“Hey you! Boy!” The man shouted through his loudspeaker at the young man weaving his way through the Sunday shopping crowds. He had been having hard luck finding candidates this afternoon and was just about to call it a day when he had seen the young man. One thing he knew, and that was gullible targets.
Several people in the crowd turned to look, and the man pushed past them, catching up the young man walking quickly by a sleeve. The young man seemed startled and the people around him part, and glared at the man with the loudspeaker.
“Um,” said the young man softly, “Yes?”
The other shouted his answer into the loudspeaker. The feedback whine caused the people around them to flinch away and now there was a small clearing of people gathered round, and there’s nothing he loved as much as an audience. “You want some easy money?”
The young man’s eyes darted around nervously. “Oh,” he said, “I was brought up to believe there is no such thing as easy money.”
The announcer fought the urge to roll his eyes. He’s picked one of those so called innocent types, who are courteous to women and unassumingly humble. But he’d been in the business long enough to know there is no such thing as an innocent man, and when it came down to the wire, all men were beasts. It was just a matter of where that wire was.
“Well then boy,” he said, “Are you a student?” (the young man nods slightly, still looking a bit put out by the situation.) “All students are hungry. Are you hungry?”
The young man relaxed a bit and shrugged his shoulders a little. “I am a bit peckish,” he admitted.
The announcer grinned. “Great!” he proclaims, “Perfect! Have I got the meal for you! All you can eat, absolutely free! All you have to do is pay the entry fee and if you win, you not only get your meal, but you get a share of the money too!”
The young man entered. Of course he did. The announcer was still congratulating himself on picking such an easy target when the contest began.
By the time the contest ended, however, the man was no longer on speaking terms with himself. The young man dabbed his mouth delicately on a napkin and walked over with the same easy grace he had possessed before demolishing twelve bowls of oyakodon.
“Um,” the young man said hesitantly, wrapping a free hand briefly around the older man’s shoulder (his other hand was occupied by a fistful of cash), “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Yin sits in the darkened room, her back very straight. Her hands are folded upon her lap, one over the other, and there is an asymmetrical property to the way one of her pinkies lies crooked over the ring finger of the hand below it, but beside that, there is nothing. Her dress is creased with the time spent sitting there, but sharp creases, made from stillness. Her feet lie in a pail of water at the foot of her chair, her shoes placed neatly beside it.
There are windows to her left, curtain less, and through them the street light shines intermittently, upon her hair, her neck, her shoulder, illuminating them all briefly in shades of white, silver, and pale yellow. The tatami is dry. Yin keeps her face pointed towards the door (The light does not shine there).
Her eyes lie in a state between open and closed, her eyelashes shading over them so that even when the light from outside strikes her face, it would be almost impossible to discern a glint of liveliness in them. Half open like that, her vision is not wholly unimpaired, nevertheless, it cannot exactly be said that Yin is seeing.
There is nothing else present but for the girl, and the objects placed around her with care. The window is not open, so the sounds from outside are muffled, and sporadic as they occur, or not at all.
Earlier, she had spoken. Now, she does not.
When Hei enters, he breaks the stillness of the room, and casts a shadow upon the tatami covered in silver light. Yin moves not at all; in the quiet, he cannot even hear her breathe. When Hei enters, he enters to Yin’s eyes pointed towards him, the heavy lids lifting up measuredly, and he pauses at the threshold. Her eyes blink once, slowly. Then twice, thrice—
There is a rice ball lying next to her chair, wrapped in the grocery store wrapping. It is a plain one, the packaginh proclaims. The price sticker is still stuck to it, and Hei does not notice it at first because it falls in shadow, and what is cast in light is the pale column of her neck.
He lets out a breath at once, and crosses the room in three strides without removing his shoes. Lays a hand upon her hair, briefly. He uses the hand that is not covered in blood. Under it, Yin’s head bows under the new weight, but no further.
“Good job today,” Hei says, and removes his hand. He leaves the room in two and a half strides, and does not look over his shoulder.
Tomorrow this room will be gone. Huang perhaps, or someone else will come in and remove all traces (not that there will be many) and it will be rented out again, and the new tenant will fill up the space with furniture perhaps, or curtains.
After the door clicks shut behind Hei, Yin’s head lifts leisurely. “Hei,” she says.
The rice ball beside her chair is gone, and in its place is a small wrapped candy.
Clouds hang low and grey in the sky and the snow and ice on the ground is cast in a dreary light, as is most of the afternoon. However, the city is filled with a barely suppressed excitement, as it always was during this time of year, heightened by poor weather, and even she can feel it, thrumming through the air.
She uses one hand to wave at the guard stationed at the gate, but bungles it, almost. She doesn’t quite know how far her wave extends, whether it is a smooth motion, or forward and back, and so her hand hangs in the air for a beat too long before she shoves it hurriedly into her coat pocket to mirror the other.
The guard doesn’t notice however, and in fact barely looks up from his novel. “Merry Christmas,” he mumbles to her, and she says nothing back.
Her constant companion is leaning against a telephone pole one block east, a dark shadow against a dark afternoon, and she forces herself to approach him with no visible reduction in speed despite the harsh wind nipping at her face. It burns, then in turn, moves into numbness.
As she nears, he straightens, and not for the first time, she notes that he is very tall. That, however, is his right: shadows always extend as it approaches dusk.
He says nothing to her, so she takes it upon herself to break the silence.
“Before you ask,” she says professionally, her tone sharp with an unnamed rebuke, “everything went absolutely according to plan. There were no mishaps, there were no hitches.”
Of course, that is a lie. There had been many moments where she had made small slips, little mishaps, but that was to be expected from a deviation in routine. The fear, of course, had been her constant companion. So much so, she half expected it to be twined around her shadow, here.
Her other nods mutely. He takes another step towards her, despite the fact that they are already at the limit of the radius of friendly communication. Another step, and he would be as close as a lover.
“Hey,” she says suddenly, not quite taking a step away, “You know what I feel like doing?”
Her voice cracks out of its professional mould, and softens into something almost conversational. Her cheeks heat up again with something that is beyond the cold, and she feels instead the warmth of a successful caper. When she was younger she had probably felt like this after pulling off a prank.
She catches her companion off guard, or near it. He pauses somewhat before saying, with reservation, “What?”
“I want to eat a gingerbread man!”
Now she really does catch him off guard. He staggers a bit, comically, before shaking his head and taking that extra step towards her. “I don’t really think that would be a good idea,” he says slowly.
She thinks to herself, rather giddily, Now the world will think we are lovers, and does not know what to make of that. She has made a lifetime study of the hidden radii that follow objects, like gravitation, push and pull, and the inference of others. She forces herself not to move back at all, but instead to smile into his face. It is not so far above her own, but then again, she had always been taller than average.
“Come on,” she pouts. She had always been good at pouting, she remembers that. Her lips settle into the familiar shape easily, even if she’s not quite sure if she should lick her lips prior or not, and her eyes widen and glisten easily. Her father (or was it her brother?) had never been able to resist it, and as she grew older, she found that most men were the same. “It’s almost Christmas, it won’t be too difficult to find a bakery that sells them! And I just helped you out, there. Can’t you be a little bit nice and buy me a gingerbread man, as a thank you?”
He’s reaching a hand up to her face, as if to touch her cheek, but it stops when she adds, “I’ve wanted to try one my entire life.”
His hand falls to his side, and he laughs softly. It’s the first time she’s heard it. It’s not particularly pleasant. “That’s a bit barbaric of you, isn’t it?”
Despite her assurance, it was surprisingly hard to find a bakery that sold gingerbread men, even this close to Christmas. She crouches outside of the fifth bakery they hit (or was it the seventh?) and tries not to think about what will happen when her shadow decides to give up. She isn’t tired, exactly, but there is a general weariness that seems to have settled in her bones. She leans her cheek against the cool expanse of brick that lines the outside wall, and feels its stubble rub on her numbed cheek as though from far away.
“Momma!” says a boy in the distance, “Can we buy some cake today too?”
His mother toils after him slowly, weighed down by a variety of shopping bags, “Not today, Hotaru-chan,” she scolds, “you eat too much cake. If you’re not careful, you’re going to grow up to be as chubby as Papa.”
A bell chimes somewhere to her right and above, and she can hear the muffled, “Please come again soon,” as he comes out. She doesn’t look, however. Her eyes are focused on the mother and child. Her companion crouches down beside her, far enough to almost be strangers, or almost be friends.
“I don’t mind!” the boy calls back, “I like Papa the way he is! He reminds me a bit of Santa.”
The mother laughs and her reply is out of earshot.
She takes her cheek off the wall and focuses on the ground. “My father wasn’t chubby,” she says slowly, her voice flat and low, “he was skinny. Really, really gaunt, you know? When I was little, I always thought that it was because he didn’t eat right. He was always too busy with his work in the lab, whenever he was home for dinner, he wouldn’t eat very much, and seemed so preoccupied.
“So I started cooking for him. Every day I’d rush home from school and try and make some type of dish that would appeal to him, so that he would finally eat it. I tried all sorts of things, not just Japanese style, but Chinese, and American too. I nearly burned down the kitchen a couple times. But it didn’t make a difference. Whatever I set down in front of him, even if it wasn’t burned, he would just take a few bites, and that would be it.
“I hated his lab work. I hated him. I hated myself. But when I grew up, instead of becoming a good wife, or an artist, or anything else, I went into scientific research too. Maybe I just wanted him to be proud of me. You know what the last thing he said to me was? ‘Midori, you’re too skinny. You should eat more.’”
She brings the back of her hand up to her eyes, to wipe away the tears, but finds them curiously dry. She turns to him, embarrassed. “Sorry,” she says, “I shouldn’t have—“
He holds a small bakery bag out to her. In the clear bag she can see the gingerbread men, she lets out a small squeal.
She turns her eyes to him, and for a second he sees that they are blank, and then they are crinkling into a smile. He climbs to his feet (a black cat she hadn’t noticed previously bounds away), and pulls her up with him. “Come on,” he says.
They settle down under a bridge, near the river, and despite the cold, she brushes the snow off a patch on the ground and sits on it. The grass underneath is brown and dying, and damp seeps into her bottom, through her coat.
“You know,” she says mournfully, staring at the man inside the cutely wrapped bag, “now that I’ve got him it seems a bit cruel to just eat him. Not to mention I don’t even know where I would start—Hey!”
“Hm?” says her companion, muffled. His bag is already opened and his hands are clutched around the torso of his man, head neatly bitten off.
“How cruel,” she says, laughing softly. Though she supposes she oughtn’t be surprised.
He glances down at his man, then finally understanding, blushes. She settles on nibbling at one of the hands as he chomps down next to her.
“Well,” he says when he’s finished, (she’s barely halfway through) “how does it taste?”
She sighs, and leans back on the bank. Her head is lying in the snow now, and soon it will melt down around her, and she will be very very cold, but somehow she doesn’t mind this. “Like something I’ve wanted to try for a long time.”
“Are you going to finish him?”
“It doesn’t seem right, does it? Somehow even after all the things I’ve done in my line of work, I can’t bring myself to finish him off.” She closes her eyes.
“He’s only half a man,” he points out.
“Better half a man than no man at all, I suppose. If it means that much to you, you can finish him. Just make sure I don’t see it. I can’t abide to see something die in front of me.”
When she opens her eyes, he is standing above her, though she doesn’t know what this distance means, and his eyes are blank. “Midori,” he says.
“I know,” she sighs, “You can’t really let me go, can you?”
“It’s not just that.”
She sits up. “Tell me,” she says, “am I even human?”
“...So you knew. The entire time?”
She averts her eyes. Even though she’s prepared herself for this, it still hurts. Then again, not as much as to be expected.
“No. not entirely. But, little things. Like forgetting which hand I use to stir the coffee with, or which eye to use for the retina scanner, or which finger on the keypad. And I’ve forgotten my family’s faces. You’re forgetting my line of work. Once I started to realize these things, it wasn’t hard to figure out. And the fact that I am forgetting means that this wasn’t supposed to last much longer. I didn’t know. But I guessed.”
“You must have also guessed what comes next.”
“No loose ends right? And I’m a pretty big loose end. You contractors hate those.”
There is now nothing human in his face, his eyes. It almost frightens her to see it. Almost. “Why did you let me have this?”
His voice is flat. “There was no reason to deny your request.”
That was not really an answer, but then again she supposed she didn’t quite merit one, especially not anymore. If she had time, she would have taken that response to the lab and see what she could do with it. But then again, she mused, running her tongue across her teeth (she could still taste the remnants of sugar, and ginger) perhaps if she had time she would find other ways to spend it.
“Why didn’t you try to run?”
She avoids this question by getting slowly to her feet. She wanders slowly down to the river. “I had fun today,” she tells him, honestly. “I can only hope that wherever I really am, she is having fun today too.”
He is silent and from that she guesses that wherever she really is, she is dead, and now not even this knowledge can make her feel anything, really.
“I’d like to think that this desire to eat gingerbread men comes from me, and not the memories you implanted inside this Doll. I can’t really remember wanting to eat one before today. But I suppose that could just be the programming degrading.”
She steps into the river. It must be freezing, but she can’t really tell. She wades out a bit and turns to face him. He is standing and the side of the river, and he is blank, impassive. He is merely waiting.
She takes a breath. “Thank you for the gingerbread men,” she says, “it was very kind of you.”
He flinches at the word kind, but she has already closed her eyes, and misses it.
Hei crouches beside the river and slides his fingers through the water just for a second, and it is done. The Syndicate will take care of the disposal.
He trudges his way back up the bank to give his report to Huang, and pauses at the clear bag lying on the snow, half the gingerbread man still inside. Hei leans down slowly, and picks it up, then turns and flings it almost savagely into the river before continuing on his way.
Of course, he doesn’t look back.
Sometimes, when Mao bent his head forward to eat out of a dish, his ears would prick forward in such a way to suggest that he was very aware of what he was doing. That he was very aware of the ridiculousness of the situation.
A man is here, eating out of a cat dish, his ears seemed to proclaim, everyone gather around and witness the sight.
He always picked at the pieces of generic cat food, or last nights leftovers with a delicate grace that seemed out of place even on this cat, though he never seemed to savour anything.
Humans weren’t meant to drink dirty hose water out of a metal dish, his posture sometimes seemed to say, though a human trapped in a cat’s body seemed to be fair game.
Hei sometimes ate something near him as he did this, a pork bun, perhaps, or a yakitori skewer, or oden from the convenience store down the street, partly to keep his hands busy, and partly to keep Mao company. They never said much to each other, though if there was meat, Hei always offered some to Mao, politely. Mao would eat it with quiet dignity, equally politely.
One time Mao sighed out, “Chocolate,” as he nosed through whatever the girl had left him.
Hei turned his head around a bit too quickly to have appeared casual to any observer, and regarded the dish with surprise. But, as he thought, it was just some cat food. Hei made a show of taking his time with the next bite of his chocolate bar, before spitting out through the side of his mouth, “What was that?”
“Chocolate,” Mao sighed out again, this time with real yearning in his voice, “I was just saying that it used to be my favourite food.”
Hei considered this. “Really?” he said at last.
“Oh yes.” Mao took another bite of his cat food, his whole attitude one of dignified despair. “You know, before. Couldn’t get enough of it, really.”
Hei thought quietly for a moment. Chocolate was easy enough. “You could have what’s left of this,” he offered, though there wasn’t much left.”
“Oh no,” Mao said, not unkindly, “I’m not able to digest it anymore. And I fear it wouldn’t taste the same.”
He stopped eating from the dish, abruptly, and began to wash himself with the unself-conscious efficiency that was present in all cats. There was still over half his portion left, though that was not in itself unusual: cats left food uneaten all the time.
He sauntered out without further word, and Hei finished his chocolate bar soon afterward, with no unnecessary relishing. He made sure to throw the wrapper away, carefully, as he walked home.
Bai is waiting for him, on the edges of night, dressed all in white, in black. She is barefoot, she is clad. Her smile though, that is constant.
She sits in a pagoda, her back ramrod straight, of course, of course, and she is young, and she is old, but her eyes—that too, is constant.
She regards him levelly, the mist between them thickens, thins, and then the smile she wears reaches her eyes and she calls him brother.
Tea brews somewhere in the distance, and the mist is really steam from fragrant tea, he can almost smell it if he closes his eyes and breathes it in, but of course he keeps his eyes open, open.
Bai waits for him in a pagoda, and she is young, and she is old, but he, he is old. Her name falls from his lips like a prayer, though his, when it comes, is an anathema from hers.
She gestures at the plates laid out in front of her, fine porcelain inlaid with designs that ought to tell a story, even he can see that from where he stands, mere moments from her.
Two mooncakes are laid out on the plate in front of her, neatly cut into quarters already, which was just the way she used to like it, and she used to chide him for how much he ate, while she only ever managed a quarter.
Bai smiles and it is not a nice smile. Brother, she says without ever moving her lips, come eat with me. She gestures expansively at the plate before her, her other hand is placed neatly in her lap (she does not reach for him).
He stretches for the mooncake and knows instinctively that they are his favourite (double yolk) and reaches past them for her—her smile is brittle and as his hand moves towards hers, inexorably, her smile cracks and shatters, also inexorably—
—and he will wake up in a mess of tangled sheets, sweat already drying on him at the exertion of the remembered dream.
Mao will be crouched next to him. He will say, ‘Time to go to work, Hei,’ and bound away before the answer that will never come.
Moments later, Hei will unclench his fists, slowly, and smooth away the wrinkles that were made by the sheets he had clutched in them, equally slowly.