2019 Summer Short Story Competition: A bitter potion to swallow

2019 Summer Short Story Competition: A bitter potion to swallow

A grieving son is determined to find out the truth about his father's death, but sometimes truth comes with a vengeance of its own

This story was written by Michelle Lo from Yew Chung International School.

Each week during the holidays, we will publish a story from one of the finalists of our 2019 Summer Short Story Competition. Our favourite entries will be compiled into a book, which each finalist will receive a copy of. The winning entry will appear in Young Post on August 31.


Love. Regret. Death. Innocence.

The labels swing from their glass bottles, the words scrawled on them imbued with tantalising possibility.

Heart thumping, Kai stares at the bottles lining the shop’s wooden shelves. He falters when he
sees the bottle marked Justice winking at him in the dim yellow light.

The witch behind the counter watches him with an amused tilt to her head.

“I was told,” he begins, “that if I were looking for something, this would be the place to go. That you can find anything that has been lost, for the right price.”

“Depends on what you’re looking for,” she replies in a gravelly voice. Weathered brown skin stretches over her sharp jaws. Kai eyes her, wary, and grits his teeth.

“I’m looking for revenge.”

She sighs. “Out of stock.”

“What do you mean, out of stock?” Kai clenches his jaw. “You can find anything, can’t you?

“Perhaps.” The witch hums, and her pale eyes, as milky as oyster pearls, gleam in his direction. Blood-red lips draw into a sharp smile. “Or, perhaps I can find you something better.”

She unlatches the cupboard door behind her, sending the pungent scent of bark mixed with chrysanthemum wafting towards him. Kai smiles faintly. The familiar fragrance of Chinese traditional herbal medicine summons memories of long childhood summers spent in his family’s store, learning to mix remedies with his father and Uncle Fei.

He wonders what the old man would say now, if he could see this magical apothecary hidden in the alleys of Sheung Wan, masquerading as a herbal medicine shop.

The witch reaches into her cupboard, crammed with glass jars of powdered roots and dried herbs. Her spindly fingers sets a slender vial down before him.

Kai picks it up, brow furrowed. The cracked glass is stained dark-brown, obscuring the swirls of glittering amber inside. “What is this?”

“Truth,” the witch says.

“I don’t need the truth,” Kai mutters, thinking of his father’s kind smile, of his father’s name engraved on an ash-filled urn. He slides the bottle back across the wooden bench top. “I need vengeance. I need justice.”

The witch drums her fingers on the counter. “You want those things, but what you need may be something very different, boy.” Nevertheless, she plucks another bottle out of the shadows behind her. “How about this, then?”

The ink on the label is faded, but Kai can still make out the faint lettering. Forgiveness.

His hands clench into fists at his sides. Forgiveness?

The image of his uncle’s blank stare, as the police arrested him at the murder scene, appears in Kai’s mind. Over the years, the sharp pang of betrayal upon discovering that Uncle Fei had poisoned his father with his own medicine has morphed into a low, simmering hatred within his heart. Even now, the wound still stings.

Kai shoots the witch a dark glare. “Absolutely not,” he snarls. Murderers like his uncle don’t deserve forgiveness. In one swift yank, he uncorks the bottle named Truth. Without blinking, he sneers at the witch and downs the liquid inside.

The golden fluid slips down his throat, leaving the bittersweet aftertaste of licorice clinging to his palate.

The smile vanishes from the witch’s painted mouth, replaced with something indiscernible in the downwards tug of her lips, almost like disappointment. She wiggles her fingers in a mimicry of farewell.

Kai swallows. “What –”

The ground disappears beneath his feet. For one fearful second, he is dropping through an abyss, swallowed by an empty, soundless void … and then the world rearranges around him, shifting like a jigsaw slotting back into place.

Sunshine streams through a smudged skylight into a cramped room. A plastic fan, balanced precariously on a stack of cardboard boxes, whirrs behind two men seated on plastic stools. The medicinal aroma of crushed flowers and desiccated oak still lingers in the musty air, albeit fainter than before. Kai jolts, recognising the back room of his family’s old herbal medicine shop. His mouth goes dry at the familiar faces of his father and Uncle Fei.

“You – get away from my father!” he shouts, but both men remain oblivious. Kai storms up to his uncle and shoves, yet his fingers pass through the man’s arm, as if it were a mirage.

Here, he is nothing but a ghost.

Uncle Fei sets two china cups on the small table before them. Kai trembles as he realises what he is about to witness. Part of him wants to cover his eyes, but his hunger for revenge compels him to creep closer.

“Kai’s growing up fast,” his father says, tapping the teapot beside him. “He’s already learning to make gancao fuzi tang for my arthritis.”

“Isn’t it too early?” His uncle frowns, glancing at the herbal tea in the pot. “It’s a complicated recipe, and the aconite mixture is, well … a bit dangerous for a child, I think.”

His father’s deep brown eyes crease as he smiles, quiet yet proud. “Kai is clever. I’m sure he brewed this perfectly.”

Kai’s chest constricts into unbearable tightness. Through his blurry vision, he glowers at Uncle Fei with all the contempt he can muster. What had his kind, loving father ever done to deserve such a senseless demise?

Uncle Fei narrows his eyes. “He’ll take over the shop when you retire, then?”

“Of course,” his father says. “These creaky old bones tire easily now. It won’t be long before my son comes of age, and I pass ownership down to him.”

Nodding slowly, Uncle Fei pours the herbal tonic into a teacup.

Kai’s gut churns at the sight of the deep brown concoction swirling inside the porcelain cup. How can his uncle act so normal moments before poisoning his own brother? With a sense of foreboding, Kai scrutinises his uncle’s constantly shifting hands, noting the twitch of his pudgy fingers and the tremble of his wrist. He fidgets, anticipating the moment that Uncle Fei will slip the poison in.

Yet the cup passes into his father’s hands with little fanfare.

Kai blinks. No – had he missed it? Had his uncle done the deed already? Desperate, he lurches forward until his face is mere inches from the tea. He needs to know how his father died; the need overwhelms him, like a morbid curiosity. Is there a stain on the rim? A hidden pill dissolving at the bottom of the cup?

There is nothing. Uncle Fei remains the image of innocence. Kai watches helplessly as his father sips at
the tea.

A moment passes. Kai’s breath catches at the sound of the teacup crashing to the floor. His father abruptly claws at his neck, gasping, and Kai lunges forward at the same time as his uncle.

“What is it? What happened?” Uncle Fei drops to his knees, shaking Kai’s father. The shock and panic on his uncle’s face startles Kai. It feels wrong.

It feels too real.

“My son,” his father groans. “Bitter.”

His uncle glances at the brown liquid seeping into the floorboards, and his face contorts into understanding and sorrow. “I told you,” he laments. “The gancao fuzi tang was far too complex to brew, even for your brilliant son.”

“Too much aconite,” his father chuckles, going still.

The truth pierces Kai like an unexpected knife to the heart. It cannot be true. It cannot be his fault … but how can he deny the verdict passed from his father’s own mouth?

In his sudden daze, he can barely make out his father’s last words. “Protect him … protect Kai.”

“I will,” Uncle Fei vows, knuckles white as his brother’s last breath dissipates into thin air. “I’ll protect him, even from himself. Even from his own conscience.”

The man glances at the entrance to the herbal store. The innocent laughter of Kai’s younger self echoes through the locked door. Then, Uncle Fei trudges towards the landline, mutters a prayer, and dials the police.

“Hello,” his voice cracks. Kai chokes on a sob as understanding dawns on him. “I’d like to report a murder …” His uncle exhales, as if in great pain. “No, a poisoning … I did it. Yes. I’d like to turn myself in, please.”

There is a bright sheen to Uncle Fei’s eyes, but his body does not betray a single tremble, even as he claims responsibility for his young nephew’s foolish mistake.

Kai covers his wet eyes, hating himself for his cowardice and for his stupidity. Bitter, his father had said. His mind flashes back to the bottle the witch had given him. The acrid sweetness of licorice floods his mouth. Yes, he thinks. Truth is bitter – but guilt is surely worse.

“Take me back,” he whispers, and the world spins around him once more.

When he opens his eyes, the witch is leaning against the counter, waiting. “What did you do?” Kai says. He staggers away from her, a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. “What did you show me?”

“Exactly what it says on the label,” she says. “The truth.”

“I didn’t want to know the truth!” His shout echoes around the small shop like the ricochet of a rifle. The bottles of magic clatter behind him as he pounds a weak fist on the wooden counter.

“Did you know?” Kai whispers, sounding like a lost child. “Did you know that it was my fault all along?”

The witch observes him, dispassionate. “You should have chosen forgiveness,” is all she says.

His shoulders slump. “I just wanted revenge. Was that so much to ask for?”

“I find what has been lost, not what is wanted,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Yin and yang, you understand. No different from your Chinese traditional herbal remedies.”

“I suppose I’ve lost myself, then.” The words are like poison on his tongue, and Kai laughs savagely at the irony. His sole aim ever since his father’s death has been to seek revenge – but what can he do with this aim now? “I’ve found the truth, but I’ve lost myself.”

“It’s up to you to find yourself again, then,” the witch answers. “I’ve done my part. You got what you wanted, and now I expect my payment.”

Kai sinks his knees. “I didn’t want this,” he repeats, despondent. “I didn’t want to understand. I didn’t want to know. I don’t … I just want to forget it all.”

After a moment, the witch taps the cash register. “Then that shall be the price you pay,” she says, rueful. “Give me your memories of today, and I will consider your debt repaid.”

He looks up at her with a glimmer of hope.

***

A day later, the witch stands behind the counter, fiddling with her recently acquired ingredients. With careful penmanship, she labels the new bottle Memory.

She hears the bell chime over the door, and senses
the boy step inside. He gazes around without a hint of recognition, despite having spent the better part of the previous day, and the day before that, inside her store.

The witch tilts her head. “What are you looking for?”

“I’m looking for revenge,” he says, stubborn.

She sighs at his familiar response, and tucks the bottle of memories away into her growing collection.

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Love. Regret. Death. Innocence.

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