Maybe True, Mostly Metaphor Part XIII
What the heck?
We all know by now how this normally starts. I ask you a question that helps you relate to what’s about to happen in my story. We have a fun, interesting dialogue about some big idea or feeling or something going on in the world. Some observation or phenomena that we can connect on.
That’s how this story is supposed to go.
You know how else this story is supposed to go? Think back to the beginning. Before Alice, Before Omaha. Before Sondra, Moog, and most of all, before the Candlewind. I was a kid, with a balloon. Who lost it. Not like I’m losing it now as the emotions take over my words, but literally lost my childhood balloon.
I grow up. I set out to find it.
Simple story, right?
So then, why do I end up in the trunk of a car with a canvas sack grating up against my face as the space around me gets smaller–I swear it was getting smaller with each bump-BUMP of the tires on the road–in some unknown border town between China and North Korea?
Why are my hands tied behind my back while I squirm and contort my body in the hopes of finding a modicum of comfort? (I couldn’t.)
Why was I finding it more and more difficult to breathe as I swallowed lungfuls of car exhaust with every gasp until I thought I would pass out? (I didn’t.)
Why was I–No, where was I going?
I was losing it, reader. Wouldn’t you?
Two things happened at once. No, that’s not right. They couldn’t have happened at once. But they happened so quickly, one after the other, that I didn’t have time to react to them individually. My memory here is…hazy…but vivid and overloaded. Like walking through a fog while feeling every individual particle of water as it hits your skin. Hearing each and every noise and rustle, but through muffled ears.
Lightning pain streaked across my face, accompanied by a fierce thunderclap. Then the hood was ripped off my face so fast that I felt rug burns forming on my ears.
No, the hood came off first, then the slap. Two things, in that order, but too fast for me to register.
See, reader? Fuzzy, but vivid.
My vision was blurry after being in darkness for so long, but the accompanying slap forced everything into focus.
I was in a chair.
I looked up, and I don’t know who I recognized first.
The man with the scarred arm who I saw fleeing through the forest, or…
…the woman from the dumpling shop, standing just outside the room, blocking the doorway.
For the briefest, briefest of seconds, reader, I dropped all context from my mind and found my heart skipping a beat at the chance to see her again.
Is that romantic or pathetic, reader?
Regardless, my fleeting moment of delight was interrupted by a second slap.
He (Mr. Scar Man, that is) chose to slap the same side of my face as before. That’s a detail you wouldn’t normally think is important until you’ve been slapped in the same place twice, as well. Then you realize your attacker did it on purpose. He could’ve slapped the other side, tendered both halves of my face equally, but no. He wanted this to hurt. So, just as I was regaining the feeling in my left cheek and I felt the tender beginnings of a bruise…
“Where did you put it?” His voice was so flat and unemotional. Quiet, even. No malcontent. No hint of darkness. Just a straight sentence. It didn’t even sound like a question. Just a statement like any other you might hear between friends or a couple at a restaurant.
“Where are the others?”
Of course, I hadn’t the slightest clue what he was talking about.
I half coughed, half whimpered, “I don’t have the slightest clue what you’re–“
What else was I supposed to say? I should say something, right? And she was watching. Why was she here? Why was I here?
“C’mon,” again with the perfectly flat and measured tone, “why are you toying with us? You came here. For a reason. Why didn’t you just do your job and leave? Did you grow a conscience or something? Why did you call yourself out? Are you trying to turn?”
“Turn? I…” I was scared to say anything else for fear of being hit again. I had never been slapped before, but now I got to try it firsthand half a dozen times. In fact, I had never even been in a fight before up until the scuffle in Seattle that Moog and Sondra finished for me and, let’s be honest here, they didn’t finish it for me. They did the whole thing for me.
I was really wishing they were here now. I could picture Moog going toe to toe with this guy, or Sondra breaking another skateboard.
“Look, if you are trying to turn, you’re not helping your case any. We saw the Candlewind, you even admitted as to your whearabout–“
“Laurents,” Not a command. A soft song. It was the woman in the doorway. He turned away from me to look at her, but I could still see her face. She motioned her head to the side, indicating a talk in the other room. Then he faced me again, no emotion or anger. He looked clear eyed and confident, professional even. i imagine he was going through a mental checklist in his mind, looking at my hands and feet to ensure I was still immobilized in the chair. In his head he was probably thinking through the different ways I might escape. It only took him a second before he turned to leave.
There was no door to the room, just an opening into a hall. This room also had no light of its own. The only visibility came from the open doorway beyond which those two stood and chatted.
Did he mention the Candlewind?
“I don’t think he’s with them,” she was trying to whisper but there wasn’t much point. This place must be extremely small if they didn’t try to go anywhere else to talk privately. Maybe it was just this room and the hall? It was awfully stuffy and warm.
“You said he came clean to you and admitted it, Pia.”
“I know, but now, none of it makes sense.”
I said what?
Even now, though, I couldn’t help but notice the light music in her voice. Where he was grounded and matter-of-fact, she was pleasant. She looked as though she were constantly on the verge of breaking into a smile, but never quite getting there. As though, even now, she was lightly amused as something. Amused at him and I, maybe.
“Pia, the Candlewind is here. We know that. He showed up the very next day. Another thing that we know for a fact. Next, he comes to you–“
“And tells me that he came here from the States. From Seattle and Omaha, yes.” she finished.
“That only means one thing.”
“Are you so sure it does?” She quizzed him, “We’re fitting the facts into what we currently know. Actually, I was fitting the facts into what I currently knew. But who’s to say there isn’t another answer? Things aren’t making sense anymore, so…” she drew out the ‘o’, “now I’m thinking he’s not part of this. An aberration.”
He tugged at the collar of his shirt, the stuffiness of the room must have been getting to him, too. “How can he be an aberration if he came here on that specific balloon. We both know what that means.”
“We thought we knew what that meant, but this is new.”
This whole time, she never lost her near smile. Him, on the other hand – Laurents, I suppose – appeared to be losing his patience just slightly.
Abruptly, she marched into the room, right up to me. She bent over at the hip, like one would when meeting a child at their level, and put her face directly in front of mine, looking right into my eyes and paused there for what seemed like an eternity.
Then, so slight that it would’ve been undetectable had she not been so close, I saw the edges of her mouth curl into the slightest of a smile.
At least she chose the untouched side of my face.
I didn’t even see her hand coming, she was fast. The scent of vanilla wafted just beyond my senses, though, before my mind became distracted with and army of pain hurriedly running from one side of my cheek to this fresh new opportunity.
As I brought my head back around, her face was still right there, unmoved, and I realized she wasn’t smiling at me, but through me.
“He’s not one of them Laurents. It makes no sense.” She spoke into my face as though I weren’t there.
Finally, she straightened back up and I, to my shame, felt a tinge of sadness that she wasn’t so close anymore.
These feelings were confusing.
“He has no idea what’s going on. You know them,” she turned to face him, “They wouldn’t send some random guy. He’s ignorant to all of this.” She briefly turned her head and made and softened her face, “Not ignorant as an insult. but you don’t seem to know what’s happening, do you?”
“I, ah, what? No. No I don’t. You guys want the balloon? It’s…fine. It’s all yours, jeez. Just…is this about Alice?”
At Alice’s name, both their ears perked up simultaneously.
“Are you…” she hesitated and sighed. “Ok, you clearly don’t know what’s going on, but you know Alice?” a low harmony of doubt crept into her voice.
“See? He’s messing with us, Pia. We need get out of this hole and find who he came here with.”
Her near smile dropped just a fraction and, ignoring him, she asked me, “How do you know Alice? Why don’t we just clear everything up and start again? From how you know that name to how you found me in that dumpling shop.” I don’t know if it was intentional, but her near-smile returned at the mention of that afternoon in that alleyway shack.
I told her everything starting, when I wandered into Omaha. Meeting Alice. That strange morning where she declared that we were leaving in that balloon just a day after meeting me. Crashing in Seattle. Meeting Moog and Sondra. Working at the bar. The text messages from Alice and the odd note she sent with the cash. Getting mugged, and finally, winding up here at the seeming ends of the earth. I even included the poem I received on the street outside Pike’s Place.
I decided not to tell her about the root goal of my travels, finding my childhood balloon. It seemed…too simple, innocent, absurd?…to bring up here and now in this dingy, hot, and threatening basement. So I danced around it and framed the goal of my travelling as simply wanting to see the world.
The whole time, she listened and watched me with her pleasant, near-happy expression. She nodded in thoughtful understanding when I described how I met Alice, raised her eyebrows in interest when I talked about rebuilding the Candlewind, and stole a glance at Laurents as I covered my slippage down the Russian coast and nervousness about being so close to the border.
The entire time, she only interrupted once–at the mention of the poem from Pike’s Place.
“What did it say?”
“Well, it was a limerick,” again, I started feeling out of place, talking about something so light and whimsical in such a depressing setting,
“I wish I could live like that vandal, who danced on the flame of a candle. He set out his goal, in search for his soul, and storied the world through his rambles.” I recited. It hadn’t been on my mind as of late, but how could I forget such an apt description from a total stranger?
“It wasn’t a poem, it was message,” she inserted.
“What? I don’t–“
“That wasn’t a random street poet,” Laurents added, “That’s how they give their orders.”
“Who are you talking about?” This was all getting too weird.
“The owners of the Candlewind,” she looked at me, really looked at me this time rather than through me. “The real owners.”
“But, Alice said it was her husband’s…”
“Yeah, it is,” she sighed.
“You might was well tell him now, Pia” Laurents tugged at his collar again to get some air. What time of day was it? The heat was getting stifling.
“Look,” Pia explained. “you mentioned how the Candlewind has extra compartments, right? Useful for you to store extra food and supplies for your trip?”
“That’s because the Candlewind isn’t a normal hot air balloon,” she spaced out her words, speaking slowly, carefully, “and this isn’t the first time it’s flown the route you described, from Omaha to Seattle to here.”
Sweat started to bead on her forehead. She wiped it away and took a deep breath.
“The Candlewind is used for human trafficking.”
My heart stopped.
“I…what…that’s not even–” I looked from her to Laurents and back again. What kind of insane story had I been dropped into?
“Well, not just human trafficking,” she shrugged, “drugs, too, we’re guessing.”
I wish I could describe my expression of shock and confusion to you, reader, but I suppose it was probably the same look you have your face right now as you read this. Human trafficking and drugs? Somewhere in my mind I knew those were things that existed, happened in the world, but only in an abstract sense. Those things didn’t exist in the everyday. In the tangible. It’s like when someone tells you to think of a city you’ve never visited or seen, then tells you to picture everyday life there. The capital of Mongolia, for example. You know it exists and it’s real. but unless you’ve been there or witnessed the reality of it, then it’s just a fairy tale place in your mind. Human Trafficking? And, after wrapping my head around the realness of that idea, I had to confront the fact that, not only does it exist, but the Candlewind is a part of it.
“So, you guys are…what? Police?”
Pia gave an apologetic smile, “No, not quite. We’re…just people trying to stop it. Specifically, trying to stop the people behind the Candlewind. They have quite a reputation, especially around here. The women around town know it. That’s how we heard you were here. One of them saw the balloon approaching, and a few hours later saw you. That balloon plus a foreigner only means one thing to them, and it terrified her.”
The lady and her son on the street, then. That’s why she screamed. Did she think I was here to take her son? Or a daughter she had back in the town?
“And you didn’t slip past the Russians by gliding low,” Laurents added, “They let you in. They know what the Candlewind does here and they turn a blind eye.”
“Then you came to the dumpling shop, and the owner did the only thing he knew. He told the other foreigners who have come here to stop it. Us,” she explained. “We asked him to be as nice and courteous as possible so you’d come back. So we could come and see who had come. But, we were expecting someone other than you. We certainly weren’t expecting someone to immediately blurt out that they had come here from Omaha and Seattle by balloon. From our perspective, you basically admitted that you were one of them. We thought maybe you were trying to get out.”
“But if what you’re saying is true,” sweat marks were now clearly showing on Laurents’ shirt, “Then, from their perspective, someone stole the Candlewind and then took it the normal next step to Seattle. That’s their entry and exit point for the United States,” He put his arms akimbo as he thought out loud, “To what end? they’re probably wondering. They’re also likely trying to figure out exactly what the thief knew about their operations and how. So far, they know the thief knows about Seattle. They’re watching what he does next, see who he contacts. Maybe they test him. Give him a message and see if he knows what to do with it. And, based on the poem, they gave you the Hainan route.”
“What’s Hainan? And how did yo–“
“Last three sections of the poem, first two letters of each first word. He, In, An. It’s not perfect spelling but that’s how they do it. It further helps them to hide. What’s more important is what they might be thinking now.”
“But you said contacts. Are these people going to find Moog and Son–“
“Later.” His flat tone returned, “We have to figure out what they’re going to do next. It took you all winter to fix up the balloon, during which time they were probably watching you, but you eventually came here. To them, that means you knew about the Hainan route and you knew how to read their message. So, now they’ve just confirmed the worst case scenario. They’ve been fully compromised. Even though it was just a fluke.
“You didn’t come here because you knew the message. You came here because of the wind patterns. Which is, obviously, why Hainan is a common route for the Candlewind. It flies it easily, almost on it’s own. They didn’t think of that.” Laurents sighed,
“You’re lucky they didn’t just grab you the second you landed in Seattle. They must have had a reason. They thought you’d be more useful if they watched you.”
“Maybe something to do with Alice?” Pia asked.
Alice. Where did she fit into all this?
“Maybe,” he shrugged, “Hey, you said Alice sent you a message right? A note with the money?”
“And some text messages, yeah.”
“Anything weird or off about th–” he was interrupted by a loud crack from above. It sounded like a tree falling or wood being split.
All three of us looked up, but there was nothing.
The heat was really starting to bother me. Or maybe it was all these revelations that were turning my entire view of my life upside down. Like an illusion. Like when you see a picture for the first time and think it’s one thing. A duck or a vase or young woman or even ink blots. Then someone tells you it’s something else entirely and suddenly you can’t unsee it. The vase is two lovers. The duck is a rabbit. After, you can’t shake the feeling that you’ve been lied to and now you question everything.
“Is there…” I shook my head to fight the unease and nausea filling my chest, “can I get some water or something?”
“It is really hot,” Pia mentioned to Laurents as she wiped more sweat from her brow.
“Yeah, it’s–wait.” His eyes widened, “No.” he turned and sprinted out of the room, “Untie him! quick!” he yelled as he left.
We heard another CRACK of wood upstairs as she went behind me and started freeing my hands. As soon as she was done, Laurents came back. His eyes were big, but to his credit, he maintained his matter-of-fact tone.
“We need to leave. Now. Through the back. Grab everything.”
“What’s happening upstairs?” Pia helped me up to my feet.
“The building’s on fire.”
Check back in two more weeks for more (assuming this big, big world hasn’t ended by then).