Every single one of my ribs felt bruised or broken. My phone wasn't on the bedside stand when I groped for it. I wondered idly what time it was, since my room was always dark, without the light or lamps on.
I stood slowly, feeling old and stiff. I stank, too. I held my head softly in my hands and, eyes barely open, made my way slowly down the hall.
"Did I drink at Morgan's party?" I asked myself, but I didn't know the honest answer.
I padded upstairs as quietly as I could and was surprised and blinded by the sunlight streaming through the kitchen and living room windows.
"Wow that's bright," I said, squinting and cautiously shifting a hand to shield my eyes from the light.
"Hello sleepy head." Mom said. She was pale and haggard; huge, bruise bags hung under her eyes, gnawed on cheeks. "I'm very, very glad you're away." She said, trembling hands covering her mouth.
"Mom?" I said.
I stood at the top of the stairs, squinting at her as tears formed and rolled down her cheeks. Mom opened her mouth to say something else, but then she was on me, hugging me tightly and sobbing loudly. "Thank goodness." She said. "We weren't sure you were going to. Oh thank goodness you're awake!" Said Mom, who took my face in her teary hands and kissed my cheeks. "Oh thank goodness!" She said, then, "Let me call your dad. He'll want to know. He'll be so happy!" I blinked and she was behind the breakfast bar, phone shaking in her hands.
"It's not Friday, is it?" I asked. I rubbed my sore forehead and closed my eyes. I leaned against the wall. "My head is killing me." I said.
Mom looked at me, her lips pursed. She shook her head, no.
"Saturday?" I asked.
"Tuesday?" I decided to over shoot by a day.
Mom was crying again. She heaved a few times. "It's Thanksgiving Day." She said.
My jaw dropped. My right eye twitched. "I need to call Mercedes and Jay." I said.
"Mercedes, yes." Mom said. She turned and lurched onto one of our tall dinner table chairs.
A fire crackled in the fire place.
"Call Mercedes." Mom said. "I'll order us some Chinese and if she wants to, Mercedes is welcome to join us."
"Thanks." I croaked. I swallowed and asked, "Where's my phone?"
"We got you a new one." Mom said. She held her head in her hands, elbows on the table. "Its in the drawer with the coupons."
"Thank-you, Mom." I shuffled over, and kissed her hand. She grabbed my hands and kissed them. It hurt, but I didn't flinch.
"Thank-you, William. Thank-you." She said and pressed my hands to her forehead.
"For what, Mom?"
"Waking up." She said. "For waking up on your own."
I nodded and swallowed a sudden lump in my throat.
Mom was still staring at the table. They'd changed the top of it. Instead of metallic glass, it was a slab of what looked like thin, unfinished obsidian laid across an unfinished sheet of wood. I looked at Mom, sitting there, crying, and looked at the slick, new phone in my hand.
I pocketed the phone and hugged Mom and that hurt, too. I stroked her hair, my fingers tingled and she cried even more, but when she stopped, she looked at me and gasped. She wiped at her cheeks and made a smile of her mouth. "Do you want beef with chili and peanuts?" She asked.
"And dumplings?" I asked.
"And dumplings." Mom, said, "Do you know what Mercedes would like?"
"Usually she likes noodle dishes and vegetables." I said.
Mom nodded: "Vegetable Lo Mein, Chili Peanut Beef and a triple order of steamed dumplings it is."
"Awesome!" My stomach growled for some seconds. "Hungry." I said, rubbing my stomach. "Are you okay?" I asked.
Mom said, "I'm fine. I'm just relieved. Very relieved." She smiled again and there was a flicker of actual Mom, peaking out from behind the tired eyes and stressed-thin mouth.
I said, "Okay. I'll be up to take a shower in a few minutes."
Mom chuckled. She said, "You are a bit ripe." She winked at me.
"Thanks." I stuck my tongue at her and walked slowly back to my room, thankful for the darkness.
I sat on my bed and tried not to panic. My left hand thumb was too stiff to text. I finger poked at the phone, thinking and pausing and deleting every two or three numbers. Mercedes answered at the second number I dialed --the first was disconnected.
"Hello?" Mercedes said. She sounded more tired than Mom.
"Hi." I said tentatively.
There was a silence and a thut-hu-hut sound, something soft brushed against the speaker, then Mercedes was back, saying: "Hello? William! Hello! Hello?"
"Hi!" I said. "I'm awake! I'm back!" I sat on my bed. My head was pulsing instead of throbbing. ("Improvement," I thought.)
"Improvement? Oh my goodness goodness goodness." Mercedes said. "It's you? Prove it. What's our secret?"
I told her the code to get to the high school's roof, using the elevator. "When's the last time we made out?" She asked.
I stopped, mouth open, nothing coming out.
Mercedes laughed. "Close enough," She said.
"So, look. Apparently it's Thanksgiving, but if you're not busy Mom's ordering Chinese food. We're getting some vegetable lo mein and dumplings and stuff."
"William." Mercedes said, very seriously. "I will be there as soon as possible." She hung up. I stared at the phone. I saved Mercedes's mobile number to the contacts list and was looking for a towel in a basket of laundry behind the head of my bed when my phone rang.
"Hello?" I said.
"William! You are awake! I'll be home for dinner." Dad said, "Mom texted me and I thought. I don't know what I thought but I'm so glad you're awake! I'll see you soon, son."
"That was weird." I said. I added, "But maybe not unexpected?" I found a thick towel under a few t-shirts and headed upstairs.
I checked on Mom, who was doing better, busying herself setting out place mats and plates and chopsticks.
I started the water, waited until it was good and hot and stepped in. The water hit me, hot and relaxing and my vision started to cloud red and I was up to my ribs in a pond the color of murky, half dry blood. Too small to be a lake. Definitely not an ocean. A medium sized pond. It was raining: deep red slashes through the sky, off the horizon, down down down to splish on the pond surface. My hands: red. Everything: red. Bodies and body parts started bubbling and bobbing up from the pond. Faces rolled and turned in the water. I laughed. What else could I do?
There was screaming. For the first time in a red dream, I heard things. I heard screaming and the individual splash of each storm drop into a puddle. I covered my ears and screamed, too, but all the sounds were still there. I roared and my voice was black ink injected into this red and white water world.
My head shook and Mom looked at me. She was pure white, with red ringed eyes. "William." She whispered, "You were screaming." A trickle of blood oozed from her left nostril.
I wiped it carefully away.
Mom stood up. "Baths for you, sir!" She said. Mom handed me a towel. "You dry off, I'll go lay some clothes out for you, okay?"
I nodded. I toweled myself off quietly and carefully hobbled down the stairs to my room.
I was dressed and sitting on the couch, looking at all the Spanish homework I had to finish before the middle of December. I sighed, the kettle started to boil and the garage door started opening all at once. I chuckled half heartedly.
Mercedes flew from the garage door directly onto me, almost re-breaking my ankle and choking me between her arms and her shoulder. Her cheek was soft against mine. Mercedes's hair was shaved as short as I remembered it, and she smelled like well cared for leather and peaches, but also medicine --antiseptic and topical. We hugged for a while, once I'd wiggled to a less throat crushing position.
When Mercedes sat up I swore, despite myself. Three-quarters of her head and neck were a rough topography of messy, too tight, too loose skin. Mercedes was wearing an eye patch just like the one Morgan had been wearing the night of her Halloween party. "Messed up, huh?" Mercedes said. She bit her lower lip. "It doesn't hurt, thanks to my dad's company. They took really good care of me. Of us, actually. Oh my good goodness! How are you!" Mercedes slapped my thigh.
I swallowed. "It doesn't hurt? I had a migraine earlier, and uh. I'm okay I guess. I'm not the best. I'm." I sobbed, one long heave. "I'm sore and I don't remember anything after the fight started and I apparently just slept for most of a month." I inhaled. I started to talk but Mercedes fell on me, squeezing me. I shuffled and stretched, and she was laying on me, crying. I cried too.
After a few minutes I wheezed. I said, "I think I just hurt my mom, too. I didn't even know I was doing it. She said I was screaming. All I wanted to do was take a shower." I sobbed.
Eventually, Dad came in, through the inner garage door. "Hi! Oh." He said. Dad set the Chinese food on the weird obsidian table. He took something out of the bag. "Mom and I will be in our bedroom. Shout when you're ready to eat." he said.
"We're ready." Mercedes shouted into my chest. "Also, there's no way you're eating more dumplings than me, Mr. Metzger."
Dad laughed. "Well alright then. I'll put these back." He said.
"Start the kettle," Mom said. She smiled at Dad and they hugged. My head felt better. Dad and I hugged, too, and it felt nice to bury my face in someone's chest. "Thanks, Dad." I said. He patted me on the shoulder.
"Let's eat!" He said.
We ate. We really, really ate. I ate more than everyone else. But, you know, I'd been in a coma for nearly four weeks.
Fine. I'll stop talking about my coma and all the boo and the hoo.
Here, one of the happiest notes possible: The Detroit Lions beat the Green Bay packers, holding onto their playoff chances for the year. How amazing is that? Talk about happy miracles.
So. After dinner, Mercedes and I took the electric kettle and the teapot and tea and some cups and went down into my room to catch up. It wasn't a very pleasant catch up, and I just promised less of the boo and the hoo. So. Lists! Lists(!) worked before. Here we go again.
November 1st - 7th
- Mercedes woke up in the ditch on the side of the road, I was smothering her.
- She called 911 and was told all major dispatch stations were already at, or heading to, her location
- Mr. Swanson took the two of us to his work, which has a medical wing, apparently. Mercedes said this would have been really cool, under different circumstances.
- School was cancelled for two whole days due to a "Horrible Halloween Party Accident."
- They named the dead:
- Jay Trumble
- Jennifer Liu
- Larry, Francis, and Matthew Roberts
- Nicole Freeman
- Tomas and Nicole Lewis
- Philip Jones
- Johnathon Timur
- James Johnson
- Jon Kleber
- There were five more students, all of whom were now deeply catatonic:
- Trevor Freeman
- Chris Jones
- Elizabeth Gonzalez
- Derrick Kato
- Jennifer Louhen
I laughed. "They named Jon among the dead? He's actually dead?"
Mercedes frowned. "We'll see. They retracted that list, and only people who recorded it have copies now. It wasn't in a newspaper, just a blurb on Fox News the next Monday. Anyway. . . "
- Mercedes slept in the medical wing while they worked on her burns
- According to Patricia (you'll see) Morgan was not back in school
November 8th - 15th
- Mostly a blur of police interrogations and questions and doctors and surgeries. No one visited her, not even Mrs. Swanson.
- Mr. Swanson brought her some dumplings and other fatty, delicious foods while she was still in the medical wing.
- One of the cleaning staff tried to kill-smother her, but Mr. Swanson saved her.
- They moved her to a private room, somewhere deep under ground.
- Mercedes returned to school on Monday the 11th. No one said anything about her burns. No one talked to her at all, though.
- Friday, Patricia Liu sat down and started eating lunch next to her. Patricia and Mercedes have been eating lunch together ever since. They haven't actually said more than seven sentences, though.
- Most of her teachers gave her study guides for her classes, to catch up.
- They tried to make her talk to a counselor, but Mercedes refused.
November 16th - 23rd
- Morgan returned to school on Monday the 18th.
- Mercedes skipped class and ate lunch with her
"She looks worse than me." Mercedes said, "She needs help. Seriously."
- Some of Jon's friends tried to corner her, but she escaped by fighting really dirty, and due to "Some tricks my dad showed me. They're amazing."
- Mercedes, Patricia, and Morgan all ate lunch together.
- Patricia missed two days
- Patricia was back on Friday, but wouldn't talk about why she'd missed the two days. Morgan seemed to know, or at least understand.
- Homework of this magnitude sucks so, so badly. Like, Dyson levels of huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuq
- Mercedes had another red dream. She was in the lab again, most of the glass cases that had broke were gone. She smashed even more and set more fires. The Horse-a-tour appeared again, but she woke herself up by biting the side of her cheek, where the sutures make it bumpy.
The kettle boiled and we got up and, together, made tea: I opened the tea bag, and Mercedes poured the steaming water onto the black leaves and pestled cinnamon.
- Her dad told her he had to go to Germany for a work project --that it was a big promotion and that it was really good for their family. That he and Mrs. Swanson were doing better, and she might have to go to Germany for a while too.
- Mercedes might be staying with us at some point!
November 24th - 28th
- Grey hooded sweaters, and hooded clothing in general is banned from the schools.
- Mercedes found and beat up one of the guys who tried to corner her, a few weeks ago
- She got caught, but was only verbally reprimanded and forced to go to the counselor
- Mercedes drove back to the house party, it was taped off, but she went in anyway. There was only the burned shell of the house, a few charred support beams
- Winter finally settled down, on us.
- Mr. Swanson brought her some clothes from work, as early Christmas gifts, since he was going to Germany shortly.
- Mrs. Swanson and Mercedes had taken up Yoga, and British Television shows, together.
- Mrs. Swanson decided to go to Germany for Thanksgiving, at the very last minute, and left Mercedes home alone.
- I woke up.
"Wait, so you were just sitting at home by yourself?” I asked. I took Mercedes’s hands in mine. “Seriously?”
Mercedes nodded and looked away from me. She said, "Well, yeah. But my --"
"You have a passport," I said.
"I couldn't leave with you the way you were."
"But! Germany!" I laughed.
"Doesn't matter. Friends matter."
Mercedes stared at me, but I didn't look away. She said. "Being there for the people who need you matters." She nodded. "Besides, you're like family, anyway. So I win twice."
Mercedes stood up. "I could go for more dumplings. I'm going to try to wrestle them away from your dad, if he hasn't eaten them already."
I sat for a moment, considering. "I'll come with you." I said.
We walked upstairs, Mercedes's posture was impeccable, and my hobble was frustratingly slow. Upstairs, we scouted the kitchen and, sitting on the counter top next to the fridge was a whole, untouched, tray of steamed dumplings.
"Success!" I shouted.
"Mom?" I said, my voice trembled.
"You should go back to your room for a bit." said Dad.
Mom chimed in, "Don't come in here"
"We thought you'd be down there longer." Dad finished.
"Oh. My. Goodness." I said. I turned to Mercedes, who was blushing furiously and covering her mouth, her eye wide, her grin wider. "We'll see you in an hour!" I shouted.
We retreated back to the safety of my room before they could say anything else.
The tinfoil top came off with a whiff of dumpling meat and a moment of steam. I said, "Let's do this." I handed Mercedes a fresh pair of chopsticks and opened the ginger soy sauce nestled in the center of the dumplings. We set to work devouring the dumplings.
We didn't manage to finish that last tray of dumplings, there was one left. Who left the last one? We both did. We each split and shared our dumplings with each other. Accidental cuteness, Mercedes called it.
After that, Mercedes and I were as inseparable as possible. We ate lunch together, though Morgan didn't eat with us. She didn't speak to us, either, but we didn't see her much, before her party.
The three(ish) weeks before he arrived were pretty much a blur, too. Mercedes moved into our house, though sometimes we went to her house and studied, or the four of us all went over there and ate dinner and watched network television. Mom and Dad started to go over there every Thursday, and Friday evening, watching some television shows on NBC and MTV respectively.
I studied and did double the normal homework and hated it and couldn't stop staring at Mercedes's face for the first week and a half.
We fought about it. I didn't mean to yell, but Mercedes brought it up and then she cried and it was--watching tears trace random paths like pinballs down her right cheek. I stopped staring after that.
Mercedes said, "It doesn't matter that I'm like this. People stared before, but now they will stare forever. I thought that I could wear their stares and eventually I'd graduate to a bigger world, where people didn't stare, but now I'm not so sure."
I nodded. I was done yelling. We were staring at each other's hands, sat in her white and cream living room while Mom and Dad shouted at the television in the other room.
"Do you think its weird that Morgan isn't talking to us?" I asked.
"Yeah. Sort of. She's going through a lot, though. She wasn't in the kitchen as much, after the party. I don't know what she's doing, but she's cooking at the school less. She hung around Patricia and I, but since you've been back, not so much." Mercedes looked at me. I stared at her eye patch. She said, "She'll come around."
I said, "I hope so."
He arrived on the Friday before school let out. Mercedes and I walked into the house through the front door and he was sitting in the living room, on the couch, talking to Mom, who was paying very close attention to whatever he was saying.
He was so big, if he'd had less hair, I would've sworn he was Dad. He stood up when Mercedes shut the door. He had such amazingly clear, blue, tired eyes, and so much neat, full, blonde hair. He smiled at us. "Hullo." He said.
Mercedes stepped forward, slid out of her long coat, hat, gloves, and rubbed her head, watching him through her whole process. (Later, she told me, "He didn't look away or blink once. Not once.") "Hi," said Mercedes.
"Hello." He said. He held his hand out and told her his name. She nodded and shook his hand. "Your name?" He asked. He spoke English so well. Such a refined accent. Clearly someone British taught Him English, but his native tongue shone through like the best sunlight ever.
He was so tall.
Mom stood up and introduced us all. "This is _____." she said. "He is our exchange student for the rest of the year. He will be sleeping in your room, William, and Mercedes will be sleeping in our spare room. I hope that's okay, Mercedes?" Mom turned to Mercedes, who was still eyeing him. "Mercedes?" Mom asked.
"Huh? Oh! Yeah. Okay. I mean, I can always stay at my family's house if you --"
"Nonsense." Mom said, and that was that.
"Hi." I said.
He ignored me.
He ignored me for the first two whole days, no matter what I said, did, tried to show him.
The three of us were out shopping, the Sunday of Christmas week. Mercedes wanted to buy Mr. and Mrs. Swanson presents, so we were shopping for things that would be cool, and for things that would be useful in Germany, and easy to ship there. Mr. Swanson sent a shopping list back with Mrs. Swanson, who was busy at work right until Christmas.
"They're going to be late, anyway, by now, but I still want to send him something, and hopefully we'll be able to Skype on Christmas Day." Mercedes said.
"Ya. That's cool." He said.
The mall was full of people and Santa was there, too. The crowds, though, parted right around the three of us. We made an awesome triangle --he was in the middle, with Mercedes and I each hung on one of his thick, cocoa smelling arms, grinning.
"This is normal?" He asked.
Mercedes and I both blushed furiously, "Oh good goodness yes!" Mercedes said. She patted his arm. "This is how all guests are treated in America." She said.
"Well then." He said.
I said, "Yup. Totally."
"Yup." Mercedes and I said.
We pranced out of the kitchen utensils store with hilarious, sour expressions.
He said, "Not nice."
I said, "Let's go to that noodles place for dinner." I asked him, "Do you like noodles? Like, Chinese or Asian noodles?"
He did not answer.
Mercedes said, "William knows this great noodles place. It smelled really good when I was in there. We should eat there."
"That's cool." He said.
Mercedes drove us from the mall to the noodle place. We sat in silence, while he played with the radio. He refused to listen to internet radio. He just shook his head no when Mercedes suggested it. If a song he didn't like came on, he changed it until he found a song he did like. If there was nothing on the FM channels, he would go through the AM Channels, too.
The door chimes jangled as we walked in. He had to duck into the restaurant and stoop, just a little, not to brush his head against the ceiling.
The saloon doors were painted white and perfectly straight. The paper lanterns were gold embossed with red instead of the other way round. Everything else was the same, though.
"Oh. No." Patricia Liu said when she saw who had just walked into her family restaurant. "What're you doing here?" She asked, looking directly at me.
"I wanted to bring my new friend here. Your. Your mom --"
"My family." Patricia corrected.
"Your family make amazing noodles and soup." I finished quickly. "Please." I added.
"Have a seat." Patricia said and turned and jerked back through the saloon doors. Despite her violence, they barely swung, and they did it quietly.
Mana burst back through the doors half a second later with three glasses of water. She saw the three of us standing there and dropped the three glasses with a clatter. "YOU." She said.
"You are both giants! You gonna eat me out of my whole kitchen?"
"No." he said, "We will order one dish each, and maybe appetizers. I promise you will have food left after us."
I slapped his arm. I said, "Speak for yourself! I'm going to eat all the soup you put in front of me, Mana! I'm starving."
He frowned. "No, you aren't. You had breakfast."
Mana picked up the spilled cups and dropped a few white dish towels behind the bar.
He had to stoop to stand in the restaurant. I supposed Dad would have to, as well. The three of us sat at the same table the Trumbles and I had. Mana silently brought us tea and just like last time, she didn't spill a single drop. "I bring you all special noodles." Said Mana, quietly. "And appetizers for mister." she added and disappeared back through the saloon doors. The three of us sat, staring at the doors swing quietly through their entropic loop.
I looked at him. He was staring back into the kitchen. "I see." He murmured.
Mercedes huffed. "I sort of wanted to order my own food." She said, folding her hands on the table. "Still, you didn't almost burn the mall down, this time."
"That's true." I said.
"You almost burned down a chopping center?" He said.
"No. Not really, but a fire alarm got pulled and I sort of instigated the actions that lead to that."
He said, "I see." He looked at me and smiled. "When is your mother returning?" He asked Mercedes.
"I dunno, honestly. Haven't heard from her. Did she go to the same place you're from? They went to Ruhr."
"Germany is a big place. But I have heard of Ruhr. It is not close to where I." He paused, looked around. "It is not close to where I am from." He finished.
"I want to go to Germany. I'd love to visit there!" I said.
Mercedes and _______ looked at me. Mercedes said, "You speak Spanish, why would you want to go Germany?"
I made my eyes very wide and very much pointed at Mercedes. I turned to him. "They speak Spanish in Germany, too, don't they?"
"Mostly, uh, German, and English. My apologies." He said.
"Oh, so, English?"
"So I'm pretty set."
He smiled at me. "Somewhat." He said.
Mana rocketed through the doors. As she came, she shouted: "Got your appetizers! Is the tea good?" We all looked at our untouched cups and surreptitiously sipped them.
He said, "Yes, Mana. Very good. Thank-you."
"My twin giants!" Mana said and slapped a huge plate of vegetable tempura on the table. "Vegan!" She said.
I made a face, but everyone ignored it.
Mana produced a small spray bottle of something incredibly, vibrantly, almost violently red and set it on the table. She also managed to set another tray, steaming dumplings, on the table. Mana continued, "These are vegetable dumplings, but you'll like them just as much as meaty dumplings. She patted my arm quite hard. I nodded. "This," she tapped the spray bottle, "Is ghost chili pepper spray. Put hair on your chest." She slapped Mercedes's back, "Or take it off honey, if you need that!" Mana laughed all the way back into the kitchen.
Mercedes and I passed on the pepper spray, but he doused his food in it. He did not sweat while we ate the tempura and steamed, vegetable dumplings. He actually made small talk all throughout the meal, which was delicious. Mana laughed and refused to tell Mercedes what it was she had made her.
"Seriously," Said Mercedes, poking at the empty bowl with her heavy plastic chopsticks. "That was the first thing that tasted good, really good, since. Since Halloween." She swallowed thickly and took a long sip from her empty-for-a-while tea cup.
Mana poked her head through the doors. "Hey new giant of mine! Come back here! I give you a tour of the place!"
"Mana!" I shouted, frowning, and pouting, "I didn't get a tour of the kitchen when I first came in."
"You tiny, tiny giant. She's bigger than you, in some ways." Mana said, pointing at Mercedes. "You get a tour, if you're still coming here in a few years. Talk to me when you're driving!"
And with that, he slid, ducked over, through the saloon doors and into the back.
"That's weird." said Mercedes She took his teacup and slurped it. Mercedes said, "Close your mouth. It's what he gets for leaving us here. It tastes even better with his spit on the rim, by the way." She winked at me.
"Shut up." I said, over my high folded arms.
"Psh." I said. I snatched his teacup off the table the moment Mercedes set it down. I replaced it with mine, and inexpertly poured some tea into it.
Mercedes and I chatted about Spanish class, and what we were going to do over break. What movies we wanted to see. She tends toward horror and sci-fi, I tend toward romantic comedies. The gentleman chef brought us our food on a large tray, which he carefully knelt and set on the table next to ours.
Another customer came in, turned around, and left while (I assume) Mr. Liu served our soups. The soups all came in the same ceramic bowl, but inside the delicate white were thick black stoneware bowls with thick black lids on them.
"Enjoy, please." Mr. Liu said. He bowed and disappeared.
The chimes jangled as another customer walked in. The customer walked in, as Mana and he walked through the saloon doors. Both their eyes went wide.
There was scrambling, by the door, and Mana bounded over the counter, hands slapping across the faux-marble; her feet pushed off the corner and she slammed straight into the customer, a butcher's knife pushed against his throat, her nose touching his.
He was around the counter and closing the blinds on the windows and doors, expertly, smoothly. They were down in seconds and Mana hissed while the customer struggled uselessly.
It was Jon.
My world went red and I stood, shaking, pointing.
Mercedes knocked her chair over standing up so quickly; she pulled a grey stiletto from her sleeve as I lost my sight to the redness. Mercedes said, "Seriously."
All was silence for I don't know how long, but when my vision returned. Mercedes and Mr. Liu were sitting at the table and Mana and him and Jon were no where to be seen.
Mr. Liu opened his bowl of soup and drank deeply, despite the rush of steam. He sighed with smile. "Hot." he said.
I looked at Mercedes. Mercedes stared into the back room, through the saloon doors, twirling her knife on a finger. When ten minutes passed without a word said I opened my soup and drank from it too.
The sun set.
One customer rattled the door, but it was locked. Mr. Liu held a wiry finger to his lips, looking back and forth between Mercedes and I.
I finished my soup. I finished the tea. I finished the vegetable tempura. Mercedes stabbed, quartered and ate the rest of the dumplings. I pulled out my phone and was checking my social media for the second time when with a creak, he came through the saloon doors.
His sleeves were rolled up, and his arms looked like a bloody relief shading of Mercedes's neck and head. He was drying his hands on a pure white dish towel.
Mr. Liu stood up. Mr. Liu bowed and he returned the bow. Mr. Liu slid silently through the saloon doors. He sat down. Carefully examining his hands, he asked, "You two can keep a secret, yes?"
"Is that Jon dead, too?" I asked.
He nodded, just once.
"I've killed Jon twice, myself. At least" I said, staring at the table. I laughed. I looked up. Mercedes and him were both staring at me, both their jaws a little unhinged, both their mouths quite open. "What?" I asked, looking at Mercedes. I asked, "Did you kill that Jon?" looking deeply into his nose.
He asked, "You killed Jon twice?"
I nodded and gulped. "Are you going to call the police?" I asked.
He and Mercedes stared at me for a long, long time. In silence.
Finally, he said, "No."
Mana shouted from the kitchen, "Not if you can keep a secret." Mana slipped soundlessly through the saloon doors with another, large, pot of tea. Mr. Liu followed her, though the doors squeaked for him. They all pulled chairs around us. I looked up and saw Patricia staring at us with hard eyes and white knuckles, behind the saloon doors. "Can you keep a secret?" Mana asked. She poured us all cups of tea, even one for Patricia, though she didn't come out to get it.
I looked at Mercedes and nodded. Mercedes nodded, too. "Yeah." I said, "We can keep secrets."
"Then please listen to this * "Said Mana.
She told us some ridiculous stories, none of which I'm retelling here. Sorry. When she was done I looked at him and shook my head. Mercedes picked absently at the loose skin on the back of her neck. She winced every time her fingertips touched her torched flesh, but she kept doing it anyway.
"So." He said, "If you see Jon again, call this number. Then kill him. Try to do it quietly, but if you can't kill him quietly." He texted Mercedes and I a phone number.
"Kill him loudly." Mana said.
Mr. Liu nodded and sat back.
Mercedes shivered heavily.
I just sat there. I jumped. It was Mom. She wanted to know if we were going to be home for dinner. I told her we would, that Mercedes was probably joining us, but that we weren't that hungry. "Okay, fine." Said Mom.
I hung up. "That was Mom." I said, "She wants us to be home for dinner in about an hour. I told her you were probably going to eat with us."
Mercedes checked her phone. "Looks that way," She said.
"What is Mom making for dinner?" He asked.
I said, "Not sure, didn't ask." I sipped from my empty teacup for the third time and contemplated the wash of information. I sighed. "So," I asked. "What's next?"
He said, "Well. I would like to go to the house. It will be strange for you. You can leave, but that is the next step. Can we do this after dinner?"
"In the dark?" Mercedes asked.
"Yes. You can leave." He said. "But the sooner I am there there better. William? Would it be rude to not go to dinner? I am suddenly anxious to see the house."
I frowned. I said, "I"m not telling Mom we won't be there, but you can. I don't need to eat, obviously."
"Rice balls." Mana said, "I'll make some rice balls for you, for the trip to the house."
"I'm good." Mercedes said. She sounded tired, though, and stuffed her hands in her pockets.
Mr. Liu got up and walked into the kitchen.
"I am serious. You do not need to stay. I will walk back, or call a cab if things go badly. You two do not need to stay in the house."
I looked him in the eyes; a grin crept between my lips. I said, "There's not much left of the house, honestly. I've been there. I didn't see anything interesting, but maybe you'll have more luck."
"I'll text Mom and let her know we won't be there for dinner, but to cook anyhow. Leftovers and what not." I said.
Mr. Liu came out of the kitchen and shouted at us to wait, but we were still pulling our coats on when he burst back into the dining room. He handed each of us a small, silver flash light. "Up for seeing, down for defense." Mr. Liu said, pushing the switch on a flashlight up and down. He handed it to Mercedes and repeated, "Up for seeing, down for defense. Okay?"
Mercedes nodded and pocketed the tiny flashlight.
"What is it?" Mr. Liu asked me, dangling a flashlight from the cord.
I blinked. "Up for seeing, down for defense." I said.
Mr. Liu smiled at me, "Good giant!" He said, not condescendingly. He patted my arm. "You may just live, yet." He patted me again. Mr. Liu handed him his flashlight without any questions and smiled broadly at the three of us. He said, "I asked Patricia if she wanted to with you all. Told her it would be a good experience, but she, ah, declined. I told her maybe next time, okay?"
"Okay!" He said, and high-fived Mr. Liu.
I texted, and got text-yelled-at for flip flopping (on dinner) by, Mom while Mercedes drove the three of us to the scene of so many crimes.
The night was desperate to suck the warmth from us but we stood straight backed and wide shouldered. Mercedes turned the car's high beams on and carefully wound us through the crooked driveway.
He rolled his window down and dangled a hand out the window as we trundled quietly toward the wreckage.
Mercedes stopped the car, but let the lights on, illuminating the blackened bones and struts of the house. The police tape had been torn down, and was barely visible under the leaves. A loose ball of it caught the light in a corner of the kicked over caldron.
He sniffed. "Did someone use acid here? To burn something?" He asked.
"Wow, really?" Asked Mercedes, "That's pretty good. Yeah. Morgan kicked over the caldron, but it was raining so much that night that
I sat in the back with my eyes clamped shut as Mercedes recalled the party for him. I focused on sealing my shut as tightly as possible, and on listening to the roar of blood pumping through the veins and capillaries in my ears. I pushed my teeth together, but it was no good: The blackness was turning to red and "Ouch!" I said. I opened my eyes, "What gives?"
He left his hand on my knee. He smiled and looked at me. He said, "You were shaking and sawing with your teeth on nothing. I'm here, you are, both, safe."
I said, "Thanks?"
He smiled at me. He popped the passenger door open and hopped out like a sprite. He cracked his knuckles and stretched his neck. "This is very graphic. I have not seen such a place as this before. In all my years. Not that there are many, aber. But. Here. And there is more. So much more blood." He spun in a circle, kept going, spun around again then fell to his knees, an arm outstretched, pushing a hand, a finger in a direction. He said, "That way. We must go that way." He scrambled to his feet and was off at a jog.
Mercedes and I had to run to keep up with him, and we were both wheezing when we broke through the thicket and into the clearing.
“Why no police tape?” He said.
We stared at the pond, and I started to loose my hearing. My vision started to cloud and go red and “OW!” I shouted.
Mercedes shushed me, but he smiled and nodded. He gently stroked the scar on the bridge of my nose. “Apologies.” He said. “You seemed to be about to faint.”
I rubbed my nose too. “Why the nose?” I asked.
“Because it hurts.” he said.
There were lumps of flesh, recognizable only as skin with bone protrusions. They bobbed and disappeared on the surface of the lake, as if pushed around by currents, but the surface was still when no chunks broke it.
“Wirr.” He said.
I shone my flashlight on the pond, at the area where he had his light pointed and the water started to bubble and steam, almost immediately. He turned on me, snatched my flashlight out of my hand and turned it off. "Baka!" he hissed. "Idiot. Did you not remember? What have you done!"
I looked at my shoes.
He clamped a hand on my shoulder. I looked up, and he was smiling. We said, "Sorry." at the same time, and I smiled back at him. He chuckled and clapped my shoulder a few more times. "Sorry, sorry." He said. "I forget my self, just then. Not good. Are you okay?"
I nodded. My smile felt false, so I dropped it.
"Your flashlight is up, yes?" He asked Mercedes.
She nodded at him and point up. Mercedes's mouth was very strange when she only half grinned.
"Thank-you." He said.
He turned and examined the lake: Stuck a finger in it, sniffed the water. Lay down and pushed an arm into the mud.
The hunks of flesh, the random bones, stopped bobbing. The meat and bones floated on the surface.
The leaves above us rattled and howled, but by the lake, everything was still.
He stood up, muddy, with some leaves stuck to his knees. He smiled wide at me and said, "You saved me from having to swim in there. Thank-you. Now we can explore the house."
"What's left of it." I said.
We walked slowly back toward the lights from the car. About halfway through the thicket, Mercedes asked, "Were you really going to go in that pond? With all that rotting flesh in it?"
"Yes." Came the reply.
"There was a, like a smell, so to speak. Faint. If I had gone into the pond, it would have been stronger. A clue, perhaps. But William, William and Mr. Liu's powerful little torch, saved me the hassle of being soaked during a freezing winter night like this. For which, again, I thank you William. Thank-you." He tipped an imaginary hat at me, in the dark.
I smiled, hollow and thin lipped. I knew when I was being made fun of. "I didn't know the lake was going to hurt us." I groused.
"Come come, William!" He said. "Now you know. And I know you know. We are in good company, now. Us and Mercedes!" He swooped at me and dragged me bodily toward Mercedes. He wrapped the both of us in a big hug and forced us into a march-step the rest of the way back to the house. We arrived with a jolt. "Both torches are on seeing and looking, yes?" He asked.
Mercedes and I nodded.
A wind rustled the leaves and the trees, they whispered at us, but I couldn't tell what. A black, ashy dust devil swirled in the car's headlights.
I looked at him --he was staring at me. He asked, "Are you feeling okay?"
I nodded. We turned toward the blackened remains of the house and
Mercedes and I nodded.
A wind rustled the leaves and the trees, they whispered at us, but I couldn't tell what. A black, ashy dust devil swirled in the car's headlights.
I looked at him --he was staring at me. He asked, "Are you feeling okay?"
I nodded. We turned toward the blackened remains of the house and