It’s well after midnight by the time Kwong stumbles into their apartment. They should have known better, the drive from Helba back home often asks for misery. The roads are congested and the heavy smog rolling in from the West blocks any air traffic. It’s too hazardous to fly when the smoke is thick enough to choke you and thin enough to do it silently.
Instead, Kwong relied on their bike's low hovering mechanic as they moved through the packed streets. Hot air brushing against their ankles, no other company except for the humming of the red machine and the ambient chatter of traffic.
And the stranger’s voice, ringing in their ear.
“It’s you, Yeung.”
“You’re the ripple.”
“Ridiculous,” Kwong mutters, as if saying it aloud would persuade them. Kwong gently pushes the door shut with their foot and hears the satisfying click of the lock. They place their keys in the small bowl awaiting them and unbuckles their pack, resting it on the floor there with gentleness. Then the boots, then the jumpsuit, then the folded white layers Kwong wears tight until there’s nothing left and Kwong finds themself standing under the cold rain of a shower, naked and still desperately attempting to cling to some fleeting thought.
Their mind refuses to steady.
The Stranger, Kwong knowing no other way to refer to him, seemed suspicious at most and had a sleeziness to him that felt familiar in the marketplace. The kind of sort that would sell you something neatly packaged at a reasonably high price, only for you to find the expiration date had been scratched off. Only instead of food, it was fortunes, like the elderly women who wander down Third with beads in hand and predictions on their lips. The difference was, in the hazy Helba lights and the darkness of the restaurant, Kwong nearly believed this one.
Maybe it was the effortless smile, maybe it was how the Stranger moved like a cat but settled like a ghost. Whatever it is, the thought shakes Kwong into wakefulness and they quickly finish up and turn off the running water.
By the time they finally settle in bed, Kwong’s body gives way, overwhelmed from the day’s misadventure. When they awake, the sun has already reached its highest point in the sky.
There’s tea brewing by the time Kwong manages to make it to work. Abby’s at the only customer desk stationed in the warehouse. She seems to have finished messing with the pinboard, organizing the daily tickets before turning around to face them. She smiles and waves.
“Hey there, champ!” Abby grins, sitting up to get a better look at them as Kwong kills the engine, parking their bike. She watches as they slide down the seat and make their way over to her. Her expression drops a little the closer Kwong gets.
“Oh,” she says when Kwong reaches the desk. “You don’t look so well.”
“I’m okay,” Kwong sighs, rubbing absentmindedly under their nose. “Just had a fitful night.”
“Your cheeks are pretty red. Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Look—Did we send over the radio already? You know, the order from yesterday?”
Abby perks up, generous enough to allow the subject change. Turning around once more, she plucks a ticket from the board. “Dad did it earlier today, delivered to some fellow in Helba.”
“Was there a name on the commission?” Kwong asks curiously.
Abby squints at the piece of paper in her hands, checking the back to be sure before shaking her head. “Weird, wonder how Dad knew who to deliver it too.”
“You didn’t meet him yesterday. He’s hard to miss.”
Abby looks at Kwong, silent for a moment before pushing the ticket down through a nail. “He must have been interesting–and speaking of interesting work, I’ve got a new job lined up for you.”
“Sounds like only one?”
“Well,” Abby continues, walking around the desk to open up a drawer beside the small stool that resides there. “I was going to give you three, but I don’t think you’ll make it.”
“Trust me, it’s still a big one.”
Kwong reaches out and plucks the offered ticket from Abby’s hand, bringing it closer to get a better look. For some reason, Kwong’s eyes struggle to focus until Lokra comes into view.
“You live around there, right?” Abby asks, looking up at Kwong from under her lashes. Kwong is unable to read her expression. “Why not do this one and then head home? I’m serious, I feel like I’m talking to a zombie!”
“Point taken,” Kwong gripes, folding the paper. “I’ll get it done. See you tomorrow.”
“Go to bed early!” Abby calls after them. “And drink water!”
Kwong waves her off but follows her advice, picking up some bottled water from a vendor and trucking forward.
With a sense of dejavu, Kwong finds themself sitting square in front of their own apartment complex. Their bike parked across the street, finding home among the food vendors in the marketplace, preparing for the inevitable dinner rush.
Unlike their last commission in their own apartment complex, the caller was by a name Kwong didn’t recognize. Kwong examines the ticket as they climb up the stairs. The apartment is on the fourth floor, the general note says the door is open for when they arrive–the apartment is empty during the day due to a busy work schedule. The drain pipe has been making an awful noise, they told Abby. A rattling that sometimes sounded like a hiss whenever the showerhead was turned on. The simple solution is hair, but product buildup is not unusual either. Nevertheless, to Kwong, from place to request, it was a job of familiarity.
And yet, with each floor Kwong conquered, a part of them would force a pause in their step and peel their gaze downward–waiting to see if a mask waited for them below.
From the fourth floor, the market lot can still be heard, echoing in the halls. Through the hallway window, Kwong can see the steam rising from trucks and outdoor grills. It’s comforting, a constant in their life now that provides something for Kwong to stand on. Casting one last glance to the crowd, Kwong sighs and turns towards room 434.
“You’re the ripple.”
Just as the ticket said, the door is unlocked. Kwong’s shoulders it open gingerly and quietly removes their shoes at the entrance, next to a small greeting mat. Hoisting their backpack higher, Kwong makes a beeline for the bathroom. It’s clean, unnervingly so, and the layout mirrors their own–the difference only in the tiles. Kwong notes it immediately, the pattern in reverse to the one they stare at in their place. Nearly unremarkable except for the angle of the corners. It swallows the small room in uncertainty, as if something is off but only by a fraction. The nagging feeling of someone standing too close.
It takes Kwong back to the last time they were called in for piping repairs, a clump of hair unfurling from the depths and crawling to the surface. It’s not the same, Kwong says to themself, attempting to quickly dissipate the thought and focus their attention on the shower at hand.
Let muscle memory control the pace.
Kwong quickly removes the head of the shower, examining the pipe. Immediately the problem is apparent, the old metal tunnel having plaque buildup in a dark ring. The afternoon is spent in relative silence, chipping away at the gunk there and cleaning it with delicate fingers. When they test it, screwing it back into place, the water runs smoothly, spraying from the showerhead and sputtering on the tiles below. Satisfied with themself, Kwong shuts it off with a relieved sigh.
But the sputtering noise continues.
Kwong’s head snaps up, confused. The shower dial has been set to off and no water sprays from the head anymore. Somewhere new, water is leaking. They close their eyes, straining their ears to listen closely. The running water sounds close, as if it were in this apartment, and yet muffled enough, as if hidden behind its walls.
“What is that?”
“You’re the ripple.”
It’s frustrating–Kwong can hear the Stranger’s damn voice in their head, echoing like the water now. They try to ignore it, just as they’ve done all day, except when Kwong steps out of the shower, their feet are submerged in water.
“What?” Kwong gasps, shocked by the sudden cold wetness that soaks their socks, glancing down.
The bathroom floor has flooded.
Water is spilling into the small room, seeping from underneath the door outside. Something has gone terribly wrong.
Hesitantly, Kwong pushes themself forward, bracing against the splashing of the water around their ankles and exits the bathroom only to stand in the middle of a drowning apartment.
The faucet, somehow having switched on since Kwong was at the entrance, spills water into an overflowing sink, further spilling it onto the ground like an endless homemade waterfall. Despite being sure to have only been in the bathroom for an hour, the water level of the room appears to have been filling for far longer than possible. As if the tenants who live here, who purchased the ticket and called for Kwong’s aid, had turned it on for days before Kwong arrived.
It’s impossible, Kwong thinks. It’s impossible but don’t let it rattle you.
Grabbing the strap of their backpack to ground themself, Kwong drags their feet towards the counter. They do everything they can to ignore the way the water drapes against their pant legs, clinging to their jumpsuit and slowly easing up higher and higher. They reach the sink without any resistance and move to twist the metal knob to off–except when Kwong wraps their fingers around the metal, it’s hot enough to burn.
“Shit,” Kwong hisses, pulling away on instinct. It stings, the skin around their open palm feeling ripe and stretched. Out of habit they quickly blow on it, attempting to ease the pain before reaching for their gloves. They pull them free from their chest strap and rush to slip them on and reach out again. As their arm extends, wrapping around the scolding metal dial, something large falls into the rising water behind them.
Kwong pauses. The sound felt alive. Without any preamble, Kwong whips around, glancing at the impeccable, yet flooded, living space. The water is still except for where they stand but Kwong is sure–they heard it.
Something is different, something is here. Something is below the surface, and the wood and the tiling has distorted the water to make it difficult to see.
Gone is the looming shadow, lingering at the edge of Kwong’s peripheral. Now, a beast has come, all consuming and ever present that holds Kwong down in place with a fear of which they are unfamiliar with the weight of it. The type of heavy fear that swallows you in a split second, the type that grips you at the tail end of a nightmare, when your body is convinced you’re falling and attempts to bring you back to life.
Wake up, it tries to tell you. You’re dying.
In the living room, where in Kwong’s own place exists a beautiful fern, something parts the water. Kwong narrows their eyes, their vision growing blurry around the edges as they stare with every ounce of concentration they can muster. Be it the cold or something else entirely, but whatever parted the water, whatever is standing before Kwong, is practically invisible to them. Their presence is there, the water parting in a perfect mirror, as if two thick legs stand at attention. Facing them.
The Stranger had said something about this, in such a casual manner Kwong thinks it's a hallucination. A weapon, the spirit will have a weapon.
Kwong’s eyes frantically scan around the vague shape forming in the water. But its figure is marred by uncertainty, its presence just an invisible weight in the room.
“Fuck,” Kwong whispers, the horror of the situation crashing down on them just as the water parts once more. A step, the ghost, the invisible force, has taken a step forward. Then another. Towards Kwong. It’s real.
Terrified, Kwong slowly lets go of the sink, afraid that any sudden movement would bring the…the thing closer to them, faster. They ease their way towards the door, attempting to keep the rippling around them to a minimum. The shape of the water tells Kwong it’s following them, mirroring their movements. A step for a step. When Kwong reaches the edge of the counter, a few feet away from the door and therefore, possible safety, Kwong makes the executive decision to book it.
Sharp inhale, time moves to a recognizable pace, and Kwong propels their body forward, twisting their heel and reaching out. It’s practically a leap to the exit and it feels like a success, Kwong’s fingers touch the cool metal of the doorknob before something snaps, gripping their backpack with inhuman force and ripping Kwong down. The floor rushes up to meet them, encased with water, and Kwong hits the ground with a muted splash.
Arms extending, Kwong attempts to pull themself up from the depths below but a weight presses against their now bare back, holding them down. There’s no purchase to scramble on, the tiles slipping between Kwong’s fingers. There’s nothing and the more Kwong struggles, the heavier the weight grows, their spine groaning in protest.
You’re dying, Kwong’s body tells them.
Water is seeping into Kwong’s lungs and with clarity they should have recognized long before, Kwong understands that this thing is trying to kill them. That in this moment, the sensation, the one where you feel as if you’re falling, on the cusp of a nightmare, washes over them.
Darkness descends around them, flooding the space between Kwong’s eyelids. Just as they’re sure it’s over, their body no longer able to flail about, Kwong sees it, in the depths of their consciousness. The red eyes of a snake, and the white of a mask.
And then, nothing.
“You alright there, bud?”
A distant voice, taunting in its casual nature, creates a fissure in the void of Kwong’s mind. It’s near them, and clear enough to make out over the bustling of the marketplace outside.
Kwong’s body trembles, wracking up a wretched cough that burns at their lungs as air begins to fill them. Crisp and beautiful, Kwong nearly hiccups on a desperate inhale. The tile is cool on their cheek.
“There, there,” the voice continues. “You’re gonna be okay.”
“Who…?” Kwong asks, slowly willing their eyes to open. They blink once, twice before finally focusing their vision. They’re still in the apartment, 434, reverse tile pattern. Kwong can see it, even from their position on the floor, just underneath their gloved fingertips.
Gently, Kwong lulls their head to the side to look around. Their body is soaked to the bone, but there is no longer the sound of running water. In fact, the water seems to have been mostly drained. Wet rugs, fallen over stools and a handful of puddles are the only indication of what’s happened here. That and Kwong, who shivers as they slowly pull themselves up with weak arms.
“That…that thing,” Kwong remembers, whipping their head to cast a glance around the apartment, their wet hair flying around and smacking them lightly on the cheeks and shoulder. The place seems peaceful now, the sink having stopped flooding with water and the balcony door is now open. The water has probably spilled out through there, down onto the street below. Kwong can imagine the public outcry.
“That was a spirit actually, one you’re probably quite familiar with, if I had to hazard a guess.”
Kwong’s eyes finally land on the other person in the room, no doubt the culprit of the open balcony. Snakes greet them, entangled around the tops of feet and disappearing around clothed ankles. Kwong has to will their tired gaze upwards until a pair of dull black shades meet them.
The pronunciation is awful, but the accent is a familiar one.
“You?” Kwong asks, unsure of what else to say. The Stranger smiles, standing up from their crouched position–Kwong realizing he was sitting on the floor beside them without a care in the world.
“That’s right. Me,” the Stranger jokes, reaching for the table and slinging a towel over his shoulder. When he turns back, he catches Kwong’s eye and bends a bit forward to hold out a hand.
His hand looks soft. The snakes are there too, Kwong notices, slithering around the knuckles and the inner valleys of defined fingers.
“I’ve come to save ya.”
“Save me?” Kwong mimics, confused.
Kwong accepts the extended hand, finding no energy in themself to fight it off.
The Stranger helps them up to their feet, patting them on the shoulder once Kwong’s upright. He takes the towel resting on his shoulder and places it around Kwong instead, grinning.
“That’s right. I’m a knight in shinin’ armor.”
“How did you know?”
“Know what?” The Stranger teases. “You’d be in inexplicable danger?”
“Where to find me.”
“I asked Mike.”
The Stranger’s grin widens and Kwong annoyingly becomes aware that he remains entirely dry, even down to his shitty sandals.
“I asked Mike. Said I owed gas money and he let slip where ya lived. A total liability by the way, not professional at all. After that, it was a matter of askin’ around. Folks here really do know everybody and everybody’s business, huh?”
“I guess,” Kwong says, still stunned by the situation. “What happened?”
The Stranger’s face falls, as if taking the question incredibly seriously. He reaches up and slowly slides his shades down the bridge of his nose and Kwong witnesses a piercingly cold gaze.
“I told ya last night. You rippled.”
“What the fuck is that suppose to mean?!” Kwong immediately counters. The towel around their shoulder nearly falls off but they catch it in time.
The man seems relatively unphased by Kwong’s outcry, if only for the awkward shift in his step. “Ah, I thought I was pretty clear in my explainin’ it and all.”
“You explained nothing but nonsense.”
“Not fair,” the Stranger counters, frowning a bit. “You weren’t gonna listen to me anyway.”
“Again,” Kwong finds themself saying. The Stranger raises an eyebrow, confused. His glasses are back up, covering his eyes.
“Again?” He says slowly.
“Explain it again.”
“You sure you wanna be doin’ anythin’ that isn’t restin’ in bed?”
“Lola’s nephew has a small café truck outside.”
“Is that supposed to mean somethin’?”
“It means something warm to drink. Let’s go.” Kwong doesn’t feel like speaking anymore, bending low to reluctantly slip their boots over wet socks. After that, they find their backpack scattered only a foot away and sling it on securely.
The Stranger is clearly puzzled but lets Kwong lead them out of the apartment, down the four flights of stairs and out into the crowded dinner rush of the marketplace and setting sun.
It’s crowded–more than usual. The weather is nice, warm enough that the wet cold no longer bothers Kwong. The lot is filled with busy food vendors, lines stretching towards and around the buildings that surround the market. It’s gotten so bad that some of the streets have been closed off. Nobody honks though, the evening dining tradition so ingrained into the Lokra community.
Kwong is no exception, expertly weaving through the crowd and securing one of the many mini plastic white tables that litter the fronts of carts and mobile dining trucks. Two cups of tea rest between the Stranger and them on the table, both entirely untouched as Kwong waits to finish towel drying their hair. The Stranger is watching them, arms folded and unusually quiet. Kwong decides to probe first.
“You never said your name. Before.”
The Stranger starts, apparently having been lost in thought. “It’s Zāl, ” he chirps in reply. “Just Zāl.”
“How could I not be?” Zāl jokes, waving a hand in front of himself. “‘specially when I look like this.”
“This is the second time,” Kwong continues, ignoring the banter. “In two days.”
“Ya,” Zal chuckles, “about that…I mentioned it last night but you’re kinda like a beacon. Ya know? Like a lighthouse or the watch towers that sit around the gates of Crosstone. Just real tall, real bright and real, uh, beacony?”
“Like a magnet?” Kwong provides, finishing with the towel and laying it to rest on their shoulders. The late spring sun is low but still warm.
Zāl’s posture slightly jumps, as if he’s excited. “Exactly! You’ve got this magnetic personality, and spirits love it. Thing is, spirits exist in this space in between.”
“So ya did listen!”
Kwong frowns. “You realize how ridiculous this all sounds.”
Zāl shifts, stretching his legs out, briefly bumping against Kwong.
“But ya saw it,” Zāl assures. “The crying mask.”
The mask—the ghost from yesterday, her long black hair dancing in front of Kwong’s eyes in lieu of their eyelashes for a second. Without much thought, Kwong slowly turns to look at the entrance to their apartment building.
“It won’t come near you when I’m here.”
Kwong turns back to Zāl, who attempts to sip the tea before him, only to frown and place it back on the table like a child.
“Why is that?” Kwong asks.
“Same reason yer not dead now,” Zāl answers, lifting up his arm. Kwong notices the beads wrapped around his wrist make small clicking noises.
“So, you really are a priest.”
“Not a priest. I’m a cheikh.”
“A priest of a different name.”
“Not really, it’s just a fancy name for a wise old man. I exorcise spirits alright, like the one that nearly took you to a watery grave in the kiddy apartment pool.”
“Ah,” Kwong says, glancing back to the spirit across the road. She sways. “She won’t come near me because you’re here.”
Zāl shrugs, following Kwong’s gaze. From this angle, Kwong can see the corner of Zāl’s eyes, watching him squint to view across the road. His gaze seems to be struggling to land on anything.
“There’s a lot of ifs in this. She’s not approachin’ cause I’m here, but that just means she’s too weak too. There are plenty of spirits who probably could come runnin’.”
“That’s not comforting.”
“Well, that’s where you come in.” Zāl turns around, facing Kwong. His earrings dangle and his smile twists into something more sinister, as if he’s been preparing this little speech for a while. “I’m not as strong as I used to be, but you. You’re fresh! You can see ‘em!”
Zāl pauses, momentum stalling. “What?”
“I know where this is going,” Kwong replies sharply, finishing the remaining tea of their cup before gently putting it down next to Zāl’s full one. “I’m not going to exorcise anything.”
“Why not?” Zal whines and it astonishes Kwong. “It’s your fault they’re here anyway. You’re guiding them here.”
“Well, unguide them. Isn’t that your job?”
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
“Did you just quote a cartoon at me?”
“A comic, actually. My point, Yeung Kwong—”
“Yeung—if you don’t, they’re just gonna keep comin’. Unless…” Zāl’s face splits in two again, a grin spreading from ear to ear. “Unless you really like hangin’ out with me.”
Kwong stares at that expression, stares long and hard and debates quite a few things. They think of the tattoos, the eeriness of snakes that seem to follow Kwong like an over looming sense of damnation. They think of Quinton, on the roof that night. They think of something that they had convinced themselves wasn’t there—might have actually—
Zal lights up, shooting out of his seat and reaching over the table to clasp Kwong’s shoulders. “Really?”
Kwong is uncomfortable with his overfamiliarity and stands up as well, gently plucking the others' hands off of them.
“But if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it my way.”
Zāl’s smile shrinks a little. “Your way?”
“And how are you going to do that? Like Zhong Kui style?”
“What?” Kwong shakes their head. “No, I need a rope.”
Zāl’s eyebrows rise above his glasses. “Rope?”
“Yeah,” Kwong says, pushing both their chairs back in and bringing their cups back to the counter. They gesture for Zāl to follow them to their bike. “Rope.”
Zāl does follow, almost sulking a bit as Kwong guides them out of the market. “What for?”
Kwong doesn’t turn around, so Zāl is unable to see the small upward tilt of the corner of their lips. “You’ll see.”
EPISODE THREE: THE GHOST
SON M. & CATHY KWAN