Everything You Left Behind
- by Wen Ma -
Here’s everything I know about what happened to you.
1. You left home earlier than usual on Sunday, saying you were going to film more shots of the city at dawn for your documentary.
2. You went to meet the Pain Merchant instead.
3. I came back late from work, and you weren’t here.
4. Your phone was on the counter. Thirty missed messages and seven missed calls, most of them from me.
5. You never came back. Some of your clothes were missing, and so were your meds. You didn’t take your laptop or film gear with you.
None of our friends or your family, or the people you work with, knew where you were.
One day passed without a word from you, then two, then three, and when I couldn’t bear it any more, I followed your trail to the Pain Merchant.
I had no idea what sort of business you might’ve had with him. For all I knew, it could have been just another interview for the documentary about our city you've been working on for ages, given how busy you’d been interviewing and filming footage at all hours, ever since the city got caught in the Nothing two years ago. And sometimes? Sometimes I suspected you did it as a distraction from Fara’s death.
You weren’t dead. I knew you weren’t dead the way I knew the sky was blue or the Earth was round. Because nobody can die in this city, not since the Nothing happened and time stood still.
The Pain Merchant was the last person I was certain you saw before you went missing.
He was the only clue that could lead me back to you, so I took what I could get.
He agreed to meet me early this morning, at the location I suggested, your favourite diner near the subway station. It’s crowded and noisy almost all the time, comfortably public and anonymous, but unlike the other diners in this district nobody there will kick you out the door the moment your plate’s clean.
The Pain Merchant . . . wasn’t what I expected.
I’d expected someone old and wizened, but he was tall and young and pale, impeccably dressed in a sharp suit that wouldn’t look out of place among the skyscrapers uptown. Handsome too, in that devastating way that would’ve had all the girls back in high school (and you and I too, I suppose) swooning.
He was too nice, too charming, and I was on high alert the moment I slid into the bench opposite his.
I remember how fascinated you were by the idea of him, the way you talked about him incessantly when you first heard of him. Nobody knew where he came from, just that he appeared in this city two years ago, another product of the Nothing.
I hadn’t seen you this alive, this interested in anything since . . . forever.
You asked him to take away the pain of Fara's death, didn't you? I bet you did.
He confirmed my suspicions. Told me that yes, you’d asked him to remove a pain from you.
I asked if it was the pain of Fara’s death he took.
He said yes.
I didn’t think to wonder how he knew about her.
I don’t understand why you couldn’t have booked a therapist like everyone else, or gone to groups, or just . . . talked. To anyone. To me. You always talked to me about everything, except this. Why? All right, I’ll admit that I’m the last person anyone should talk to about emotions—about anything, really—and yet . . .
To my surprise, the Pain Merchant offered me what you’d asked of him: to take away the grief over Fara. He said two years was too long to still bear the weight of such a burden, as if he knew what it’s like to lose a kid, as if he could even begin to imagine what you and I had both been through.
You’d still remember her, he said. It’s just the grief that would be gone.
The genuine pity in his voice riled me, and I told him to screw off.
A small, rueful smile ghosted his lips, but he didn’t press again.
And so I asked what I came for. I asked if I could collect your pain.
He cocked his head. The people I deal with usually come to me seeking to remove pain.
Yeah, well—I snapped, leaning back on the bench and folding my arms—must be a nice change? To have someone take the pain off your hands for once?
You must give something of yourself in return if you want his pain, he said. You must offer a pain of your own. I am not a collector—merely a trader.
I shrugged. Sounds like a good deal to me.
The Pain Merchant placed a sleek silver case on the oily table and pushed it toward me. You’re welcome to look for his pain yourself.
I sat up straight and unfolded my arms, and opened the case as gingerly as though handling an explosive. Inside were bottles lined up neatly in rows, all of them labelled, their liquids glowing faintly. The bottles of pain reminded me of bottled moonlight.
I took my time reading the labels on each of them. There were small pains—the discomfort of a cold, a fever, a broken arm or a twisted ankle, the annoyance of someone who’d lost a bet on a horse-race or the resentment of a kid who’d been sent to detention.
Then there were the big ones. An elderly woman’s back pain, a factory worker’s lung cancer. The grief of a businessman who’d had to give up his entire family fortune to a loan shark and didn’t know how to tell his wife. Quite a few bottles of trauma, too, and a lot of dead friends and family members. Sometimes you get so wrapped up in your own grief you forget you aren’t the only person in the world going through it.
Your bottle was among them. I recognized your name at once.
The glass surface felt cold when I picked it up, like I was clutching a shard of icicle. The Pain Merchant nodded when I closed my fingers around it. And what pain would you like me to remove from you?
I didn’t know. I’ve never taken the time to think about everything that hurt inside, everything that I wanted purged from me—I’d told him the truth when I said I was done with mourning Fara.
But still . . . I thought for a long while, then gestured to my temple. Got a bit of a headache ever since he went missing, I muttered gruffly. Haven’t been sleeping well. Maybe you could . . . I trailed off, but he understood. My headache these days had grown worse, a band made of iron pressing ever tightly against my skull, but I was so used to it by then that I’d almost forgotten its existence.
The Pain Merchant leaned across the table and reached out to touch my temple. The moment he did, the ache in my head went away.
Now it’s your turn, he said when he sat back down.
Maybe it was the abrupt loss of that near constant ache in my head, or desperation to hold on to anything that was you, but I unscrewed the bottle cap without hesitating, with almost a heady sense of recklessness, and brought it to my lips.
Your pain tasted like bitter herbal medicine.
It took half an hour to kick in.
Half an hour. Just barely enough time for me to take the subway back, stalk down the street we used to walk along every weekend on our way to the mall for a late breakfast, past the park where a group of elderlies practice Tai-Chi to the crackling croon of Cantonese opera on an ancient radio, and past the rows and rows of identical blocks of our housing estate. I punched in the passcode to our block, took the lift up to the twentieth floor, crossed the narrow fluorescent-lit corridor, got out my keys, and opened the rusty grate to the door of our flat.
I feel it the moment I step inside.
There’s no warning. The pain kicks in, and I’m caught completely unaware when it crashes over me like a tide.
I’m sitting on the floor right now, next to a pile of our shoes, my back against the cold grill of the gate, crying my eyes out in the dark. It’s the first time I’ve cried since . . . since Fara. Since that night at the hospital.
Gasping sobs, choking on air. The door’s open and I haven’t even taken off my shoes or turned on the lights.
If my father could’ve seen me now, he’d probably have disowned me all over again right on the spot. What are you, he’d ask, a fucking girl? Come on, son, man up.
But this isn’t my pain, isn’t my grief. It’s yours, at once alien and achingly familiar. I’m drowning in it, trying to keep my head above the waves even as the storm threatens to pull me under.
It feels just as raw as the day we found out about the accident, and those that followed.
I’d rather have the headaches, now.
Even as I rest my forehead against my knees and close my eyes through the pain, I come to a realization.
No, not a realization, because I’ve known this already for two years, but I’m only just understanding the full weight of it.
Let’s call this a re-realization. A revelation, an understanding, epiphany, whatever:
I’m going to live forever.
This whole city’s going to live forever.
We’re trapped in a bubble of time, have been trapped in it for two years. All because of the Nothing.
And all this time, I never knew. I never knew how deeply you felt Fara’s loss after she died mere weeks before the Nothing fell.
I wrestled my own pain down long ago. Why is yours still so raw?
I keep expecting your pain to end. But it doesn’t, it keeps on going and I feel myself spiralling, unravelling, disintegrating into a thousand pieces. Even when my headaches were at their worst, there were lulls in the pain, until it was just a soft static in the back of my skull. But this? This is different. Endless white noise that tears at my lungs and closes its fist around my heart.
The only way to find you again is to sift through the static, but I’m not strong enough to do it. Not yet.
I just need to wait for it to pass.
But there is something I can do. I can still stand, take off my shoes, turn on the lights.
An hour passes before I wipe the back of a hand over my wet face and rise, shakily, to my feet. The surge of emotion has died down, giving way to numbness.
I go to the kitchen and make myself a cup of coffee. And as I lean against the kitchen counter, listening to the hum and drip of the coffee machine, I wade through the white noise in my head and think. You always said that’s what I do best, that I think too much but never talk, my thoughts filling up inside me like water in a balloon. Keep so much to yourself and one day you’ll explode, you always said.
But I can’t help it, that’s just who I am. You talk and do enough for the both of us anyway. You’re the impulsive one, the adventurer, the one who dares.
I keep thinking about Fara. About whether she’d still have died if we hadn’t adopted her all those years ago. She’d have been fourteen this year. She would still be in the foster home, maybe. She might grow to be just another teenager too old for anyone to want to adopt, but too young to go out into the world on her own. Or maybe another couple like us would come along and take her in. She wouldn’t have been on the school rooftop when it happened, wouldn’t have—
The coffee machine beeps.
These thoughts aren’t mine, are they? No, they’re yours. I think they're yours, because I don’t remember ever thinking like that. Not even after Fara died and it was just the two of us rattling around this empty shell of a flat.
I moved on with my life, and you hated it. You hated that I could put all this behind me so quickly. Why didn’t you ever tell me?
I pour coffee into that chipped bright-red Keep Calm and Carry On mug you got me from your trip to England, watch the dusty morning sky from the kitchen window while I drink.
We should have stayed abroad like you wanted to, after we got married and adopted the light of our lives—Fara. She would have led a happier childhood, a childhood she deserved. It wouldn’t be perfect, of course, but I’m halfway certain it would’ve been at least better than this.
But no. We came back because I wanted us to come back. Because I couldn’t dream of being anywhere else.
And now I’m stuck here in a city sitting on the fringes between important and inconsequential, living a half-life between real and unreal.
Nobody here cares about the Nothing anymore, though, do they? Oh, time stood still in our city? Great! Time is money, and more time means more money to be earned. Of course there was a big fuss when it first happened—we even made international news for a bit, got our fifteen minutes of fame. But then soon enough, things went back to normal again. They forgot about us, and we, too, forgot about us. We became ghosts.
Life goes on, even though time doesn’t. Still have to go to work, go to school, scour the magazines for the newest weekend hotspots, hoard holidays like gold and plan the next vacation getaway. Let the intellectuals and the scientists and the government worry about the ramifications of immortality. We’re not professionals, see? It’s not our place to decide what to do when our world screeches to a halt. Our job is just to live in it.
Those who could leave, left. We couldn’t, of course—we had Fara to raise, and jobs to do. And I thought we’d both knitted ourselves too tight into the fabric of this city to ever think of leaving.
It's to be a mystery now, is it? The sort of mystery game we used to play when we were both thirteen and I went over to your place after school, and you’d leave clues around the flat and get me to hunt for the “murderer.” I used to love those games, but now I just feel old. Too old for this detective business, for games.
Fara went through a board game phase several years back. You taught her to play Scrabble and Boggle, while she made me teach her the rules to Monopoly, to Risk, to Reversi, and more. She kept losing, though, and sometimes got so upset about it she threw tantrums.
You kept trying to get me to let her win for once, but I couldn’t—I’d only be insulting Fara’s intelligence and skill if I coddled her. If there was one thing I used to hate as a kid, it was being treated like one.
I’m sorry. Sorry about Fara, sorry for blaming you, sorry for being the way I am.
And I’m sorry for being so tough on you. I’ve never gone easy on myself. Don’t know where even to begin going easy on other people.
There’s a lot I don’t know. But the big things? Those I write down in bullet points on the back of an old grocery bill.
If you were here peering over my shoulder, you’d probably laugh. Things you don’t know? you’d snort. Need an entire book for that.
So. Here’s what’s I still don’t know.
1. Why you left.
2. Where you went.
3. If you even want to be found.
With that last note, the flat’s suddenly too small, too claustrophobic. It makes my skin crawl.
I need to get out.
I drain the last dregs of coffee, crumple up the bill and toss it into the trash, and I’m out the door again.
I walk through the estate, past the playground, trying to get the static out of my head. No direction in mind, and the playground’s empty on a weekday morning with the children all still in school.
I feel sorry for them, to be honest. None of us have aged in two years—won’t ever age, won’t ever grow. Those kids will spend the rest of eternity sitting in classrooms and going to cram schools, day after day after day.
Fara had it lucky, dying when she did. Life snuffed away like a lantern guttering out, trailing smoke in its wake, instead of being frozen in time like the rest of us.
I want something that stays, something I can hold on to. It’s ridiculous, because if there’s anything I should know better than anyone, it’s that nothing ever stays. Not my parents, who threw me out when they found out about you (about us), not Fara, who kept everything that happened to her at school to herself, not even you. Everything is sand sifting through my fingers and the crackle of white noise in the absence of a radio signal.
A set of running tracks wind around the length of the district park, and I cut through it on my way out. A couple of teenage boys are racing each other out there, still in school uniform—skipping class by the looks of them. Neither spares me so much as a glance when they barrel past, whooping and hollering, shirts untucked and loosened neckties trailing behind them like banners.
Race you to the finish line, see who gets there first, one of them yells at the other. Loser gets to do the other’s homework for a week.
Remember high school? Racing each other on the tracks of the school field, at recess, during PE, on lunch break, every chance we got? I used to be the fastest runner in our school, before you transferred there, you know, and when we raced each other, I’d always win—unless you cheated. And you always cheated. Either punching or kicking out to make me trip whenever I went past, or making faces to distract me. Even at school, I always had to write you up a cheat sheet whenever you’d forgotten to study for a test.
You were always an unrepentant cheat. Still are.
I’m glad of it. It’s much harder to survive in this city if you don’t know how to lie and cheat your way through it all.
Me? I’m far too blunt. I say the wrong things, and always say the first thing that comes to mind even when it cuts like a knife. You used to joke that you didn’t think I’d be able to survive a day out in society because of how naive, how straightforward, how honest I am.
Hah, well, joke’s on you. By some strange twist of fate, I’m still walking, still here, while you’re the one who’s missing.
Almost afternoon now. Don’t know how long I’ve been walking. Must have paced through three districts and back, inhaled so much smoke and dust from the air next to the open street that my lungs are probably pitch-black. I called in sick from work earlier today for the first time in years, and it’s strange having the entire day to myself.
There’s a spring in my step as I head back to our block for the second time today. I’m only just noticing how nice the dusty sunlight looks as it washes over the pale greys and blues and greens of the estate. And I think:
I know now. I know, I know, I know.
I know why you left.
Behind it all, though, there’s still the grief, an undercurrent of it, stubborn like an old stain on a carpet that won’t ever scrub clean.
The static in my brain’s turned down low, a silent buzz that’s more numbness than ache now, just enough for me to parse through to the heart of it.
I knew, but didn’t understand.
Grief. Guilt. Guilt from the lack of grief. The Pain Merchant took your grief from you, this grief you’ve been keeping inside of you for two years, and when it was gone you replaced it with guilt instead.
That was why you left without telling me, wasn’t it? Why you ran? Because you couldn’t bear the idea of no longer feeling the loss of Fara.
I tuck my hands in my pockets as I walk, and wonder if I hate you for your cowardice. I also wonder dimly if I should find you, follow you, chase you to the ends of the Earth.
But I don’t.
I don’t know where you are. For all I know, you could’ve gone to the airport, bought a ticket to anywhere, flown out of the city, away from this Nothing.
But you’ll come back. I have to trust that you’ll come back in your own time, and when you do—if you do—we can begin to repair what we’ve lost. It’s okay even if you don’t, though. I’ll still be here no matter what, here in this city with everything you left behind, because there’s no other choice. And because I can’t imagine being anywhere else.
I’m not going anywhere.
© 2017 by Wen Ma
Wen is a queer nonbinary Hong Konger writer who also works in editing/translation and education. In their spare time Wen can usually be found dabbling in illustration, going on hiking expeditions throughout the city's many mountain trails and outlying islands, or indulging in their obsession with street food and strong coffee. Wen's poetry is forthcoming at Liminality. Find Wen on Twitter at @spritesngoblins.