Brief Glimpses of a Fleeting Soul
Second Place, Young Adult Fiction Category; 2010 Bethesda Magazine/Bethesda Urban Partnership Short Story and Essay Contest
Two golden fangs protruded from its mouth and held the young boy’s gaze. Trapped behind these fangs, a gleaming ring hung from the lion’s jaw and swung to and fro rhythmically. Liu Zhang had to have it. He bent his knees, springing up with both arms in the air, jumping frantically, desperately trying to grasp the golden ring in his stubby hands. But in mid air, a rough hand collided with the back of his head.
“Stop jumping around like a monkey!” his mother insisted with a firm slap to his head. He landed on both feet and began rubbing his scalp sorely. Staring solemnly at the ground, he resolved that the golden ring would have to be his another time. “Now you behave yourself!” his mother warned him once more, before shifting his baby sister to one arm and using her free hand to grasp the golden ring. She knocked it against the wooden door three times and quickly smoothed down her hair.
The large wooden door swung open briskly, and an older lady greeted, “Oh, how nice to see you! Happy Chinese New Year! Please, come in.” Her toothy grin somehow frightened Liu Zhang. It was not like his brother’s smile when he pulled a prank, or his grandmother’s smile when she played with the dog. No, there was something behind that grin that both confounded and upset him. Liu followed his older brother and his mother, like three ducks waddling in line, and plopped himself comfortably on the cushy couch. The elder lady and his mother exchanged the usual pleasantries, all the blessings and good wishes that everyone spewed out like watermelon seeds every Chinese New Year. After having to sit though this routine five other times at five other houses, Liu was unable to sit still and let his eyes wander about the house. The couch itself was a bit of a spectacle, he gently caressed the silk-lined cushions with his grimy hand. He had never felt anything so smooth and cool before. It felt nice. There were numerous artifacts around the room, he felt as though they were all treasures. A water color painting mounted on the wall, a glazed green cup the color of fresh moss, the pungent scent of ginger and incense. Then he saw it, surely the most precious treasure in the entire household. Before him on the wooden table, there was a platter of candies: candied ginger, peanut brittle, white rabbit taffy, and even chocolate. He was in pure ecstasy just looking at it, how he failed to notice it earlier was a complete mystery. Wide-eyed with excitement, his plump hand eagerly reached for the platter, when all of a sudden, a white hand callously slapped him away. The elder lady glared at Liu with scorn and displeasure.
“That isn’t for you.” she retorted with ferocity. Liu hastily retracted his sore red hand and rubbed it silently, trying to hold back his tears.
“Liu that is very impolite!” his mother reprimanded. The older lady got up from her seat and took the platter of riches with her. She angrily stomped to a shelf in the corner of the room and locked the platter away in a bamboo cabinet. From the top shelf, she retrieved another, smaller platter of candy. Liu’s eyes widened once again, perhaps there was hope for him yet. She hastily dropped the platter onto the table, leaving a cloud of dust in its midst. Liu looked at the platter with disappointment. All crumbs. Broken candy. The white rabbit taffy had turned a faint yellow. The peanut brittle was reduced to peanut powder, comprised mostly of dust. The elder lady had cut small nicks out of the ginger where it had begun to mold.
“You can have one of those,” she commented as she pointed her long fingernail at his button nose. This time, Liu’s eyes widened with fright and he shook his head hastily.
“Liu! You are being rude!” his mother reprimanded once again. “Thank her for being nice enough to bring you candy and take one.” He stared at his mother desperately, his eyes pleading with her not to make him consume the platter of trash. Her stern look was all the answer he needed. He hesitantly reached for the tiniest piece of candy he could find and gulped before taking the smallest bite possible. Without chewing, he swallowed the stale candy whole. He could feel it descending his esophagus all the way down, scratching up his insides, leaving a trail of wet dust.
Trying to hold back a look of revulsion, he kept his head down and said quietly, “Thank you.”
“Yang, where are you?” Liu screamed breathlessly, spinning around in circles trying to find his brother.
“Over here! I’m here!” Yang hollered back. From the corner of his eye Liu saw pieces of trash flying through the air, and he headed toward the vortex of garbage undoubtedly caused by Hurricane Yang. Yang’s head slightly peaked out like the morning sun from beneath the billowing hoards of garbage. Playfully jumping from pile to pile, Liu temporarily lost his footing as a particularly disarming scent assailed his nostrils. He stopped to balance himself, clamped his nose with two fingers, and commenced hiking over the mountains of discarded bounty. Finally, he found Yang burrowing ferociously into the side of an exceptionally massive mound.
“I forgot, what are we looking for again?” asked Liu innocently, as he set his sights on discovering some forgotten toy or perhaps a couple cents of spare change.
Yang sighed deeply and took a break from his furious digging; he stood up and reminded Liu once again. “We’re looking for metal parts, remember? Cooper wire, bits of iron, anything we can sell.”
“Oh yeah!” Liu smiled as he recalled Yang’s earlier explanation. This wasn’t the first time the brothers had searched for spare parts in the junkyard. Only, this time, their bounty was meant for more important purposes than purchasing candy. This time, they intended to save the money and put it toward the opening of the new restaurant. Almost immediately, Yang commenced digging, though this time at a different spot. Liu however, was brimming with excitement and optimism, “I’m glad the Chungs are giving us a restaurant, maybe I’ll be less hungry now!” He smiled broadly at the thought of his own personal buffet, though it unfortunately reminded him that he had not eaten all day.
Yang stopped his burrowing again and looked directly at Liu, his eyebrows furrowed, his mouth tightened. Liu recognized this look and realized he had said something stupid again. “They’re not giving us a restaurant, Liu. They’re renting it to us, and they’re making us pay a hell of a lot. And now, they think they own us.”
Liu giggled childishly, “They don’t own us Yang. It’s not like we’re they’re dogs.”
Bitterness mounted in Yang’s voice, “We’re not. But they think we are. And they treat us like we are.”
Liu frowned and immersed himself in the deep thought of a six year old. “Well then, why don’t we go somewhere else? Why don’t we just rent from some other people?”
“Because,” Yang grunted and looked away, “they’re all the same. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Chungs or the Zhens or the Lees. They all think they’re better than us because they have money and we don’t.” Liu was profoundly confused, and wondered silently why Yang was getting so worked up. Yang tried to level with his brother, “Look, remember when Mr. Chung’s son had an ice cream and you asked if you could have some?” Liu nodded, paying close attention to the point his brother was trying to get across. “Well, did Qing let you have a lick?”
“What did he do?”
Liu’s eyes narrowed and his mouth contorted into a frown, “He told me to go eat dog doo…then he pushed me into the mud. Yang, why did Qing do that? I thought I was always nice to him; I thought we could be friends.”
“Little brother, that is my point. He won’t be friends with you and he won’t treat you kindly no matter what you do. He thinks he can treat everyone like dogs because he’s rich. And the same goes for his younger brother Quo. The same goes for their whole damn family.” Liu felt a tightening in his chest; he let the revelation spiral around in his mind like a tornado uprooting the earth. He looked down for a moment and suddenly understood Yang’s anger for the first time.
“Well who needs them!” Liu hollered angrily, “One day, we’ll have the money and maybe they’ll be our dogs!” At the thought of Qing on all fours with a collar around his neck, Liu’s momentary rage lapsed and he chuckled to himself once again.
With a laugh, Yang smiled warmly and agreed. “C’mon, we have to get home now. Let’s take a short cut.” Liu blindly followed his brother through the maze of garbage until they approached the river. Yanking on a vine to test its strength, Yang swung across the river bed with a joyous yelp. As he approached the other side, he plopped down to the ground with a thud and tossed the vine over to Liu.
Liu remained stationary, letting the vine swing back and forth like a pendulum.
“What are you doing? Why didn’t you catch it?”
“I, I’m afraid. I don’t want to.”
“C’mon Liu, it’s easy. Just hold on tight and swing over.”
“No, I’m gonna fall and, and I can’t swim and I’m scared!” As he became increasingly nervous, Liu’s face contorted into a fearful and pained caricature.
“Fine, fine. Calm down Liu, calm down. I’ll swing back over and we’ll go the long way.” In one fell swoop, Yang caught the vine and leaped over once again.
“Thanks Yang. I’m sorry, I just…thank you,” Liu whispered breathlessly as he held on to his brother tightly.
Liu was sitting in a corner of the room by himself, his head buried deep in his lap, almost curled up into a ball. His breathing was heavy and frantic; he felt as though he was suffocating. A dead silence engulfed the room, he could only hear the faint crumpling of tissues and the occasional sniffle.
“Oh Yang!” his mother’s screech lifted Liu from his rabbit hole. She was weeping uncontrollably; resting her head on the cover of the coffin, her arms were protectively sprawled out over it. Tears streamed down the side of the stained wood and left deep trails of despair in their mist. She was screaming, screaming for her lost son. She was asking why he had left her, asking how he could be so selfish and leave his mother all alone. Nostrils flared and eyebrows furrowed, Liu let the ignorance of her words provoke his anger. He thought of Yang coughing like a broken locomotive. He thought of Yang’s pale lips that cracked like the desert floor. He thought of Yang’s smooth forehead drenched in beads of cold sweat.
“Yang was strong,” Liu thought bitterly to himself, “he was smart. He didn’t want this. It wasn’t his fault. If anything, it was my fault. My mother’s fault. My father’s fault. If we had just worked harder, if we just made more money Yang could have gone to the doctor sooner. They could have fixed him. We are poor and I was lazy and that is why…” Liu’s hysterical train of thought was interrupted by another of his mother’s shrieks. He couldn’t take it anymore, he sprung up from his seat and burst out of the room, crashing through the double doors. Retreating to the side of the building, he sat on the hard concrete sidewalk, the cold air stinging his tear-stained face. He gasped for air, his fists curled tightly with bitterness and regret. But then, he heard footsteps approaching. Liu hurriedly covered his mouth to mask his heavy breathing and braced his head against the side of the building. It was Mrs. Chung, the landlord’s wife, and some other lady from the neighborhood. He recognized her by the screechy voice and the “click clack” of her expensive shoes. They stopped in front of the building and began talking as Liu listened in.
“Oh how sad. Yang was so young. It’s a terrible shame to live to see your children die.” Liu couldn’t see her face, but her tone seemed genuinely sympathetic. Though at the same time, her words seemed rather rehearsed and empty.
Mrs. Chung took a drag off of her cigarette and looked into the distance; she snarled as she said, “Well you know, what goes around comes around.”
“What do you mean by that?”
Mrs. Chung exhaled slowly, careful to lay out her words precisely. She said nonchalantly, “These terrible things don’t just happen, you know. The Zhangs must have done something bad, something very bad, something bad enough to warrant the death of their oldest son.”
The other woman seemed to ponder this sentiment for a moment, “Well, they seem like good enough people. What could they have done to deserve this?”
“How should I know? All I know is, bad things don’t happen to good people, so if their son died, they must be bad people. Look at my family, we do good things so I have two strong sons and a beautiful daughter. The Zhangs are like dirty little rats, something like this was bound to happen eventually. Maybe if they’d paid their rent on time this tragedy could have been avoided.” With that, Mrs. Chung walked away calmly. Liu could hear her heels stomping on the cold concrete, and the door squeak open as she went back inside to feign sympathy. He thought of how Mrs. Chung had tried to console his mother earlier, how she put her hand on his mother’s shoulder and gave her arm a soft squeeze. All lies. It was all an act, everything. Liu hated himself for not knowing better. What else could he expect from the Chungs? What else could he expect from all those rich “friends” who would no doubt eat up her lies with ravenous hunger? All of this. All of this hatred because he was poor. Liu now understood what he had to do. He would make the Chungs and everyone else choke on their words. He would become a success.
Liu heard the bell go off as the door swung open and he hurriedly ran out to greet new customers.
“Good afternoon, will you be dining in or —oh, hello Mr. Chung. Nice to see you again.” Liu smiled politely and grinded his teeth tensely; Mr. Chung had no doubt come to complain, or bring bad news, or perhaps he had just come to abuse Liu’s family further. Over the years, Liu learned how to mask his hatred, keep his head down, and keep working. Mr. Chung’s eldest son, Qing, who followed his father like a shadow, was sporting his usual smarmy grin. He had rolled his sleeves up for the sole purpose of showing off his new watch. “Mom, Dad, come out here. Mr. Chung is here.” Liu’s parents came scurrying out of the kitchen, always available at Mr. Chung’s beck and call. Like dogs. Liu hated it.
“Oh hello, Mr. Chung. Please sit down, can I get you something?” Liu’s mother wiped the flour off her hands and pulled out a chair.
“No.” he responded gruffly. There was a calm indifference in the old man’s eyes, the corners of his mouth slightly turned down in a look of disapproval, and he held his chin high so he could stick his nose at you. “What I have to say shouldn’t take long at all,” he straightened his collar for a moment, “you all have been evicted. I expect you to be completely moved out in two weeks.” He then sat and continued, “You know what? I think I’ll have that drink now.”
Liu’s father braced himself on the counter and responded firmly, “Hold on, hold on. What do you mean we are evicted? We haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Your rent has been late,” responded Mr. Chung as he proceeded to take out his handkerchief and blow his nose. “I said, I’ll have that drink now.”
Liu burst out from behind his parents in a fit of rage and hollered at Mr. Chung, “Get your own damn drink you old bag! What are you even talking about? Business has been great; we’ve paid rent on time for the past nine months!”
“Zhang, control your boy.” He spoke to them as if he was giving them the time, rather than pulling the rug out from underneath their feet.
Liu advanced on Chung, his shoulders tensing up as he drew nearer. Years of hard labor had strengthened his muscles and his character. “Who the hell do you think you are? You can’t just do this to us! We’ve worked hard! I’ve worked hard! Day after day we come and we make you money. You can’t just take it away because you feel like it!”
“Liu calm down!” his mother retorted sharply. “Look, Mr. Chung we really don’t understand. Liu’s right, we’ve been paying rent on time for months now. What is the problem?” “To be perfectly honest, a developer wants to buy this building and I am going to sell it to him.”
His parents were trying to reason with the man; Liu knew it was all in futility. They would more successfully appeal to the sympathy of a swarm of locusts than this greedy artifact. “Now Chung, we are old friends. You cannot just take this restaurant away from us. It’s our livelihood. How are we going to make any money? Where are we going to go?”
“I truly do not care. The fact is, the developer is offering me more money than you will ever see in your entire pathetic lives, and it’s my building. So, I’m afraid you’ll have to find somewhere else to go.”
The cruel apathy in Chung’s voice was unnerving. Liu’s temples throbbed with fury, the veins in his neck protruded painfully, he let out a ferocious roar, “YOU CAN’T DO THIS. YOU CAN’T. I’VE WORKED TOO HARD. YOU CAN’T DO THIS.”
Mr. Chung finally stood up and faced Liu nose-to-nose, “Who is going to stop me? You, little boy?” Liu’s very foundation was collapsing, and all he could do to regain his footing was pounce on Mr. Chung and grip him firmly by his neck. He squeezed hard; he watched Chung’s eyeballs protrude from their sockets.
“Liu stop it! Stop it, you’re going to kill him!” Liu’s mother, father, sister, and Qing desperately tried to pry Liu off of Mr. Chung. Liu sat there, on Chung’s chest, and relished the moment. He couldn’t take this abuse anymore.
“Stop! Stop! Yang wouldn’t have wanted this!” and as his brother’s name echoed in Liu’s ears, his strength was drained, his hands went numb, and he let go. His father clenched Liu by the shoulders and threw him off of Chung as he collapsed onto the floor, silent and unmoving. Liu laid on his back and stared at the ceiling, mouth ajar, eyes empty.
Mr. Chung protectively clasped his neck with both hands and tried to catch his breath. Slowly getting up from the floor and staggering over to Qing, he looked at the Zhang family with fury, “I want you out by tomorrow morning!” he hollered with all the breath left in his lungs.
Liu crawled out from bowels of the ship onto the desolate deck, how he relished the fresh sea air. He sat there and let the salty air assail his nostrils; he let out a deep sigh of relief and whispered to himself, “Soon, it’ll all be better.” For the first time in a long time, Liu felt hopeful. He felt that maybe, all his failures, all of those obstacles, and all those cruel jokes life played on him were all leading up to this moment. He smiled, a real genuine smile, for the first time since Yang died. From his inside pocket, he took out a small flask, one of the few possessions he brought along. Unscrewing the top, Liu stared into the black sky and made a toast to his brother. “To all the dogs!” he exclaimed triumphantly.
“Hey, who’s there?” a voice called out from a distance. Startled, Liu snapped out of his momentary ecstasy, and hastily tried to climb back into the bowels of the ship before he was found.
Another voice called out, “I think it was coming from here.” Two sets of footsteps were rapidly approaching, but as he was descending into the bowels, his pant leg got caught. He felt like a fly stuck in a spider web, awaiting its harsh but inevitable destiny. Liu pulled desperately at his pant leg, but before he could break loose, a bright light blinded him.
“Liu? Liu Zhang? What the hell are you doing here?”
Liu shut his eyes tightly in agony, “No,” he thought to himself, “it can’t be. Not him.” He opened his eyes to see Qing and Quo hovering over him. Although their faces were cast in shadow, their looks of outrage could not be masked.
Quo’s mouth ajar in disbelief, he repeated himself once more, “Why the hell are you on this boat?”
Liu climbed up from the bowels and got down on his knees, “Please please be quiet, don’t say anything. I, I wanted to come to America too. But I didn’t have the money. Just let me be, please.”
“You’re stowing away on this boat? You thief! We are going to tell the captain, I don’t care how long it takes, we are turning this ship around and returning you to that filth hole where you belong!”
“Please no! I need this. I need this! In America, I can work, I can make money. I just want a better life. I won’t get in your way, I promise. Please don’t make me go back, show some mercy!”
Qing scoffed, “And why should we do that?”
“Please, just be human beings for once!”
“Why should we treat you like a human being? You’re nothing but a poor little rat!” Qing lifted Liu up by the collar and hurled him to the side of the boat. Both brothers advancing on him quickly, Liu staggered to his feet to defend himself and got a sharp jab at Quo’s temple. As they tried to throw Liu overboard, he elbowed Qing, knocking him unconscious. Losing their balance, the two men made a horrific crash into the water. Liu was drifting, he could feel himself sinking deeper and deeper. He felt that this may be the easiest way, the only way, his eyes began to narrow. But before he could close them, he looked up at the sky to tell Yang that he was coming. Instead, Liu saw Quo frantically running about the deck, ready to jump into the water and save his brother. That was just it. Liu knew that Quo would come rescue Qing; Liu knew that he would be left at the bottom of the ocean. He thought about his mother, who had already lost one son, and who would soon be mourning the death of another. He thought about Mrs. Chung and how bad things are supposed to happen to bad people. He thought about the Chungs living affluent lives in America, facing no consequences for their malicious actions. He figured his mother should not have to cry alone. Liu reached over for Qing and clenched onto his unconscious body with all his strength. Together, they sunk to the bottom of the ocean.
A tragic story illuminated through a series of scenes about a boy growing up in an impoverished family in China between 1942 and 1957. This narrative stands out because of the writer’s exquisite use of precise, often arresting detail to characterize the protagonist’s point of view and his relationship with his brother.
Tiffany Keung lives in Potomac and is a junior at Winston Churchill High School. Parts of her story are based loosely on tales from her father’s childhood experiences in China and Hong Kong.