Maybe True, Mostly Metaphor: Part XVII
“We have to go save him.”
Elise was fighting down her panic, holding it just under the surface like a looming sea creature. You could see it’s shadow, but the outline was blurry, the full immensity of it unrealized as it lurked below the waterline and circled the delicate sailboat of our deteriorating plan.
If our plan was a ship, Elise was the acting captain at the helm, fully appreciating the danger we faced but swallowing her fear. She was darting across the ship to man the sails, control the rudder, and keep our course despite the loss of our commander, Laurents.
But, while she was determined not to lose the ship, my eyes were fixated on the sea monster below.
“Save him? Elise, how are we even supposed to find him? Let alone save him?”
“We have our notes, I know where their facility is. Where Laurents would have gone.”
“Okay, so what do we do after that? Storm the place? Break in and fight off the–who knows how many people–who have him? The same people who didn’t hesitate to burn down a building? People that not even Laurents could fend off?” I paused to catch my breath, panic was setting in as I tried to describe the dark form beneath the boat, “We’re just going to barge in where he failed?”
Her eyes were cold steel, not wavering a single time as I spoke.
We were in a bustling market area. The walkways were lined with every manner of store from modern global chains to tiny shacks selling niche local goods. Shoppers packed walkways as crowds gathered around buskers playing all manner of instruments, from mandolins to saxophones. One older woman was on a corner playing an unusual two-stringed instrument that she held like a cello but, when she played it, the sound immediately transported you back hundreds of years as the tones reminded you of the sheer age of this city.
“We don’t have a choice. He needs our help. He said as much. He knows the position he’s putting us in,” she spoke with a determined firmness, but quiet enough to not draw attention. “There aren’t any alternatives. We either go to Wuxi and help him or we’re done for. We can’t save Alice without him,” she stepped closer to me, lowering her voice further, “and they’re not going to stop with Laurents. They’re coming after you and I next. You know they will. And if they’ve been following you since Seattle, they’ll go after your friends there, too.”
It was harsh, but she was right. “Elise, this is crazy. They aren’t going to stop with Laurents, you’re right. But if we go there, we might as well be giving ourselves up. They’ll have us just like they have Laurents.”
“You think I don’t know how bad of an idea this is?” The firmness in her voice cracked. Just a small fracture, but a crack all the same, “I’m terrified. I don’t know what we’ll do once we get to Wuxi, but it’s our only option. I’ll take a bad idea over none at all. So if this is all we have, then there’s no sense panicking and fretting about it. We have to do it, so we might as well accept that fact and try to do it as best we can.”
“We could go to the police. We have your guys’ notes, right? We could turn it all over to them.”
“And then what? Alice and Laurents and whoever else these people are hurting become a stack of forms on soemone’s desk? A line item on someone’s to-do list?” She took a deep breath and I saw the hint of tears forming in her eyes. “The police have enough to worry about. Have you ever heard of Baader-Meinhof?”
I shook my head.
“When you see something for the first time, then suddenly you see it everywhere you go. It’s called the Baader-Meinhof effect.” She hugged her shoulders as though she were cold, despite the balmy southern China heat. “I feel like I’ve been living out that effect every day since realizing Alice was gone. I caught my first glimpse of how dark reality can be, and suddenly all I see everyday is darkness. I see sadness, brokenness. Go to the police? Sure. They’ll do something, I’m sure. But they can’t fix the world. People can’t just dump their problems on others and then pretend that everything’s fine again. I have to do something, too. I’m not going to go back to a world where I can be ignorant and quietly ignore all the messes in the world. And the more I look, the more I realize that the world is a messy, messy place. I’m going to do something about it, starting with Alice.”
In hindsight, I’ll forever admire Elise for this moment. At the time, however, as we stood there on that busy Shanghai street, all I could see was the sea monster below. I was so fixed on it that I failed to see Elise scared at the helm, but steering nonetheless.
She continued, “You have a point, though. If we go to Wuxi and they catch us like they caught Laurents, we’re equally as done for. So, I’ll go to Wuxi while you stay here with all of our notes.”
“What? Elise, it’s impossible enough for the two of us to do this, and now you want to do it alo–“
“Listen, this is the best option. If I don’t make it, then all we have left is the notes, which you can take to the authorities if you don’t hear from me and Laurents. That will be our last ditch effort if all else fails.”
“After everything you just said, you’re okay with me going to the police?”
“Only if I can’t get Laurents and make it back here to Shanghai to continue our plan,” she thought for a moment, then spoke with a little more confidence. “Give me three days. I think that will be enough for what I have in mind. After three days, then you can take all our notes to the police. Make sure to explain everything to them in as much detail as you can.”
I hesitated, this was still too crazy, “Are you sure?”
“No, but I have to do it,” her eyes softened and her lips curled ever so slightly. “But promise you’ll wait three days before talking to the police.”
I couldn’t fight her any longer. “Okay, fine. Three days.” Suddenly there was a screeching noise from behind us. Distracted, I turned away from Elise to see what was going on. I only saw the lady with the old Chinese two-stringed instrument, still playing traditional tones quietly on the corner, but her tune was drowned by the screeching. It must have been a nearby train stopping at the station. The train sounded like it had taken the lady’s instrument and dragged across the strings until they snapped. It was a strange contrast to hear her calm melodies come back into focus as the industrial noises died down, like malformed, competing harmonies.
Regaining my focus after that distraction, I realized something, “Wait, Elise. I can’t go to the police. I don’t have a passport or visa. And you know I can’t speak Mandar–” I turned back around to her, but she was already gone.
Reader, have you ever experienced something for the first time and then immediately started seeing that new thing everywhere around you? Maybe you hear a song for the first time and suddenly it’s playing in the car, at the store, on television commercials, and being covered by buskers on the street?
Or maybe you read a strange word in a book and now all your friends are using it when you swear they never did in the past. You hear it in speeches, at school or at work, in the subject line of emails or hidden in strange text message that you have to decipher?
For Elise, after seeing the messy and dark side of the world, she started noticing it everywhere. For me, it was something different. Something I hadn’t realized until she left me standing there in a strange city I never intended to visit, in a strange country I never intended to drift to in a balloon I never intended to steal.
That phenomenon for me was helplessness.
After experiencing it for the first time as Alice set me aloft in the Candlewind, I felt helpless everywhere. Caught in the storm that brought me to Seattle. Mugged by thieves in an alleyway. Receiving strange messages from Alice that dragged me into this decidedly bad situation. Floating over the Pacific Ocean as the winds took me West when I wanted to go South. I didn’t ask for any of it. I was helplessly tossed adrift into this mess.
And now I felt helpless once again as I made my way back to the small hotel room where Elise and Laurents’ notes were stored. Nothing I could do but wait. I was too helpless to do anything else. Three days.
The first night, I couldn’t sleep. I went down to the water and watched the ships go by, waiting for the sea monster of doubt and fear to come and overwhelm me, now alone in the ship.
The second night wasn’t much better. I managed to sleep, dream even, but it was a dream I hadn’t had since my first few nights in Seattle. I was in the Candlewind, in the middle of a massive storm.
Like my nightmare before, I was tossed out of the balloon and began my free-fall. Dark wisps of cloud streamed between my fingers and robbed my body of any heat. They swirled all around me like ghosts. They chased me downward, but I could never see them clearly, could never see how close they were behind me.
Just as before, the rain pierced my like hundreds of daggers, determined to beat me in our violent race to the ground.
Except there was no ground this time. As I fell through the cloud layer, I saw an endless grey expanse below. An ocean. Directly under me, right in my trajectory, was a sailboat–alone and tossed to and fro among massive waves. Encircling the boat was a dark stain. A shade of blue-grey fouler than the rest of the sea surrounding it. Something beneath.
As I came closer, I saw that the boat was full of people. People I knew. Moog and Sondra, Elise and Laurents. Even Alice. They were all there on the boat looking up at me…with their arms held out.
Were they trying to catch me?
There wasn’t much time. I was falling fast. With every blink of my eyes to protect from the stinging rain, the boat doubled in size. I tried to scream at them, tell them that I was falling way too fast. That they couldn’t catch me. They needed to move the boat. Save themselves. There was no way they’d be able to save me.
But none of those words came. Every time I tried to open my mouth, the wind lashed at my tongue and filled my lungs near to bursting with foul ocean air.
I fell closer and closer. For a small slice of time, I was close enough to see their faces. It was so brief a moment that I couldn’t tell if I really saw it or not, but I could’ve sworn they were smiling. Happy to see me. Happy to help me. Even as I was about to tear through the ship in my descent.
On the third day, I couldn’t take it any more. I couldn’t take myself anymore.
“Dway! Wooshikwai!” The man’s face twisted in frustration and impatience.
“I’m sorry..Uh, dway…boo…chi,” I muttered, struggling to form the desperate few Mandarin words I had learned over the past few weeks, “I don’t know, yes—er…Dway. ‘Wuxi’ is where I’m trying to go. You know the city? Wuxi?”
“Bu, bu,” he shook his head and waved his hand in front of me, “kneeboodong. wooshi.” He emphasized.
“Ye—Dway. Wuxi.” I was standing on the curb of the busy Shanghai street bending over to talk to the angry driver through his passenger window. Swarms of business workers brushed by me, hurriedly getting to their next meeting while trying to minimize the amount of sweat and exhaust accumulating under their nice suits in the growing heat of the day. “Look, I don’t have time for this. It’s an emergency. I just need to get to a train station,” I urged, “Wo hen yao qu Wuxi! Hen yao a!”
“Bu. Wooshi.” He threw his arms up and rolled his eyes, “knee chew Wuxi…” he pointed ahead of him towards the street. Then, he jabbed his finger at me, “knee foo wooshi kwai!”
I was going to take the train to Wuxi, find Elise and Laurents, then get us all back here to rendevous with the ship that was going to sneak us out of the country. But I didn’t even know who or where the rendezvous was. They were supposed to take us out three days ago according to Laurents’ original plan. Elise must have convinced them to wait another few days as she went to Wuxi.
Which meant that tonight we had to leave, and Elise hadn’t come back yet. I didn’t know how to contact whoever was going to get us out of the country, but Elise and Laurents must know. So, if I could get to them before it was too late, maybe we could still make it out. It was a bad idea, but I’d take a bad idea over none at all. I was done being helpless.
Except I can’t speak Mandarin.
I stared dumbly at the driver and just repeated the only phrase I knew, desperately clinging to the hope that if I kept pushing the same square peg plea hard enough towards the same round hole taxi driver, I could bend his shape to my will.
Please just figure out what I want?
“Aiyah!” He sighed in exasperation and slammed his steering wheel. “Mayguoren!” He started shooing me away from his window with one hand while rolling it back up with the other, then sped off down the street.
There had to be a train station nearby. And someone willing to take me there, either a taxi or metro. Something. I looked down the waterfront, my gaze following the river before it connected to the Yangtze and, immediately after, the East China Sea. We had to be out there, on the sea, before the sun came up in the morning. But I had to circle back to Wuxi first.
I looked down the sidewalk for a clue. Anything that would hint at where the station might be. But all I saw was a sea of people going about their day. Until I saw an old lady on the corner, playing her two-stringed instrument–a calm melodic eddy against the noise and rush of the city–her harmonies competing with the sounds of the-
I started sprinting like a madman towards the market street where I last saw Elise. I remembered it being only a few blocks from the Bund. How many was a few blocks? I thought to myself as I ran. Didn’t matter, it was the only option at the moment.
I dodged between crowds of people and darted between cars as I rushed across intersections. The afternoon heat was a blanket of humidity trying to slow my steps and smother my breath, but I didn’t care. I was doing something.
My legs were shaking by the time I reached the shopping area where Elise and I last talked. I found the corner where the old lady was performing a few days before. What now?
I stooped over, hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath. I was dripping in sweat and wheezing. Most people walking by tried to politely ignore me, but others slowed down and muttered things at me in Mandarin, asking if I needed help, probably. One old man merely grunted and offered me a bottle of water as he walked by.
I ignored them all, tuned them all out, because I was listening for the train, trying to catch the distracting screeching noises of brakes halting at a station. I’d heard it here before, I’d have to hear it again, right?
Reader, have you ever experienced something for the first time and then immediately started to tune it out everywhere around you? Like the chirping of birds, the dull roar of nearby traffic, or the guttural industrial noises of a train coming to a stop at a station?
I must have heard it a thousand times as we wandered around the country those past few days, learning to ignore it. Now, though, it was pure music to my ears, that terrible screech of the train brakes.
Standing back up, lungs still recovering, I ran in the direction of the station.
It turned out to be only a block away. My heart, lungs, and legs were pounding as I entered the station, but the adrenaline was in full effect at this point. Not thinking, I started rushing across the main area to the schedule board.
I was so focused that I failed to see the two police officers in my path as I collided right into them, all of us crashing down on the hard ground in a tangle of confusion and anger.
I was also too focused to see who those police officers were chasing. But, as I was lying there on the floor slowly regaining my vision and my breath, the chasees turned back, and ran up to me.
“What are you even doing he-” Elise rasped breathlessly.
“Doesn’t matter, grab him and let’s go,” Laurents interjected, “he just saved us.”
They grabbed me by the arms–one on each side–and half supported/half dragged me away from the scene in a panicked rush.
The next thing I remembered, we were in a car. Elise and I were in the back while Laurents drove, getting distance between us and and train station.
After regaining my senses, I had a thousand questions. But struggled to get anything out other than, “Wha, how. You guys are here.”
Elise wore a grin full of mischief, “We’re here. Next stop, the docks.”
“Then, outta China,” Laurents finished.
“What about the Candlewind?”
“Already being loaded on the ship.” Laurents jerked the wheel as we cut across multiple lanes to get on the highway.
“How did you guys…” I was still catching my breath and rubbing my throbbing head. I could feel a lump forming from where I’d collided with the police officers, “You made it. You did it.”
“Yeah,” Elise gave a nervous chuckle, “we really did. But we almost didn’t. You showed up at the perfect time.”
“But, how? What happened in Wuxi?”
She took a deep breath to collect her thoughts, calming the nervous energy in car, “Oh, do I have a story for you…”
Check back in two more weeks for more!