This story is the first runner-up in Young Post’s 2015 Short Story Competition. The winning entry will be published next week. The author of this story will receive a Kindle Paperwhite.
He probably wouldn’t have noticed, anyway. I gaze at the desolate wasteland extending through the vast landscape. Deep in the heart of the city which we were once proud of, hidden among smog and smoke, are the survivors. Some hide in their small havens, freezing and shivering from the cold current with no fire igniting their hopes. Some don’t even have a shelter. They are kept in their prisons instead. Others didn’t even make it this far.
The city is dark and dying.
I am one of the imprisoned survivors, weak and weary. On the very top of this hill is my prison. I live inside a large, blank cell enclosed with concrete walls. The bright lights always reflect off the bold walls, shooting straight into my eyes, and it hurts.
They have always been so bold and bright.
Yet, I can do a lot of things here. I can sleep, eat, and drink; I can wander around in the blankness or just do nothing at all. But usually I just press my face against the bars on the window, and wait for time to slip away. I can’t tell exactly how much time has passed, though.
Every second is the same.
There is a clock here, but I don’t use it. Clocks have no purpose, except to remind people that their lives are wasting away. Their hands shake uncontrollably, indicating the passing of a little time. And they make such an awful noise at
every tick, disturbing the stillness in the surroundings.
But what is time when there is no life? What is life when there is no time?
I secretly laugh at the silly device that devoted an eternity to nothing but meaningless time counting. After all, clocks are never accurate; they are not reliable, and I know it. I knew it. Nevertheless, I have so much to do here, and I always make sure I repeat every single activity every day.
I can hardly distinguish between day and night now.
The door lets out a dried crackle and opens. Someone steps inside, and throws a bunch of keys on the table. I don’t like him. He is too noisy. He shuts the door with a bang, and steps into the cell. He stares deeply at me, and I stare back at him. I don’t like him. Then he starts to talk in a very deep, tough voice. I don’t like him at all.
“Hi, Dad,” the voice goes.
I don’t answer him. Instead I focus on the ground. He seems to get annoyed, and steps closer to me.
“It’s me, your son.”
Then he walks away. “Your dementia is really hard to deal with,” he sighs. I lift up my head and look at his clothes. Black suit and a red tie, trousers, and shiny shoes. Then I look at his face. I study this man from head to toe. He appears to have noticed, and turns back to me again.
“I don’t know you,” I say calmly. I am sure that he is the man who locked me here.
“I am your son, fool,” he mocks.
“You are not my son.”
He gives a loud, unpleasant snort, and walks away, laughing. “There’s rice in the saucepan,” he says. “I have a very important meeting tonight, and I won’t have time to serve you that attentively.”
“Be that way,” I say. I don’t care. I know my son well, but I don’t know this man at all. And I definitely don’t like him. His clothes are too flamboyant. His words are too harsh. Then, before I even notice, the door is suddenly shut again.
I stare at the closed door impassively for a long time. I just don’t know what happened. Dementia patients like me can forget everything in the blink of an eye. But I stand up. At least I remember where I can get food. I can eat. Then I’ll do everything else. I’ll drink, and then I’ll wander around my cell. Then I will stare outside the window and listen to the clock tick again. There’s lots to do here.
I don’t think I am hungry, though. But that is probably because I forgot what hunger feels like.
I drag my hefty body into the kitchen. The smell of food hits me. I take away the lid that’s resting on the saucepan. There is rice in it. But there’s also something else. Quietly lying on top of the rice are some dumplings.
Dumplings, I repeat to myself. Dumplings. Pork and spinach dumplings.
I am caught deep in the alluring aroma. So deep that I don’t even eat. I don’t even hear the clock tick anymore. In all of a sudden I lift up my head and run outside to the living room with excitement. The room is completely different. It is alive with cheer and joy, enclosed by warm, painted walls despite the pouring rain outside.
I am at a family reunion.
I see a woman in her 40s, a little boy who is around six years old, and a few other people. They greet each other warmly, and say, “Happy Lunar New Year! Good fortune to you!” The woman sees me and gives me a warm hug. “Happy New Year, honey.”
I know who she is. She is my wife. I am her husband.
“A warm New Year to you too, dear,” I say quietly. She smiles and joins the grown-ups that are sitting together, chatting with each other happily. I laugh at the scene. There are children on the other side of the room, playing with some toy bricks and Lego pieces. Among them is a little boy laughing with his cousins heartily as he rolls his toy car on the floor.
I know who he is. He is my son. My lovely, innocent son.
I trot into the middle of the crowd and announce: “Dinner is ready!”, attracting everybody’s focus. The children clap their hands and cheer, while the adults stand up, set the table and carry the food out from the kitchen. There are many different dishes. There is a big fish, different kinds of rice cakes, and a bowl of noodles. In the very middle of the table lies an enormous bowl of dumplings.
Pork and spinach dumplings.
Everybody cheers as they dip their chopsticks into the big bowl, and each fishes out a plump dumpling. The little boy tugs on my sleeve with excitement. “I love dumplings the most. Thank you, Dad,” he says, smiling. I smile, too, as I choose a dumpling and put it in his bowl.
Then I pick a dumpling and put it into my own bowl. I gaze at the bowl in front of me, and suddenly, I am overwhelmed by immense hunger, making me wanting to wolf down the dumpling at once. I have never experienced such hunger before. But before I can react, something oozes out of my eyes, and then, everything starts to blur into shadows.
No, no! What happened? I try to wipe away the sticky liquid from my eyes with utter trepidation. My sight becomes shattered and twisted like broken glass. My attempt is futile, as it did nothing to stop the unceasing flow from washing everything away into non-existence.
When my vision finally clears, the air is already devoid of any traces of the reunion. The meal is gone. The room is gone. The people are gone. My wife and my son are gone. Everything is gone. Forever. All that’s left is a pathetic old man, lost and dumbfounded, stricken by grief and sorrow because he cannot relive the reunion anymore.
Flooded with anger and anguish, I cry and rave as loud as my lungs allow, knowing that cruelness has taken them away from me. Every sound I let out transforms into thin drops of water which evaporates into thin air. Belting out like this is extremely harmful to people of my age. But I just can’t calm down. I don’t know how to be calm.
Then, it happens. With a sudden “crack”, my ribs puncture my left lung. I cry in agony and fall down. My head hits the hard, impenetrable floor. The pain is real and sharp, but nothing compared to the pain I have concealed deep in my heart.
“Oh dear, are you alright?” I hear a worried voice around me. It sounds strangely familiar. I struggle to turn to the direction of the voice with disbelief, and see her. Perhaps a little confused by my reaction, she smiles a little. “We’re old.”
She is as old as I am. Her face is all wrinkled and her hair is dyed grey. I don’t think that’s
what she normally looks like, although I have forgotten about it.
The hands of time are simply too ruthless.
“Yes, we are old,” I reply quietly, surprised by what she has just said. Then, we stare at each other, speechless, as everything else seems to have temporarily stopped, frozen in time.
I get up slowly and gaze into the eyes of this woman. She is old and has no characteristics that I find appealing. But I don’t hate her. Instead I feel as light as a feather. Something true grows in my heart, and I cannot describe it because I have forgotten the word. But suddenly I realise.
She has always been there. That feeling has always been there.
The reunion is gone forever, but everything is still here. The old woman smiles peacefully as if she sees my realisation. No longer restrained, I leap out with joy and throw my shoulders around hers. I have always wanted to tell her how much I miss her. I couldn’t walk all the way up to the mountain to do so, in the past. But now I can, face to face. I can even see my son now, a successful businessman in between us smiling, using his strong arms to hold us together. There are a thousand words being silently spoken, and a million songs played in this serene realm.
I am already feeling this fading like yesterday’s dream. But this time I feel peacefully calm. Seeing them disappear into oblivion, I know that I am, too, disappearing into oblivion, following them to a place where there is no pain, no worries and no woes, only joy.
I find myself wondering what will happen to my imprisoner. Maybe he will be shocked when he comes back and sees my body lying on the floor. Or maybe he will be happy instead. Or maybe he will suffer or be haunted for the rest of his life. That does not matter anymore, for I am finally free. He probably wouldn’t have noticed, anyway.
This is not death.
For the last time ever, I close my eyes with a smile, and dream.
This piece is dedicated to my beloved grandparents, who left us in 2009 and 2015, respectively. Their spirits will, however, continue to live with us eternally