We Flew All The Way To Rushmore

We flew all night, all the way to Mt. Rushmore. I landed on Lincoln’s head, stumbling until I knelt down on a flatter surface. It was slippery with morning dew, and I was spent.

Cold wind still filled my lungs as I tried to even my breathing. My feathers were all ruffed like a backyard chicken’s, but I had stopped taking good care of them long before that day.

I turned my head when I heard Olivia’s landing. She was graceful, riding the wind, gliding down and folding up her wings as soon as her feet touched the ground. Then, a breeze hit us. I heard her cursing as she wavered in the gust. I had already slipped and fallen off the human president’s face, crashed into his nose, and tumbled down the hill.

Before I recovered, the wind wooshed behind me. Olivia hauled me up from the ground.

“What the hell was that?” She was mad at me. “We just flew for five hours straight, what’s the point?”

“You didn’t have to follow me,” I said, smacking her with my left wing.

“I thought you were ditching Wind Physics for, I don’t know, a bite in town. But you kept flying like a psycho, all the way here.”

“That’s because you’re too slow to catch me,” I laughed, getting up to my feet.

“Where is ‘here’ anyway?” She crossed her arms.

“Mount Rushmore,” I pointed at the four heads carved into the mountain.

She turned to look, the sight startled her. “Those aren’t natural.”

“No, they aren’t.”

“You flew five hours to see four human heads made of stone?”

“I didn’t plan to stop here.”

“Then where are you going?”

“Relax, I’m not running away. Just need some time away, that’s all.”

“You really have no idea what you’re doing, do you?”

“The sun is coming up,” I commented. Rays of gold would soon engulf us and the ground down below. If I squinted, I could see the tourist center. I turned to look at Olivia, she was toggling with her wrist screen. “You aren’t going to report me, are you?”

“If I were to do that, I’d have done it 300 miles earlier,” she scrolled, “And my wearable is running out of battery. Hey — Where’re you going?”

The park was about to open. We couldn’t be here when the tourists arrived with their cameras. The Director wouldn’t like viral photos of a winged person on the internet, and I knew Olivia was camera-shy. Our existence was supposed to be classified.

“Alright, are we going back?” She arrived next to me, combing through her feathers absentmindedly.

“Yes, but it’s also getting hot.” I didn’t like flying close to the sun, and it was almost summer. “We can fly in the evening. Don’t you want to see the world, just for one day? I’m sick of spending my life in the hangar.”

“People will be looking for us — ”

“We’ll go back at night. Promise.”

As I walked down the neat pavement with all the state flags hanging from both sides, I could see a gift shop sign from there. We couldn’t just walk down the street in broad daylight.

“Ugh, fine. It’s not like I’m the one with a disciplinary warning.”

“That was an accident.” I didn’t like the reminder, but I loved being her amusement. “Let’s not speak of that ever again.”

We walked down the pavement with our wings folded. A few employees were arriving, getting ready for the day. One of them opened the door to the gift shop and went back inside.

I slipped in, grabbing two souvenir sweaters from the shelf. They were the largest size.

“What the hell are you doing?” Olivia hissed at me. I tore off the price tags and threw one of the sweaters into her arms.

In the public restroom, I took off the complex elastic band from my forearm and used to it bind my wings to my back. Olivia did the same but she was slower. I could get it done in a minute. She was the good kid who seldom left the hangar. I was surprised she had tagged along for so long.

“Isn’t this nice?” An hour later, we were walking on the side of a mountain highway. Cars sped past us, their drivers weren’t giving us more than a glance.

“You can see the city from here.”

“Would be better if we can glide down there,” Olivia said, “That’s faster than walking.”

“You want to see the city?”

“Well, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? If you want to see these trees — ” she gestured all around us. “We have plenty of these back home.”

I kept quiet, not wanting to mention the fact that she just called the hangar “home”.

“I feel like…” I hesitated, “I felt a pull…to come here. Like something is drawing me here.”

Instead of laughing at me, or worse, ask “what do you mean”, she didn’t say anything at first. I regretted walking at the front. I couldn’t see the reaction on her face.

“Hmm,” she finally said, “I wonder if it’s your human part or the bird?”

She was right. I never knew what kind of bird DNA they put in my body. My wings were tawny and white. Those colors were too common to really tell the species. And the scientists won’t tell us. Either they thought it was useless information, or they mixed so many things together they forgot which was which.

Could my bird species be native to South Dakota? Was that the reason to come here, some sort of natural instinct, living on as a part of me? Or…my history as a human had something to do with this.

I wrecked my brain and could not find an answer. None of us could remember our time before the hangar. Some of us were even born there and never ever left. I always liked to think of myself as the former. Someone with a history, with a past, a back story.

Yet it was no use to me now.

“Let’s head back,” I said, “That way we won’t miss the curfew twice.”

“But didn’t you say it’s dangerous in broad daylight?”

“It’s alright. We’ll fly high, close to the sun,” I looked at her, before tearing off my disguise and doing a running take off. “It’s not a problem at all.”

Beijing Took Us Under

Fading, the narrator’s childhood memory got fantastical.

I knew what I wanted when I left my hometown five years ago. I still knew, but the reason wasn’t the same. I have not been back to Beijing since.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t or wouldn’t go back, it was simply easier to stay away.

I still thought about the city, but only on a starless night and under a fluorescent desk lamp. I called it “city of fog”, a suitable name. When I was younger, I thought the fog was magic. When I grew older and came to my senses, the name remained due to the air pollution that the city was so famous for.

Today I was reminded that everything was changing. The city was a thriving metropolis, shedding its skin every day, over and over again like clockwork. The memories of my childhood were fading, that much was certain. Time ate away all things. Yet, one glimpse of memory came up every now and then.

It was windy that day. I exited my school’s steel gates, walking back home. Maybe I would stop by the convenience store and grab a rice ball, maybe not. I craved the kind with teriyaki beef inside.

I walked past the neighboring school, which was technically another part of mine. My classmates were jealous of them because of their beautiful campus. But to me, it was just the difference of more flowering trees. But it was winter, and they were all equally leafless. We were never expecting snow.

Gray brick walls guarded the other campus, except where they were metal fences. A string of students was outside, chattering and pacing, perhaps on recess.

Shapes of gray moving across the soccer field. Because the school color was unofficially gray, everything was gray. The buildings were gray, painted like that. The sky was gray but that wasn’t the principal’s design.

I liked the color gray. It was soft, neutral, and yet warm like dove feather. Many thought it dull, but I didn’t feel any annoyance when I put my hands inside the pockets of my uniform jacket.

I slowed to watch the students. They were mostly girls. They all looked similar to me. They all looked like me. Dark hair and dark eyes, whatever body size wrapped inside gray school uniform. They all looked the same except one, who had blonde hair and certainly not dyed.

It was naturally blonde. Dyed hair was prohibited, just like piercings of any kind. Tattoos were unmentionable, and it’s not like we knew where the parlors were.

Her blonde hair, long and straight, fluffed out in the wind. With her blue eyes and high cheekbones, she was the different one. But she was among them, dressed like them, talked like them, like us.

It confused me briefly. There were foreigners in my city, but they were tourists or businessmen.

I wasn’t a sociable child. Years of learning English didn’t mean I would call out to a stranger. Curiosity lost the fight.

She looked at me, turned back to her friends, and nothing else happened.

I walked home like usual. We didn’t live far from the school. We used to, then my parents rented an apartment near the school so I didn’t have to take two hours to commute.

The floor was made of cold white tiles instead of the familiar rich wood, which my mother was always paranoid about any scratches or spillage.

The second day we moved into this apartment, I spilled milk on purpose. The white liquid slouched on top of the tiles and didn’t react. I wiped it off, disappointed.

I sat on the bed in the living room and thought about the subway, which was only significant because it led to my real home. The small apartment I grew up in, where all my childhood memories dwelled.

The subway was a new one. I didn’t dislike it. It was new but already filthy and bustling like the rest of the city.

I was missing the commute again, except the parts I didn’t. The greasy seat or the handle, plastic feeling on my skin. The beeping of the card-reader and the green lights. The beggars who were slowly stumbling along the walkway performing a trick, then stick their hands under your nose. The constant danger of being a small animal among a large number of animals, of your species but much bigger.

I missed the creature living in the underground.

It was not a metaphor. Even if it was, a metaphor of what? The creature…what did it represent?

I saw it many times. Through the windows, the ghostly shapes as the darkness flashed past. It wasn’t merely the reflections of us passengers.

One day I went up to it and stared. The small lights guiding us, heading into the black hole.

The creature underground, it could be the desire of millions of people, wishing to make a life in the City of Fog. It could be the predator living in the shadow of those subway stations and waiting to strike. The creature could be the sleepless nights I spent on dreaming. It could be all.

It was not. The creature wasn’t any of the above.

The creature was real, and I was ashamed of not giving it a proper name. But who was I to name a creature that was as old as time? At least, that was what I assumed. I was a lost child in a lost city, heading toward a certain destination in life, no looking back.

I could jump off at this stop. When I saw the blond girl earlier, she broadcasted the connection. It made her one of us.

I thought she might even know of the creature.

I was sure that I wasn’t the only one who knew of the creature. After all, it was there, underneath the city full of millions of people. Anyone could have stumbled upon it, or saught it and succeeded.

If I got to the underground, would the stranger also be there? I was convinced that it wasn’t my concern. Even if she did know of the creature, she might have other reasons for not being there when I was. Hell, her school might not even have let her out yet!

With a heart of pure intentions, I set out for the nearest subway stations. I went down, down, and down. The escalator hummed as it worked, crooning as the chains rolled. I was entering the underworld.

The smell in the air was different. It smelt of mod and urine, I guess.

I liked it better than the taste of fog. I saw the black hole of the tunnel. A train would come out of that any second. I walked alongside the yellow warning line, past the sentry’s office and the restrooms. I walked into the dark tunnel that had no end.

With a flashlight in hand, I was focused on the patch of light in front of me. I bought at the neighborhood store when I first started exploring. It was the most powerful one I could afford, yet the thick darkness still swallow up its light.

I walked, careful not to tip over. I was descending, but the slope was familiar.

I could never sense the flow of time with the world so still around me.

I heard a rumbling. A low thunder, constant and never-ending. Every rock in the tunnel shook.

I felt its presence before seeing it. It was there, in the dark. I stopped right there, looking up.

Then the creature was looking at me, staring at me with its enormous eyes. They glowed bright white, so bright that they tore open the darkness and lit up its face. The creature was large, so large that I didn’t even know how large it was. Maybe the size of a train, maybe larger. It was designed to fit in the tunnel, but its body was thick and smooth like a giant python.

It wasn’t a snake though. I didn’t know what it was. It looked like a dragon, but dragons didn’t exist and this creature did. Myths about dragons came from people’s imagination when they found dinosaur fossils. They created great stories for themselves, all based on dead things.

This one was alive.

Awestruck once again, I stood stock still and watched as it approached me. Its claws razor sharp. Each step made the earth tremble. I was not afraid.

It bowed down to me, not because I was superior. It allowed me to touch its head, right between the eyes there was a soft patch. Its scales were cold and sharp except for one place, where it had black furs extending from its forehead and all the way down its spine, ending with a long and soft tail. It looked like any Chinese dragon would look like, like the mythical creature we all knew by heart.

Except it was not that. I was never sure what it was. I continued to call it “the creature”.

It made a sound, a low hum. It might have been approval. I didn’t speak its language.

It turned its head. Torch-like eyes shone upon a dark corner, where I saw the blonde foreigner standing there, at its tail.

She was surprised to see me, but I wasn’t. I felt a slight joy and bitterness at the same time. She was stroking its tail.

She met my eyes. I wasn’t good at telling expressions from eyes. But one thing I knew.

It was my creature, and now I had to share.

Struck Dead

A writer working on his magnum opus had to face the end of the world.

Ermolai had been attempting to immortalize himself through works of literature for two decades.

It was hard work for sure.

He had been writing ever since knew the language. His mother said he learned to write before he could speak. He wrote on the swinging chair on the porch of his childhood home. He wrote on a slim notebook hidden under the English textbook while the teacher was talking. He wrote on prom night, shut in his bedroom with all the lights off. He studied engineering in college to please his parents, for he knew he should atone for ignoring their love for eighteen years.

When he acquired a typewriter, he typed. Rolls of manuscripts pooled onto the water-damaged floor of his college dorm. He would accidentally wake up his roommate, who would grumble and then yell at him in the darkness.

Upon completion of the bachelor’s degree, he rented a good suburban family’s garage and lived there. He had a used computer and it took five minutes to turn on, and he had to remember to save the document before closing.

His first publication was a short story published in a science fiction magazine, after a few dozen rejections. It put some food on his foldable table. He realized the market for genre fiction and thus he made money from it, enough to keep him alive in the dimmed light of his square room.

Any spare time after deadlines, eating, and sleeping, he would spend them on his Untitled Magnum Opus.

Define Magnum Opus: a large and important work of literature, especially regarded as a writer’s most important work.

He was put on this earth to complete this, his most important work. He would one day finish and publish it, and his life would be complete. It was doubtful that people in this day and age would understand the true meaning of such work, though. He wouldn’t be surprised if no publishers would take the risk in publishing this tome. Many famous authors in history were remembered posthumously.

As for the moment, it sat at 920 pages and lacked an ending. He cherished the moment when it would be complete, therefore he should be fully prepared for that.

He made preparation. He was going to shut himself in the garage and write Part Five of his Untitled Magnum Opus on the first of February and finish it in 28 days.

It was doable.

He had received a check of $150 through the mail. He went out to cash it and buy food. He hadn’t seen the outside world in a week, and the sunlight was brighter than he remembered.

It was slightly more crowded in the discount store, but only slightly so. There were families doing their weekly shopping, and he had seen a more hard-edged man pushing full carts down the isles. They bought crates of canned foods and water and loaded them onto the back of their monster trucks.

The shelves were almost bare when he arrived. Still, it was more than enough. Non-perishable products were great for his shut-in.
He came out with a cart full of groceries. Two loaves of bread for fast consumption, peanut butter, instant ramen, canned meat, canned corn, canned beans. Alcohol. He drank cheap whiskeys, but there were a few beers in the basket. He didn’t have a fridge, so anything frozen was out of the question. He would have taken the canned sardines, but they reminded him of his lesser times in college.

He rolled the cart down the street. Cars sped past him and no one spared him a glance. He pressed the secret password to open the garage door. He placed the cart in his den, next to the bookshelves. The garage door hummed as it unrolled, and finally closed.

He was inside his kingdom again.

All better. Drained from his outing, he was recharging as he leaned back on his faux leather office chair. The computer began to boot up. He grabbed a bottle of water and drank, eyes never leaving the loading screen.

He scanned the document and found the machine too slow to load to the entire thing. He booted up the printer and began to print. All 920 pages of his work. The printer made a buzzing sound as it worked in the background.

When it’s done, he had the stack and flipped through them once and once again. The sound of the paper was like the fluttering of wings. He smelt the heavenly ink.

He looked upon his screen. It was blank except for the two words: Part Two.

He adjusted the type size. His eyes were getting worse these days, but it would not matter when it was over.

He stretched his arms, cracked his knuckles and began to type.

Days blurred together. Time lost its meanings. Ermolai typed, ate, and slept. His life became hazy in the end.

The nice suburban family didn’t bother him—that’s why they were nice. They stayed upstairs, talked quietly, walked quietly, and even the children played quietly. Which was why when there was a loud crash, it woke him from a drunken slumber.

He stared wide-eyed at the bleach-white ceiling. There was a throb in his right eye. It was difficult to tell reality from a dream, and a dream from the words that poured from his fingertips.

When the crash was followed by a scream, he sat upright.

He couldn’t tell the time. There was no clock, but judging by the blue-ish gray cloud seen from the slit above the garage door, it was either dusk or dawn.

He paddled his way across the various objects littering the floor. A small door connected the garage to the kitchen, but it usually stayed locked for the safety of both the family and himself.

It was only unlocked when the matriarch came looking for the monthly rent. Then she would close it carefully, and turn the lock slowly, so it didn’t make much of a noise, so it didn’t hurt his feelings.

He tried the door. It was locked. Why wouldn’t it be?

He heard a few clamors upstairs. Thud. Thud. Thud.

He went back to sit down at his computer, yet there was this constant distraction. He had tolerated the existence of humans in his close proximity, but it was too much this time.

He fought the urge to scream at the family “Stop the noise!”

He settled for knocking on the door and yelled, “Would you please be quiet?”

The noise continued downstairs. Thud. Thud. Thud. Down the staircase. Then it all died down.

Good.

He went back to work.

The quiet was nice.

When the noise sounded right next to him, he almost jumped out of his skin.

The office chair creaked loudly. He stared at the door. The sound came urgently. Thud. Thud. Thud. Something banging on the door.

Knock. Knock. Knock. He scrambled backward.

What the hell was that?

“Stop!” He shouted at the person on the other side of the door. “If it’s about the rent, there’re still a few days until it’s due!”

It wouldn’t stop.

Ermolai began to pack. Whatever was going on, was either supernatural or he was going insane. Judging by the frequency of the knocking and the force of it, it’s only a matter of time before the person made a hole on the panel, or brought down the door altogether.

It was clear that he couldn’t stay there.

He didn’t have many possessions. A backpack could carry them all. The stack of paper and the computer. A change of clothes. Clean underwears, not many of them. A jacket, wrapped around the computer to minimize damages. Bottles of water and some food. He swung on the bag and opened the garage door.

The neighbor, an old lady dressed in a flowery gown, snapped her head up at the sound. She stared at him unknowingly, unblinkingly, and it was unnerving.

She was making her way over to him. A slow shuffle, then faster, faster, almost up to the speed of a jog.

When she was some ten feet away, he finally recognized the pattern on her gown wasn’t flowers, but blood splatters.

He looked at her face, which was missing a half. She reached out for him, made gurgling sounds with a hollow cheek. A bloody eyeball skewed on her ring finger.

Naturally, he did what was acceptable in this situation he screamed, and ran.

His backpack bounced on his back as he went. His jeans were coming loose, his shirt riding up, and he could feel the wind against his waist and upper ass. There was no time to worry about his dignity. There was no dignity in fear.

After about thirty seconds, he was heaving like an old dog. He slowed down to a jog and then a fast walk, and finally stopped. He bent over in the middle of the sidewalk, breathing heavily.

He took in the silence around him and the sheer contrast of his loud heartbeats. He looked up and scanned the neighborhood—it was eerily quiet, devoid of anything living. There was a dog barking, but it could be an illusion. When he looked to that direction the dog silenced. The houses were there. A few pieces of clothes and trash littered the unkempt front lawns. The curbs were empty of cars, except one.

Was it a dream? If it was, the vividness was equally alarming. The only car was a white sedan. It had a broken window. He approached it without much thought.

There was a corpse sitting behind the wheel. He took a few steps back, still stunned by the state of the world he was living in.

He couldn’t stay here. He had to get away. Far, far away.

He took another closer look at the corpse. It wasn’t moving, and showed no sign of imminent animation. He tried the door handle, didn’t expect much, but the door unlocked. He froze, afraid of sudden noise would wake the corpse. It didn’t respond. Still had its mouth hung open; he was decomposing.

Ermolai noticed the key was still jammed in the ignition. He hesitated for only a second, then hauled the body out of the car and climbed into the driver’s seat.

The car smelt unpleasant, but the window was down. He started the car. It coughed a few times, then hummed to life.

He drove, heavy-hearted, toward the edge of the city. His manuscript never once came to the forefront of his head.

It was a different world. One unsafe to him. One he couldn’t play God with. He had to navigate its rules like everyone else who wished to stay alive.

It was a new world, and he wasn’t brave at all.