‘avenging the sorrow’, Lam Ning

My elderly neighbor greets me on the morning of the first autumn storm with a large cardboard box full of stray kittens that she has just clubbed to death. She holds a stained wooden baton at her side, looking out with dismay at the falling rain.

I speak up first. “Good morning, Mrs. Chey.”

“The trash,” she complains. “All full. Where I can throw this?”

“Call animal services,” I suggest. The rain is loud on my umbrella.

She groans with impatience and tries to close the front of her bathrobe with one hand. She is in flip flops, grey hair tucked under a woolen cap.

“You go that way?” she asks, gesturing at another dumpster across the street. “You take this?”

For a while, I’ve worked as the local handyman. So it’s not an unusual request, and I don’t want her to just leave that pile of death by my front door.


“Okay! Thank you!”

Her children raise pigeons in their backyard, so I suppose her actions are understandable.

I take the box from her and start across the street.

A wreath is tied to the telephone pole by the dumpster, its flowers drenched from the rain. A stack of bouquets rests underneath it. Someone has left an open umbrella to protect the roadside memorial.

When a girl dies on the streets of Aki Sao, her family will cover the sidewalk with roses, carnations, and mums, until the pavement overflows with petals of yellow and white, red and pink. Her friends will build her a throne, draped in vibrantly colored cloth and lace. The walls of nearby buildings will be marked with graffiti crowns and angel wings. The neighborhood will whisper her name for years, until the echoes fade.

When a son of Aki falls to the streets, they light candles and leave beer bottles where he breathed his last. They bring flowers to his mother. Strangers won’t cry for him, but they will respect the space where he once laid, even just for a little while.

It is now the end of summer, after the fall of the last regime, and the streets are flooded with both flowers and candles. Soft petals take flight every time a bicyclist passes by, and they fall among the plastic bottle caps and cigarette butts that always litter the sidewalks.

It is the nature of the changing of the guard that the blood of the youth is spilled. In this world, we cannibalize the newest generation with every end and every beginning of a dynastic cycle. It is a cull that has long since filled the oldest of our cemeteries and keeps our crematoriums burning, day and night.

This circle cannot be broken. Revolutionary leaders, crime lords, and petty tyrants—all rise and fall like public housing units when the market is high. We burn enough incense for the smoke and joss to enter our waking dreams. There is no family that does not have an escape plan. We are all swimmers, and we all know how to find the mainland by dark.

They don’t want us there either. But we’re just trying to live. If you’ve never rushed a barbed wire fence at a border crossing, clawing through a haze of tear gas, you could never understand what drove us to it. There’s no use in explaining it to those who have the privilege of a homeland.

For us, there is no hope in expecting help from outsiders, from the global community, from sympathetic foreigners or public figures. We no longer have faith in anything other than ourselves, and even then, the trust between our own tends to run thin.

This season, there is a new ruling party in government. And no one cares.

I reach the dumpster and lift the box to toss it in.

But as soon as I do that, something inside the box starts crying.

Of course. Of course. I should have known. Death is never clean.

General Andar is an old friend. On days when she is doing field work, I find her husband at the clinic, which they run out of their garage. The front room of the house is used as a client receiving area. Their family lives in the back, evident on most days by their small grandchildren running throughout the place.

The floor is made up of hard wood tiles, with large rugs that are nailed down. It is always swept clean, and even the children know to keep their toys on the tables and shelves so that their grandfather can move his wheelchair around without any trouble.

Back in the home country, he had been a veterinarian. But that ended the moment he arrived at these shores, the refugee of a war no one remembers. He drove a taxi for many years, back when the transportation service was run entirely by syndicates. He retired from that with a bullet in his knee. After his children graduated from school, he regained his veterinary license so he could practice again.

When I step in through the front door, closing the umbrella while balancing the box on one arm, he is behind the reception desk, head turned toward the front window. Across the street, a mechanical crane sits in the parking lot of a two-story warehouse. It seems that air conditioning units are in the process of being installed on the roof. The crane is probably meant to do the heavy lifting. But work has come to a stop, likely due to the weather, and the units now wait covered in tarps on the back of a flatbed truck. There are no workers in sight, and the heavy hook of the crane dangles from its cable, motionless under the rain.

Doctor Andar is just as still in his chair, his eyes never straying from the massive piece of equipment.

He had four sons, once. Two were killed, one each, by the two different factions fighting for control of the home country. A third died in a drone strike by a foreign ally. The fourth is an adopted child, and the only son to survive.

He also has daughters. Fortunately, they are well.

“Good morning.”

My voice pulls him back, somehow, and he turns to me. The look in his eyes is impossible to describe. He’s traveled the distance of half the world and at least two decades with just a simple glance.

“My friend…” He rolls his chair around the desk. “What have you brought me?”

“Well, it’s—”

I am interrupted by the tiniest of cries, coming through the box.

“Ah, I see. A cat. And very young.”

“There are many,” I explain, “but only one is still living.”

“A massacre.”

“It wasn’t me this time.”

“Yes, I hope not. Come. We go back.”

The furniture and cabinets in the office are old and outdated, like the rest of the building. But some of the medical instruments are new, and the exam table is adjustable in height. Dr. Andar can stand for short periods of time, but often he will work from the height of his chair.

I set the box down on the table.

He pulls a lever to lower the table. Then he opens the box.

It is a mess of small mangled bodies, dark matted fur, and crushed skulls. Urine, blood, and other fluids have all soaked into the cardboard. And buried in with all that, something moves and cries out. Again and again.

The doctor reaches into the box with gloved hands and pulls out a black kitten. It kicks vigorously with three legs, while the fourth hangs limp.

Dr. Andar nods as if pleased. “Welcome to the world, little one.”

Poverty has a distinct odor to it. Like old kitchen pipes and unwashed bodies. There are many parts to it: rusted cars on cinder blocks, naked toddlers playing in a yard cluttered with discarded plastic, used adult diapers collected by the front door. And, often, flies in clouds around the mountains of trash bags.

I work for a local landlord. Mainly, I handle minor repairs in the buildings that he owns.

None of his properties are in good condition. He blames this on the low-lives that rent from him. They call him a slum lord in return. I mind my own business.

Today I’m replacing a bathroom stop valve in a unit rented by two families, which they have kept in better shape than most. It’s a quick job. I’m almost done when there is a hard thumping on the front door. Then, men’s voices.

The yelling can be ignored at first. But it’s followed by the sound of the front door crashing open, furniture overturning, something breaking. More shouting.

If someone is trying to start a fight, I don’t need to be here. There is a back entrance I can leave through if necessary.

But when I step out into the small hallway, the disorder has suddenly ceased.

At the kitchen table, sits the abuela of the house. She is blind in one eye and only has blurred vision in the other, according to her grandson. A scarf covers her head, in place of hair that has been falling out in clumps over the last few weeks. I only know because I’m called here often for one thing or another.

She tilts in the direction of the front entrance and in a raspy voice worn down by the years, calls out for her grandson. His name is Alejandro, and he is standing by the table, a thin kid of about twenty, though, when he speaks, he betrays a mind far younger than that.

Now he answers her with a stammer. “Um…”

From the open doorway, three men crowd their way inside. A shoe rack by the entrance has been overturned, scattering children’s sneakers and old sandals across the floor. A glass vase once full of pennies lies broken, shattered to pieces.

My boss has enforcers, debt collectors, eviction specialists. Most in his position do.

The three of them see me and stop. I recognize them. Their eyes have that shine of off-brand biosystem augmentation. It’s been the trend these days for young people to turn themselves into comic-book yakuza, complete with special effects and acrobatics. I’m too old school for that, but I can’t really blame them. It’s the rule of the eternal arms race. Once someone builds a bigger sword, everyone else is going to start building their own. The research says that it takes years off of your life. Granted, if you’re taking part in the neverending gun opera out here, chances are you won’t live long enough to worry about it.

Occasionally, my path crosses over with that of the enforcement branch of my employer’s organization, though I do my best to avoid it.

It isn’t my place to interrupt what’s about to happen. This looks like a collections call.

But their eyes are actually fixed on a target that’s behind me.

I turn just as I hear the sounds of a beaded curtain being swept to the side.

He’s wearing white today, and he glides by me with the ease of a swan.


His voice is gentle, upbeat, birdlike. He’s wearing a surgical mask. He barely glances at the mess in the front room and instead meets the eyes of the three collectors.

Their leader lets out an audible sigh, a mixture of frustration and pure exasperation. “Why are you here?”

“Good to see you, Kim!” His eyes squint every time he smiles. It’s obvious even through the mask. “I’m working. Can I help you?”

“Where’s Javier?”

“He started a new job today. I don’t know when he’ll be back. But he did say to give this to you.”

A white envelope appears in his hands, stuffed full, secured by rubber bands. This he offers to Sokhem, who eyes it with suspicion but eventually takes it.

For a moment, an awkward silence takes over.

Then: “Would you like some cake?”

It’s a question asked with such genuine intent that the rest of us flinch in unison.

And that’s when I notice that there is a store bought cake on the table, still in its pink bakery box. The lid is folded open to reveal bright colorful frosting. Something suitable for a child’s birthday.

Sokhem fumbles out a reply. “Uh, no thanks.”

“Oh. Are you sure? What about your friends?”

“Nah, we’re good. Gotta get going. See you later, Kiku.”

The three of them leave.

Alejandro, Javier’s little brother, looks confused, but he kneels down and begins to pick up the mess that’s been left on the floor.

Kiku, my boss’s son, goes to help him.

Abuela reaches across the table to turn on the small portable radio. A daytime talk show comes on, flooding the room with noise and laughter.

I finish the work in the bathroom. Then I go outside to turn the water back on. After I test that the faucets are working, I pack up my tools into the carrying case.

Back in the kitchen, abuela is chewing pumpkin seeds with the radio volume up high. The lid of the bakery box is now closed over the birthday cake. It seems that the grandson had just wanted to take some pictures of it. He is staring at the screen of a little pocket camera when I come through, deep in a conversation with Kiku about bearded dragons, all the while never making eye contact.

The shoes are back on the rack. The floor is swept clean of broken glass, the pennies gathered up into a small jar and placed on a shelf, as if nothing happened.

I only nod at them and make to leave without a word.

But Kiku meets my eyes. He then lays a hand on Alejandro’s arm. “I like lizards too. I hope you get to have one as a pet someday.”

“Yeah, me too…”

“You should save the cake and have it with the rest of the family when they get back.”

“Oh. Sure.”

“I have to go now. I’ll see you next week, okay?”


“Happy birthday, Alejandro.”


“Bye, Mrs. Gutierrez!”

The old lady grunts in response and waves a dismissive hand in the general direction of his voice.

I’m already out the door. But Kiku catches up to me.

“Can we go together?”


“Thank you.”

The rain is still coming down. It’s an el nino year. I hold the umbrella over both of us, which is not difficult. He stands only about as tall as my shoulder.

“Kiku” is his street name, so to speak. His given name means light and hope.

When we say that someone is like a flower, we are usually speaking of women. There is something vulgar to the effect when you say it about a young man.

My boss’s son, his youngest, is like a flower. He seems to take much more after his mother in looks than his father. He has her same pale delicate features and slender build. My arm could probably encircle completely around his waist. His movements are marked by a kind of softness that’s both endearing and unsettling. And yet, as rough as the neighborhood is, he has almost no enemies here, which is rare.

His only real enemies may be his own father and half siblings.

My boss barely acknowledges the existence of his youngest child. And by law, he doesn’t have to. Kiku’s mother was a mistress, not a wife. But he may have taken care of both of them just to appease her. She is known to be a dangerous woman.

The clouds open up a bit as we make our way down the street. But even as the sunlight breaks through, the rain won’t let up.

“How have you been?” He’s wearing soft black gloves, and he laces his fingers together as he walks. He has a noticeable limp that he does his best to hide.

“I’m fine. You?”

“Yes, me too.”

“That’s good.”

“I haven’t seen you since…” He pauses and looks up at the sky. “It was spring, wasn’t it?”

“I guess so.”

“I was thinking about you. You never keep in contact. So I can only hope for the best.”

“Nothing personal. I was just busy.”

“Oh. I know that you always are working. I am too.”

“Where do you work?”

“I am still doing home care for the elderly.”


“But tomorrow I have an appointment with a photographer.”

“A what?”



“A modeling job.”


He actually laughs a bit at that. Something about my face must have set him off. “Why are you so surprised? Are you saying I’m ugly or something?”

“No. But that just seems… I don’t know. Are you going by yourself?”


“You should bring a friend with you.”

“Okay. Do you want to come?”

“I have jobs lined up tomorrow.”

“Oh. I think I’ll be fine.”

“It can’t possibly pay enough to be worth the trouble.”

“You sound so serious.”

“How else should I sound?”

“I just wanted some pictures for my portfolio. I’m auditioning for a play next week.”

“Oh. I see.”

“I saw an ad for a small theater group. They’re planning a Shakespeare event.”

“Are you trying out for Prince Hamlet?”

“No, I’m trying out for Ophelia.”


“You’re making a scary face right now.”

“Am I?”

“I’m taking the train tomorrow. I’ll be back around five. Evening time. If you want to meet up with me, I can tell you more about it then.”

We’ve reached the gate to his apartment building. I’ve backed myself into a corner with the conversation. There isn’t an easy way out of it.

But before I can give an answer, he tells me, “Wait here.”

He lets himself in through the gate and rushes up the steps, disappearing through the door of his unit.

When he comes back out, he has a small box with a lid over it. It’s the type that people use to store keepsakes.

He hands it to me with both hands, sliding it sideways through the bars of the gate.

“When you were cleaning out your mother’s things,” he said, “I saw you put this in the trash. I don’t think you really looked at what was inside.”

I take it from him and tuck it under an arm.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, right?” he says. “Five p.m. East-nine station.”

“Sorry, I’m busy.”

“Oh, it’s fine. Some other time then.”


He stops mid-turn. The rain is already soaking into his black hair.

“Don’t get so involved in your father’s business. Especially with, you know, tenants and clients, things like that. It’s best to just leave that alone.”

He nods his head vigorously. “Don’t worry about me. My father and I, we never fight over these matters.”

He waves at me from the other side of the bars and runs back inside.

The Wei Fang and Keiko story begins at a tattoo shop.

Boss was young, and the country was new. Keiko was a former private-school delinquent who had learned how to ink in a drug dealer’s basement. Skin art and graffiti are sacred around here. Keiko’s skills, even in the beginning, were always noteworthy. At her height, she was a legend.

Wei Fang sought her out for some minor work. A poppy for his right shoulder. It was purely decorative. A lot of us wear the poppy. It’s the cash crop of low-lives, the currency of our night markets—our honorary national flower.

But when Keiko’s reputation grew, the boss went back for something more serious.

She completed two sleeves for him, and a back tattoo. By the time she started the work on his back, they were already involved. He wanted a traditional symbol of protection, like the stone animal statues that usually guard the homes of the elite. He asked for one lion, a male; she gave him two, a male and a female. A mated pair. To watch over him.

What we wear on our skin can have several meanings. Often personal, sometimes a joke. But for those of us who walk the knife’s edge and linger a bit too long in shadows along the water front—those of us who are awake at hours when others sleep, who hold the secret grievances of the powerless and unfortunate—it is necessary to seek out the protection of a higher power. Even those of us who know that we don’t deserve it, because we ourselves contribute to the pain and misery of societal dysfunction. We who are outnumbered and outgunned in every war—what we wear on our skin is an incantation, a blessing, a defensive spell. For many, it’s the last layer of armor we have. Those of us destined to fight the world—its laws, its broken systems—and lose, we carry what form of asylum we can.

The rumors say that Keiko, our back-alley priestess—patron saint of anarchists—had this type of power, and the ability to bless those of her choosing. But she'd made a mistake in wasting that power on a man who was both conceited and married.

She became the permanent resident of a convalescent home after an overdose. One night, years ago, she took a hit of a street synthetic and flat-lined. She was brought back, but she did not come back whole.

In the practicing community, it is not unheard of. Sometimes, the drugs help you reach the world beyond this one. Many do it to talk to their dead ancestors. It’s a journey that may take you away from your body for a time. Sometimes, you come back. Sometimes, you don’t.

She lost the ability to speak that night. Keiko survived in a half-comatose state, neither present nor absent, but something in between.

Wei Fang hired me to perform an exorcism at his estate around that time. He had a fear in him then. It was like the fear of retribution. I did what I was hired to do.

Now there are moments, when I’m out on the street, or near the Arowana, the tattoo shop she used to run, or near any of the other places she used to frequent, when I do start to sense a dark presence. It is, at times, menacing, and other times, sweet. It is a thing that is capable of harboring both love and malice. I only ever nod respectfully at the invisible beast and keep moving, away from its jaws.

I can feel its intentions, its will, and its hunger. And I want no part of it.

I have no plans for the night. I gave up both cigarettes and alcohol years ago. So, after dinner, it’s just me, the evening news, and Madam Mui on vinyl.

It’s almost time for bed when I decide to open Kiku’s box.

Inside, there are letters. Handwritten on paper. Each in its own envelope, postage stamped and marked.

In her final years, my mother had mentally regressed to her younger self. The letters are from her. She was writing to someone whom she thought was a female classmate. They went to school together, decades ago, but lived in different villages. The stories she wrote were a combination of things that could have happened in her childhood. They are surprisingly lucid and vivid in detail.

And for every letter she wrote, there is one that she received in response. Written in colorful ink, usually bright purple or pink. Always saying encouraging things. Telling her to study hard. Inviting her to make plans for the future. Sharing the occasional intimate secret. These are the words of a young considerate friend.

The return address on these letters is Kiku’s. The address my mother was sending to is also his.

She used to always call him by a different feminine name every time she saw him. She decided at some point that he was that one old friend of hers who wore her hair in a bob and could sing in contralto, like a famous singer of the time. Whenever I stopped by her apartment, which was every day in the evenings after work, she would address me as “uncle.”

Kiku would never correct her. He would only say, “Oh, another one of your father’s friends?”

“Yes. You’ve met him too, Li-li. He’s a pilot like my dad.”

“Oh! Can he take us flying?”

“Not in a military plane. It’s not allowed.”

“Oh, that’s too bad.”

“Were you ever a dancer?”


“Were you ever a dancer?”

“No. I mean, yes. I used to be one. But I was never very good at it.”

“I think you should try it again. You look like one. I was a dancer too… a long time ago. I used to dance for the queen.”

“Then you had way more talent that I did.”

“Is the sun setting?”

“Yes, I think it is.”

“It looks nice.”

In her last hours, at her bedside, Kiku became a much adored younger sister, one who had died from pneumonia years ago. I was my father then.

I don’t think about it often. But judging by the content of the letters, it seems that Kiku knew more about my own mother than I did.

At the very bottom of the box is a plain manila card. Addressed to me. A prison postcard.

It’s been years, but I still remember exactly what it says.

I return everything to its original place and close the lid. I make space for the box on the top shelf in my closet. One day, I’ll go out to the water and build a bonfire and burn it and cast the ashes into the ocean.

Tonight, I go to bed early.

When I sleep, I dream about my father and the koi pond we had in the old family house. In my dream, I help him feed pellets to the fish, the metallic shine of their scales flickering in and out of sight as they swim through the dark waters. He tells me that I should call my brother, the accountant, who lives on the mainland with his wife and their two kids and a family dog in a nice house in a safe upscale neighborhood.

“Okay, Dad,” I say. “I will.”

And I mean it.

But while I am down in the throes of REM sleep, a barrage of shots pop off from the street just outside and below my window. Semi auto, small arms fire. I count nine shots before I fully wake up.

In the middle drawer of the dresser by my bed is where I keep one of my guns. I also keep a small lamp on top of the dresser. Its weak light stays on all night, dim enough so that I can sleep, but just barely bright enough so that I can open my eyes in the middle of the night and see what’s around me.

I reach over and take out the gun without sitting up. I keep it at my side, finger out of the trigger, and wait.

The other light, the red security bulb, is off, and the amber indicator on the panel shows that the alarm is armed but silent. Meaning, nothing triggered any of the sensors near my windows or doors.

Outside, there is frantic yelling and crying.

A mother, wailing for her son.

Somewhere in the distance, sirens scream.

I return the gun to the drawer and go back to sleep.

The smoke shop on the corner sells a type of candy that was popular where I grew up. Since I quit cigarettes, it’s the only reason I have to go back there.

This morning, flowers and candles are clustered together near the front door.

Charlie—business owner, Oak Town original, and the last of the true O.G.s—usually mans the counter. That’s where I find him, rolling up his anxiety meds with calloused brown fingers so he can smoke them later. The hair under his spotless navy blue baseball cap is grey, curly, and white.

My candies are waiting by the register.

“This can’t go on,” he tells me, and lights up. “They got two more. A guy and his girl. High school kids. Got shot off a motorcycle right outside. She was on his back. Looks like she never let go. Just held on ’til they both bled out. And that’s how they went. Like Romeo and Juliet, huh?”

I hand him my cash over the glass display case. “Romeo and Juliet was a suicide.”

“Well, then, I guess all we got here is just some straight killin’. Bonnie and Clyde. Except they didn’t do nothing to deserve it.”

“Did anyone come and ask to see your cameras?”

“What, you mean the cops? They the ones doin’ all that shootin’ last night.”

“Ah, I see.”

“They was aimin’ for somebody else. The poor kids just got in the way. Don’t matter anyways. Cops just gon’ blame the clowns that got away. Call it another public service killin’.”

Charlie’s been around. He remembers the old drug wars. He’s seen generations lost. He’s seen opposition movements run their course, seen their heroes and villains come and go with the ebb and flow and fury that both topples regimes and also builds and sustains them. He knows where we’re heading because he’s already been there.

My son and his grandson both did time at the same correctional facility. But for two very different reasons.

Some days, through our mutual cynicism, we talk revolution.

But today—

“How’s business?” I ask.

“I’ve had better weeks. All those flowers outside. Puts folks in a mood.”

“Maybe it’s a good sign.”

“A what?”

“It means that people still care.”

“Man, I tell you. I wouldn’t mind never seeing so many goddamn flowers ever again. Just make the bullshit stop.”

“I hear you.” As part of the weekly ritual, I usually bring him coffee from the donut and dim sum place next door. Today, I add an order of shu mai to it.

“She gave me extra,” I say before he can protest. “I can’t eat it all.”

“Well, in that case…”

Behind the counter, a body shifts under a blanket. There’s a worn down couch back there, against the wall. Stretched out across it, Charlie’s grandson turns from us and pulls the blanket over his head, until only the stray ends of a few short dreadlocks are visible.

The old man’s grandkid is not a career criminal or a sociopath. He just got sent to corrections when he should have gone to psych. Happens more often than it should, I suppose. He never hurt anyone other than himself. He just needed meds.

But the market price went up on that, last I heard.

At least his grandfather has access to homeopathic remedies. A while back, I even gave him the business card of a reputable acupuncturist I knew. So far, the kid’s been maintaining.

Charlie picks up the bag of food and sets it on the corner table next to the couch.

I take my candies. “I’ll see you later, sir.”

He waits until I’m almost at the door before he speaks up again.

“Your son was in here a couple weeks ago.” Charlie’s voice is quiet but unwavering. “He didn’t ask for nothing, and I didn’t say nothing to him.”

Outside, the wind picks up leaves and flower petals. I watch them spin and tumble until they scatter.

“Just thought you should know,” he finishes.

I look back over my shoulder. “Thanks.”

“No problem.”

Then I push open the door and step out. The sun is bright but the air is cold. Autumn, as they say, is a time of change.

An was born during the famine years. He cried often.

I spent most of that time out on deployment.

The war ended badly for us. We arrived to the sanctuary city as illegals, and we were treated as such.

By then we had already lost our elders and the weakest of our young, those too fragile to survive the endless walking through minefields and the cold nights drifting through open ocean. We carried them as far as we could. Do you understand? We carried them as far as we could.

In this interim holding cell for the leftovers of someone else’s foreign policy misdemeanors, we were all outcasts, and An seemed to make few friends.

There were nights when my son would wake up screaming at phantoms only he could see. And he’d come running to me, too scared to sleep, too scared of sleep, crying that if he fell asleep he’d never wake up. And so I’d stay up with him, hold him at my side, let him curl up against me with a blanket over him, until he eventually got too tired and drifted off, and I’d stay awake to count his breaths, to make sure he still breathed, and I’d keep watch until morning when he woke up again.

We convinced ourselves that he only needed time to adjust. Much in the same way we had convinced ourselves that our cultures would survive in the new world, that our family bonds were strong enough to withstand the pressures of assimilation and the global market and the trauma of the wars we don’t talk about with outsiders, a hidden history that never made it to the evening news broadcasts, that never earned more than a footnote in the core curriculum of public education.

I should have known better, in retrospect.

In truth, no wars are cold.

I remember Mai, standing with me at the docks—its nighttime waters quiet, her suitcase at her side. She looked up into my eyes and asked if we were failures as parents, right before she boarded a ferry for the mainland and never came back. I had no answer for her then, nor have I found one in the many years since.

The East-nine station is near my old precinct. I wonder if anyone I know is still there.

A part of me wants to pay a visit. But there is a candlelight vigil gathered near the train station this evening, and I’m not a fan of large crowds anymore. So I keep it moving.

It is late by the time I reach my block.

He’s standing there, under the streetlight, a few steps from my duplex. Again, he’s wearing white, though the pants, like his gloves, are solid black.

His head is bowed. And as I watch, he kneels in the street, reaches down, and scoops something up into his arms. When he gets up, he stumbles a bit to get his footing, as if the weight of what he’s carrying is too much for him.

Then he turns around and sees me.

He looks tired. In his arms, he’s holding the body of a large black cat, its fur damp and dirty. There is a small pool of what must be blood on the ground. It leaves stains on Kiku’s sleeves as he cradles the dead animal against his chest.

After a moment of heavy silence, he tells me, “I was just passing through. I decided to stop by and see if you were home. I found him, lying here by himself. I noticed a few days ago that one of the other cats—the black one with the white feet—she had kittens. They’re all dark, like this one. I think they’re his. Ever since they were born, he behaves differently. He is more protective of this area. This area belongs to him. And he wants to defend it. His ears are all torn up because of his fighting with other cats. See this? He has a bit of grey fur still in his mouth. He must have grabbed onto something with his teeth, and he never let go of it, even though it killed him. He did it for those babies. He did it to protect them. I’m going to go bury him now.”

Kiku walks past me.

I ask him, “Where?” Concrete surrounds us, not much dirt anywhere.

He stops. “Do you want to come? I’ll show you, if you want.”

I follow without even meaning to.

We go under an overpass and down a set of crumbling steps into the parking lot of an old warehouse. The chain linked fence is barely standing. The building has been vandalised and empty for some time.

There is access from a side entrance. To my surprise, the darkness is offset by an overhead window, which lets in the light from the street.

A motion sensor triggers other lights along the hallway floor.

By the time we reach the main room, I’ve figured out where he’s brought me.

This is Keiko’s old shop.

Because I used to help my father raise koi, I know the sound of softly stirring water. There is a canal that runs behind the building, and the levels rise during storm years.

When my eyes adjust to the dark, I realize that the entirety of the base room has been flooded.

We are on the second story of the building. Below us, the first floor is submerged in black water. And it isn’t calm water. There is turbulence under the surface.

A small light flickers to life when Kiku takes another set of stairs down toward the pond. At the last step, he bows and kneels. He reaches to his neck and unties the scarf he’s wearing. He uses this to gently cover the dead cat in a burial shroud.

He presses his palms together, fingers to the sky, eyes closed. A prayer pose. Then he carries the animal’s body and lays it over the water. And lets go.

Of course the body sinks beneath the water and disappears.

But I feel the change in the air almost immediately. My face is cold, blood drained. I grip the steel railing of the staircase. Below me, the waters begin to thrash.

My eyes pick up a shape. Silver scales emerge from the pond’s surface. Something larger than a normal fish, something serpentine in its movements. A fin takes form, then disappears. A dark eye and a mouth, maybe, glides by.

Without warning, water splashes violently, the thing launches itself up into the air, and I catch the full figure of it, its complete mass, in the half-light. Metallic silver, dragon-like, its long body sails in an arc over the pool before diving down back into the depths, sending a wave of water crashing against the surrounding walls.

After a while, the surface is calm again.

Kiku has not moved from his place. He finishes a near silent incantation, hands together, before raising his head. He looks back over at me.

I descend the last few steps between us.

He slumps forward, and I reach out to grab him before he falls into the water. I guide him to sit down on the bottom step. Then I take a seat next to him. And ask nothing about the ritual. It would be offensive to do so. There is a code among practitioners, even those of different sects and different cultures.

Kiku is breathing heavy. He sweeps wet bangs out of his eyes and nods at something in the darkness.

I follow his gaze to a wooden structure nailed to the opposite wall. It looks like a box, with double gold-hinged doors that open from the front. Its corners curl up, like the gates of a temple. It is accessible by a second floor walkway.

A shrine, I realize.

“My mother kept it empty,” Kiku explains. “This is so that those who come in here can choose for themselves what is inside. They can find something in their heart and place that thing, whatever it is, inside. And they may bow to that, rather than an idol. Because, out here, in this country, everyone is so different, we can’t know what deity they worship, if any. So as not to be inconsiderate, she left it empty.”

His words echo through the chamber walls. “The side entrance is always open. Sometimes people come and leave offerings. Some even spend the night if they have nowhere else to sleep. But no one stays longer than that. Often, I find that people will come here to cry, or to scream, or confess their sins and ask for forgiveness. I don’t always know what they’re looking for, or from whom. I just listen. If there is a secret or a wish that you need to say out loud, but dare not to, you may come here. Speak it here. This place will take it from you. And it will bear some of the weight for you.”

His voice has fallen to a whisper. He is exhausted. Without asking permission, he lays his head on my shoulder.

The shirt he’s wearing is fashioned after a traditional garment. The sleeves are long and wide, like wings. The enclosures are embroidered and complicated. No one really wears such things anymore except for performances or ceremonies.

But I realize, after some scrutiny, that the buttons on his shirt are misaligned. He’s fastened them out of order. The one near his neck hangs by a loose thread, leaving his collar area exposed.

The more I stare at his clothing, the more asymmetry I find. It looks wrong. Threads have been torn apart.

I want to know his reason for coming by my apartment earlier. Did he need me for something?

I won’t ask it here. I won’t ask it now.

“Do you have a wife?” he says.

That throws me off a little. “Used to. Not anymore.”

“Do you still speak to her?”

“Occasionally.” Mai calls me exactly twice a year, mainly just to make sure I’m not dead. We have an understanding between us.

She was my family’s choice for me, not mine. But we learned to live as a couple. We have some feelings for each other. One can’t call it romantic love, but we do care for each other, even in separation.

Kiku asks me, “Would you go to her if she needed you? Would you help her if she were in trouble?”


He smiles. “You seem like the type that would.”

“I try.”

I have a feeling he just needs to hear someone say it.

Suddenly I have the urge to put my arm around him.

But actions have consequences. And I am not in a position to take those kinds of risks.

You don’t really know me, Kiku. So don’t make assumptions about my character.

I ain’t lying though.

It’s been some time, but Wei Fang once put out a hit on his youngest son.

I turned down that job.

It’s bad luck, and even worse manners, to drown a bird that is both helpless and means no harm to others.

In the end, Wei Fang hired someone else. And so Kiku was beaten unconscious with a metal pipe as he walked home from school one day. He survived, but he’s walked with a limp ever since.

Kiku had been accepted into a university to study dance and traditional theater. On stage, he was well known for playing female roles. He was pretty good at it. Not that I would know anything about that. Strange as it may seem, my father had taught me to be kind.

But men like Wei Fang cannot tolerate embarrassment of any kind. A family shame must be erased. A source of humiliation should be pulled out by the root.

But he’d made a mistake in sending an amateur to do professional work.

Kiku dropped out of school to heal from his injuries. He never went back.

The money that was supposed to go to his tuition went back to his father.

As far as I know, Wei Fang never made another try.

If he comes to me again, my answer will be the same.

At this point, he should know better.

I won’t move against Keiko. I have my reasons.

There was a day in spring, years ago, when a little girl disappeared from the backyard of her home. A canal ran behind the house, so there were immediate concerns that she could have drowned.

That girl was Bopha, my brother’s young daughter.

We searched for her throughout the day and well into the night. I didn’t want to give voice to the suspicions in my heart.

An had come home that afternoon with wet clothes and no explanation for it.

Bopha’s body was found days later, having floated to the surface of the water.

An showed no emotion throughout the ordeal.

My son, by then, had grown into a stranger. Because of the nature of my work, I could not see him as often as I would have liked. My options for employment were limited. In securing safe passage for my family years ago, I had incurred a heavy debt, one that I had to repay. I did what I had to do. But it all came with a price.

My brother and his wife blamed themselves for their daughter’s death. They were both exhausted from long hours working on the graveyard shift. They slept during the day and hadn’t noticed her missing. In their grief, they surmised that she must have snuck through the fence and fallen into the water.

But Mai held conference with me one night. In whispers of her mother tongue, a language our son no longer spoke nor understood, she told me about the dead animals she’d found over the years at the edge of the canal, near the house. Mostly rats or squirrels, sometimes pigeons, or even cats. The cats disturbed her because they had been bound with shoelaces. It was obvious that they had been killed. The reports she’d made to animal services went unanswered.

I suppose that a mother would know her child best. More than a father who was often absent.

I wanted to believe in our son. But I also trusted Mai’s instinct.

My brother broke down the day we scattered Bopha’s ashes in the sea.

I watched my son closely that day. An looked like he was trying to cry but couldn’t. I remember putting a hand on his shoulder. He stood stiffly and said little.

Six months later, another child disappeared. She was older than Bopha and just a little bit younger than An.

Her body never turned up, not in its entirety. But her right foot did, still encased in a small pink shoe, washed up on the banks of the canal.

Her mother recognized the shoe immediately. A footprint was also found to still be recoverable.

She was called Rose, and she was Keiko’s first-born, Kiku’s twin. Undoubtedly they had the same father. But Wei Fang only ever acknowledged one. For illegitimate children, he would only ever acknowledge a boy.

Back then, I was still with the department, but the case wasn’t assigned to me. I’ll never forget how quickly my colleagues gave up on Rose. They let it go because there were higher priority issues back then. The whole thing went cold.

Keiko, however, did not let it lie.

And so, one night, she overdosed as part of a sacred ritual.

And in my house, that same night, An woke up screaming.

Whatever Keiko did, whatever she summoned, it was powerful, and it must have hit its mark. Those of us who come from similar practices received our fair warning in the silence that fell throughout the city, a strange spiritual quiet that seemed to keep every scavenging animal off the street after sunset. A shadow rose up from the urban undergrowth, spread its wings, and took flight, swelling into existence like a tsunami or some other force of nature.

Around 0300 the power went out.

I woke up while the rest of the house slept on as if they’d been sedated.

And something that may have been Keiko, or something called forth by her, made landfall—tore its way through the streets—howling, roaming—in search of prey.

In his room, An had become catatonic. He would not speak or move. For days, he’d been trying to conceal the wound on his hand, an injury that took the shape of a very humanlike bite mark.

I covered him with a blanket and left, sealing the door behind me. I marked it with a protective sign, re-enforced by my own blood.

I crept into the kitchen, alone, and lit a candle. And I waited.

Eventually the beast came to my front door. It had taken the form of a dog. But it could not easily breach the barriers I had placed around the house. So it growled and paced and clawed at the walls of the spirit shield.

Between Keiko’s power and mine, there is a difference in magnitude. How much, I did not want to find out. I am a mediocre practitioner at best. Knowing your limits is an undervalued character trait.

Fighting her was not my intention.

So I opened the front door and stepped outside. I went out into the street to confront what was waiting for me.

The demon dog hunched over with its head down low, menacing but ever so patient. It was visible by moonlight in the darkened street, a monster the size of a house—half-shadow, half-flesh, a collar of bone, its body branded by his mistress’s defensive lettering.

I did not have enough blood in me to stop it if it chose to attack. My only option was to kneel.

And so I did.

My brother had blamed himself for his daughter’s death, and so I would also take on the responsibility of what my son had become.

A life for a life seemed only fair. I figured I had lived long enough. There’s already a grave in the homeland we lost that bears my old name.

Keiko’s spirit dog was the judge, jury, and executioner. And it took only a moment to make up its mind.

When I was young, I had once played Russian roulette with my father’s revolver. What it takes to pull the trigger is impossible to quantify. In the last second before the hammer strikes, the totality of your existence plays out in your mind. Memories from the past become as intense as your present reality, brought to life by the realness of the situation playing out before you. And whether they are good or bad, these things that make up your life, it no longer matters. Your time is your time.

It is then that everything leaves you, and you will be taken over by the most real sense of peace you will ever know.

And so—


The beast lunged at my throat.

Behind me, the door slammed open. And a single gunshot rang out.

The dog staggered and stopped. A wound formed on its body. Its blood dribbled down one leg and pooled into the street.

The scent of gun powder was in the air.

I looked behind me.

Mai stood in the doorway, arm raised in front of her, my 9mm in her hand.

The dog seemed to take her in with almost human eyes. Then, as if coming to a decision, it rose up onto its rear legs and leaped into the sky. It became something else, sprouted large black wings, adopted a new shape, and disappeared into the dark.

I got up. Went to Mai. Put a hand on her shoulder.

She lowered her arm and leaned into my chest. I wrapped my arms around her.

“I couldn’t let you do it,” was all she said.

I am on call almost every night. Some weeks are slow. Others are busy.

The phone rings a little after midnight. I am dreaming about my father’s koi again. Whenever I dream like that, it is always a sign.

Wei Fang may be awake at any hour. He sounds fully alert when I answer.

“I have a small matter,” he says. “But it must be dealt with immediately.”

He gives me an address. It’s to a vacant lot that he’s recently purchased. A large box has been dumped there, and he wants it removed to a public dump site. Now. Because construction workers are showing up early in the morning to begin building, and he can’t afford any delays.

I don’t ask for specifics. I have a utility vehicle, and the drive isn't far.

Late night rain washes over my windshield. I always keep an umbrella in the car, even during drought years.

The lot is situated behind a car dealership, next to two apartment buildings still under construction. It is a desolate location. People often use the space as a dumping ground.

The box is on the side of the road, next to a chain link fence. Something about it puts me off. I pull up next to it and approach it slowly.

It is a wooden crate. Not too large that it won’t fit in the back of the van. When I shine my flashlight on it, I notice that the top lid has been hastily nailed in place. The nails are in contorted positions.

The wood is sharp and new, though rain-drenched and scratched up on the surface. It is a little unusual for a person to use brand new material just to throw something away.

I lay a hand on top of it.

Something is strange about this.

A layer of wet dirt covers the lid. I sweep it away with my fingers.

Beneath the mud, there is a mark, drawn in blood. A seal.

I drop the umbrella. With a pocket knife, I cut my outer forearm and let the blood run over my hand. Then I press it to the lettering. The barrier is weak. It breaks easily under my hand, taking the wooden surface with it. I toss the broken pieces aside.

And then—

My face is suddenly cold.

I remember.

“Would you go to her if she needed you?”


I would.

But is it too late now to do the same for you?

Is this heart still beating?

It is.



Why name yourself after a flower of mourning?

Is it because—

No. Nevermind.

We go together, now, you and I. One last time. Through these streets.

I won’t scatter your ashes to the sea.

Though one day, you may do so for me.

The General herself opens the clinic door. She’s dressed as if she were up late working. And it only takes one look for her to fully assess the situation.

She lets me in, bolts the door, sets the alarm, and leads me to the back. Along the way, she knocks on a door in the hallway, opens it, and says something softly in her language. Another voice from within answers her. Then she closes the door and motions that I follow her into the treatment room.

She hits the switch, flooding the room with fluorescent light.

The steel exam table is open and waiting. She covers it with a towel and several layers of sheets.

I lay Kiku down on top of it.

“What happened?”

“I don’t know.”

Dr. Andar appears at the door, pushed in his chair by his teenage daughter, Leila, as he finishes buttoning a knitted shirt.

“What did you bring me this time?”

I empty my wallet onto the table.

“That doesn’t answer the question, my friend.”

“He’s breathing,” the General says, as she attaches him to an ancient monitor that’s probably meant for animals.

“Ah. Let’s bring out the oxygen.”

“Saturation is low. BP and heart rate are running high.”

Leila slips around me to pull things from the cabinets, her movements well rehearsed.

“Did you find him in water?” the General asks.


“His clothes are wet.”

“I know. It’s raining.”

“He looks like he was submerged.”

At some point, Kiku opens his eyes, coughs out water, and tries to fend off the hands that are on him.

He only stops when I press my palm to his forehead.

He tries to say something but doesn’t have the voice. The left corner of his mouth has been sliced open.

They are removing his clothes. Leila brings a blanket.

His body is covered in wounds. The cuts are superficial, not deep enough to kill. These types of injuries are intended to cause pain.

There is also a ring of red abused skin around his throat.

He submits to the treatment with only a few tiny nods in response to the questions he is asked. His eyes tear up when the General goes into him with the stitches. He reaches for my hand and doesn’t let go.

When she is finished, she bandages the worst of his wounds and assures him that he’s done well. He tries to thank her, but his voice cracks and breaks. He looks like he’s about to cry again.

There is talk of a scan for head trauma, though his vitals look good now. They have to make preparations, and I agree to stay up with him in the meantime.

They leave us alone for a little while.

He struggles to sit up. I have to help him. There are no pillows. He leans into me instead.

I don’t like physical contact. This is fine, though.

Some time passes before he says anything. He whispers, as if his mouth is in pain.

He talks about his father.

“I knew he would never love me. But I didn’t know how much he could hate me.”

Then he covers his face with bare hands and cries.

He must have known all this time that his father was the one who had hired a hit on him years ago.

The General returns with folded clothes. “These used to belong to my son. They should fit you.” Then she gives me a look. “Are you helping or being a nuisance?”

“I swear it’s not my fault this time.”

“You say that every time.”

Leila comes in. She is carrying the kitten, the same one I had brought in a week before.

“I thought you might want to see him,” she says. I’m not sure if she’s talking to me or her patient.

It doesn’t matter because Kiku is already reaching out towards her. She gently deposits the small animal into his hands.

His voice is a coarse sound, as if he’s spent the last few hours screaming.

“What’s wrong with his leg?” he asks her.

“It was broken,” she says. “But it’s healing on its own. The orthopedic surgeon said there’s no need for surgery.”

He smiles a bit, but only one side of his mouth moves. The other cheek is stitched shut and taped over. “You’ll be okay,” he whispers and holds the kitten close to his chest.

“You can have your old job back if you want,” she tells me.

“It’s a young person’s game, Amal.”

The General nods. “Sure. But your time’s not up yet.”

Rain pelts the roof. We stand together under the overhang near the back entrance. She tucks her hands into her coat pockets. She’s watching the parking lot and the dark quiet street beyond.

I tell her, “I’m fine doing what I’m doing.”

“Being an accessory to attempted homicide?”

I inhale long and deep and let it out.

“Do you like your job?” she asks.

“I just do what I’m told.”

“Did your boss tell you to come here tonight?”

I don’t need to say it.

She is, of course, right on all counts.

“Do you need a vet tech?” I ask.

“Are you interested?”

“I meant for the kid.”

“Ah. Well, he does seem good with animals.” She shakes her head. “I don’t know where you find ’em, Sam. But I feel bad that he got caught up with you, of all people.”

“I know.”

“Take care of that one. And he’ll take care of you.”

“Don’t get it twisted. We’re at least two decades apart.”

Her laughter rolls like smooth thunder over the sound of rain.

In the morning, Wei Fang calls with a job for me. He’s sending me to clean out one of his properties. The address is Kiku’s apartment.

He asks if last night’s assignment is complete. I tell him that it is. I’m not lying. The box did make its way to the public dump site, like he wanted.

It is early, and I didn’t get much sleep. I check the bedroom before I leave. Kiku is wrapped up asleep in a blanket. I watch him long enough to see that he’s still breathing. Then I leave without waking him.

I arrive to his apartment to find a junk hauler’s vehicle already parked in front.

Inside, I find the usual three, Sokhem and associates, breaking apart furniture and throwing things into trash bags.

They rip apart cabinets and take hammers to the tables and chairs. It’s easier this way. Like dismembering a body.

Then they start tearing into the shrine. And that is a problem for me. A holy object has to be properly decommissioned. Otherwise, the ground beneath it becomes cursed.

I turn my back, raise the fingers of one hand upright, in front of my chest, and offer a quick prayer.

Evil often spawns from tragedy.

In the bedroom, I find a small box of what could only be mementos, including a small piece of jade in a red cloth envelope. There is also a zipped up money pouch. These things I tuck under my coat.

It is understood that everything is fair game whenever Wei Fang has one of his properties cleaned out. The occupants never return.

Sokhem and his friends come into the room after me to continue pillaging. There is a jewelry box with gold and silver pieces inside. I leave that to them.

They know me. And they know that I never take things. I only do the job that’s asked of me, nothing more.

The mood today is unusual. No one is speaking. Even as they pocket valuables, no one smiles or laughs.

It doesn’t take us very long to clear out the place. Most of Kiku’s life seems to fit into a modest collection of garbage bags. The shrine is reduced to wood scraps.

We tie the loose parts together and throw it all onto the back of the truck.

Then we split up to leave. Two of them get into the truck, and I head towards my van.

I find Sokhem right next to it, smoking a cigarette. He is turned away as I load my tools in the back. When I slam shut the doors, he finally speaks.

“Did he go down easy?”

I look up, and Sokhem is watching my face carefully. I tell him, “I didn’t take that assignment.”

His eyes fall to my left arm, still bandaged from the cut where I drew blood last night. I can feel his suspicion. There’s no easy way for me to explain it to him.

Sokhem is younger than me and a little older than Kiku, but not by much, I realize. The other guys always seem to instinctively look to him for guidance. If he keeps his head on straight, he might do well for himself. He can survive this life, provided he knows when to get out.

He looks away again and puts the cigarette back between his lips. “Must have been an outsider then. Can’t be nobody from this neighborhood.”

I reach under my coat, and his eyes follow my hand as I pull out the money pouch from Kiku’s apartment. I hold it out to him. Warily, he takes it.

Sokhem unzips the pouch, looks inside, then zips it up again. He looks up and gives me a hard stare.

“If you hear anything about that…” I leave the rest open.

“Why go after the gun?” he says. “You know who really pulled it.”

He’s right. I do know.

For years, Wei Fang’s been looking for someone to do one specific job that he refuses to do himself. And for years, those of us employed by him have continually turned it down. He must have, once again, gone outside the community to hire someone.

To me, Wei Fang is just an employer. My loyalty to him has always been conditional. He doesn’t have anything on me to keep me here. My son’s crimes are a matter of public record, and the time when it would have affected my work or social life has passed.

I don’t have to spare Wei Fang.

I don’t have to spare anyone.

I could spend all day slitting throats.

I just know it isn’t going to fix anything.

You could turn the whole world into a killing field, but you’d still have to live in it.

There’s a man I left buried in the old country. He used to fight for something. He used to lead an army. He used to believe in creating a better world. And in the end he had to bury everyone, his favored daughter and all his sons. He saved the last grave for himself. He knows it’s still out there, waiting for him. He knows he’ll make it back home someday, if only just to die.

Now, in this new country, in this afterlife, there is no purpose that he has found that will sustain him.

If you want to fix something, it’s going to take more than a gun or a knife. Tanks can’t build nation states.

Unfortunately, I’ve never been good at anything else.

Forgive me, Kiku.

My household fell apart years ago. I don’t know how much of it was my fault. It doesn’t matter. I have to accept responsibility for the part I played in its dissolution.

For months, Keiko’s ghost dog haunted our waking dreams. It followed us through the streets, staying just out of sight, watching from a close distance. We knew it was bound by a blood oath, that it would not rest until its reason for existence was achieved.

An became increasingly paranoid. He wasn’t sleeping. He claimed he couldn’t sleep. His doctor suggested therapy.

I considered making a phone call. I considered turning in my own son. But I had no evidence. Only a father’s suspicion.

Eventually, An was arrested after he strangled his counselor with a shoelace. She had been a youth volunteer. She survived, but lived on with the pain and trauma of it.

All of my suspicions were confirmed that day. He never confessed to anything else. But I didn’t need to hear it.

His failure in life is also my own. I know. I know.

The parents of bad children can never look up and face the world with pride. We carry their crimes with us throughout our lives. The burden of it is like an anchor, binding you to a time and a place where bad things thrive. And no matter how many times you revisit your memories, you never find the answers that you need.

The house smells like food.

“What are you doing?”

Kiku doesn’t even flinch at my tone. He’s cooked the last of my rice. “I did some shopping. Your refrigerator was empty.” His voice is still broken. His eyes are completely innocent.

This, I will never understand. His father has now twice tried to kill him. Who, with any common sense, goes out in public and lets their face be seen?

I take a breath. “Once those pain meds wear off, you’re going to wish you’d stayed in bed.”

“I made tofu. And vegetables. Do you want any?”

“Where did you find tofu?”

“The store on the corner. They make deliveries.”

I know the place and the owners. The family has no connection to Wei Fang. He doesn’t own that piece of property.

“Do yourself a favor and lay low for a while, alright?”

“Hm.” A small nod. “So do you want this food or not?”

I really don’t need a second wife. But then, it’s been a while since I’ve had someone cook for me.

I set down the box from his apartment onto the table. “For you.”

He looks at it but doesn’t say anything.

After dinner, I clean up. And he takes the box with him into the bedroom.

I find him there later, curled up asleep next to it. The lid is off. Inside, there are some photographs. On top lies a snapshot of two children.

Fraternal twins are not identical. But they can still have a strong resemblance as siblings.

In the photo, it is clear that Kiku takes after his mother, and Rose takes after her father. Perhaps Wei Fang had chosen the wrong child to support. Had he not neglected her, would her severed foot have ended up floating in the canal?

Perhaps it would have been Kiku’s instead.

Would that have changed anything?

In the shower, I come up with a plan. I’ll have to send him to Mai. She runs a legal brothel on the mainland. He can hide out there. She’ll do this one favor for me. There’s no guarantee that she won’t put him to work, but at least I know she’s not a trafficker.

I pull clothes from the closet and dress quietly in the dark bedroom. I’ll have to make that phone call tonight or in the morning.

“Do your tattoos have a meaning?”

I look behind me. He’s still lying on his side, hugging himself under the sheets.

“They do.”

“Are they for protection?”

I don’t want to give away any trade secrets. But given that he is Keiko’s son, he’s most likely figured it out already.


“How long have you had them?”

“A long time.”

“Who made them for you?”

“My grandmother.”

He sits up. He pulls off his gloves and holds out his hands, palms turned up.

The only light is what filters in from the open bathroom door. I crouch at the bedside and take his hands into mine for a closer look.

His palms are marked with black ink. Characters written in the old language. I recognize Keiko’s work immediately.

“My mother gave me this,” he says. “She did it when my sister disappeared.”

He would have been a child then. She had been that desperate to protect him that she was willing to subject him to pain.

His mother’s power may be the only reason he’s still alive.

I ask, “Who did your father send for you the other night?”

He gives me a startled look and pulls away. As if it were an indecent question.


“I’d like to know.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Nothing. But you’re here. In my house. I need to know if anyone might come around asking about you.”

“Oh.” He stays silent for a while. “If I tell you, you have to promise you won’t try to find him.”

“I’m not looking for any trouble, honey.”

I can be good at lying when I have to.

“He was one of those lost souls who came by my mother’s old shop every now and then. He left offerings at the shrine. We didn’t talk much in the beginning. But he asked for a blessing once. So I gave him one. He told me that he’d done some bad things. I think he was looking for forgiveness.

“One night, we took a walk outside, by the water. He said he wanted to confess something to me.”

Kiku stops here and doesn’t finish the story.

“Did he tell you his name?”

He turns from me and falls back down against the pillows.

I keep pressing the point. “What did he confess?”

“I can’t say.”

“Did he hurt you?”

Kiku pulls the blanket up to his shoulder and doesn’t answer.

I get up and turn to leave. I’ll sleep in the couch in the main room. I’ll try again tomorrow.

But, in a cracking voice muffled by the pillow, Kiku goes on.

“I sensed his loneliness the moment I met him. He told me about whales and how they communicate through song. They call out to each other under the water. When one whale hears the song of another, it answers back. But in order for them to hear each other, they must sing at the same frequency. If a whale were ever born different and sang at a different frequency, a frequency outside of the range of other whales, it would spend its whole life calling out and hearing nothing in response. It would go on believing that it was the only one of its kind. And no matter how much it called out, it’d never know another. And at the end of its life, the ocean would simply swallow it whole. And that sea of loneliness would be the only thing it had ever known.”

I’m no marine biologist. Don’t ask me if that story’s real.

But I do know this.

I heard about a man who went to solitary confinement in prison. During that time, he would intentionally antagonize the guards so that they would go into his cell and beat him down. When he finally got let back into the main population, the other inmates asked him why he’d done it. He said that he’d been locked up by himself for so long that he just needed to feel something.

I run into Javier on the street. Alejandro is with him, making constant eye contact with nobody but the ground.

“Hey, you’re Kiki’s guy, right?”


“Kiku,” Alejandro offers without looking up. His puffy jacket hides his narrow shoulders and normally stooped posture.

Javier glances at him. “What?”

“The name of grandma’s aide. It’s Kiku. I think that’s how you say it.”

“Right. So,” Javier turns back to me, “you’re his… like… uh, sorry, I don’t want to be disrespectful.”

I have to unclench my jaw in order to speak. “I’m not his anything. But I can deliver a message.”

Javier has sharp brown eyes and well groomed facial hair. He stands with squared shoulders, half in front of his brother, as if to guard him. The bill of his cap is flat and pulled down low.

“Some guy,” he says, “came around asking about him the other day.”

“A guy…”

“Yeah. Just one. We said we don’t know him. Made the guy leave.”

Just one. That’s not how Wei Fang normally does things.

“Okay.” I shrug. “If I see the kid I’ll let him know. I have no clue where he is.”

Alejandro raises his head a little. “And let him know I finally got a gecko.”

“A what?”

And like that, he pulls out a tiny lizard from his pocket.

“I named him Steven.”

Javier is unfazed by his brother’s antics. He just tucks his hands into his pockets and nods at me. “Alright then. Have a good one, boss.”

I call Mai.

She sounds mildly annoyed.

“Tell me why I should help you.”

“Not me. You’d be helping a kid.”

“A kid? He’s his mother’s responsibility. Not mine.”

“His mother already paid her dues. We owe her.”


“Her son.”

“You’re a real piece of work, Sam.”

“But you understand.”

“Knowing you, how could I not?”

I never faulted her for anything that happened. Though I did wonder if it was our combined genes that made our son what he was.

Of all the people in my life, at one point, she was the most reliable and self-sufficient. And with that, she’s always had little use for me.

After the call with Mai, I remember the dream I had last night.

Again, I was at my father’s koi pond. At the water’s edge, two girls were playing. One was Bopha, the other was Rose. When they saw me, they came running towards me. They tugged at my sleeves with small hands. And they asked me when I was going to punish the bad man who had hurt them. I had promised to catch him years ago. Did I forget all about that?

I knew at that point that it wasn’t a dream. I was being visited.

Keiko, from her nursing home bed, wanted to remind me that she hasn’t forgotten about our shared past.

In the dream, a gate opened behind me, and from the dark, demons began to emerge. I grabbed the metal bars and slammed the gate shut and sealed it. When I turned around, the girls were gone. In their place, another small hand took mine. My son was a child again, begging me to protect him. I squeezed his hand and pulled him into a hug. Then I looked up and found the city in flames. In the sky, bombers flew low. And there came that shrill deadly whistle, a sound I knew, one that pierced through the smoke and sirens. When you heard it, all you could do was run because you knew what was coming but could never stop it.

In that fire was where I had found my first daughter, and in that fire was where I lost her.

Her death, perhaps, was what made it impossible for me to properly care for my son.

If we ever meet again in the next life, I’ve already sworn to never leave her side.

“Are you coming with me?” he asks.


At this, Kiku looks away, silent.

“Mai will help you find work. She’s got a place for you to stay. If things go well, you can still go to school. You like theater and stuff like that. There’s plenty of that over there. Think about what you want out of this life. Forget about what happened here. Forget about your father. Work for the life you want for yourself. That’s my advice.”

“My mother is here.”

“She’s under the care of nurses and doctors. She’ll be fine. You can still write to her.”

“Someone has to look after the shop.”

“I’ll find someone to help you do that.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“It can be. Tell me what I need to know about it.”

“What about you?”


“Who will looking after you?”

“Me. I’m looking after me.”

“I never told you this, but there are times when you seem even more lonely than him.”

“Who? Your marine biologist?”

“You’re both a lot alike.”

“Why did you agree to meet him that night? Why put yourself in that position?”

“I won’t turn away from someone who needs help.”

“He went to you for help?”

“He has… demons. He wanted to get rid of them.”

“Were you trying to perform a spiritual cleansing?”

His mother is powerful, and he must have inherited his abilities from her. But some things are too deeply rooted to be pulled out of a troubled soul.

Kiku ignores my question and wipes away tears with his sleeve.

“You’re going to forget about me when I leave,” he says. “Aren’t you?”

“If you’re that hung up about it, you can write me too.”

“I won’t speak harsh words to you if we’re about to part ways.”

A few hours later, I drive him to the ferry dock. The official transports have stopped for the day. But there is one last boat heading out. I know the owner. Arrangements were made.

The rain is only mist tonight. But I still hold the umbrella over both of us. He has everything he owns in one travel bag. Including his mother’s box. There’s an envelope of cash in there that he doesn’t know about yet, the same amount that I had taken and given to Sokhem.

He stops at the boarding ramp. From here, the lights of the mainland are visible.

He looks out across the dark waters. “I never thought I would leave here on my own.”

The ocean air is cold.

“You’ve never been away from home?” I ask.


“You’ll be fine. It only seems scary at first.”

But he shakes his head. I know he’s reconsidering everything.

“I can’t do this,” he says.


“I can’t do it by myself.” He’s breaking.

“You can,” I tell him. “You have to. I can’t go with you.”

“You’re choosing to stay here, right? You want to? You don’t want to leave?”

“That doesn’t matter. What I want doesn’t matter. It has to be this way.”

“If things were different, would you change your mind? Would you come with me?”

“Yeah, sure.”




“You better get going.”

He turns, then stops. He looks at me. “Can I ask you something?”

“Make it quick.”

He pulls off his gloves with his teeth. Then he reaches for me. His bare hands cup either side of my neck. His palms are warm.

He tilts forward until his forehead is against the center of my chest. He turns his face to the side, gloves still in his mouth, and I think he’s listening to my heartbeat.

In another life, I would have held him. But my mind is already slipping to bad places.

Wei Fang isn’t even the one I’m most concerned about.

By next morning, I may not be human anymore. When it comes to “work,” that’s how it has to be.

I let Kiku have his moment. Then I put my hands on his shoulders and step back. He lets his arms drop to his sides. Then he takes the gloves out of his mouth and slips them back on.

Before he can turn away, I grab one of his hands and slip the handle of the umbrella into his grip. He looks up at me without a word. His eyes are wet. I slide out of my coat and drape it over his shoulders. It’s obviously too big for him. But he doesn’t refuse.

Then he picks up the bag off the ground.

He bows. And, turning, begins to make his way up the ramp, under the umbrella, until he disappears into the ferry.

A hand signals from the window. My acquaintance. I signal back.

I watch the ferry leave. Then I walk back to the van.

The skin on my neck is warm. I don’t fully notice the burn until I’m in the driver’s seat, turning the ignition. It’s now impossible to ignore.

I switch on the lights in the front cab and twist the rear view mirror towards me.

A mark is forming on my neck. Two of them. One on either side. Right over the carotid arteries and jugular veins.

Keiko’s seal of protection. Handed over from her son to me. He just gave up his only form of defense. For me.


What the hell for.

I don’t understand.

I make a fist and throw it into the ceiling of the van.

This isn’t how I wanted things to go.

Life moves on like machinery.

Days pass.

Out on the street, one afternoon, I get a call from Sokhem on my cell.

He says, “Some guys are hanging around outside your house.”

“I see.”

“Just thought you should know.”

“Thank you.”

“Another thing.” He pauses. “Kiku’s mom. I know who sold her the bad synth. Years back.”

“Go on.”

“The guy who made the hand off didn’t know it was bad. His boss gave it to him, said to sell it to her and only her. Said there was no cut this time; he got to keep all of the sale.”

Like a confession. Kim would have been a teenager back then.

“His boss?” I say.

“Yeah. You get me?”


There’s another moment of silence. Then he says: “The universe has a way of making things right.”


“See ya around, old man.”

So I don’t go home.

I eat a quick dinner at a takeout place. Then I go to Keiko’s old shop.

I drop money into the donation box and take the stairs down toward the water.

I lay out my sleeping bag, plug my phone into the wall, and chamber a round into my gun.

I sleep.

Wake up to what sounds like a child’s lullaby. There is the whisper of stirring water. Then it falls silent.

I sleep again.

In the early morning, before dawn, I get up to pray and clean myself up in the restroom. The ceiling lights don’t work, so I light a candle. My cell rings while I’m shaving.

Boss has a job for me. Installing new fixtures inside of Kiku’s old apartment. But first, he wants to go over the details in person.

This is not how we normally do things.

“Do you ever miss the old country?” he asks.

“Of course.”

“There were these flowers that grew by the river where I used to live. I never knew what they were called. And I can never find them over here. I guess they don’t grow out here.”

On the other end, Wei Fang sounds no different than usual. I can picture him at the desk in the office of his house, the sleeves of a clean-collared shirt rolled up to his elbows, Keiko’s work on his arms, covered up by another artist’s ink. Cell phones don’t work at his place, so he had a land line installed. The office window overlooks a massive garden. Like my father, he also raises koi. Like my grandfather, he also grows poppy.

His adult children live there from time to time when they’re not traveling. They all work for him, except for the eldest son who currently resides at a psychiatric facility.

Over the years, we’ve quietly gathered information on each other. Just because we work together doesn’t mean we trust each other. I am still a private contractor. I have the option of turning down any assignment I don’t want.

His wife stays out of the family business. He tends to keep her away from his associates. I have seen her, only because I was asked to perform an exorcism on the property. I suspect that he only allowed me to get that close because he questioned the authenticity of my failed marriage.

They say that if you steal a man’s wife, you’ll get punched. But if you steal a man’s money, you’ll get shot.

Wei Fang is a business man. Family is just another extension of that. He raised his children to protect his assets because he knew they would be more loyal than his associates.

But his mistress and her children were loyal only to each other. Keiko fought Wei Fang for years over his lack of support for their daughter, and when that daughter disappeared, Keiko suspected him most of all.

Because he feared her wrath, he tried to end her before she could end him.

He had the skin that bore the lion tattoos cut off from his back. No exorcist he hired was able to destroy that patch of skin. When he tried to incinerate it, he suffered severe burns to the backside, in the spot where the tattoos once were. He had to be treated with skin grafts at the hospital. It was then that he sought my help.

I sealed the patch of skin in a box for him and told him not to open it.

I suppose I should not have done that. His fear of Keiko once kept his worst tendencies in check.

Kiku’s mistake was interfering in his father’s business. My mistake is giving a damn about the outcome of a situation that has nothing to do with me anymore.

“I trust you the most,” he says, “to do this job.”

We agree to a meet up spot. It is near the docks.

I have two hours to prepare.

Before I leave, I go back down to the shrine. I offer blood. I place my ancestors and my father’s hopes and dreams into the empty box. I choose a God and hope it’s the right one. I make a sign to the heavens and submit to whatever fate’s decision will be for me.

And I extend a greeting to her. Not a request, not an apology, just a greeting. I only ask for a blessing for her son, as he walks alone now in a foreign country.

And then I climb up the stairs.

A shadow that isn’t mine follows, one that walks on fours and breathes through gnashed teeth. It lurches as it walks, as if limping.

We don’t know each other, but we’ve met before. This time, its ambitions toward vengeance aren’t directed at me. I’ll accept whatever ally I can.

The second I reach the top floor and open the door, I’m hit four times in the chest. I fall.

He has a silencer on that gun.

I land on my knees.

He fires another round into my face, under the left eye.

Everything goes fuzzy and black. Blood pools underneath me.

But it’s not over.

From her hospital bed, elsewhere in the city, Keiko’s eyes are wide open. We are connected now, and she knows everything.

He won’t speak to me. He’ll only watch me die. Which is what he’s wanted to do for a long time.

In his last postcard, sent from corrections, he accused me of trying to interrogate him through the letters we exchanged. He claimed that the souls of the people I had killed during the war were coming after him in his dreams. That was why he never slept. He was tired of paying for my sins. He said he had no use for a father who never understood him.

A tattoo covers his skinny right forearm. It looks days old at most. It’s one of Keiko’s lions, the female.

Only Wei Fang could have given that to him. But the image is reversed, a mirrored imitation. The artist seems talented, but to bring that here, where the original was made, is to invite retaliation.

An, hollow eyed and sickly pale, is not the boy I remember. But he still looks a lot like his mother. Which makes it hard. Especially when he turns away from me and starts to walk away.

But the shadow of the demon dog has seeped into my wounds. Its hatred is potent. Smoke rises from the holes in my body.

It is then that I am able to pull back my blood. This, my grandmother taught me when I was young. The blood flows in reverse, off the ground, back to its source.

Under my skin, bones mend. It’s painful. But I’ve endured it before.

I draw my gun.

I won’t shoot him in the back. Not my son.

I stagger to my feet. And he turns around at the sound.

When he reaches for his weapon, I fire.

I aim for his lower legs. I hit him in the left shin.

He tries to take a step back and collapses.

I don’t fire again. I deliberately avoided the kill shot. I just stumble my way towards him.

But the spilling of blood has awakened the lioness on his arm. I can feel her stirring. Then she shifts and reverses her position, assuming the posture of the original she was based on.

Keiko has taken over. Suddenly on An’s face there is a look of primal fear.

His tattooed arm lifts up, weapon in hand. He raises his opposite hand and clamps it down onto his right arm. He struggles violently against his own body.

I realize that Keiko now has control of his right arm. And she’s bringing the gun to his head.

An locks eyes with me, terrified.

I break into a run.

He lets go of his possessed arm and reaches for me with his left hand, screaming now.

The moment I reach him, the moment I grab his hand, is the moment the gun goes off.

The shot exits the opposite side of his skull, temple to temple, spraying his blood across the floor. And on me. His arms go limp.

And now.


What are we?

I am on my knees. Still holding his hand. The world is quiet.

The years of slow drowning are over. But there’s nothing left anymore.

I’m swallowing air in a cold empty room.

The demon dog in my blood howls now, unrepentant, with sheer exuberance.

The image of the lioness inked on his arm scrambles itself, like an ink blot, becoming nothing recognizable, an abstract art piece.

Where has she gone?

And where has he gone?

I lay down my weapon. I reach over and stroke his forehead.

There are things I would have told you if you had hated me less.

I feel something settle down near me. Looking over, I see the dog. It is very real. Large with black fur, wolflike in form. An unidentifiable breed.

I take my gun and aim it at the animal. But it doesn’t flinch or react.

A whisper comes. Unintelligible. I look around. No. It’s coming from inside my head.

Keiko is pleased with this outcome.

I lower the gun.

I’m still holding my son’s hand. It’s still warm.

The dog whispers again, a childlike female voice, and offers a name I haven’t heard in years.

Mah Yang…

I shake my head. No. Not that one.

What did your grandmother call you then?

I don’t answer. Everyone knows there’s power to a name.

“If the soldiers come, run away to the mountain.”


“Don’t wait for me, and don’t come back. You won’t find me here.”

I shake my head again. And stroke my son’s hand.

It hurts, she tells me. But it’ll be better tomorrow. And tomorrow. More and more better. And then you’ll get stronger.

I have nothing to say to that.

I’ll call Amal in a bit. She’ll help me take care of things. Then I have to call Mai. And my brother.

I’ll pretend to be human for a little while longer.

There’s a little girl in the water, the dog says. We are friends. She taught me how to swim. Maybe she’ll want to go home now.

I remember my dream. The two girls playing. If their spirits are trapped here, it’s time to send them off.

I lay my fingers over my son’s eyes to close them. Whisper some things I wish I’d said to him years ago.

I pick him up. His weight isn’t as heavy as I expect. Under his jacket, his shirt hangs loose. His body is bone thin. A habitual user’s body.

I carry him down the steps.

The dog follows. Like a loyal friend. With a limp in its back right leg.

I’ll stay, she says. I’m going with you when you look for the other one. My time on earth isn’t done yet.

I shake my head. But I know she doesn’t take orders from me.

I make a final prayer for my son.

If I see you in the next life, I want to be your father again. I’ll do better next time.

Below us, the water is waiting.

It’s cold, but I am colder.

© 2022 Lam Ning

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