There are no stars in the sky.
The smog that covers Crosstone, entrapping the city in a never-ending sense of evening, is suffocating. It’s cold, the tail end of winter spiraling up to rush past the two of them on the roof. The streets below seem impossibly loud, sirens blaring against roaring crowds as firetrucks speed towards a rising smoke. The Harold Banks building is burning, flames unfurling through the windows and painting red tones on the dark blank canvas above. These flames are the only source of bright light, overpowering everything else and warming Kwong’s back. The smell of fumes reaches them even here, nearly five blocks away and four stories higher.
It’s at this highest point, with a heat nipping at their neck, that Kwong watches Quinton dance precariously on the ledge. Each step Kwong takes towards her is punctuated by another step Quinton takes in the waltz towards the edge. Her coat is childishly playing to the shine of the fire behind them, highlighting the railing she’s crossed over.
“There must be another way.”
There’s silence, and then laughter stumbles from Quinton’s throat, shaking her grey hair around her cheeks until another cool burst of wind sweeps it away with the embers.
“There is no other way,” she replies. Her voice sounds off, a mimic of her usual tone, a premade recording filtering through speakers. The white noise that was nearly a hum before grows louder, more intense, only interrupted by the crackling of the burning building.
“Quinton,” Kwong whispers, stepping forward.
There is no more space to waltz, there is only the fall.
“Quinton!” Kwong tries again, shouting over the white noise and the fire. “Don’t!”
The shout seems to carry, despite the static. Quinton stops her swaying movement. For the first time since they’ve arrived on this roof, Kwong sees her hesitate. She turns to face them, a small smile resting comfortably on her face.
“Don’t be afraid,” she whispers.
“Afraid of what?” Kwong calls out, reaching the railing.
Quinton shrugs and opens her mouth but Kwong is no longer able to hear her over the blaring white noise. Her tongue cleans her teeth, her lips move and then her shoulders shake as if she’s laughing at a joke Kwong will never be able to understand. And then her body tips back. Kwong instinctively moves forward, reaching out, the fumes watering their eyes.
But this moment has already happened, and Kwong knows what they see behind their eyelids. Darkness, and when they open their eyes, Quinton is gone. Kwong’s fingers grasp at floating embers.
Horror seeps into their blood and clots their veins, rooting them in place against the metal barricade. Suddenly, its safety feels like entrapment. All sound is gone, seeming to have fallen away with Quinton, leaving Kwong alone on the roof.
“Quinton?” Kwong coughs, the fire in their lungs making it difficult to breathe. Or maybe it is the immeasurable panic that grips at their throat, tightening with each passing second.
There is no spoken reply from the edge of the building, but it does answer. It twists into form, crawling from somewhere beneath, and spilling into itself like sentient oil. It dribbles onto the warming ground, small at first, but with each drop it gains a sense of body Kwong cannot understand. The shape twists, elongating itself and grows deep holes of red, for eyes and a mouth. As it slithers closer, opening itself to share its massive fangs, it watches Kwong with recognizable patience. It’s waiting, Kwong realizes, always waiting for the moment they twist away. But this moment has already happened, and as Kwong turns to run, a hissing sound interrupts the silence and sharp pain shoots through their neck.
And then there’s nothing.
Kwong shoots forward, breathing heavy.
Their apartment is dark, the windows, bare of curtains, showcase the sky right before dawn. The sheets around them are soaked with sweat and the loose hair tie Kwong uses at night has slipped away between the pillows. Despite the small fan that resides by their bedside desperately spinning, Kwong feels feverish and sticky. It’s as if Spring decided to end prematurely, giving way for rolling Summer heat.
A dull ache rests at the center of their head and Kwong, with unsteady hands, reaches up to gently rub between their brows. It does nothing to soothe them, but eventually, the familiar ringing in their ears subsides and the quiet reminder of their neighbors’ tumultuous relationship filters in.
Shouting and a pot slamming to the floor. It echoes through their shared walls in their cramped apartments, making the plants that hang from the ceiling shake in warning.
“Fuck,” Kwong mutters, falling back into bed, throwing the wet sheets to the floor for now. Their pillow follows soon after when they turn their cheek and feel the wet spots from sweat. Another pot slams against the floor, the yelling too muffled to make out what this particular fight was about. If Kwong hazards a guess, it’s probably because rent is due in two days and neither of them have saved for it. Kwong understands this frustration personally.
Only having moved in two months ago, money wasn’t a luxury Kwong could spare until Mike hired them.
Kwong sighs, pulling their palms up to cover their eyes, cooling if only for a moment. Behind their eyelids, a darkness sits still before sparks of red seem to shoot across the vast space.
“What were you trying to tell me?” Kwong mutters to themself. “What did you want me to do?”
Kwong’s plants shake with the tremor of another thrown pot, this time against the wall rather than the floor.
When morning comes, it flitters through the windows unapologetically. The light finds itself directly on their face, where Kwong’s eyes remained open since they initially awoke.
Get up, their mind tells them. You’re going to be late.
Groaning, Kwong propels themselves forward, placing bare feet on the wooden floors of their apartment. They yawn, scratching at the back of their neck as they stand and make their way towards the bathroom. Mornings are easy, the routine efficient by now after having spent the last couple months sharpening it until it required no mental work from Kwong.
Boots are tied, hair is held around the neck by goggles, and a backpack is hauled over their shoulders. Before leaving, they’re sure to water all the plants, careful to maneuver everyone towards the sun as the seasons change.
Kwong finishes, locks the door behind them and turns to make their way down the thirty flights of concrete stairs, only to be stopped by a guilty looking husband.
Jesse sits on the stairwell, taking up the entirety of the narrow aisle, and lights up his second cigarette of the morning.
“You heard us last night, right?”
Not this again, Kwong dreads. They outwardly sigh, hoisting the strap of their backpack higher up their shoulder.
“I know you did. Everyone in this damn building can hear us.”
“Jesse, I’m going to be late for work.”
“She just gets so frustrating, you know? I think she’s cheating on me. Do you think she’s cheating on me?”
Kwong attempts to ease their way by. There’s a small space where Jesse has placed an ashtray that his body doesn’t cover and if Kwong sticks to the walls, they’re sure they can squeeze through. They nearly make it.
“C’mon, you gotta know something. Weren’t you a cop or something?” Jesse’s hand shoots forward, wrapping around Kwong’s wrist, stopping them in their tracks. Kwong frowns.
“Don’t pretend, everyone in the damn district knows. You used to run with the blues, some high ranking official or whatever.”
Kwong wrenches their arm free, mildly enjoying how Jesse stumbles forward, catching himself with the railing. Jesse looks up, and Kwong notes the redness around his eyes.
“Sorry,” Jesse mumbles, sitting back on the step. “Look, I’m just hungover. I didn’t mean to get all grabby.”
“She’s cheating on you.”
Jesse’s face snaps up to face Kwong, their brown eyes wide in surprise. “What? You’re sure? How do you know?”
Kwong shrugs, moving down the steps and away from him. They don’t turn around.
“Everyone in the damn district knows, Jesse.”
Jesse doesn’t say anything in return.
Kwong makes it to the bottom of the stairs without any other surprises. They cross the street, into the massive lot that becomes a sprawling market in a few hours. It’s this market that is considered the center of their tight-knit district, Lokra. Kwong hates how empty it appears during the early morning. Mostly empty.
Kwong nods politely at the elderly women who sit huddled together in lawn chairs, drinking their steaming tea with a watchful eye, waiting for their children to come down and set up their stands. At the very back, hidden behind large carts and vans, sits a clunky machine with faded red paint and the words MIKE’S REPAIRS sprawled over in offensively bold black ink. The motorcycle, a decade old model, is perched on two wooden planks, on account of its lack of wheels.
“Are you going to start for me today?” Kwong asks the bike, clipping the chest strap of their backpack closed and securing it in place. With a grunt, Kwong hoists themselves up, sliding into the old white leather seat and leaning back. The goggles on their neck clank in reminder and Kwong pulls them up to sit tightly over their eyes. They’re about to start the motor when a small slip of paper, resting delicately on the abysmal excuse for a windshield, catches their eye.
“You must be fucking joking,” Kwong says, a gloved hand pulling the paper free and bringing it close enough to read. A parking ticket marked for urgent notice.
“One of your buddies left that for you,” an old woman calls from her place at the circle. The other women remain silent. “Came real early too! Checked the whole lot for you.”
“Ex-buddies,” Kwong corrects, folding the ticket and placing it inside the back pocket of their jumpsuit. “Remember what this buddy looked like?”
The elderly women whisper amongst each other, but otherwise remain quiet.
“I’ll bring you some of those biscotti Mike’s wife makes for your afternoon teatime.”
“He had long brown hair,” one speaks up. “And a thick beard. Very burly.”
Johan? Kwong thinks. What’s he doing all the way out here?
“Don’t forget the biscotti, Ah Kwong!” The women call together and Kwong waves in acknowledgement, turning their attention to the bike and starting the engine. It only takes one try for a hum to vibrate at Kwong’s legs. Hot air funnels through the bottom of the machine, jolting it upwards into the air. Once the small bulb on the dash switches from red to blue, Kwong steers the bike out of the parking lot and pulls onto the street. They ignore the half-hearted calls of anger for kicking up dirt.
Mike’s Repairs hides itself behind the fish market at the docks in Arklo. The business is set up within a warehouse that once harbored luxury cruises before Crosstone’s wealth became an enclosed point deep within Metropolis. Now, there’s only the market, the fishing boats, the repair shop, and the endless streams of factories that have cropped up in the graveyards of greener times. Their fog darkens the area to a perpetual grey.
“You’re late,” Mike grunts upon Kwong’s arrival, feet jutting out from under a lifted automobile, its tires turned inwards. Kwong frowns, walking over the protruding limbs and dropping the parking ticket onto Mike’s chest as they pass by. Their focus is on the cork billboard on the back wall, orders neatly lined up. Mike’s daughter, Abby, sits beside it, typewriter settled under her fingertips when she casts Kwong a smile.
“Good morning!” She greets happily, moving thick braids away from her face. “I saved you some biscotti.”
“’Morning,” Kwong replies, hearing the screeching wheels of Mike escaping his place from beneath the car. “I promised some women in Lokra I’d bring some back with me.”
“That’s where you’re living now, right? Lokra’s a pretty crowded place—”
“What the fuck is this? You got a ticket?! Again!” Mike sounds incredulous, maneuvering to Kwong and his daughter, waving the yellow paper between his fingers. His head meets Kwong’s shoulders, dusty brown hair shaved close to the skull, and from this angle, Kwong can make out the gnarly scar that crosses from ear to ear.
“They really have it out for you, kid. You’d think after quitting, they’d leave you alone.”
“You’d think,” Kwong agrees.
“It’s a social circle thing,” Abby provides, already placing the biscotti into a clear box container. “I was reading about it for class. You used to be one of their own. And they think, you know—?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Mike grunts, folding the ticket and handing it back to Kwong before turning towards the billboard. “Just pay up quietly and move on. Those boys in blue will get bored of you eventually.”
Kwong frowns, taking the ticket, ignoring the grease stains all over it. “I have a feeling that won’t be the case.”
“Why?” Mike says, plucking one of the orderly assignments, and then another. He glances down at his choices and hums approvingly. He barely looks at Kwong as he extends them but when Kwong reaches out, Mike’s free hand extends to grab at their wrist.
Kwong can feel the metal gears shifting underneath thick leather gloves.
“You still seeing things, Kwong?”
Kwong glances down to catch Mike’s eyes. “No, not in two months.”
“Are you lying to me?”
“And the dreams?”
“Haven’t had one since I moved.”
“Dad,” Abby interrupts. “Give them the tickets! They’re on the clock.”
Abby stands up, snagging the assignments from her father. The movement causes Mike’s grip to loosen and Kwong gently pulls themselves free.
“Here, Kwong,” Abby says, smiling. “One order in Dowwell, one in Lokra and the last one is in the Melos District. Huh, that’s a bit far?”
“It’s fine,” Kwong replies, taking the offered assignments. “I’ll get started now.”
“Excuse me for giving a fuck. I’m just a senile old man,” Mike sulks, turning back to his project.
“I appreciate it.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Mike sighs, laying back down on the wooden plank and rolling under the automobile. “After finishing those orders, take the day off. You look like you haven’t slept in years.”
Kwong nods, despite Mike no longer being able to see them. “Alright, thanks.”
“Don’t forget this,” Abby says, passing the box of biscotti along. “I’m sure the grannies will appreciate this.”
“Don’t let them hear you call them that.”
Abby laughs, and Kwong is back on the diesel bike. It takes three tries this time for the engine to start, but Kwong isn’t in a hurry.
Dowwell’s assignment was straightforward. A young mother, a screaming child on her hip, requested a repair on a laundry machine. It’s an old model, around the era of Kwong’s bike and just as familiar. It’s pretty banged up but after a deep cleaning in the filtering and piping system, Kwong found a pair of bright undergarments that seemed to have slipped through the mesh. The mother looked embarrassed; her cheeks colored the same as the offending clothing article snatched from their hand. She paid promptly.
The second assignment seemed more of an annoyance than usual. Jesse had requested it, back in Lokra. Kwong thinks of the flying cooking pans and Holly’s voice rattling the hanging plants. The market lot is filled now, bustling with noon activity of eager lunch goers during breaks of work. It forces Kwong to park their bike in the side of the apartment complex, hidden from the main street to avoid the possibility of a patrolling Johan.
They flag the HAZARD light on the dash and kill the engine, sliding off after the bike settles roughly on the ground. Kwong makes their way around to the front entrance, unlatching their keys from the strap of their backpack when a cool wind rushes up from behind. It settles on the nape of their neck, pricking the skin and small hairs there. The East of Crosstone was in the middle of its Spring season for the year and yet, the breeze felt startling and out of place. Kwong attempts to unlock the door, their other hand reaching up to rub goosebumps-riddled skin. The key clicks into place, but before Kwong can turn it, they feel it.
Something hot, burning ire that centers itself squarely on their back. Slowly, Kwong glances to the market place behind them.
The crowd is bustling, moving in unorganized directions as people order food or find places to sit. The stalls are open with waiting lines and the smell of fried food is heavy even across the road. In the center, directly in line with where Kwong is positioned, is a stall run by Lo Wong, the eldest son of one of the elderly women. He notices Kwong looking from aways and despite the busy customer queue, shoots Kwong a smile and wave.
Kwong can’t find it in themselves to wave back, eyes focused on a figure that resides by the booth. Tall, taller than Kwong, taller than the stand, than the windows, than anything humanly had a right to be.
Its body is hunched, covered in a thick shadow that wisps around it. In its right hand, a cartoonish mask of a crying woman held to its face, black hair cascading down its sides. In its left, a blade that glitters in the sunlight, stretching from its bent legs to the asphalt.
It’s not real, Kwong rationalizes. I’m dreaming.
And yet, with each passing moment, the shadow remains, almost patient. Kwong turns away, their goggles bouncing around their neck. The door is quickly pushed open, and with an uneasy exhale, Kwong slips into their apartment complex. They make sure to shut the door behind them. And the hallucination is put behind them.
For the second time today, Kwong makes their way through thirty flights of stairs.
“I knew they’d send you!” Jesse exclaims when he opens the door and spots Kwong. His excitement only dampers when he takes in their appearance. “You okay, man? You don’t look so good…”
“I’m fine,” Kwong says, agitated. They hadn’t had a moment to catch their breath and despite schooling their expression, their heart thumped in panic within their chest.
Kwong reaches up to wipe the sweat off their brow. “What’s the problem?”
“Toilet’s clogged,” Holly says from behind her husband. Jesse nods, moving aside to allow Kwong in.
“And you couldn’t handle that yourself?” Kwong accuses, stepping through the doorway. Heavy leather boots creak against the faux wooden floors. The apartment is small, mirrors the layout of Kwong’s in reverse and thus, the bathroom is exactly where they’d think.
“It’s gross, dude,” Jesse provides, as if that’s enough.
“He can’t do anything! It’s why we can’t even move out of Lokra,” Holly adds, following Kwong close behind. Jesse hangs back. Her hair has grown from her signature blonde to a vibrant orange. It reminds Kwong of the elders in Helba with their henna stained hands and hair, huddled together in the evenings to share the day’s gossip. It looks nice. Kwong tells her so.
“Oh,” Holly says, surprised by the compliment. “Thanks. I’m glad someone noticed.”
“You did something to your hair?” Jesse asks, finally joining them as Kwong glances down at the toilet bowl. They briefly thank whoever is listening that it appears to have been cleaned prior to their arrival.
“So, it’s clogged?”
“It won’t even flush.”
“Did you throw anything in it?”
“I’m not twelve!”
“Do you have a plunger? Toilet auger?” Kwong asks. The two of them shake their heads.
“We didn’t use it at all today!” Jesse exclaims.
Kwong sighs, unbuckling the chest strap and relaxing their shoulders so their backpack slips down. They reach in and pull out a pair of high reaching elbow rubber gloves, bright yellow and as ridiculous as the situation.
“This costs extra,” Kwong mutters before dipping their right hand into the bowl, their left used to steady them. Jesse and Holly watch curiously, peering over Kwong’s shoulders as Kwong bend to rub around the pipe. Their fingers brush against something solid and Kwong immediately frowns, narrowing their eyes at Jesse, who quickly looks away.
“There’s something down here.”
Kwong pushes against the mass, solid against their fingers, as if something was stuffed into the bowl in haste.
“What is it?” Holly asks, worrying her lip. “Is it going to be expensive?”
“I think I can get it,” Kwong says, bending their knees to position themselves better. They push against the mass until their fingers are able to hook around a loose end. Kwong pulls.
It’s difficult at first, refusing to budge until Kwong applies a lot more focus, leaning back to give them momentum. Something pops, like the pressure has been lifted, and Kwong nearly falls back as they begin to drag out whatever was hiding.
“Oh my god!” Holly screeches, snapping Kwong’s attention to their gloved hand. Around their fingers are large clumps of hair, long and dark black. It’s thick, coiling around their fingers like snakes, the ends dipping back into the bowl. Kwong stares, trying to not think any deeper of it and continues to pull. Longer and longer, the hair continues to stretch, the free end falling with a wet plop on the tiled floor.
“What the fuck?” Kwong asks, shocked as an entangled mess of black hair grows in size the longer they pull. It seems like there is no end in sight before there’s another pop and a hiss and then there’s no more hair. At this point, there’s enough on the floor beside them to cover a human head.
Kwong doesn’t know what to say.
“I knew it,” Holly says, breaking the silence. She’s angry. “You fucking cheater!”
Kwong and Jesse both start, glancing at her as she whips around and hurriedly storms off.
It takes a few seconds for Jesse’s mind to catch up but soon, he’s stumbling after her. “Wait, Holly! It’s not like that.”
Kwong doesn’t move but they can hear it, the beginning of one of their many fights. The cabinet swings open and pots start to clatter around. Kwong doesn’t bother doing anything with the hair, horrified enough to leave it as is and get up. The gloves soon join the pile on the floor as Kwong swings their backpack over their shoulder.
“Expect a bill in the mail soon,” Kwong calls out after them, unheard over their growing bickering. They close the door after them and once they are sure they are alone in the stairway, they breathe out.
“What’s going on with me?” Kwong questions, their heart rate picking up again. The shadow, the hair. It feels as if they are being watched. Kwong takes a shaky step down the stairs, then another, and thinks of how nice the breeze will feel when they take off to their last order.
And yet, when Kwong reaches the seventeenth floor’s landing, their body refuses to move. As if fear has managed to slip into their mind unbeknownst to them. Kwong reaches for the railing to steady themselves, their body swaying, a headache forming behind their eyes.
And that’s when they hear it.
Jingling, like a set of keys on a hip, like coins accidentally left in pockets of laundry, like knives clattering against each other. Sweat building on their brow, Kwong leans down to look below them.
The shadow. Its body is shaking as if it’s weeping, the blade swinging back and forth. Kwong stares at it, from their place a few stories above. Its feet are bare and where toes would be are ten claws that bend into the concrete of the stairs. The air is cold. There is no sound except for the clicking of metal.
“It’s a dream,” Kwong whispers. “You’re seeing things again. It’s not real.”
It’s not a dream.
“Fuck!” Kwong shouts, adrenaline breaking whatever spell enthralled them in the first place as they jut backwards, away from the railing. Without hesitation, the clicking sound ringing in their ears with each passing step, Kwong climbs two flights of stairs. They reach the nineteenth floor, skidding to a stop in front of 19B. Just as they’re about to knock, the door cracks open.
“Ah Kwong!” An elderly man greets. “You startled me.”
“Lola Sook Sook,” Kwong nods politely, straining to ignore the clattering that grows closer.
“I’m sorry to bother. Can I use your fire escape?”
Lola hesitates, clearly confused but moves aside eventually to let Kwong slink in. They close the door quickly behind them.
“Of course,” Lola finally answers, watching as Kwong slowly backs away from their door. “Is everything alright?”
“Everything is fine,” Kwong says, making their way towards his window. “Were you going somewhere?”
Lola smiles, seemingly relaxing. Maybe he’s chalking this up to Kwong’s eccentricity as he has known them since they moved in. Brought them tea when the nightmares had caused Kwong to scream in their sleep, echoing through the thin walls of their apartment complex, even to the nineteenth floor.
“Yes, I was. Those ladies need an old man around to tell them when they’re being shameless.”
“I could think of no one better.” Kwong opens the window.
“Are you sure? That you’re alright?”
There is no more clicking.
“For an ex-Enforcer, you’re a terrible liar.”
“I know, right?” Kwong jokes, one foot out the window and tapping against the fire escape. “Probably why I couldn’t cut it.” Their backpack shuffles and Kwong remembers the plastic container in there. They stop their movement, straddling the windowsill and opening up their pack to pull it out and rest it on the small table beside them. “Can you bring this with you? I promised biscotti.”
“Oh! Are these from Ah Mike? I’ve always loved his wife’s baking.”
“Please share them,” Kwong says, smiling politely and closing the window as they exit. The fire escape groans in protest at their weight, but it feels infinitely safer out here than on the stairwell. Kwong won’t call it a race to the bottom, but they do move two steps at a time.
The motorcycle is where they left it. It takes five tries for the engine to start and when it does, Kwong ignores the cool breeze that returns to whisper against their neck.
Melos is a district known for its empty mornings and compact nightly activities. It resides near the ring of the Fifth, to make it accessible to those in the Fourth as well. Despite its apparent enjoyment and fanfare, no one truly lives in Melos. It’s often associated with dead ends and bottomless tabs.
Kwong’s only been there a couple times. Back when they were an Enforcer and the precinct took them to drinks for their birthday, and as a poorly thought out gift from Mike when they moved into Lokra. Both those times the sun had long set and the night was brightly lit by street lamps and glowing signs. Now, during the day, Kwong feels that there’s nothing here, that no life resides in these quiet roads.
There doesn’t seem to be any cool winds either.
Kwong puts the bike to a crawling pace and glances down at the last order. It’s a request for a radio repair. It would be annoying, calling a repairman from Arklo all the way to Melos, a three-hour journey on a busy day, if it didn’t finally give Kwong a moment of peace. Their breathing is finally steadying.
The address, 74BG, leads Kwong to hover outside a boarded-up town home. Spray paint litters the front with HAUNTED! KEEP OUT! in bright bubbly pink letters. Kwong stares at the ticket and cuts the engine. The motorcycle clunks to the ground, helping them propel off it smoothly with practiced ease. Kwong clicks on the HAZARD lights once more and folds the ticket into their pocket as they head up the cobbled stone path.
The building clearly looks like the survivor of a fire or an explosion, the windows above the first floor having been blown out. Scorch marks litter the bricks around the entrances and small patches of grass from what was probably once a garden remain dead.
This is 74, Kwong thinks, glancing on either side of the building. There’s a small narrow path on the right, nearly covered in broken glass and hidden under discarded planks of wood. Kwong frowns and follows it, thick boots preventing shards from digging into them. Reaching the end of the home, the path turns a corner and directs them to another structure. Cellar doors labeled with A PLACE OF WORSHIP in the same bubbly pink. A neon sign hangs loosely above, dull with no electricity running through it. PRAYER WILL GUIDE YOU it warns. Beside the doors are some sort of shrines featuring religious iconography Kwong is unfamiliar with.
I get it, Kwong realizes. 74 Below Ground. Hilarious.
Kwong bends their knees and strains themselves for what feels like the millionth time today to heave the doors open. They groan but eventually, the wood swings around on its hinges and Kwong is looking down at a narrow ladder.
“It’s never simple,” Kwong mutters, hiking their jumpsuit up higher on their waist and tightening the sleeves around their hips. They secure their backpack before turning around to start their descent.
The first step is easy, the second creaks.
The third is met with a terrible chill.
What light fluttered through the smog of Crosstone suddenly vanished against them. Kwong shivers, knowing that when they look up, something tall and sinister will meet them. They’re unable to stop themselves, peeling their gaze from the splintered rungs of the ladder, moving from clawed feet and grey rags and landing on a mask of a weeping woman.
The shadow looks down at Kwong, as if perplexed by their nature as much as they are by it. And then it moves faster than Kwong can register. It brings its blade down from the left.
“Shit!” Kwong grunts, their cheek stinging as they push away, adrenaline pumping through their veins. The ladder is old, refuses to move with Kwong and they lose their footing and their grasp. Kwong is falling.
The ground rushes up to meet them, pain blossoming in the back of their eyelids where the inky darkness meets red embers and it smells like smoke.
Kwong groans as needles shoot through their shoulder, which took the brunt of the landing, and curls in on themself.
They don’t know how long they lay there, eyes tightly shut and breathing in deeply. Maybe seconds, maybe minutes, but eventually, Kwong’s exhaling slowly through their nose and the pain has subsided some from its initial explosion. Carefully, they open their eyes to glance at the entrance from which they came. There is nothing there anymore, no lingering shadow, no smoke. Only the sun bleeds through the open door.
“That was a helluva fall,” a voice says, soft enough Kwong nearly misses it.
Kwong springs forward, ignoring the immediate retaliation of their shoulder and glancing around. The cellar is mostly empty. Prayer rugs litter the cold concrete floor, all leading up to a small stage at the very end. There, Kwong spots the radio, crackling as if unable to filter anything through its speaker but white noise. Beside it is a man, whose body is stretched out comfortably.
The stranger slowly sits up, pushing himself off his elbows to give Kwong a proper smile. The mechanic notices two things, the sunglasses that rest effortlessly on the bridge of his nose, and the thick ink that mars the hand that extends itself in some makeshift greeting. Snakes, dark and curling, cover nearly all of the exposed pale skin.
Kwong is unsure, thrown off from the harsh landing and the echoing pain, but the tattoos look as if they’re shifting.
“What’s wrong?” The stranger asks, pleased with himself. He sounds happy, grinning shamelessly.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
EPISODE ONE: THE STRANGER
SON M. & CATHY KWAN