Winter is Coming
By Wu Ang
Translated by Kelly Zhang
Winter is coming. Inside the one-bedroom apartment where she lives alone, she feels chilled to the bone. The newly renovated unit is still in a state of disarray: boxes of unassembled furniture, including parts of a desk and a bookshelf, are strewn all over the living room floor. She recently purchased a simple washing machine, only to realize afterwards that she also needs a dryer. The air near the ocean is perennially damp. Qingdao takes on a special wintry dampness throughout the month of December. She stands on the open balcony and braces herself against the piercingly cold ocean winds. Living on a tight budget, she rushed the renovations and decided not to enclose the balcony. When she first visited the place in early summer, the serene blue stretch of sea captured her heart immediately. Now, that luminous blue is gradually turning into a greyish blue, and with the changing of the seasons, the greyness will only intensify. She stops her thoughts from continuing down an ominous path, turns back inside, and opens the fridge. It is completely empty. It was only delivered yesterday and needs to sit unplugged for at least twenty-four hours for the compressor oil to settle. She plans to clean it thoroughly over the coming weekend before putting any food inside.
It takes her until nearly seven o’clock in the evening to return to her new place from work every day. She drives a tiny hatchback. She is always careful to stay in the slowest lane of any road and to turn up the volume on the GPS to the highest level. Before she bought the apartment, she had purchased the car with a measly budget of 50,000 yuan, which allowed her to afford a cheaper, roomier place away from the city centre. She had chosen a snow-white colored car, imagining how beautiful it would look, floating like a cloud against the brilliant blue backdrop of sea and sky. Though in reality, only someone outside the car would be able to appreciate such a sight. Most of the time, she feels like a tired seabird, darting back and forth between her home and work. No, actually, the seabird analogy isn’t accurate. She identifies more with the kind of weary domestic fowl that struggles to fly.
What to eat for dinner? She hasn’t had chance to explore any nearby farmers’ markets, nor look up restaurants on Meituan, the popular food delivery app. She vaguely remembers that someone on one of her local WeChat groups shared an app a couple of days ago called “Meals for One in Qingdao,” which specializes in single-portioned, reasonably-priced meals. Delivery fees are waived since it’s delivery only. She downloaded the app almost immediately. Although it’s chilly on the balcony, she decides to bring out her old wicker lounge chair, which fits the space surprisingly well. She drapes a thick jacket over her shoulders, then lies quietly down on her side to peruse the menu.
The menu selection seems limited at the moment. There are pictures alongside the descriptions of each dish. In the chef’s recommendation area on the homepage, her eyes are instantly drawn to the steamy Japanese sukiyaki hotpots. The simmering pots of savory broth come with a variety of fresh, ready-to-cook ingredients, including thinly-sliced beef, mushrooms, and tofu. There are also clams and shrimps. She usually orders sukiyaki when she dines at a Japanese restaurant. The meal typically comes with a bowl of white rice and a tasty side dish—either sunomono (a sliced cucumber salad) or takowasa (octopus with wasabi). She rarely goes out to eat alone. Ever since her best friend moved from Qingdao to Yantai six months ago, she’s had no one else to dine with. On the app, the sukiyaki looks to be served inside a small disposable aluminum foil pot with a lid. The vendor guarantees to keep the food warm and to deliver it within thirty to sixty minutes anywhere within the parameters of Qingdao city.
She lives at the southeast end of the city, on a narrow strip of coastal land that can only accommodate a small residential development. After confirming her order, she pays for it with WeChat Pay. As she types in her address, she debates whether to use her real name but in the end decides to use her social media handle “Drowning Fish.” That’s the name she gave herself when she was struggling through the darkest period of her life, when her late marriage was disintegrating and she was tormented by an exhausting emotional seesaw. Imagine how suffocating it would be for a fish to live in the depths of the ocean if it were given a pair of human-like lungs instead of gills. Even now, she is frequently startled awake in the middle of the night with the weight of an elephant on her chest. If she tries to scream, no sound comes out. If she tries to hold it in, she is possessed by an intense, inexplicable fear. Her mouth puckers like a fish’s mouth, then a wet greasy secretion, thick and sticky like re-used frying oil, drips down the back of her throat and mixes with her gastric juices and other bodily fluids.
For a long time after her divorce, she couldn’t stomach anything greasy. Perhaps this was due to the late-term miscarriage she had had before the divorce. Since then, whenever she goes out to eat, she invariably orders Japanese food. There’s a profusion of Korean restaurants in Qingdao, but there’s a decent selection of Japanese ones too. She would often park her little car at the end of Clearwater East Road and enter the tiny Japanese eatery there where you can get sake at night. Not that she drinks alcohol. She would just linger in the restaurant until more and more local youngsters gathered there to drink, finally returning to her car, tired and drowsy. She would turn the key and listen to the thrumming of the engine for a good half hour before driving home. All to avoid returning to her cold, lonely nest.
Her new home is located far away from downtown Qingdao. There is a stretch of road that has no streetlamps, making the area pitch black at night. She wasn’t aware of this when she first bought the place, nor even after the renovations began. Whenever she passes through the dark stretch, she can sense the ocean tides churning and crashing against the equally black, mollusc-infested boulders. Maybe she could go there during the day to harvest some molluscs for a meal. Steamed fragrant conch, perhaps, or the more ubiquitous veined rapa whelks.
There’s still some time before her food arrives. She begins to browse the web for more furniture and household essentials. There is no nightstand in her bedroom, just a big cardboard packing box on which she has laid a large chiffon scarf. That should suffice for the time being. All her books and knickknacks are still stuck inside the packing boxes. She needs a bookshelf with at least six shelves to house them. And she needs a kitchen table—a square one is best for single person use—plus a couple of white plastic chairs to go with it. That way, if she has a visitor, they’ll at least have somewhere to sit. There are no cabinets installed in the kitchen either. She had figured if she stayed in her rental unit for an extra month, she’d be throwing another month’s rent down the drain. Moving in here meant she’d only need to pay her mortgage and not be bleeding money at both ends. In light of her paltry salary, she had rented a small truck and moved in as soon as possible, not even allowing time for the rooms to be fully ventilated and for the smell of toxic chemicals and formaldehyde to disperse.
After comparing the various models and styles of furniture that had been sitting in her online shopping cart for a while, she finally settles on a bookcase and dining set. Just as she is about to pay, she remembers something, so opens the food ordering app and dials the delivery contact number.
“Yes, I live in building three of the Scenic Coast residential complex. On the sixth floor. We don’t have an elevator. You’ll have to take the stairs. Sorry about that. I’m not home yet. Can you please just text me once you arrive, and leave the food outside my door?”
“Um-hum.” The man on the other end of the phone replies in a low, muffled voice, and hangs up. Almost simultaneously, there is a light rustling of footsteps outside the door. She lives on the top floor of the building. The residents across from her have not moved in yet. In fact, they haven’t even done any interior renovations. It’s quiet around here throughout the day. She glances at the clock. It’s only been twenty-five minutes since she ordered her food. It doesn’t usually come this quickly. She has already told the delivery person to leave the food by the door. Cautiously, she shuffles towards the door and places her ear against the metal security gate. All is quiet again. Having made certain that no one is outside, she opens the door just a smidge. There is a black insulated bag with retro-style handles sitting quietly on the ground. She hears no one walking up or down the stairs. The deliveryman must be swift and light on his feet. He’s probably not heavyset, more the lean and agile type.
She sticks out her head and snatches the meal bag, then quickly recoils inside. She only opens the door wide enough to accommodate the width of her body, not one millimeter more. Without a proper dining table, she has to make do with a large cardboard box. She sits down by the balcony where she can glance out at the seascape but stay sheltered from the bitter ocean wind. She lays down two layers of newspaper before opening the insulated bag. The contents are steaming hot. The food is well presented, and the portion size quite generous. It comes with a pair of ebony chopsticks and a large ivory-coloured, high-quality plastic soup spoon. She rinses the spoon and the chopsticks, then leans over the cardboard box table and digs in.
First, she picks up a slice of marbled beef. It is hot. Almost tongue-burning hot. As if it just came off the kitchen stove. The beef flavor is rich and full. It doesn’t have that typical meaty odour, which means it must have been blanched in a mixture of cooking wine and ginger slices. Sukiyaki hotpots come with their own special stock sauce. The dashi sauce supplied tastes pretty authentic. The clams and shrimps are quite fresh too. Although she is not a Qingdao native—having migrated here ten years ago from Shouguang, “Vegetable Capital of Shandong”—she has become a discerning eater who is particular about the freshness of her seafood. Even so, she is satisfied right now. The shrimp is deveined. The chef is meticulous. Slowly, she savours everything on her plate and drinks all the soup broth till there’s nothing. It seems possible to reuse the hotpot container, so she takes it into the bathroom and carefully cleans it under the faucet, then leaves it on the side to dry.
She doesn’t go downstairs for a walk after her meal. There are very few people out and about in their small residential compound. The paved road just outside the compound usually lies empty and abandoned; although the occasional car might whizz by like a slippery snake slithering through a tunnel in its cold glistening scales. She strolls around the empty living room for twenty or so laps, rubbing her stomach as she walks. She ponders over what other pieces of furniture or appliances she is still missing for the living room. What about a medium-sized rug in front of the sofa? The kind that has a stitched cotton texture, and maybe a smattering of flowers? It wouldn’t matter if the colours of the flowers look a bit faded; in fact, duller colours are more resistant to wear. A rug would be more comfortable to sit on, and easier to clean. She thinks of her pet cat who died of a sudden bout of illness right before her divorce. The old gal would have enjoyed curling up on a soft coral fleece rug. She would have bought her a little cathouse made of coral fleece too. But almost everything from her past has been destroyed, and any furniture and belongings she had owned left behind. Such items might only become a reminder—a trigger for those harsh, painful memories.
“What did you say?” she murmurs to herself in a tiny voice. “Nothing. And you, what did you say?”
She has developed this habit of talking to herself when she’s alone since she was a child. It’s a conversation that can continue on infinitely. With nothing in particular said, yet everything said many times over. The ocean wind at dusk is extremely cold. A sound resembling a ship’s siren drifts in from afar and hovers above the surface of the ocean, slowly dispersing into mid-air. Perhaps it’s not real. Just an illusion, a figment of her imagination. A false alarm. She strains her eye towards the distant horizon, past the howling winds, as if trying to catch a glimpse of something on the ocean’s surface. But from this corner of the coastline, she cannot see the city lights. Only the cold, grey seascape.
“What to do next?” she wonders as she enters the bedroom. She stacks two pillows and leans back against them. She pulls a blanket over her legs and belly, and picks up the old iPad lying next to her pillow. She opens the video streaming app iQiyi and begins to watch the historical drama series The Story of Minglan. It’s the second time she’s watched it. There is no clock in the room, no ticking hands of time. She gets up and closes the curtains, then shuts the bedroom door. She turns on a cheap desk lamp, places it on the packing box table, and dives back under the blanket. Her fingers are pale and slender; her knuckles are bony. Her hands, which are resting on the blanket, would probably look a bit stark, scary even, to an observer in the room. If you took an overhead shot and zoomed in close, your attention would be caught by those exposed, skeletal hands.
She has to go to work the following day, and will be busy talking with clients on the phone all day. As a sales rep for China Unicom, her daily task is to promote and sell their monthly mobile data packages. By the time afternoon rolls around, her whole head feels ready to explode. She has no desire to talk. She is on autopilot. Her voice becomes a set of programmed vibrations generated by her vocal cords: no need to pass through the brain on its way out. As a seasoned employee, she is also expected to help train the new hires, most of whom are airheads: information evaporates as quickly as steam instead of finding a place inside their brains. On the way home, she drops by the local farmers’ market and buys some fresh vegetables. She has a Xiaomi brand all-purpose induction cooker which can boil, fry and steam—well suited for cooking during this period of transition. All the vegetables she picks out can be cooked on the induction stove. She also buys a half kilo of baby squid. They’re delicious as a snack just steamed and dipped in soy sauce. It’s possibly her favorite seafood. The baby squid are fat and chubby; their eight tentacles look way less menacing than those possessed by their larger cousins. Their suction cups are tiny and cute, and remain timidly closed most of the time—just like herself. In all the years she’s been alive, she has never behaved like the molluscs that cling tightly onto the underbelly of the rocks by the sea; rather, she is the squid that hides deep within the ocean, or a spiny sea urchin decked out in dense sharp needles, stubborn and immotile.
When she returns home, she rinses the baby squid in the small bathroom sink. She plans to have steamed squid and stir-fried broccoli with rice. First she steams the rice in a bowl, then steams the squid, and lastly, makes the stir fry. This way, she ends up with two main dishes plus a side of rice. Sipping on a glass of cooled boiled water and watching the seascape darken outside, she chews slowly and carefully. The squid have eggs—they are in season. She can’t finish all the roe in one sitting, so she saves half of it in the freezer for another time. Finally, she eats a Yantai crystal pear and takes a stroll around the living room. She has not opened the bedroom curtains since getting up early that morning. Now she walks over to the window and pulls them open, letting in a breeze. The master bedroom faces east like the living room balcony, but not due east because the coastline on which they sit doesn’t run from north to south in a straight axis; it’s tilted slightly towards the northwest.
Being an area of coastal headland, any wind coming in here becomes sharpened, amplified. This is something she only realized after moving in. On arrival in this narrow pipe-like corridor, ocean drafts are gripped by a mysterious but powerful force. She isn’t afraid of strong wind; in fact, she is rather fond of it. Even when she hears the wind howling at night, she does not feel scared.
What scares her the most is when a person, a stranger, suddenly appears.
She doesn’t know any of the other residents. The development is too new. There isn’t even a supermarket or convenience store nearby. Just a tiny general store run from the home of a family on the ground floor. Anyone wanting to buy a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of beer can hop up the two wooden steps near the sidewalk and reach into the window to pay. The seller then passes the items out of the window. She once went there to buy salt and a bottle of vinegar. The food packaging was so crude, they looked like counterfeits, so she decided not to go back there and resorted to shopping online instead.
That weekend, she drove to her hometown to bring back a bunch of bedding and houseware. Her mother insisted she wear a lucky charm that she had bought at some random Daoist temple. It was a piece of folded red fabric containing a few lucky sayings. She looped it around her neck haphazardly.
“What will you do after this?” Her mom looked worried as she spoke.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re living all alone. Your father and I have to stay around here to look after your older brother’s child. We won’t be able to go help you.”
“Everyday, I just go to work and then go home. My daily routine is really very simple. The new place is faraway. It’s not convenient for you to travel to. You’ll have a hard time adjusting.”
“That just makes me feel even more worried. Has he bothered you lately?”
“No. He’s quite satisfied with his new life.”
“I doubt he is living so well. He couldn’t even put food on the table. If it wasn’t for you, he would have starved. You’re too generous. You let him have everything, including the house, just to get the divorce.”
“Is a house more important than your life?” she murmured under her breath. She didn’t want to openly respond to her mother’s comments. Like a squid, she could only hide in the shadowy depths of the ocean and talk to herself. She looked her mother up and down. In her old age, with her hair gathered into a bun and clipped with a leopard-print plastic hair claw, her mother was starting to look more and more like her. She removed the claw clip, tidied her mom’s hair, and put the claw back. Then she was ready to leave.
The car first heads west, then turns to the southeast. The ocean appears on the horizon before her. She opens a window to let the wind in. A frigid gust slaps her in the face, producing an intense numbing pain. But she is reluctant to close the window or turn on the heat. Her bony knuckles on the steering wheel turn dusky red from the cold, then bluish purple, resembling lividity spots on a corpse. She stares at the back of her hands, then gives them a good shake and releases the thought from her head. Around the same time, a huge truck passes her on the road. The truck driver keeps honking his horn, presumably because she’d forgotten to signal when she tried to change lanes as the truck was about to pass her.
Startled, she twists the steering wheel left then right several times. Her little car slips and slides on the highway and almost hits the guard rails. She breaks out into a cold sweat. The big truck is gone now, but not before it honks and flashes its headlights a couple more times in angry protest. She parks her car by the roadside, her heart thumping and racing. The sea looks extra wide and vast around here. Clusters of gawking seagulls litter about like dirty dishrags. She steps out of her car, stands by the side of the road, and begins to check the car. Nothing seems amiss. There is no oil leaking from the tank. She kicks each tire—none of them is deflated. She fails to notice a faint smell of gasoline inside the car.
Taking out her phone, she realizes she’s had a missed call. She calls the number back. It’s the furniture delivery driver. He is waiting at the entrance of her residential compound. She rushes back into her car. It’s getting dark. She won’t have enough time to cook dinner, so she opens the food delivery app and orders a Thai-style pineapple fried rice with shrimp; a complete meal since the dish already contains vegetables and rice.
She starts her car. That faint smell of gasoline intensifies. The fog hanging over the surface of the sea grows thicker and heavier. Those dirty dishrags are struggling to take off, but she pays them no attention. All she wants to do is to hurry home. The car shakes a bit when it gets back on the road, as if it’s also recovering from some kind of shock. She dares not drive too fast. It takes her another twenty-five minutes to get home. Squatting next to the main entrance, the delivery truck driver is munching on a roll of scallion and fried egg pancakes. There is no one else in the truck. She waits until he finishes eating, then they both drive in through the gate. The driver hops off the box truck and opens the cube-shaped cargo compartment. He retrieves her items and slides them onto the pavement.
“Could you help me move these upstairs, please?” She asks.
“Is there an elevator?”
“Sorry, no can do. I still have to make a few more deliveries. I’m already behind an hour waiting for you. The store didn’t send anyone to help with your delivery. It’s not really our job to do that. We’re only the transport people.”
Despite her repeated begging and pleading, the driver refuses to do her the favour. He suggests that she call the security guard or get a neighbor to help her. Unfortunately, her building is located quite a distance from the main entrance, which makes it difficult for the security guard and other residents to spot. The driver rushes back into the truck and zooms off, ditching her and a whole load of furniture parts in front of her building. She starts moving things up by herself. She drags one piece upstairs, leaves it in front of her door, then rushes back down, feeling apprehensive the whole time. She worries that someone may try to steal her stuff when she is not watching. When she reaches the third-floor landing on her way down, a man suddenly appears on the staircase below, carrying an insulated black bag in his hand.
“Is that my meal? Apartment 602?”
“Are you ‘Drowning Fish’?”
“Yes. Can you just leave the food in front of my door? I have to go downstairs to move more stuff.”
He goes upstairs while she goes down. Two people moving in opposite directions. A cross-section image of the staircase would show the food delivery man dashing upstairs with brisk, breezy steps, as if he were a martial artist trained in qing gong. He seems to be able to self-levitate, the bottom of his feet constantly hovering a half centimeter above the ground. With one powerful, agile stride, he can bound up two to three steps at a time. But his power is primarily directed inwards. An onlooker may not be able to see the subtle difference. As for her, after years of riding the merry-go-round of work and life, she is stuck inside a closed loop and doesn’t know how to get out. All that stress has been retained in her body in the shape and form of body fat. In fact, only her feet and hands can be called thin. The rest of her body looks bloated and obese. Her silhouette combines a thick hump back with a barrel-like chest and abdomen, like it’s been injected with an excess of solid fat. She manages to be both heavy and fluffy at the same time. When she walks downstairs, her upper torso hunches forward, as if her legs and feet are too weak to carry the weight of anything above her waist.
He has already made it up to the sixth floor then back down to the fourth by the time she stumbles to the ground floor of the building. They move at very different speeds, but soon, their paths intersect again when she tries to carry a heavy piece of packed wood board. She glances up and sees him, then suddenly, the weight in her hands lifts. The food delivery man is dressed in a black and grey denim jacket, jeans, and a pair of high-top boots.
“Oh, thank you. That piece is really heavy,” she says.
He doesn’t reply. The two of them begin to ascend the stairs together but within a few steps, he says: “Let me take this. Why don’t you grab something lighter.”
She lets go of her side of the wood and picks up a set of sofa cushions that are packed in a snakeskin pouch. The pouch looks bulky and full, but is actually quite light. As they enter the stairwell, he walks ahead of her. All the residents should have returned home by this time of night. Judging by how quiet and dark the hallways are, there are probably very few people who have moved into her building. Unlike her, most of her neighbours are not in a rush to move in.
Despite the heavy load on his back, he moves as swift as a swallow. Soon, she cannot catch up with him. By the time she makes it to the fifth floor, he is already heading downstairs.
“Just one more trip. You don’t have to come down for this one,” he says.
She unlocks the door and moves everything piled in front of her unit inside. She leaves the door fully open. That morning, when she rushed out to work, she forgot to lock the balcony door. It blows open with the wind. A chilly gust cools down the apartment instantly. She shuts the door to the balcony and turns around. The man is already standing in the middle of the living room. On his back is a box of long wooden planks. He entered without making a sound.
She offers to help him unload. He replies calmly: “Why don’t you go eat your meal? I’m done my deliveries for the day. I can lend a hand and install some of the furniture for you.”
He moves the food into the kitchen and plops it down right on the cardboard box she has been using as a makeshift dinner table. She knows it will be difficult to set up the bookshelf alone. Why not let someone help her? She thanks him and goes into the bathroom to wash her hands. After she is done washing, she looks up into the mirror and sees him standing right behind her. Before she has time to react, he hands her a small hand towel and walks into the inner section of the divided bathroom to use the toilet.
He stays in there for quite a while. On leaving the bathroom, she finds the front door already shut and the security gate bolted from inside. The bedroom curtains have also been closed. She sits on a small round plastic stool and opens the meal bag. The food packed into the foil container looks steaming hot. The pineapple and the fried rice are perfectly proportioned. The grains of glutinous rice have just the right texture and consistency, neither too firm nor too soft, and exude the rich aroma of coconut cream. The shrimps have been shelled and deveined, just like before. She loves to eat shrimps just as much as she enjoys eating squid, and never tires of eating either. She uses the plastic spoon provided with the meal—the one given to her by the delivery man who is helping her to install her furniture—to scoop up some of that steaming, tangy sweet pineapple rice. It saves her from having to wash another spoon. After two days of exhausting, back-breaking labour, she is aching all over. She craves the fragrant rice and hopes it will help to ease her fatigue. She eats very slowly. The man moves very fast. He puts things together at about three times her speed. It’s like watching a video on ‘fast forward’. He doesn’t like to talk. Instead, he studies the illustrated instruction manuals in total silence and dives back into his work. By the time she finishes her meal, he is nearly done installing the bookshelf.
Together they set up the sofa, a much easier task than the bookshelf. The whole process takes them all of ten minutes. Even so, she wasn’t much help; he did most of the work. It’s a three-seater sofa. She decided to buy a three-seater so that when her parents visit, she can use it as her bed. She puts the covers on the cushions and lines them up neatly along the back of the sofa. Suddenly he speaks up: “Why don’t you lie down on it and test it out?”
“What?” She hasn’t caught on to what he is trying to say.
“Why don’t you lie down on the sofa and test it out?”
All of a sudden, he is up next to her, staring her right in the face. Before she can react, he covers her face and shoves her down onto the sofa. Everything is happening too quickly, too unexpectedly. She is about to scream when he presses down on her with the weight of his body and covers her mouth firmly with his hand. With his other hand, he fishes out a roll of tape from under the sofa. It’s the packing tape leftover from her move. How did he find it, and when did he put it under her sofa? He uses his mouth to clutch one end of the tape, peels a section, seals her mouth with it, then rips off the other end with his teeth. He binds her body to the sofa with tape. Round and round. She struggles to break free. She attempts to kick him with her feet, but soon enough, he wraps her feet up and tethers them to the sofa too, with big circular loops of tape, until the entire roll is nearly used up. By now she can neither move nor make a sound. She stares at him with terrified, gaping eyes.
He acts as if she doesn’t exist. He paces around the living room, then goes into the bedroom to fetch a cotton blanket, and covers her body with it. When she returned home earlier that day, she had put a pair of slippers on over her socked feet. He has not changed shoes since coming in. Now it’s his turn. He puts on a pair of slippers she bought for her father. They seem to be a good fit for the intruder’s feet. Then he goes to boil some water. He finds a packet of Anji green tea from somewhere and makes a cup for himself. It must be around nine o’clock at night. She is tired of struggling. It’s useless anyway. She shuts her eyes and tries to rest for a bit. Tears begin to roll uncontrollably from the corners of her eyes. He glances over at her while drinking his tea; when he notices her tears, he takes a piece of tissue paper, walks over and bends down to wipe them away. The way he wipes her face is neither rough nor gentle. It is careful and meticulous, as if he is trying to clean a fine steel blade. She keeps her eyes shut and stays motionless, but lets him dry her tears.
Later that night, when he is done washing and toileting, and before he goes to lie down in her bed, he scribbles her a note on a piece of paper: “Want to use the toilet?” She nods vigorously. He tears away the layers of tape wrapping around her body. What if her neighbours—even if just one—hear these sounds? What will they think is going on? He keeps her hands bound and her mouth sealed, and pushes her into the bathroom. He pulls down her pants for her. Pressing down on her shoulders, he sits her on the toilet. With him standing next to her, she finds she can’t go freely. He steps away and closes the door, leaving only a narrow slit to keep an eye on her. After she is done, he brings her back to the sofa. This time tying her up with a nylon rope he’d retrieved from the trunk of her car downstairs without her knowing. He’d obviously got a hold of her keys, too.
He keeps the bedroom door open and goes to sleep very late. Before falling asleep, he streams a whole bunch of short videos on his phone, occasionally emitting a low laugh. The sound coming from the video clips overpowers the sound of the rolling waves outside the window. At first, she is doubtful she’ll be able to sleep in a room that has turned so icy cold, but he brings over a thicker blanket and lays it on her. After that, the lights are turned off. Eventually, she becomes so drowsy that she manages to fall asleep. She wakes two or three times in the middle of the night. The room is filled with the intruder's snores. They sound lighter than her ex-husband’s snores, and have a slower rhythm. He seems to have fallen into a deep, satisfying sleep. She detects the scent of pear blossoms in the air. She knows it’s pear blossom because there is a giant pear tree in her backyard back in her hometown. Every spring, the snow-white blossoms would glisten and glimmer under the sun and fill her nostrils with their delicate fragrance. A sense of dread floods over her as she begins to think about her work tomorrow. Tomorrow is Monday. They have regular meetings at the company on Mondays.
He gets up early in the morning. She watches as he opens the fridge, takes out some ingredients, and begins to make breakfast on the induction cooker. After he is done, he places her cardboard-box-turned-kitchen-table in front of her and loosens the rope. He helps her to sit up and tears off the piece of tape sealing her mouth. Then he places a scrap of paper in front of her, on which is written: “Eat this quietly. If you dare make a sound, I will kill you.”
He stares at her; she nods. With a sharp knife in his hand, it’d be quite easy for him to take her life at any moment. For breakfast, he cooks the grouper fish she had brought over from her parents’ place. He adds sliced ginger and some ground pepper. The fish is crispy and savory. For the main dish, he makes a bowl of vermicelli noodle soup topped with fried lean pork and steamed razor clams. He garnishes the steaming bowl with some hand-torn fresh cilantro leaves. She must admit, he has excellent culinary skills. His knife work is impeccable. She suspects that he was once a professional chef.
“Delicious.” She expels a long sigh.
“Um” is his spare answer. He is a man of few words. “Want to go to the toilet?”
“I usually drink tea after breakfast. Then I go.” She replies without hesitating.
He binds her hands, loops the rope twice around her body and ties it to one end of the sofa. He takes away the dirty dishes and discards the fishbone in the garbage bin. He goes into the bathroom to wash the utensils, scrubbing them carefully until they’re sparkling clean. He lays the bowl upside down on the plate and does the same with the spoon and chopsticks so that they can dry faster. The way he goes about these chores is so natural. As if that’s how things have always been done around here. If not for the woman tied to the sofa, it would appear that he’d lived here forever. That he was the real owner and master of the house. The background sound of ocean tides enters her ears like some mundane, soothing lullaby.
She follows his every move with her eyes. He picks up the kettle to boil some water. He fills it under the kitchen faucet. She mumbles something and uses her eyes and chin to gesture to him. There are two large plastic jugs of Farmer’s Spring distilled water on one side of the living room. Filtered seawater from the tap does not taste very good. That’s why she has a store of distilled water for boiling and drinking. He understands what she is trying to say, so he pours out the tap water and lugs over a jug of the distilled water. He makes green tea with the same loose leaves he found the day before. After the water boils, he lets it cool slightly before pouring it into the glass teacup. Then he brings it to her. The tea is still a bit hot. He lowers his head and blows on the surface to cool it further and to disperse the tea leaves that have floated to the top. Then he picks up the note from yesterday and waves it before her. She nods. He removes the tape from her mouth and lets her take a sip of tea. The water temperature is perfect now. He's already made sure by testing it with his mouth. She wonders if he left enough saliva on the rim of the cup to supply a good amount of DNA for testing. Continuing along this train of thought, after last night, he would have left plenty of hair and skin residue all over her pillow, blanket, and bedsheet. It shouldn’t be too hard for the police to collect forensic evidence afterwards.
But the main question is whether she will come out of this alive to call the police. She doesn’t know why he kidnapped her or what he plans to do with her. He hasn’t sexually assaulted her or molested her. Instead, he has been a gentleman towards her. When she needs to empty her bowels, he helps her to lower her pants and sit on the toilet. Her hands are still tightly bound. He keeps the bathroom door open a sliver so he can monitor her closely from the outside. She realizes that it will likely be him who wipes her bum and flushes the toilet afterwards. The very thought of it makes her burn with shame and embarrassment. But he doesn’t seem at all bothered or embarrassed. On the contrary, he looks after her like an experienced carer, someone who’s used to caring for the elderly or gravely ill.
After the bathroom trip, he drags her back to the sofa, makes sure all her moving parts are properly tied down, and covers her mouth with another layer of tape. Then he leaves. She lies there, staring upwards, unable to move. At first, she opens her eyes and listens for any noise coming from within the building. Seems like a neighbour has started their renovations. Someone is hammering away at the wall. The handyman must be so deeply immersed in breaking down the wall that he cannot possibly imagine that on the top floor of this building, in the unit to the right of the stairs, there is a woman bound to her own sofa. Two to three hours later, the intruder returns and begins to move things into the room. There is a basketful of what looks to be groceries from the supermarket. He also bought an assortment of cooking utensils, including a dark grey propane tank and a smaller gas canister.
Looks like he is here to stay. Lying on the sofa for so long has made her body tense and sore. She tracks him as he goes in and out, making himself busy. He must have already made two or three trips, transporting all the stuff up the stairs to the door. But his footsteps are so light, she didn’t even hear him go up and down the stairs. He is like a jellyfish—a particularly thin, delicate, medium-sized variety in a sea of jellyfish. Inside his transparent body, his visceral organs emit a neon blue glow. The way he dashes up the stairs is like a jellyfish returning to his deep-sea cave. Soft, silent, subtle.
Once he moves everything inside, he opens the fridge and proceeds to put the groceries away. Then he fiddles with his phone for a bit. Not long after, a digitized female voice rings out: “You have received a new order. The address is: Qingdao City, Sifang District, Harmony Homes, Building Three, Unit Five, Room 303. The client's name is Xiaoluo. Mobile number: 13405321351. Please confirm order received. Please deliver as soon as possible.”
He opens the fridge, takes out a few ingredients, and gets to work on the makeshift kitchen table. He washes and cleans the vegetables, chops them up, and prepares the seasoning. There is large spice rack inside his basket. Everything is neat and organized and has its proper place. He sets up the propane tank and canister. After preparing all the ingredients, he places a wok on the gas burner, pours some oil into the wok, and browns sliced ginger and dried chilies until they release their fragrant aroma. She begins to worry that the room will soak up the smell of smoke and grease, which will be hard to get rid of later. He has already opened all the windows in the kitchen and balcony to let the biting winds through. A beam of light shoots down from somewhere, cutting a diamond shape on the wall.
He contemplates it for a while, then closes the bathroom window. It’s a double-paned window with aluminum framing. Instead of putting a curtain up over it, she had pasted a frosted film over the glass. He closes the window and then reopens it a crack. He seems to have obsessive compulsive disorder. He is still not satisfied with the way the window looks, and cannot make up his mind about whether to keep it open or closed. Finally, he closes it completely.
During this process, he receives two more orders on the phone. He has to hurry. She tries to make some garbled sounds through the tape. She wants to tell him that if he unties her, she can help him to cook. Since she isn’t heading into work anyways, she might as well help. Of course, there’s always the possibility that she might use this as an opportunity to escape. He ignores her, and keeps going as if he cannot hear her. He takes a few more items out of the fridge. Again, he turns to wash the vegetables and chop them up. He brings over an insulated delivery bag and some aluminum foil boxes—the same as the ones he used to deliver her food.
All three orders are for the seafood sukiyaki. Perhaps he is only offering one dish on the app today so he doesn’t have too many ingredients to prepare. She cannot see his phone screen, so she can’t confirm her suspicion. He hand-slices all the beef with the set of chef’s knives that he brought over with him. They have special blades. Shiny pieces of steel that cut through meat like butter. When he slices the meat, his face adopts an expression of intense focus. She can even sense it looking at him from behind. The beam of light gradually moves down towards his waist and frames one side of his body with a glowing rim.
The shrimps inside the steel bowl must be freshly-caught jumbo white prawns. Some of them are still squirming around vigorously. From where she is, she can even see the prawns batting their tails and shaking their whiskers. He blanches them and divides them into three equal portions. Then he lays them inside the foil containers. Beneath the prawns, he has already placed layers of precooked enoki mushrooms, aged tofu, marbled beef slices, and thin oyster mushrooms. She recalls the first time she tasted the sukiyaki meal he prepared: fresh, savory, delicious. She could taste the care that went into making it. There is no one more suited to being a takeout chef than him: so considerate towards his clients that he would even use expensive, high-quality ingredients like fresh sea-caught jumbo prawns. Unbelievable. Those jumbo white prawns sell for at least ninety yuan per kilo at the local seafood market, while the farmed ones are only thirty to forty yuan per kilo, which would cut his costs in half.
Before he goes out to deliver the meals, he shows her another note. It’s one of the many he keeps in his pocket. These paper notes are becoming quite wrinkled from prolonged and repeated use. As she tries to decipher the string of characters on the scrap of paper, she detects no hint of old dried blood. She lets out a sigh of relief.
The note says: “I’m leaving now. If you want to use the toilet, nod. Wait for me, I will make you lunch when I return.”
She has no energy left to cry or protest. She is tired, drowsy, beyond exhausted.
He picks up the insulated delivery bag and exits through the door. He closes the metal gate ever so softly behind him, as if trying not to wake her from her slumber. He is gentle at heart. Even when he shows her those paper notes, he doesn’t act menacing in the least. He keeps his face calm and neutral at all times. Still, she feels more relaxed after he leaves. There is a palpable tension in the air whenever they are in the same room—not least because of her constant fear of what he might do next. Her parents don’t even know her current address. They have yet to come for a visit. Her mother is still unhappy about her divorce. It didn’t feel like the right time to invite them over. She wanted to wait until things had calmed down a little and emotions had cooled. She planned to tidy up the place before Chinese New Year, so she and her parents could celebrate the New Year together. It would double as her housewarming.
She took care of nearly every step of the renovation process, letting no one else interfere with it. Now, she is lying on her sofa, a lonely soul stranded on a remote island. Waiting for her kidnapper to bring back food. Maybe he is already searching for his next victim—another single woman living alone. Then he would transfer everything to that person’s home and continue to cook, take orders and make deliveries. What did he do to his last victim before moving on to her? Perhaps he did nothing and just left her there, still bound up, waiting to die.
With this in mind, she is suddenly seized by an intense, unspeakable fear. Before he went out, he had left the bedroom window open. The temperature is falling precipitously. There is not even a thin mist hovering above the ocean. Instead, the surface of the water lies still, like a brittle, grey sheet of ice. She tries to open her mouth under the tape. Forcing air through her lungs with all her might, she expels a long, muffled “WOOOH –”