Palo Alto Weekly 23rd Annual Short Story
by Sharon Lo
Voices rang around Mei-Ling as she walked through the street. The numbness in the air, like vines, wrapped around her legs, as she dodged puddles in the poorly paved road. Bicyclists whipped past her, loosening strands of her hair. She brushed the tickling hairs aside, and stumbled along a crack in the road. Catching her step, she inhaled the smell of freshly caught fish entwined with the strong scent of chili, emanating from the merchants who were setting up their markets for another busy day in Sichuan, China.
“What are you doing? Catching flies? Get to work!” Mei-Ling jolted to see her boss – a plump middle-aged man who had a thin carpet of black hair and a bright orange tie splattered with pink circles, which contradicted his whole demeanor. A sudden strong scent of butter filled the room. Joleen, her co-worker and friend, was getting the morning bread out of the oven. Mei-Ling threw her thin coat on the coat-rack, and strung on her faded pink apron while heading behind the counter.
“Are these ready?” Mei-Ling asked, pointing to the moon cakes.
“Mmhmm,” Joleen said smiling. Mei-Ling took the tray of moon cakes and made her way to the oven. How lovely they looked, yet orderly, standing in rows like soldiers. Reaching the oven, she pulled down the heavy door releasing a blast of heat. Her eyes closed, as she slid the tray onto the hot racks. Suddenly, a sharp dagger of heat permeated her hand. Enduring the pain, Mei-Ling clenched her jaw and slid the tray in, using all her will to not drop the tray. Failure would result in another scolding.
Closing the oven door, Mei-Ling ran to the sink to run cold water over her hand. The cool water soothed her skin, but the aching in her chest persisted.
* * *
“Get out!” he yelled, flinging his wedding ring violently towards her face. Mei-Ling’s eyes squeezed shut as the ring whipped her cheek and hit the wall. She remembered how long she had searched for it, the extra hours she had put in to pay for it, and the fact that she gave up her mother’s favorite bracelet to have the ring engraved. As it skipped across the ground, she saw traces of the message on the inside of the ring, illegible. But, it didn’t matter, for she knew it long ago by heart, “Love is the only gold.”
Looking into his eyes, she always felt he saw someone else when looking at her. And when he held her hand, it felt cold and empty. Mei-Ling sat there frustrated, knowing that despite everything he had done to her, she still wanted him. She tilted her face to meet his eyes.
“What are you looking at me for? Don’t you understand? I don’t want you anymore!” He said, spitting out those words laced with venom, as if he didn’t have a care in the world. He grabbed his worn duffel bag and strutted towards the door.
“You can’t do this to me,” she whispered, her voice cracking between sobs. “I can’t raise Kan alone. He needs a father!” She screamed as he slammed the door behind him.
Mei-Ling's eyes looked around at the walls in alarm, sensing the shadows. These dark, menacing spirits inching closer to her, a sadness closing in. The thin curtain sashayed at the window allowing lifeless leaves to flutter in – cracked, their warmth forgotten. A chill crawled its way into her heart and buried an aching deadness, where it stayed.
* * *
A dejected tear slid down Mei-Ling’s cheek as she recalled the day that he had left her. Mei-Ling winced at the pain in her hand, ignored it, and went back to work. She had long ago forced herself to forget pain, for her heart, once warm and alive, was now an icebox. Mei-Ling took the second batch of moon cakes and put them in the oven, continuing the day’s work.
* * *
“What’s that?” Joleen asked as she held Mei-Ling’s wrist, pointing to the deep red burn, a blister overlaid by wavy skin. She held on to Mei-Ling’s wrist, noticing that the bones of Mei-Ling’s wrist were light and fine in her hand, delicate as china. Mei-Ling tugged herself free.
“Joleen, do you ever feel lost? So lost? As if something’s missing?” said Mei-Ling, her voice aching. Joleen sat perfectly still, immobilized by equal parts of pity and confusion. Mei-Ling then bowed her head, but not before Joleen saw the tears in her eyes. Awkwardly trying to cover her tears and what lay beneath them, Mei-Ling’s hand accidentally knocked over the bowl of soup, spilling it onto her apron.
Joleen watched her leave, listening to her footsteps on the stairs overhead. You already have, she thought.
* * *
“Twenty-five yuan will be your change,” Mei-Ling forced a grin as she closed the cash register drawer, holding the cold coins in her sweaty palm. She looked up from the coins to see the water in her glass trembling. A sharp jolt from the floor pulsed through the room. Mei-Ling caught her balance and wondered why the room was moving. She looked around in horror while the ground continued to shake and the coins fell from her hands. Hysterical cries of the wind-chimes echoed throughout the room. As glass spilled out of the windows, the poor man’s clock shattered into broken pieces of halted minutes onto the ground. The toppling of counters drowned people’s screams, and the lights dimmed in the room while shaking uncontrollably. Mei-Ling felt her feet, stupefied, disobeying her, sluggishly moving out of the building.
“Earthquake! Mei-Ling, run!” screamed Joleen. At that moment, the image of Kan’s carefree laughter filled her head. A rush of adrenaline satiated the outskirts of her body as she began to run. She ran past the large cracks in the streets, past the neglected items on the road, through the narrow alleys that were blanketed with muffled cries of those trapped in the buildings, past the vacant rickshaw, the wind and dust whipping Mei-Ling’s cheeks while the lunatic wails of the broken store alarms and the beeping of the pulverized cars pounded under the dark gray sky.
Mei-Ling came to a building, which was already limped on one side, the now visible roof worn away by the rubbing of rain. Mei-Ling stepped around broken tiles shed from the roof and on forgotten piles of leaves until she came to what once was a door, which had lost its shape and was now barely held to the wall. She pushed it open and climbed the tattered stairs.
A loud piercing cry broke out, throttling Mei-Ling’s ears. She knew it was Kan’s; it had to be. Cautious of splintered pieces of wood, Mei-Ling struggled up the stairs until she saw the familiar door wide open and no babysitter in sight, but instead a room – hazed with dust. Rushing to the crib, she saw Kan. His face was deep red and his eyes were soaked from screaming. Mei-Ling’s eyes filling with tears; she lightly kissed Kan’s soft cheek and gently carried him into her arms.
After noticing his coughs, Mei-Ling loosened the scarf from her neck and gently wrapped it around Kan’s mouth. She let out a soft giggle as she stared at Kan, who now looked like a small pirate. Holding him close, she ran across the splintered floor toward the door when another sudden shock pummeled the already weakened building. Mei-Ling halted and closed her eyes, hoping it was just the trick of her mind. The china cabinet then let out a groan as it toppled onto her while Mei-Ling wrapped herself around Kan, shielding him, as the hard wood struck her back.
Broken shards of glass cut her face and for the first time, she screamed in pain. Blood snaked its way across her face, like tears of the body staining the ground. Mei-Ling pulled Kan closer to her, wanting to assure herself that he was okay. With whatever she had left, Mei-Ling weakly grasped the phone in her apron. Seeing the screen aglow in the dust, Mei-Ling typed the keys, one by one until finally the phone dropped onto the ground. Closing her eyes, she heard Kan’s cries intermixing with hers until all she could feel were his fingers to her chest, as if her heart was beating in the palm of his hand. The nightmare slowly coming to an end, her vision blurring, as the darkness engulfed her.
* * *
“Hey, Bill we’ve got another one,” yelled the rescue worker while he adjusted his hard hat and meandered his way through the scattered pieces of glass. He saw the woman’s stiff body exposed after he hauled a heavy cabinet off. He crouched down to see her face, which was void of emotion, but her eyes – he felt himself drawn to those frozen pools of sorrow. Shaking his head in dismay, he studied the woman. What a peculiar position she was in – crouched, as if hiding something. Letting his curiosity take over, he gently pushed her body aside and let out a gasp.
“Bill, get over here!”
“What is it now?” Bill, a gruff man, mumbled as he trudged his way through the debris, starting to feel nauseated of the sickeningly sweet smell that hung in the air.
“It’s…a baby.” James and Bill both stumbled back as they saw that the baby was still breathing, but slowly and shallowly.
If you’re still alive, remember mommy loves you…”
* * *
A breeze ruffled the curtains of the hospital window as the sun, weak but determined, squeezed itself through and placed one golden finger on the little boy. And on the nightstand next to the bed, laid the phone. Kan rolled over in the crib, without waking up. One small hand closed on the blanket beside him and slept on, not knowing he would be woken up in a few hours by Joleen, not knowing his mother had died, not knowing that the nurses in the hospital halls were whispering: “Kan, the boy who was truly loved.”
A touching story with fully realized characters, a well done but exotic setting and convincing details every step of the way.
One more week to vote!
Don't forget to cast your ballot online. Voting ends May 29th. Stay tuned for the results in the July 21st issue of the Palo Alto Weekly.