Besides three months of winter, Taipei is perpetually, brutally hot. Pavement shimmering with heat waves, perspiration soaking your shirt after one minute in the sun type of hot. Even after four years in this city, stepping out into a mid-June tropical sun after two hours in a blissfully cool movie theater is still a special kind of torture.
Jay squints in the bright light. “Mary, it’ll take us twenty minutes just to reach the station.”
Ximending. One of the most crowded areas in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. On a weekday, you can barely walk without rubbing against a stranger’s shoulder. On a Saturday…
“Come on. You’ll be late.” I step into the crowd, beginning the dance of dodging and ducking and sidestepping I still have yet to perfect.
“I really hate those salespeople,” Jay mutters, following me.
Aside from the shoppers and movie-goers milling around, salespeople choke the narrow streets of Ximending, always ready to pounce. ‘Uniquely-designed’ pens pressed into your hands. Fliers trailing you even though you’ve already said you don’t need a foreign caregiver. Beauty products, shampoo gel packets, lesson discounts, and even the odd squirrel seller.
I grab Jay’s arm to keep from being separated. “No. I don’t want to try your leg razors do you say leg razors? If you do, then ignore this. I know that it might be weird contextually to just say razors... maybe shavers?
now,” I scowl at a salesperson, too aggravated to fake politeness. Haha!
Before we can escape into the safety of the metro station, a hand grabs my elbow. It’s a man, stuffed into a crisp suit he must be sweating hellishly under. My frown turns into a grin at his perfectly gelled hair. Salesperson though he must be, that alone might make him a soul mate for Jay.
“Ni hao. Hi!” He pulls out a business card. “You have potential we’re looking for; I was wondering if you would consider working with us, Miss…?”
His question hangs in the air until Jay snatches up the card. “Holistic Photography?” Jay says incredulously. “You want her to be a…model?” He lets out a sound between a cough and a donkey bray Haha!
“Your friend has a very unique style —“
I suppress an eye roll. I’d wager he’s used that line fifty times today. “Sorry, but I’m not interested.”
Jay sniggers once we’re inside the metro station. “Ooh, someone’s got a very unique style —“
“Even if he weren’t randomly asking every girl on the street, it’s just the hair.” It really is. Though my hair is white-blonde, almost silver in the sun, that’s not too rare. Well, it’s rare here, but it’s just…hair. Most of the time, it’s bedhead hair.
Jay snorts and runs a hand through his own hair. “Nonsense. If we’re talking about hair, mine’s definitely better.” Just to annoy him, I reach out a hand to crush his precious hair. “Hey! That’s fifteen minutes of work you’re ruining,” he pouts, ducking.
That’s Jay. Vain in a way I can’t tell is truth or pretend, but still annoyingly good-looking — his features a mix of Asian and Caucasian, his skin a light tan, his hair raven-black. And gelled from root to tip.
In retaliation, Jay jabs a thumb at one of my eyebrows. “Stop it! I don’t have a brow liner — stop it.” I swat his hand away.
“It’s unrealistic — they’re much too dark to go with your hair.”
“The hell you know about eyebrows, Jacob.” I scowl, flipping him the finger when he tries again.
Thankfully, the metro arrives and the press of the crowd stops our bickering. Suddenly Jay starts patting his pockets. “Damn, I forgot to bring my resume,” he murmurs, earning pointed glares from the people he jostles with his elbows.
“You’ve been to five interviews already. How could you forget?”
“How could you forget?” he mimics. “My father’s asked that at least a hundred times. And so have you, Mary. Let’s just agree I have a terrible memory and move on.”
After high school, Jay’s family moved back to Taiwan for his father’s business. Well, his mother moved back to Taiwan. Their return was the first time Jay set foot on the island. Despite Jay’s frequent requests to move out, he’s still living with his parents, much to his chagrin. “What can I say? My mother’s traditional and doesn’t want me to move out until I’m married.”
Pretty pathetic, but I followed him here. Across the freaking Pacific. Despite his overly-gelled hair, how he’s late all the time, and his abysmal memory, he’s my best friend. My only friend.
Though if he tries to wipe off my eyebrows again, I’ll have to reconsider that statement. haha!
Back in high school, I lived five hundred miles from my parents, and barely spoke to my roommate. Somehow people don’t take much notice of me. I fade into the background, my name forgotten and asked for again and again. Only Jay has been around for me since high school. That’s why I’m here.
Jay continues, attracting glances simply because he’s speaking English, “How much are you willing to bet this interview’s going to be a flop?”
“Since you forgot your resume… The more meaningful question would be how badly you’ll fail.”
He shoots me a scowl. “Like you’re having better luck.”
Unfortunately, I can’t refute this point. I have a diploma in biology, a resume on my lap, and no idea what I want in life. Sometimes, I feel ungrounded, as if I’m observing everything from underwater. A passerby to this world.
Occasionally in my dreams, I’m someone else. Someone who can run without clutching at a stitch, who has more of a purpose than to just…exist. Some dreams are ridiculous, ones you know aren’t true while you’re still in them. Some dreams make you believe. And when you wake up, it rips you apart to realize it wasn’t real.
The metro comes to a lurching halt, and Jay staggers into the wall of passengers. “Oops — sorry — it’s my stop —“ He fumbles in his pockets for his metro card. None of the other passengers are too aggravated. They’re used to being stuffed into buses and metros like sardines.
“Remember! Dinner at six!” I call to his back. “If you’re late again, I’ll shave you bald!”
The smell of barbecued meat and spicy kimchi wafts out of the restaurant, and my stomach growls in desperation. I check my phone again. Five past six.
I call Jay. Usually I wait ten minutes, since his arriving anytime before that is a small miracle, but today I’m too hungry to wait. I’m not sure why, but as his phone rings, I find the scent of Korean food is making me feel slightly nauseated. Which is ridiculous, because usually just smelling Korean food sets me on a rabid hunt to find it.
“Come on, Jay,” I growl at his annoying ringtone for the thousandth time.
When he doesn’t pick up, I start mentally designing the pattern I’m going to shave the stubble of his hair into. My stomach curls and clenches, so empty I’m beginning to lose my appetite — I’m also dizzy, my vision blurring slightly. God, I didn’t know having a low blood sugar could do this.
Finally my phone rings and I reach for it with a suddenly numb hand. My fingers fumble — my phone clatters to the ground. I have only a moment to panic before the entire world tilts and the ground falls away.
My mind swirls, my vision a whirl of blue and yellow. Everything around me feels…vast. Not empty, but full of endless possibility. Instead of darkness, white mist engulfs me, swallowing me completely.
Just before the mist covers my eyes, the world steadies and I see a tiny island, with pale yellow sand and a cloudless sky. There’s a strange sense of familiarity, but at the same time, my mind is completely blank.
Something happened to me, something terrible. I don’t even know who I am.
I’m being squeezed from all sides, my head trapped in a vice, my arms bound and prickling tingles of fear running up and down them. I feel slow, lethargic.
I feel drugged.
Sound rushes into my ears as if someone suddenly turned up the volume. I hear my breathing, incongruously slow and steady. I hear a gentle scritch-scratching around me, the sound of wires rubbing against each other. I also hear murmuring — people.
I need to be escape the box I’m in. I need to be free of this suffocating darkness. I forget this is a dream or a hallucination or the work of my fevered mind. I writhe, jerking at the straps tying me down, a keening howl of desperation clawing up my throat .
The murmurs die down. Please let me out, I think, not knowing who I’m begging. They start again, but I only understand one sentence. “More sedation. Knock her out.”
Ren took a running leap, cutting an arc through the night, and landed waist-deep in the river.
For a moment, he almost considered letting the thrashing current drag him underwater. But perhaps the water could drain the despair, the memories, and the nightmares out of him. Out of his lungs, out of his heart, until —
“We’re closing the gates! Hurry up!”
Ren looked up, snatched back from his morbid thoughts. As he splashed his way up the ramp, the numbing chill of the river water was almost welcome. The water gates rumbled shut behind him, sealing Somret off from the rest of Ilah once more. After days hiding on a barge, even the tunnels of Somret, gritty with dirt, seemed welcome.
Jastin looked up from his novel when Ren slouched into their room, and frowned slightly. Thankfully, he didn’t comment on Ren’s wet clothes or ask why his friend had fumbled an easy jump. Hopping off the barges to sneak back into Somret was child’s play, but Ren’s mind was so scattered nowadays Ren was just glad he hadn’t drowned.
Ignoring Jastin’s frown, Ren began rummaging in his closet. Disappointingly, all his clothes were dirty. But dirty was better than soaking wet, so Ren shucked off his wet clothes and kicked them into his corner. He took more care with his halfsword, drying the blade with a rag. The vambrace took more time, with all its grooves and crevices.
Jastin waited for Ren to wrap his weapons up in cloth before asking, “How was the mission?”
Ren shrugged, and collapsed onto his bed. “Standard. Collect the runners, deliver ‘em, get out.”
Jastin quirked up an eyebrow. Really? He pointed at Ren’s left arm.
“Just a scratch,” Ren said, showing Jastin the inside of his forearm. “Nothing escapes you, huh? How did you figure it out?”
“You were favoring that hand,” Jastin replied vaguely, turning his gaze back to his novel, though knowing Jastin, it could also be a manual of military tactics.
“Probably could use stitches, but it’s too late for that,” Ren mused. “Anything fun happen while I was gone, hmmm?” he continued, doing his best to grin.
Jastin flicked his eyes up to meet Ren’s, the twitch in one of his eyelids a sure sign of guilt.
“You don’t have to lie; I’m single, not naive. You might as well admit Karin’s been sleeping here.” Once the words left his mouth, Ren flinched. He always let his mouth run away with him. Karin’s been sleeping here because she still hasn’t gotten a new roommate since Marla. To cover up the flinch, he grinned even wider. “Did you have fun?”
Finally, Jastin cracked a pleased smile. Ren reached over to punch him in the arm. “I hope you didn’t use my bed. That’s crossing the line, man.” The smile didn’t fade, and Ren groaned. “Jastin —“
A knock had Ren rolling into an upright position, but Jastin got to the door before he did and opened it to reveal Temmol, frozen mid-knock.
Temmol looked more agitated than usual, his fingers shaking as he tucked away an escaped strand of hair from the tie at the nape of his neck. Ren saluted him sarcastically. “Hey, Tem. O great Councillor.”
Temmol grimaced, twisting his hands together.
“Is it…” Jastin shuffled his feet.
Ren narrowed his eyes. “What happened?”
“Classified,” Jastin murmured. Ren was sick of the word classified. After a year of hearing it, it’d crossed annoying and entered enraging.
“You’re being summoned,” Temmol said, and Ren’s heart gave a great leap. “The Council will… tell you more later.”
“Now?” Ren asked, already scrambling for a clean pair of socks. He failed. To make matters worse, he only had the one pair of boots, freshly soaked in mud and river water
Resignedly, Ren forced his feet into his wet boots, and, squelching, followed Temmol down the corridor.
“What’s this all about, Temmol?”
Ren’s heart beat a staccato rhythm of hope and fear as he waited for Temmol’s answer. When the words he’d waited a year for were spoken, even his heart seemed to stop and listen.
“They’ve found Marla.”This is really good and fun to read---I'm definitely intrigued! You made the dream world so real I am sad it's fake... so Jay doesn't exist at all? Bummer... but really a great, emotive plot device!! You have it set nicely to be devastating to Marla later