling to hang on to a rod bent almost double.
“I’ve almost got him,” he gasps, managing to click the reel over a couple of notches, “Get the net in the water.”
I look over the edge, to where the ocean meets the pilings several meters below. I hadn’t thought about how the fish were supposed to get up to the platform.
I heave the basket net over the side and flinch as the frayed rope scrapes my fingers. I try to line up the basket as close to the where his line enters the water as possible, scanning for the first flicker of scales under the surface. There it is!
I let the rough rope slide through my hands, the basket splashes into the water and Jim is right next to me, so close the smell of his chewing tobacco overpowers the salty sea air, struggling to force the fish into position. I jerk the rope a second to soon and the fish slips over the edge of the net, still fighting for it’s freedom. I curse under my breath but Jim just chuckles and leans back against the pull on his line.
This time I’m more patient, I watch for my moment and then I heave. Hand over hand I lift the basket while Jim reels like mad. Together we lift the gleaming speckled body up onto the planks.
“Thanks,” gasps Jim, grasping the fish and twisting the hook out of it’s mouth with one smooth gesture. I stand back, breathing hard, looking down at our handiwork.
The following minutes are a blur. I'm up and down the dock, pulling up fish after fish, the rough, worn ropes rasping against my palms, drops of salt water leaving white crusted splotches on my leather shoes.
I’m panting, and half laughing when a familiar hand, large, scarred and calloused, catches hold of the latest fish and I look up into my dad’s eyes and we’re both grinning at each other in the sunshine and I don’t even notice the salt water running up my sleeves.
“Go on,” he says, “I’ve got this. They’re really biting now!”
I glance around to be sure no one else needs me, then snatch up my rod and cast my line in a long clean arch, my grip tightening on the handle as my reel begins to whir.
Plenty to eat.
But the Hunger persists.
But then a full jar comes into sight...
Plenty to eat.
But the hunger persists.
Taciturn Trevor talked tactfully, trembling tremulously (talented talkers tangibly, tauntingly titillate), tending to tattle tameably. Too tawdry? Terminate two tears! Teleologically, Tantalus tampered, tantalic, 'til ten tawny, tempestuous, tigerish Titans trampled timid trust. Tangerines? Twenty tablefuls, too tangy, too tart to taste. Tiny tasks, tagging tails, toadying tasks, tainted tips, together trend toward twinkling tapestries tied throughout twilight. Tighter than taped tweed, to tell truths! Tweedling tinker.
Truculent time--touching telemarketing teachers, televised trainmen, transfixed traitors, trashy treasurers, trysting teenagers, teasable teacakes, tallying telekinetics, terrible tenors, textiles, tidelike tunes, tussling Toms, twaddling truckers, tittering talismans, tyrannic tabloids, tactile tuxedos, tarnished tampons, teeming tankards, timeworn textures, tardy tenants, testy templars, tough tiddlers, tightening tinder, tipsy tailors, tangled tissues, toelike talons, topical tours, touting toffies, toothless trainers, twinging taboos, technological tanks, tootling taverns, tressed toupees, trailered tennis, tricorn tips, tuneful tunnels, toiling tsunamis, tropical tongues, tithing turbines, toxic tribes, triadic troops, torpid tulips, ticking tumors, trilling tundra, tall tunics, tinted turbans, teal tapas, typical twigs, twinned tabs, tyred talc, tired twerps, typing tweens, tulled tutors, tassled talas, tangoing tramps, tented toys, topaz treats, toney torsos, tabooed tombs, tacit tangs, teething teams, twisty tarot, twined tawer, taupe tatar, twelve tweaks, tabby tycoons, tufty tumps, twirling tubas, tepid teff, towering taxis, temperate toddies, terse taxidermists, tapering tansies, toned tofu, triumphant trovers, tazed temps, trotting towels, tite tykes, tugging tuna, tucked tots, tarped tuns, tatted Turks, taut teths, tewed tongs, tical tinctures, tangent tamashas, tamarind tambours, taffeta torpedos, tabletop tableaux, tan tadpoles, tapering termites, tenurial teras, testable terraces, tetchy terriers, tetradic tricksters, trickling triangles, trekking tricycles, true tonics, trenched treatises, tooled tortoises, tandem tornadoes, tantric tahini, tapping taprooms, turgid turmeric, twanging turnovers, tattooed turncoats, tapered tartans, tawsed tarocs, teensy tempeh, tensed taxons, tedded tazzers, tuskless tutoresses, turrical tantras, tarred tarmacs, trestled tributes, terrific terrariums, targeted tabards, terrorized testers, takeaway tailpipes, tortuous toppings, torrential tortillas, tallowy torches, tanistry tales, titrated tabouli, trolling toddlers, tinged toilets, toked toasters, trimmed topiary, trollish tires, trapped trout, tidy trays, termed turds, tetryl typesets, tottering towers, tannable tankinis, tacky tacos, trashy totems, tubular trousers, tenacious troublemakers, tasteful titanium, tallish townsmen, tilted tops, testicular tentacles, Texan topsoil, transmitting trains, totally tender tourists--takes tracks towards tragedy tonight.
Truly, trolling Twitter--try to tablet, to text this tectonic topology! 'Twas twice thy tries... Through templed testaments, this tract teeters, testifying titanically. Transgressing, transforming, translating, transplanting, transporting ten thousand tongues. Traversing tumbleweed town, troubled Ted tried tying twine 'twixt turning trollies--truncated, triplet trees trisect tripwire, trinkets, trilbies. Trophies to those that telegraphically trounced Tiffany! That trumpet tethers trochoid trussers, telling truebred, trueblue trudgens to think, then teach. Troaking triumvirs tarry terminally.
Tomorrow, teacher. Tilters tipple transitionally.
Tackles tarrying, the timing tilting tremendously. Traces, too tantalizing to trundle, typify tweezed, tedious tariffs.
Temerity, thou trespassing template: terminology transcends transcription.
The Sound Alliteration
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