Maybe True, Mostly Metaphor: Part XVI
Perspective and perception are strange concepts, reader.
We’ve talked before about how big the world is–how each person you see or pass by has their own lifetime full of stories. Entire sagas of joy and sadness and heroes and villains that you might not ever realize. We’ve discussed how your only role in their story might be the background passerby on the street.
But let’s take that idea further. Have you ever thought about how the world might be an entirely different setting to that person compared to you?
For example, a young girl might wake up on a particular morning, look out her bedroom window, and see a world full of possibilities and adventures.
On that same morning, her younger sister might also wake up and throw the blinds shut because, to her, the world is an annoying place that needs to let her sleep a few hours more.
Across town at that moment, a man might be waking up to a tragedy, finding that his spouse left in the middle of the night, never to return. To him, the world isn’t full of possibilities and adventures, but rather hurt and betrayal.
Everyone is experiencing the same physical day–the same strange miracle of conscious life–all living in the same snapshot of time on this planet, and yet living in entirely different worlds.
So to say the world is a big, big place doesn’t quite capture it. The world is, in fact, billions and billions of big, big places. The world that you inhabit right now as you read this is entirely unique to you. Every other human alive right now is experiencing this exact moment from a different perspective, with different thoughts and different emotions. Some of the differences might be minute, but they exist. Your story and perception of today is unique from every day in the history of the universe across every human who ever lived, no matter how dull and mundane your day might be.
Exciting, isn’t it?
It can also be a strange feeling knowing that someone, somewhere out there is experiencing the same day in a completely different light than you. That knowledge creeping in the back of your mind can leave you uneasy. As though the ground beneath you is ever so slightly tilted–just enough to make you dizzy.
This was the uneasiness I felt when Elise and I said goodbye to Laurents at the train station. He was heading back the way we came to recover the Candlewind and stop whatever our enemies (“enemies”…since when did I have enemies?) were doing in the city of Wuxi.
From Laurents’ perspective, the world was a treacherous battlefield–a game of chess. Every person was a potential piece. Every building, street, or alleyway a likely skirmish site. Laurents lived in a world of cloak and dagger, give and take, and eyed every situation with a brutal, cold efficiency.
He gave Elise a phone and they agreed to only communicate in the most serious of emergencies. He’d meet us in Shanghai in nine days, then we’d leave for Japan. For nine days, his world would be a dangerous one. Elise gave a halfhearted chuckle, nine was a lucky number in Chinese culture. A heavenly number, she said.
If Laurents appreciated the sentiment, I couldn’t tell through his impenetrable face. He didn’t strike me as someone who needed luck.
We watched his train come to life, stuttering at first as inertia broke its rest. Steadily, its movements became more confident, more sure. Soon, it was charging forward and, with it, our plan.
What was our plan?
Laurents had his marching orders, but Elise and I, our job was simply to get to Shanghai and hope that our splitting up would slow down anyone pursuing us. Our nine days would be…well…a world apart from Laurents’. All we had to do was avoid whoever was chasing us. A game of hide and seek, but on the scale of the most populated country in the world.
With the train long gone, Elise turned to me with her subdued half smile, “Well, let’s get started, shall we?”
Elise was more comfortable with the language than me (really, a toddler would sound more fluent than me) so she led the way out of the station.
I’ll be honest, reader. That first day, my world was one of uneasy paranoia. How do you hide from something you can’t see? Something you don’t know? I saw our pursuers around every corner, in every car, behind every door.
We stepped out into the busy street under a blinding midday light. The sky was overcast and diffused the sun’s rays in every direction–a brilliant, white sheet smothering the city below. We were in Beijing, a capital city whose sheer size I still can’t fully grasp. I had never seen so many people in one place. Streets went on seemingly forever down an infinite canyon of skyscrapers.
And everywhere, I saw someone after us.
I kept thinking back to the closest parallel I had–the dark, dingy alleyway in Seattle where I was mugged and subsequently rescued by Moog and Sondra. I couldn’t hold my own against a couple of thugs. How was I supposed to handle a global, organized crime syndicate? The flood of confidence I felt back at the station was quickly ebbing away. Laurents was like the Moon, the gravity of his presence bringing a rising tide of courage. Now that he was gone, however, the retreating waters exposed only the soft, shaky sand of my inability. Laurents was made for this world, I was paralyzed by it.
Elise could see the fear in me, I knew it, though she never brought it up. Instead, she quietly stepped up and led me. And where did she lead me to first?
We walked from the train station to a small city park nearby. On the sidewalk, a man with a food cart was frying dozens of dumplings in a wok, tossing them around the giant pan as the wild flames shot up like hungry, desperate wolves. Elise ordered for both of us and the man packaged up two little boxes of the greasy snacks.
We sat in the park and ate, my fears temporarily distracted by food. Nearby, a group of older folks–incredibly old, actually–were all standing in rows doing some sort of choreographed movement. They seemed so frail, and yet each of them moved like water–a graceful and constant flow, they never seemed to pause or stop as they transitioned from one stance to the next.
“It’s tai chi,” Elise explained, watching my gaze, “Old people do it in the parks every morning. They say it’s the key to living long.”
In between dumplings, I asked, “How long did you say you’ve been here in China?”
Her eyes grew distant for a moment, “A few months. Laurents and I arrived here at the start of Winter.”
“That’s it? You seem so comfortable here, the language, the culture…”
She chuckled, “No, I feel…” she sighed, “I…feel totally lost almost every day. I told you I’ve never left home before, right? Sometimes I have no idea what I’m even doing here.”
I shrugged, “You could’ve fooled me, this all seems so natural to you.”
“Thanks, That’s…nice of you to say. I just pay attention to things, I guess, and remember them.”
I thought for a moment, and then, “Why did you come here? You said you and Laurents were here to stop these guys, why did you start in China? Why at the start of Winter?”
She watched me, evaluating how much she should share. She must have decided there was nothing to hide at this point, “Because that’s when Alice went missing. And our clues brought us here,” she looked down at her food. “Alice and I grew up together. We drifted apart for a while since she had gotten married, but…I don’t know…I knew something weird was happening. I never brought it up, and then she vanished last Fall. That’s when I met Laurents. He’d been looking for these people for a long time. When I met him I told him about Alice’s disappearance. He said he’d help look for her, that he had a lead in China. Up until then, my life was quiet, normal. I was never as brave or crazy as Alice growing up. And part of me…I guess part of me felt guilty for not knowing about any of this before. Not knowing about the trouble she was in or this whole dark side of her world. So I made Laurents take me with him.”
I didn’t know what to say in response. If Alice went missing in the Fall, that was right after she sent me away in the Candlewind. This whole ordeal was getting stranger and messier. We finished the rest of our dumplings in silence and my paranoia crept to the forefront of my mind again. The park was busy, people coming and going in every direction, giving the tai chi practitioners enough space to complete their movements, but just barely.
I looked around and half whispered, “Are we okay here, Elise? Shouldn’t we be hiding somewhere or getting back on the train to get to Shanghai?”
She put her empty, grease stained food box down and stretched, putting the previous subject behind us, “We are hiding, Right here and now.”
Seeing the confusion on my face, she continued, “The way I see it, we have no idea how close they are or where they are or even who they might be. But,” she raised her eyebrows, “we don’t need to know any of that. They can’t do anything to us out here in the public. They can’t just nab us off a busy street full of people.”
I was still confused, “But they were brash enough to burn down an entire building before, why would they be more restrained now?”
“That was way out in that border town. They could get away with more out there, no one would care or even notice. Here, though,” she waved around us, “this is Beijing. Twenty million people live just in this city, let alone the people who come and go. If they do something to us here in public, someone is bound to notice. I think as long as we stay visible, we’ll be safe.” Her perpetual half-smile broke out in to a full on grin as she explained her cleverness. “We have nine days to get to Shanghai. we could get there overnight by train if we wanted, but there’s no rush. We shouldn’t go directly there anyways. We should…I don’t know, obfuscate our plan a little. We just need to stay in areas with lots of people. Luckily, China has that in spades.”
She stood up, ready to go, “So, how do you feel about playing tourist for a week? Lots of sights to see that I’ve always read about.” Her voice grew extra sing-songy at the last part. I swear, reader, no one can resist Elise when they hear her voice.
I stood up as well and we started walking, “Are you sure you aren’t a super spy like Laurents?”
She giggled, “I told you, I’m terrified. But just keep complimenting me and I think we’ll be okay.” She offered her hand as we left the park.
Gradually, my world turned from paranoid to…pleasant. Thoughts of Laurents, hot air balloons, and the shadowy figures pursuing us slowly faded into the background as Elise and I took in China together. We toured the Summer Palace, paid quiet penance at the Temple of Heaven, visited shrines and museums, and embodied the lives of innocent tourists.
She had a solution for staying visible at night, too, taking us to lively clubs full of youth who seemed to party at all hours. Anyone could tell it wasn’t quite her scene. The first night, we just stood there near the bar watching everyone live in their own wild, carefree worlds. As long as we were in a visible place, we felt that we were doing our jobs. The next night, we had a drink as we felt a little more at ease. By the fourth night, we were dancing. Unlike the carefree partyers who danced with an overflow of youthful energy, we were releasing the fear and nervousness that had been building up ever since that first scent of smoke in that dingy border town basement. Regardless of our reason, we danced the night away and sang along with everyone else to songs of joy and recklessness. And Abba. Everyone loves Abba, no matter what country you’re in.
We rarely got any sleep. Sleep meant isolation and isolation was the opening our pursuers were waiting for, or so we assumed. If we grew tired of clubs and bars, we’d go to the night markets and wander around busy streets with tables full of cheap knock-off goods that made us laugh. When we absolutely needed rest, we’d get on a night train and sleep between towns–slowly making a meandering path south towards Shanghai. Even “small” cities on the way were densley packed with millions of denizens who we hid among.
After a few days, I noticed the weather was continually overcast no matter where we were. “Smog,” Elise explained, “It’s the pollution.” I’d strain my eyes every night to see something up above–a star, the moon, a lost balloon, anything, but to no avail.
Historic sites, tea gardens, museums, temples, clubs, markets, train to the next town. It was a round-the-clock carousel of people and places, cities and activity.
Elise and I grew closer over those days. After all, we were essentially trusting each other with our lives on top of spending every moment together out of necessity. One day, we were in Hangzhou, a city famous for its gardens, water canals, and natural beauty. After a breakfast of tea and–you guessed it–dumplings, we picked the garden that seemed the busiest to spend the cool morning hours.
She was up ahead of me on the path, talking to some strangers. After exchanging some laughs, she parted ways with them and waited for me to catch up, “Okay, you win,” she said as I approached, “they thought I was Scottish and you were Italian.”
We’d started playing a game a few days before. As we traveled around, we noticed that we’d sometimes receive long stares from the local population. At first, we were sure that these were the very people we were on the run from, watching our every move intently, waiting to catch us alone.
We soon realized, however, that these were just locals trying to guess where we were from. Everywhere we went, it seemed, there was at least one group of people looking at us and making guesses amongst themselves about our nationality. So, we turned it into a game. If we saw someone staring, Elise and I would make a guess about where the locals must be thinking we were from. Then, she’d break the ice and chat with them to find out.
Increasingly, we learned that, while Elise seemed to speak decent Mandarin, she spoke with an accent that the locals couldn’t place. As a result, they usually guessed somewhere in northwestern Europe. For me, they had less to go on and so I heard wild guesses that spanned the globe.
“Italian is a new one, I think,” I commented.
“But it’s the third time in a row I’ve heard Scotland!” she threw her arms up, “How does someone manage to speak Mandarin with a Scottish accent?”
We laughed and continued our walk through the garden.
And so, for nine days, my world was one without kidnappings and disappearances. One without stress or anxiety. I lived in a world that had me happy just to be in Elise’s presence. Increasingly, I wondered if her world had a similar view towards me.
Too bad Laurents’ world would soon come crashing back down on us.
It happened in Shanghai, at the end of our nine days. Nine, the lucky, heavenly number. And they were, in fact, both a lucky and heavenly nine days for us.
We arrived as scheduled. Tired from our week of activity, but ready to go nonetheless. Elise and I were standing there together on the Bund watching the ships go by, making guesses as to which one we’d be taking to Japan. Making our final escape with the Candlewind hidden inside.
That’s when her phone went off. Nine days. Right on time. Laurents was that good. She opened the message, expecting information about where to meet so we could leave the country.
She dropped the phone as her hands went to her face. Her eyes went wild, transfixed on the phone lying on the sidewalk before looking up at me.
She just shook her head frantically.
Picking up the phone, I looked at the now cracked screen,
Check back in two more weeks for more!