[Void Galaxia] Chapter 32: Hidden Plath

+++

Emerging El Topo-like outside, I took in the pharmacy opposite, counted out half the queue then walked left down the street until I found a collection of bus stops. The giant FRESNO GRAPE FEST poster stamped on the shelter[flanked by smaller versions promoting the same event] had some effect, but not enough to stop my finger running through the route listing. Herndon. Tarpey. Inspiration Park. Gordon. Most of the names were just empty signifiers, but there was one route with Wild Cat Lane – final stop, Prather – so I sat down, put my bag on the chipped part of the bench and waited.

      The bus took a while.

      More than a while.

      Half an hour and not one stopped, not even by accident.

      I stretched out my legs, almost clipping a woman passing by.

      Behind me, a waitress from the REAL THAI YEAH takeaway spot I’d been tempted to try earlier, shouted, ‘green curry, tom yung soup,’ seemingly on loop.

      Nope, not looking that way.

      Or at my shoes.

      Where else?

      Back down the street, opposite the video caffé, two VR plazas vied for attention; one white and minimalist, clearly a franchise, and the other visibly on its last legs. Visibly cos the biggest poster in the window was a fading MARS OR MEH, a game so old even my mum knew it.

      All the other shopps were either garish, foreign restaurrants or minor tech stores selling shit like patch cleaners and earphones.

      I pulled my legs back in, making space for the sudden rush of people traffic.

      This was Fresno then.

      Or one street in it.

      Not exactly Osaka or Ljubljana.

      More like a place holder, a rough sketch, do-for-now city waiting for its upgrade to arrive. Which, under the adventurist system, would probably take about half a millennium.

      No wonder Sadia wanted to leave.

      Was that too harsh?

      Maybe.

      The video caffé was okay…a bit extreme on the 80’s retro…but not unbearable.

      And there was that Puppet Master 2 poster…

      The other people around the shelter started muttering, shuffling, reaching into jacket pockets, and, when I looked down the street, I realized why. The bus was coming. My one. Hopefully with enough room inside cos there was no way I was waiting another hour for the next one.

+++

      Turned out room was not a problem as, apart from the driver and myself, there were only two other passengers on the whole bus.

      The loudest was an old man sitting near the front, talking constantly at the driver, who was doing his best to ignore him. As the pensioner was a bit deaf, his voice was twice as loud, so me and the other passenger could hear him boasting about how his second favourite nephew had recently become the personal assistant to someone big on one of the network shows based in LA. He wasn’t very happy about it though, as the kid didn’t talk to him anymore. In fact, the little punk hadn’t talked to him in years. At this point, he swore right into the driver’s ear, and was told to stop yapping and sit the F down.

      The other passenger was a pensive-looking guy, young, not particularly well-built. He was sitting near the back reading something, a piece of paper. Not his phone. Or the GRAPE FEST sticker that seemed to be on the back of every seat.

      Something about him seemed off…perhaps the way he kept looking at the roof of the bus and muttering…or maybe the fact that it was a single piece of paper clutched in his hand.

      But then I probably looked off too.

      My phone beeped, a pop-up ad telling me about a new dildo shop at the next stop.

      Kuso…

      Did they even try anymore?

      Fucking adventurists.

+++

      The bus left the city blocks and hit a short stretch of highway, moving past almond fields with signs advertising Almond Marts in LA, Bakersfield, San Fran, Portland in North Cali, Accra etc., AH-Bots in orange groves, an ADOPT-A-COW depot, stray cows, stray dogs, real estate billboards selling genuine family farms [plus family] and then, finally, into an area that looked like generic suburbs, even though Fresno itself was so far away at that point that it may as well have been a fresh city.

      I looked out of the window, at some of the housses and gardens and advert holo signs in between, and tried to picture Sadia walking around there. Which ones would she choose? The grungiest sprang to mind, as she was a poet, and didn’t poets like dirt and chaos?

      The bus stopped and the driver shouted back, ‘this is your stop.’

      I put the bag on my shoulder and got up, and the guy at the back of the bus did the same, following me down the aisle. Then beeping his card against the exit point to cover the extortionate, inter-zone surcharge.

      Kuso…

      We were going to the same place?

+++

      With the bus gone, I checked the map on my phone and figured out where on Wild Cat Lane her housse would be.

      The other guy…one piece of paper guy…stood rigid behind me, checking an actual, physical map.

      Okay, you mime fuck. Catch this.

      I started walking first, at a fairly swift speed, and, after passing the first housse [plus front lawn holo sign shilling neck insurance], looked back. He was still studying the map, face basically rubbing against it.

      An incompetent stalker. Good.

      Fucking up a Dark Planet theme whistle, I continued on, examining every housse I walked past, looking into every window in case I was wrong and she was inside, tutting at every holo ad, walking past a few residents walking their dogs, walking past others who were just walking themselves, walking generally, mindlessly, mindfully, until I reached a curve in the street with a small forest latched on at the end.

      Okay, this had to be it.

      I checked behind again and saw the map guy about a hundred metres down the road. He was walking at a controlled hurry pace to catch up and, although there were now shades covering his eyes, it seemed that he was staring right at me.

      Kasu, he wasn’t a big guy, I could take him…if it came to that.

      Turning back, I quickly reviewed the number of her housse on my map [I’d written it down before I came] then carried on down the final limb of the street.

      A lot of the housses, these and ones I’d already passed, not only had stupid fucking holo ads outside, but also the California flag hanging over their porches. A precious few had the old US flag. One housse had a different flag entirely; I didn’t know which one exactly, but it was red and green with a small bird in the corner. Portuguese, maybe. Was that a joke?

      Another housse near the end of the street had a police car parked outside.

      I walked closer and checked the number on the door.

      Kuso, it was hers.

      Through the window I could see one of the cops, surprisingly lithe, and a blonde middle-aged woman talking to him, so I kept on walking, stopping a couple of housses farther down and studying a particularly gigantic tree [fuck the holo ad!].

      With not a lot of subtlety, I checked back on Sadia’s place.

      The map guy got there a few minutes later, saw the police car, stopped, looked over at me and my tree, waited for what must’ve been more than three minutes then turned and scurried back the way he’d come. I watched him all the way until he braked ten housses down, sliding awkwardly into the exact same thing I was doing.

      What brand of fucking tree is that, I wanted to ask, aware that I didn’t know the answer either.

      Larch?

      Elm blossom?

      Not palm?

Creepy fuck.

+++

      We stood there fake tree studying for nearly an hour.

      Finally, two cops came out of Sadia’s housse, the blonde woman a couple of yards behind, arms folded. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but, based on the body language, it seemed to be more than a little tense. And brief, thanks gods. Cops got in the car, woman tightened her arms, scene done.

      Move, move, move, you fucking slug.

      Yup, good idea.

      I waited until the cop car was out of sight then rushed without looking rushed over to the housse.

      My rival farther down the street had a similar idea, but, when he spotted me flying along, he glitched and went back to his tree.

      I smirked, remembering the guy in the hostel room.

      ‘Come on then, kasu.’

      Then called myself kasu and refocused.

      The front door to the housse was half open. I thought about walking up and ringing the bell, but what would I say?

      Hi, I’m Mark from the internet. Is Sadia home?

      No, too weird.

      I needed time to prepare.

      To think up better bullshit.

      Putting my head down, I moved round the side of the porch. There was a path between each of the housses, and I followed it along until the dirt spilled out onto a field of more dirt and occasional grass. Nothing much there, no cows or crops, no sign saying what it was supposed to be, so I walked back, pausing by a tree near Sadia’s back garden. It wasn’t the biggest, and the foliage was minimal, but it was enough to keep me covert.

      Assuming I could climb up…

      Reaching up towards the lowest branch, I quickly realized I couldn’t.

      Unless…

      I took a few steps back and ran at the trunk, leaping upwards when I was almost level and grabbing for the branch. I got it, but the bark was rough, and my fingers couldn’t get enough of a grip to pull the rest of my 80kg mass up there. Muffling a groan, I let go and dropped back down to the ground.

      Not much else to do then.

      Except ring the doorbell.

      Or…

      I walked back down the path between the housses and onto the field of 78% dirt. There was still fuck all to see so I turned ninety degrees and followed the same path alongside the backs of the housses until I found a skip full of old laptops and plastic and miscellaneous shit that had been thrown out. I rummaged a bit, picked out a limited A.I. vacuum bot, accidentally triggered the start cleaning voice, threw it back in, and that was about it. Kuso, a vacuum bot, just dumped like one of those old NeoGeos. What a fucking waste. A half-broken crate next to the skip seemed to agree with me, wobbling a bit as a breeze passed through. But it didn’t fall down. Ah, a gift from the non-existent gods. I picked up one of its legs and carried it back to the path, briefly wondering why I was actually doing this.

      Investigation?

      Didn’t matter, there was another GRAPE FEST sticker on the back of a fence and that held my hand until I got back to the Sadia tree and put the crate down.

      Right, action time.

      I looked up at the window, the one I’d be able to peer into when I was on the branch. It had to be a bedroom, that high up. Hers?

      My head tilted back, checking the pavement ten housses down for the other guy, but he wasn’t there.

      It was all clear.

      Stepping onto the crate, I reached up for the branch. It seemed a lot lower now, low enough to wrap my hand round it, bend my arm a little to push myself off the crate and, with a slight bump, get my chest onto the bulk of it. The rest was easy and, after brushing away some loose twigs, I quickly settled into spy mode.

      Kuso…

      Instant dejection.

      Not abject, but…

      The room opposite was empty.

      Void of Sadia.

      There were posters on the wall, but it was too far away to see what they were. Some kind of machine on the bedside table, but again, it was too distant to tell what it was.

      I shifted back against the trunk and waited.

      Ten minutes, fifteen, twenty…

      No one came, inside the housse or down in the garden, male or female, clothed or just out of the shower.

      My ass started to get numb.

      As a distraction, I snapped twigs off the branch and threw them at targets on the ground, mostly flowers and shrubs growing on the path. That worked for a couple more minutes, but then the questions grew louder.

      What the hell was I doing?

      Spying?

      Perving?

      Wasn’t I supposed to be thinking up bullshit to spin to her mum?

      What did I actually expect to see in her bedroom?

      Ghost image of her taking her bra off?

      Shoving a quill in her muff?

      I threw the last twig, hitting a spider lily.

      Where the fuck were you, Sadia?

+++

      Straightening my Damijana Chu hoodie, I stood in front of the door to her housse, which was still slightly ajar, and rang the bell.

      The map guy who’d been waiting ten housses farther down [my covert enemy] seemed to have disappeared completely, but perhaps he was still there, hiding more effectively.

      Whatever. Didn’t matter now.

      I coughed several times, trying to clear my throat and making it three times worse.

      The door ghosted open and a little blonde girl materialised.

      ‘Hi,’ I croaked, raising an awkward hand.

      ‘Are you a Mormon?’ she asked, sharp, hand on the edge of the door.

      ‘Sorry, I’m-…’ I coughed again, three times. ‘I know your sister…Sadia.’

      ‘Muuuuuuuum,’ she shouted back into the housse.

      ‘No, it’s okay, I’m not a Mormon, I’m a friend of Sadia’s from-…’

      The blonde, middle-aged woman who’d dealt with the cops appeared behind the little girl, her arms instantly resuming their previous folding motif when she caught sight of me. Or caught sight of my face. Or the half-naked, Chinese sci-fi queen on my hoodie.

      ‘Who are you?’ she asked.

      ‘Hi, I was just telling your daughter, I’m a friend of Sadia.’

      ‘Yes, but who are you?’

      ‘Sorry, I’m Mark.’

      The Muuuuuum looked past me, onto the street, looking for…what? The police car? Cameras?

      ‘Look, I’m not sure if this is weird or not, maybe it is, but I know Sadia from a writing website, on the internet. You know?’

      ‘Yes, we’re aware of the internet,’ she replied, caustic.

      I laughed, not very convincingly, faking an itch on my chest so I could cover Damijana Chu’s Barbarella-esque space suit.

      ‘What do you want?’

      ‘I was wondering…is Sadia here?’

      ‘Are you Chinese?’

      ‘Am I-…oh, you mean the face. No, I’m from Liverpool, I’m Northern British.’

      She toured my face, the eyes, the cheeks, the chin, the Chinese girl on my hoodie, shaking her head.

      ‘You look Chinese.’

      I was stuck again.

      ‘Yeah…is Sadia around? Can I talk to her?’

      ‘Sadia never talked about knowing any Chinese guys. She never-…’ The mum stopped, wiping her eye or her cheek. ‘Look, what exactly do you want?’

      ‘Well, I was wondering if I could…if Sadia was here, maybe I could talk to her.’

      ‘Sadia’s gone.’

      She put her hand on the frame of the door…

      ‘Do you know when she’ll be back?’

      …and, without ceremony, pushed it shut.

      I stood there for a few seconds, looking at the triangular bell. She’s angry as it is, I warned myself, another push and she might…what? Lunge for me?

      Turning slowly, I headed back down the drive, making sure to avoid the grass in case she was watching from the window.

      At the end of the drive I looked right, towards the path and the pervert tree.

      No, not again, you wretch…way too weird.

     I pivoted left and saw the map guy. He was standing a little closer now, maybe eight or seven housses down, with the sunglasses perched on top of his head.

      Who the fuck was this clown?

      An actual stalker?

      Insurance agent?

      Fingers stretched, I started towards him, plucking theories out of mid-air nothingness.

      He was after her. And the police were after him because…because he was creepy. Yes, had to be. If he were genuine, he wouldn’t be sneaking down to her housse one tree at a time.

      But then, didn’t I just climb a tree and sleaze into her bedroom window?

      Yeah…but no. Fuck, kuso, that wasn’t the same. That was…no, it was completely different. Andi Chopra did the same thing in Halt Vacation 2 and it was seen as romantic. Relatively. Well, he got a fuck out of it. So did Jess Esser in Got What? Exact same thing, up a tree, bedroom stakeout, romantic. Not sleazy at all. And I went to the front door, I presented myself to the family. Map guy never did that. Never had the guts to do that. Neither did Andi Chopra. Or Jess Esser.

      Kuso…these fucking perverts.

      This fucking map guy.

      Giving my target another scan, I realized he must’ve been slouching earlier as he was now about the same height as me. Possibly taller cos I was still about twenty metres away. But his arms were skinny, they’d never lifted barrs, and when he saw me marching towards him, the poor wretch couldn’t look straight; his eyes went to the road, the housse he was standing next to, the tree above his head, anywhere but the fierce Japanese guy.

      Yeah, the creepy fucker was scared.

      Good.

      Kanzen da yo.

      ‘What you doing here?’ I shouted, one housse away.

      He pulled his sunglasses down and looked at me, dark filtered.

      ‘You after Sadia?’

      Straightened himself up.

      ‘Sadia. My fucking girlfriend.’

      ‘What?’

      Only a few yards away now, hand ready to swing.

      ‘I said, she’s my fucking girlfriend.’

      He backed onto the grass, one hand rising up arthritic in defence. ‘Look, I don’t know what you think you’re-…’

      I got close, a single step away, and swung.

      The guy staggered back from it, dodging to some degree, but too fast to stay on his feet.

      Pushing forward with full lunatic momentum, I swung again, this time getting him on the side of the head. Then another, and another, the third one connecting with the bone of the guy’s nose.

      Blood trickled out, and he started to moan.

      ‘Get fuck off me…get off…’

      I raised my hand again, but didn’t strike. Instead, I put my hoodie sleeve against his nose and wiped some of the blood off. ‘Too much,’ I said, confused at my own words.

      ‘Fucking psycho…caveman…’

      The front door of the nearest housse creaked open and an old man stepped out. He ambled quite slowly down the steps onto the grass, a tennis racket in his right hand.

      ‘Get off him, son,’ he said, tapping the head of his makeshift weapon against the holo sign with SCALP INSURANCE in red capitals.

      I stretched out my sleeve, got off.

      ‘Police are on the way, so you just stay there and don’t move, okay? Just keep still and-…’

      ‘No, you don’t understand, I saw him watching your housse. Just now. Asked him what he was doing and he swung for me. That’s what happened. I swear.’

      ‘Son, is that true?’ he asked, leaning his whole body towards the guy with blood smeared on his face.

      ‘Are you blind? He’s fucking lying.’

      ‘Son, there’s no need for that kind of language.’

      ‘What were you doing outside his housse then?’ I asked the bleeder.

      ‘Fuck you…psycho…’

      I looked at the old man and told him the police should probably be asking this guy some questions, unless, of course, he knew him. The old man shook his head, and said, ‘no, son, can’t say I do.’

       ‘Well then, like I said,’ I replied, then walked off, heading back down the street to the bus stop, the other pervert’s blood smeared all over my hoodie sleeve.

+++

      To no surprise whatsoever, the whole sidewalk was deserted.

      No seats, no bus shelter, no choice but to put myself on the ground like a teenager and stare at the GRAPE FEST promo opposite.

      ‘Sit on the ground, we can be like animals,’ I mumbled, picturing a Japanese guy with moving lips saying the same thing, and a name too…Hide…

      What the…

      Then someone else, another line, ‘they dropped me, Keni, no way back.’

      I reached for my phone and looked at the numbers, trying to remember what I was supposed to dial. Had to phone someone, didn’t I? Before…sometime…when? A while ago, but…I was sure I had to call back.

      Kuso, not again…

      I looked up at the sun, begging it to burn away all the Japanese faces in my head, all the sporadic language inserts.

      It worked, everything evaporated.

      No more Japanese.

      I put away the phone, breathed out long and then started counting ants on the pavement.

+++

      A few minutes later, the old man shuffled down the road, still holding the tennis racket.

      When he got close enough I asked him where the lunatic was.

      ‘Ran off, I’m afraid. Too spry for an old guy like me.’

      ‘Will the police get him?’

      ‘Hard to say, son, hard to say. They’re a little tied up nowadays.’

      ‘Ah well. Probably won’t come back now he knows you’ve got a tennis racket.’

      The old man laughed. ‘Son, if you’d been any bigger, I woulda been armed for mountain lion.’

      I laughed, half annoyed that he didn’t think I was big already. Couldn’t remember exactly, but I was pretty sure I could bench somewhere in the region of one forty. Who else would be bigger than that…outside of bodybuilding comps?

      ‘Good job I’m tiny then,’ I said, finally.

      ‘I wouldn’t go that far.’

      ‘Nah, guess not.’

      He asked what I was doing there anyway. As far as he knew there weren’t any other Chinese in the area [the guy clearly didn’t know much…I’d seen at least thirty other Asian guys since I’d been there].

      I told him I was Scouse.

      He said it was strange, but okay, he could let it go.

      We talked a little more, about the area, the old states, the crime rate, the culture of the Chinese, whether or not I knew kung fu. I told him I didn’t, but did have enough boxing training to handle myself. Didn’t bother saying I wasn’t Chinese.

      After nodding five hundred times, he left.

      Ten yards down the road, he half turned, told me to watch myself. ‘There’s been trouble here lately, something dark, so…just a warning.’

      I smiled and said I could handle myself, mouthing thank fuck when I saw the front of the bus turn the corner down the road.

      ‘Yeah, suppose you can. But still, what happens to a young girl like that…ain’t asking much to look around a little…be vigilant.’

      ‘Sorry, young girl?’

      The bus stopped near my feet and the door hissed open.

      ‘Poor girl down the street there,’ the old man said, pointing back with his tennis racket. ‘Guess you didn’t hear about it being a tourist and all.’

      ‘Hear what?’

      ‘Got taken by some loon…or she ran off with him…they’re not really sure. But I’ll tell you this, it’s the biggest news ever happened round here, that’s for sure.’

      ‘Wait…taken by who? Where did she-…’

      ‘You getting on, guy?’ interrupted the driver, tone like a Mong Kok waiter.

      I looked over at the bus doors, the sur-charge device clamped to the glass, the cloud of rage around the driver, and then back at the old man.

      ‘Well?’

      I shook my head, adding a pointless I’ll take the next one.

      ‘Great. Thanks for letting me pull over and not pick you up.’

      The doors closed and the bus [plus irate driver fumes] disappeared towards the highway, leaving me with the old man and his tennis racket.

      ‘Sorry, can you start again?’ I asked, covering the blood specks on my sleeve. ‘The whole story…’

      ‘Well, it’s a slow afternoon…why not?’

      The old man shuffled closer, cracked his knees as he lowered himself down onto the curb, and, after a long series of black lung coughs, started to narrate.

+

Everything…the whole story [condensed]

+

One night, a few weeks earlier, the poor girl failed to come home.

 According to neighbourhood rumour, there was a note left on her bed: ‘don’t worry, mum. I’ve gone on a trip with a friend. Won’t be gone forever.’

Ain’t been heard from since.

Police checked all nearby airports, so they know she hasn’t left the country. Apart from that, ain’t nothing much they can do except…circulate her photo, wait until someone recognises her…even then, the poor girl might’ve gone voluntarily.

Who knows?

+

The old man managed to stretch everything out to an hour and twenty minutes, making me swat away two more buses [plus annoyed drivers].

Fucking oldies, always snail-like.

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