Chinese Stories in English
The Right to Choose One Word
My name is Sun Rose – or Rose Sun as you’d say in English. I’m a student and I have a part-time job in a convenience store. The novelty and enthusiasm I felt when I first started here is completely gone after a little over a month of the worker’s life. All I feel now is boredom. The overtime at night, especially, would put anyone to sleep. There’s nothing at all to do except deal with customers who come in for nickel and dime stuff.
One evening I was leaning on the counter, listless as ever. Celery, my co-worker, had already gone home, leaving me to take the night shift alone. Bored to tears, I thought up an interesting diversion. I took a one-Yuan note from my pocket (the till doesn’t open except for purchases) and, with a mechanical pencil we use to keep notes in the store, I wrote in small characters on the upper left corner: “One word per person, no more.” Then I wrote “I.” After maybe ten minutes a customer came in. When I made change for him I switched the bill I’d written on with one of the one-Yuan notes from the drawer and gave it to him. The guy, a middle-aged man, stuffed the bill in his pocket without seeing what was written on it.
I thought if someone as bored as me got hold of that bill, he might add a word. Then another person would write one, and another, and someday the bill might make it back to me with a whole sentence on it. My imagination ran wild for a while, but then another customer came in and broke my chain of thought. I forgot about it until the next afternoon when, quite unexpectedly, the money I’d written on came back.
I recognized my handwriting when the note came back into my hand. After the “I” the words “can”, “see”, and “all” were written, some clearly and some blurry. It seemed the bill had passed through three people’s hands in one short day. It had certainly circulated faster than I expected. But still, this wasn’t a sentence. I picked up the pencil and, without really thinking about it, added the word “around”, making “I can see all around.”
So my little game had come to this. When another customer came in to buy something, I stuck the note under the pencil and got ready to check him out. The new customer was a cool-looking guy, and he started chatting with me as I rung him up: “You a student, too?”
“Yeah,” I answered. “I’ve only been here three months. I’m a history major, and the class load’s pretty light for juniors, so I decided to get a job.”
“Well, then,” the guy said, “we have something in common. I’m in poly sci, and everyone says that’s the same as history. We’re one big happy family.”
I gave him a dirty look when he said that, and there was an awkward silence for a moment. The nerve of this fellow, saying something so easily misunderstood. Celery, who was standing nearby, stifled a laugh when she heard him.
The guy scratched his head in embarrassment and said: “Er, my name’s Joe ‘All Around’ Wei. Maybe I’ll see you again.” He picked up his bag and turned to go. All of a sudden it hit me – what an amazing coincidence. I hurriedly yelled for him to stop.
“You – you’re really called ‘All Around?’” My mouth was gaping in surprise.
“In all my nineteen years this is the first time anyone’s questioned my veracity. Here, look at my ID.” He fished the card out of his pocket. Sure enough, his name was shown as: Joe ‘All Around’ Wei.
He and Celery both noticed my unusual reaction and asked me what was wrong. I recovered and told them in detail about my last evening’s little diversion. Neither one believed me until I picked up the note from under the pencil and showed it to them. If it had been them telling me, I wouldn’t have believed it, either.
I said to them, “Wait, let me try something.” In an empty space on the bill I wrote: “I want to get rich.” The phone rang just as I finished. I answered and a man’s voice said:
“Hello, this is the police station. Are you Rose Sun? We found the wallet you lost.”
Wallet? When did I lose my wallet? But that wasn’t the important thing. What was important was, I was going to get some money. The cop had spoken in a voice so loud and clear that All Around and Celery had heard him. They both had amazement written all over their faces.
I forced myself to keep the excitement out of my voice. “I, I know. I’ll be right down to get it.”
“It’s like this,” the cop added. “The only thing left in your wallet when we found it was an ID card. You lost some money, maybe you’ll want to write out a complaint. Anyway, come get your wallet when you get a chance.”
It hit me like a bolt from the blue. With thunder still rolling around in my ears, I threw down the phone and picked up my purse. There was a gap on one side where a razor blade had sliced through it. I hadn’t been paying attention while riding home on the bus the previous night, and some shameless crook had stolen my wallet. This morning he’d thrown the wallet away with only my ID still in it. Bastard thief!
I hunkered down in a corner of the store and cried for a long time, while Celery and All Around kept trying to console me. When I was just about all cried out, I looked up at them with my red eyes and said: “I understand now! If we don’t obey the rules and write more than one word, our dreams not only won’t come true, the exact opposite will happen! Karma, oh karma!” My tears spilled out again as I talked.
Celery abruptly made a suggestion: “The three of us could write one word each. If we can do that, our dreams will come true! Terrific! Hooray for Rose!”
That got me going again. I pulled another one-Yuan bill from my pocket as I went back to the sales counter. The first note already had writing all over it, so all I could do was let it disappear into the flood of currency in the drawer. I used the pencil to write the rule on the new bill: “One word per person, no more”, and then I asked Celery, “What should we write, with only three words?”
“I love you,” she said.
All Around shook his head and said: “‘You’re an ass’ would be better, I think.”
“You’re the ass!”
I took a look out the window and saw it was getting gloomy outside. “Just write ‘Going to rain,’” I said. “That’ll be relatively easy to come true.” I picked up the pencil and wrote “Going”; Celery wrote “to”; and All Around wrote “rain”.
Everything got quiet. The sky was gloomy but not a drop of rain fell. I blushed as I smiled and said: “I know. This isn’t the right way to make things come true, either.” Celery hugged her shoulders in despair. “Yeah! Things will come true only if each one doesn’t know what the other will write!”
After our little scheme went south, we each went back to doing what we’d been doing before. All Around pulled me aside as he was leaving and told me: “It was OK to give it a try, but this game is something that shouldn’t be done often.”
“Why’s that?” He was overly serious and it surprised me. It was just a game, after all.
He didn’t explain. He just said: “Bottom line, don’t play it again. It’s dangerous.” I made fun of him for being scarred. “It can’t hurt us or anything, you know.”
All Around left without saying anything else. I talked it over with Celery, and we each took a note and wrote the rule on the upper right corner. Then I wrote “I” on mine, and Celery wrote “Who” on hers. Later we passed the bills on to customers when we rang them up.
And so the little angels set forth with our dreams. Who knew when we would see them again? We put it all behind us and threw ourselves into our work. It was a weekend so there were a lot of people in the store, but if I could just make it through the day, the next day was my day off.
A customer came in as I was about to go home, but Celery had the night shift that day, so I picked up my purse and left. Celery followed the customer out the door and yelled at me, “Rose, come back here.”
“What is it?”
She held up a one-Yuan note. The following words were written on it, each in a different handwriting: “Who knows what is”.
It was Celery’s bill. We talked over what word we could add, but couldn’t think of how to make it into a wish we’d like to have fulfilled. But we didn’t like the idea of someone else getting their hands on the bill, either, so we finally decided that I would hold on to it.
I went home and, after I’d eaten dinner, I went to sleep. The next day noises of people in the house woke me up. My mom said: “Your big sister’s here, and she brought her kid.” Actually I’m an only child. This was my cousin who lives quite a distance away. She lived closer when we were small so we grew up playing together. She lives far away these days, since she got married, but she comes home to visit.
We hadn’t seen each other for a while, so we had a lot to talk about. Her five-year-old son was running amok inside the house; it sounded like a dog in a chicken coop. At lunchtime Mom stuffed six Yuan in my hand and said: “Get us something to drink.”
I looked at the money. On the one-Yuan bill were the words “I killed Sun”, each written in a different hand. This, this was the very bill I’d sent out the day before, wasn’t it?
“I killed Sun.”
It was all over for me. Looking at that bill, I felt the icy fingers of death on my heart. My family name is Sun, so I couldn’t let this bill go again. If whoever got it next wrote something on it without thinking, I might be the one to die. But I couldn’t just write any old word on it, either. You can’t play around with murder if there’s one chance in a million that it might come true.
I wracked my brain and finally thought of an impossible wish. I hurriedly wrote in the word “zi”. A stroke of genius! “Sun zi” means “grandson” in Chinese. I’m not married and don’t even have a son, let alone a grandson. There was no way this dream could possibly come true.
Just as I was congratulating myself for my creative genius, Mom told me to hurry up and go get our drinks. “I know”, I said, and as I headed out I happened to hear Mom say to Sis:
“Rosie has always called you ‘Sis’, but in terms of the generations, she’s really your aunt, isn’t she.” I was shocked: “I’m Sis’s aunt?” What was this ‘generations’ stuff?
Mom said: “Sure. She’s my brother-in-law’s granddaughter. He’s twenty years older than I am, a whole generation, so she’s really your niece. But nowadays no one keeps track of the generations, so it doesn’t matter whether you call her ‘Sis’ or ‘niece’.”
I walked toward the door thinking, if Sis is really my niece, then her child is really the same generation as my….
“Grandson!” I broke out in a cold sweat at the thought. I pushed open the door and, in a flash, I heard a child cry out, and then a series of bangs. Oh my Lord, when had that kid gotten outside?
The noise drew a crowd, and a tragic spectacle presented itself to them. The child… He’d been knocked down the stairs when I pushed open the door. Blood was dripping off him. Sis was crying to the point of passing out on the ground, and I went numb, like I was in a fog.
When I came to I was sitting in the police station with handcuffs on. A cop was asking: “Name?”
“Oh, you’re the one who got your purse ripped off yesterday. Jeez, this is all really bad luck. The stars must have it in for you!”
“The, the child, is he still alive?” I asked anxiously.
The officer shook his head: “I’m sorry. When the rescue squad got there, he’d lost too much blood from a wound on his forehead and was already.…” His voice got very low. Suddenly my head started to spin. All these things that had happened, what was really going on? I’d plainly been trying to make sure no one got hurt, why had all this misfortune come down on me?
Since this was an accidental homicide and I was just an effeminate young girl, the police had no qualms about keeping me in the precinct to make a statement, instead of locking me up downtown. After the statement was recorded the officer left the room to get something, leaving me alone and in a daze in front of the blank computer screen.
The words “Who knows what is” floated up into my consciousness. With some difficulty I took that one-Yuan note from my pocket, but I didn’t have a pen. A guy who’d been brought in for drunk driving was sitting on a bench nearby, with a pen sticking out of his breast pocket. I borrowed the pen from him. When he saw I was going to write something on the bill, he said: “That’s illegal, young lady!” Such a big mouth, I was afraid the cops would hear him and come running. I whispered in his ear: “Let me tell you about a fun little game. The rule is….”
Five minutes later he’d calmed down. Without a second thought I added the word “real” after the four that were already there, so it became: “Who knows what is real”!
Someone stepped in front of me just as I put down the pen. I looked up and was stunned to see that it was All Around.
“I told you not to play this game again,” he said with a smile, “because I know what’s real!”
All Around and I asked the cops and they agreed to let us talk to each other. I told him everything that had happened. He shook his head, sighed, and suddenly said: “Rose Sun, we’ve met before.”
“Don’t patronize me!” I shouldn’t have overreacted like that.
“You might not remember me,” All Around said, “but I remember you. In grade school you were in Student Group Four at XX Elementary School, right? I transferred into your Group. You don’t remember, but I do. Do you recall what happened then?”
I shook my head. There was nothing much worth remembering about grade school.
All Around said: “Remember our arithmetic teacher, Ms. Wong! She died and we got a new teacher, a young one.”
“Ms. Wong,” I asked in surprise. “Didn’t she get transferred?”
“The truth is she died, and it was a very strange death. We were in class when she just up and keeled over. Do you know why? Some students were playing a game behind her back, that’s why. They wrote some words on a ten-cent bill, one word per person. Do you recall that?
I searched my mind for a moment and then cried out: “I remember! I wrote the second word!”
All Around nodded and continued: “One word per person. More than ten students in that dry-as-dust arithmetic class took part in the game. They wrote ‘Our teacher, Ms. Wong, your class is just terrible, you ought to die.’ The calamity happened right when the last kid was putting down his pen. Ms. Wong fell over and died!
I put my hand over my mouth in surprise. Hearing him tell it, I began to remember that strange episode in our grade school. Everyone thought Ms. Wong had suffered a heart attack. We got a new teacher and gradually forgot about it. So that was the reason behind what happened. I asked excitedly: “How, how could we end up with a sentence like that, writing one word per person?”
“All Around smiled: “I think that’s just the human condition.”
“Look, you, don’t try to be profound,” I scolded. “Just tell me how it could happen.”
All Around said: “It’s like the shower shoes in a public spa. Everyone wears them just once, but nobody cares about them. After a while they fall apart. Of course they’ll be on somebody’s feet when they come apart, and that’s the one who ends up getting the blame for what everybody else did. Now you’re the unlucky one getting the blame. When people are blamed for something unjustly, they tend to chalk it up as bad luck. But, you know, evil doesn’t just happen. Like environmental pollution, or like the shower shoes in a spa, it’s a vicious chain of events where the evil eventually builds up on one person. Instead of saying that these things just happen, we should say that tragedy is a necessary part of being human!”
I hung my head. Me, I’m just like everyone else. When I picked up the pencil and wrote on the bill, I didn’t give a thought to who would bear the consequences. That’s the way it was over a decade ago in my grade school classroom, and that’s the way it was yesterday at the check-out counter. When I realized that, I sighed and raised my hands, still in handcuffs: “If that’s the way it is, so be it!”
All Around bit his lip and pulled a one-Yuan note from his pocket. “Let’s try again! I stopped by the store on the way here and had Celery write one word. Now the two of us, we have the right to choose two words.” He pushed the bill at me and I recognized Celery’s handwriting. She’d written the word “I”.
I shook my head: “But there’s no way it’ll come true if we collaborate.”
All Around laughed and said: “Dummy, it’ll work if we don’t tell each other what we’re thinking.” He took the bill back and blocked my view as he wrote a word on it, then held it up in front of me. He’d written “am”.
Without thinking I added a “free”, “I am free.” As soon as I put down the pen a huge vibration shook the floor under my feet. “Earthquake?” I asked in surprise. An emergency broadcast came on the TV that was sitting off to one side of the office. Several elephants had just escaped from the City Zoo and were barging around the downtown area.
Just as the newscast was ending, something punched a hole in one of the side walls. I saw the massive rear end of an elephant appearing and disappearing through the cloud of dust. Cops came in response to the emergency but were all gone in a flash. Some people who had been detained for drunk driving or fighting, seeing the situation, ran like crazy out the breach in the wall, disappearing into the dust.
“It’s come true,” All Around said excitedly. “Come on, let’s get out of here!”
I stood up, but then shook my head and sat down again. All Around asked me why, and I told him calmly: “I killed someone, but only by accident. If I run away I’ll be a real criminal and I’ll never be free again. You go on, before an elephant bites you!”
He nodded silently, then stood up and said: All right, take care of yourself.”
“I’m going to stay and face the consequences,” I smiled, “and not run away anymore.”
All Around turned to face me as he was leaving and reminded me of what I’d said: “That’s right, elephants bite!”
I sat somewhere calmly. It was all confusion outside, but my heart was at peace. I wanted to prove my innocence by my willingness to stay where I was. I figured that was the best way to make “I am free” really come true.
In the city an elephant was throwing its weight around, chasing after a cab. The driver had his heart in his mouth and his foot to the floorboard. The three passengers had been pushed up against one side of the cab. The driver was complaining: “I only wrote the word ‘big’. You three added ‘elephant loves me’! I just got my license back. What can I do? Who’ll come to save us?”
原载于《怖客》From Terror Magazine
Chinese text here.
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