By: Sallie Lau
y mum moved us into the mansion the day I turned thirteen. She ushered me through those huge glass doors that stretched from the floor to forever, lit a few candles and said, "Happy birthday, honey." And the dim candlelight flickered over her face, ghosting over her wide smile and watery eyes.
I looked away from her and peered at the empty hallway, and wondered how she had managed to find or even get a hold of this place. I heard my strangeness echoing through its halls.
"I want to go home," I told her.
Her eyes suddenly dried, and her hand whipped across my face. A fire spread from where she slapped me. "This is home," she shouted at me," This is home. This is home."
And then she marched over to a corner that was stained yellow, pulled off her pants and peed right there. When she finished, she stood and zipped up her pants, looked at me.
"This is home," she repeated, and disappeared down the hallway.
The sour smell of urine punched right up my nose. I said nothing.
We had lived in a cage for as long as I remembered, opposite a man in another cage who would look at my mum hungrily night after night. He never did anything, because there were other people, other cages, but sometimes when I woke up in the middle of the night, I could see my mum gripping the metal wiring of our cage home, trembling, eyes squeezed shut. I could never tell whether if she was awake or sleeping.
So here we were, two feral animals just escaped captivity, left to roam in the remnant of a civilization long gone. When my mum told me she’d found the empty mansion on The Peak, she’d laughed and cried and whispered “we’re free” over and over again into my hair. But when I looked at the tall glass windows looming over me and the sheer abundance of space, I felt nothing.
No freedom, nothing.
The mansion was probably built around the 2010s: its angular, neutral exterior and the extensive use of glass was characteristic of the architecture of the time. I had learned this in history class at school. The graffiti and the broken windows were, of course, recently historical. The rich had only left the city five years ago, when I was eight. The poor had remained, in our decaying city and its increasingly vicious climate, and things turned messy. But that was normal. Ms. Wang said that modern history was always a mess.
It was puzzling how fading into the years made things less messy.
I was still standing in the entrance hallway, still looking at the fresh yellow mark my mum had made in the corner.
When we were still living in the cage-home, my mum was always with me. We ate on the same bed, listened to the radio on the same bed, slept on the same bed. At night she sheltered my body with her own. It had felt like I was protected. And now, now that we were in this new, unfamiliar space, this bigger space, I realized my mum had sheltered me because that was the only way she fit into the small bed we had, that it wasn’t really protection at all. Because we had only been here for a few minutes, and she was already gone.
I picked up one of the candles she had lit and let myself be swallowed by the mansion. I didn’t really need it: the building was made of glass and gloomy, grey light poured through windows and spilled itself through doorways leading to other rooms. But my mum had mentioned that people used to have candles and this thing called cake on their birthdays. She told me people used to put the candles on the cake and blew them out to make a wish. I’ve begged, pleaded, prayed, but I’ve never made a wish. I should probably hold on to one of the candles.
The hallway ended at a flight of stairs. But these stairs were nothing like the ones we had back at the cage-house. Those were dirty and covered in old gum stains and puddles from a thousand years back, home to rats and cockroaches and who knew what else. These were magnificent. Another glass window stood behind it, one that was surprisingly unbroken. The steps were carpeted by dust at least an inch thick, but underneath I could see that the steps made of wood were of a warm brown colour. The railings were gloriously cool to the touch. I ran my hand over them, marveling at the smoothness of it. I took my shoes off, and went up the stairs with my toes clinging to the wood and the dust clinging to my toes.
There was a sound by the time I had made it to the top, slightly out of breath. It was a long noise, made of short ones that were detached yet somehow still together.
The word popped into my mind. It was an old word. Nobody had ever spoken of it to me. But I had read about it in a dictionary I’d scavenged from the library a couple years ago:
Sounds combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form and expression of emotion
It was bewitching and eerie, both new and normal to my ears. It was frightening.
“Mum?” I said, abruptly very aware of the absence of her familiarity.
The music stopped suddenly at the sound of me, leaving the mansion empty. My heart hammered against its cage-home.
“Mum?” I said again. My voice was scratchy and panicked, completely inadequate to fill the gap the music left behind.
Silence reigned for another couple seconds (minutes, hours, years), before -
She was in a room that was empty except for this giant black thing that occupied the middle of it. I stepped cautiously towards it.The black thing was a thing of bizarre beauty. It stood on three thin legs, its body was glossy and smooth like everything else in the mansion, made of round ridges that cut into sharp edges, and was comprised almost entirely of a mouth. Its flat upper jaw was propped open by a black toothpick. I peeked into it. The inside of the mouth was a shiny brownish-red. There was no tongue, only strings. There were no teeth in the mouth either. The teeth were, strangely, outside of the mouth, brilliantly white ones interrupted by black protrusions that I couldn’t think of as cavities. My mum had her hands on the teeth.
“Won’t it bite?”
“You have your hands on its teeth.”
My mum laughed, and then said, “These aren’t teeth, silly. They’re keys.”
And then she pushed down with her hands, and the music came out, strong and sonorous.
“That was you?”
She let her hands drop, “Yeah.”
I waited for her to keep talking.
She waited for me to stop waiting.
It was a common stalemate. My mum would start talking and then suddenly become unwilling to share things of her past. And we would both wait to see if I would drop it first, or if she would cave and tell.
I won this time.
“This is a piano. These are keys. Each key is connected to a hammer. When you press down on a key, its hammer hits a string at the back of the piano,” she gestured to the mouth of the thing, demonstrating. The hammer hit the string and a sound wafted up at the same time, “Each key, hammer, string combination makes a unique sound, which is called a note. Together, the keys make up the keyboard, and by playing different keys either together or consecutively, you make music.”
I reached my hands toward the keyboard and played one of the keys. The hammer hit the string and a note sounded out and I was fascinated by both the sound and the new – old – words my mum fed me.
I looked at her.
“You used to…play?”
“Yes. My mum – your grandmother – used to make me,” she laughed again, bitterly this time, “I used to hate it.”
Hate it? I pressed at the key again. My mum hated this lovely, glamorous toy when she was younger. She had a toy, and hated it. I didn’t know what to make of that.
“Your father used to sit here and listen to me play.”
This was the first time she’d ever mentioned my dad, and it sounded like the words were wrenched from her, tearing at the insides of her mouth as they forced themselves out. I didn’t know what to make of that either.
“Can you play another…music?” I asked instead.
“A song,” my mum corrected coldly, “it’s called a song.”
I waited for her to start playing.
She waited for me to stop waiting.
I was thoroughly disappointed. But I understood. It was a thing of the Past, and my cheek was still sore.
“You should go look around to see if there are any beds. There should be.”
It was a clear dismissal. I hesitated a bit longer, and then left. Outside, I lingered, wanting to see if she’d play again.
She did, but only after until she thought I was out of earshot. The song she played was a sad one slashed with angry tones. She went from loud to soft and from soft to loud, and the music was like waves rolling around in a tempest, crashing and crashing and crashing. The sadness and anger went on for ages but it seemed only like half a second before the storm receded and the only sound left in the room was my mum’s sobbing.
I walked away as quietly as I could, entering and exiting rooms that were minimally furnished, but furnished all the same. In one there was a long, black, semisoft chair facing a low sort of cabinet pushed up against the wall. There were some wires on the wall, but they were cut and connected to nothing now. The chair and the cabinet were also covered in the same graffiti that slithered on the walls of the hallway downstairs.
689 COME BACK.
FUCK YOU LIN WEI QIANG.
DOWN WITH PYC.
Or maybe it was PRC, I wasn’t sure. There was a room with a half-bed. The soft part of it was gone. I lay down on the part that was left but it was hard and wrong, so I got up again.
After that room, I went back down the stairs, still barefoot. But the light outside had faded and the steps were colder, and the railings didn’t invite me to hold them.My candle was at the bottom. Snuffed out. I hadn’t even realized I’d left it there. I hadn’t even made my wish yet. Perhaps my mum’s traditions were just superstitions.
The kitchen was in one of the larger rooms on the left of the hallway. A couple of knives were left out on the rack, still wickedly sharp. My stomach growled. Maybe the rich people left food in here as well! I went through the shelves in a frenzy. Nothing nothing nothing. And finally, in an enormous white box, there was a bowl of something. I snatched it out, lifted the covering. The food stank, and there was mold. My mum always told me not to eat anything with mold on it. I dug my hands in anyway, I’d eaten mold before, it wasn’t that bad.But before I could shovel the food into my mouth, I caught sight of the darkness in the distance outside the window. It was a darkness darker than what generally occurred around this time of the day. I went up for a better look, careful not to cut myself on the jagged glass.
Outside, the air was faintly crackling with electricity, and although it smelled of the usual faint petrichor and humidity, there was also a sweet smell. Too sweet. Not good.
I ran to where we’d left our belongings next to the glass doors and took out the radio I’d filched from a garbage dump in one of the richer neighbourhoods when I was six.
“ – is calling for immediate evacuation of the city. Citizens are advised to head to the old Ocean Terminal at once, where there are ships for shelter and safety. Attention. According to the Weather Observatory there is an oncoming storm due to arrive in two or three hours. This storm will last several months. The ozone level is at least a thousand times higher than usual, and therefore the mayor is calling for immediate evacuation of the city. Citizens are ad – ”
Several months. So far, the worst storms had only lasted two weeks. Then, we had taken refuge in one of the government shelters built on high ground. If they’re telling us to board ships, even those will probably be covered by water.Wasn’t there a story about this man who had to make this big boat with heaps of animals on it because some god decided to flood the Earth with tons and tons of rain?
I laughed. This wasn’t some kind of story.
It took me some time to find my mum (the mansion was big). She was in the room with half the bed, lying on it, her feet dangling off its edge.
“It used to be soft.”
“Did it?” I said carefully, unable to determine what mood she was in.
“Yes,” and her voice was soft as well, “The softest bed of softest beds.”
“Okay,” I agreed, “The softest bed of softest beds.”
I fumbled around for a bit, wondering how to best get the news out there. I decided on bluntness in the end.
“There’s a storm coming. We have to leave.”
“Leave? What do you mean, leave? We just got here.”
“Mum, it’s going to be a bad storm. The government is calling for evacuation to the ships.”
My mum closed her eyes, “We’re on a hill. We’ll be fine.”
“We won’t, Mum, the storm’s going to last months. There’s going to be a lot more ozone than usual. We have to get to the ships.”
“But we’re home.”
I thought of the cage that had been our home all my life and how it maybe wasn’t so much of a cage for me. This mansion was big and empty but it was suffocating me with its strangeness, my mum’s strangeness.
“We’ll make a home on the ship,” I coaxed, “We’ll be safe there. Come on, there even migh –"
“NO,” my mum interrupted so fiercely I had to take a step back, “This is home, you stupid girl, can’t you understand?”
I fought back tears. I hated it when my mum called me stupid.
“Mum, please. If we don’t go – ”
“No,” her voice was magnitudes smaller.
“Mum,” I tugged at her hand, “Just get up. Get up!”
“Please don’t make me,” she was begging me this time. The way she sounded – she sounded so scared, so trapped. And I was overwhelmed by an inexplicable guilt.
“I’m going,” I told her.
“Yes,” she said.
“You’re not coming with me.”
I was at a loss of what to say, what to do. On one hand, I knew I was going to the ships. I knew I wasn’t going to stay here. I knew that my mum was. On the other, I didn’t want her to stay here. I wanted her to come with me to the ships, and even though conditions might be bad, even though we might live in cages again, sleep in the small, cramped bed, she could protect me and I could protect her. I could be her home, as she’d been mine.
“Okay,” I repeated.
I turned and walked towards the door, as slowly as I could, waiting, hoping, praying, wishing for her to get of the bed, take my hand, and say, “Let’s go.”
My heart felt like it could burst.
“Take the candles. You might need them. Take the matches as well.”
Too late. The candles were too late.
Out the door. Left. Right. Left. Everything was a blur. By the time I reached the stairs I was crying loudly, uncaring whether my mum heard me or not. I had to hold the cold, unfriendly railing to steady myself.
I went into the kitchen and retrieved the radio. I also took the knife on the rack. My hands were shaking so much I cut myself on the wickedly sharp blade. I took off my cardigan and wrapped it around the knife, the red of my blood blooming on the material as I went back down the hallway to where we’d left our belongings next to the glass doors. I took out my backpack, and slipped the knife and the radio in it.
There were four unused candles in the bag my mum brought with her. I put three in my backpack. I slung my backpack over my shoulder.With the fourth, I paused. I didn’t know whether candles were used for all sorts of celebrations or not.But I struck a match and lit the candle anyway. I took the candle, ran up the stairs, and placed it on the piano.
“Happy homecoming, Mum,” I said, even though she couldn’t hear me. I played a few notes consecutively on the keyboard. Maybe it was song, maybe it wasn’t.
The candle blew itself out. Did Mum wish for anything?
Outside the mansion, the air was sweeter and more electric than it was before. I closed the glass doors behind me and headed down the hill, alone.BW
Sallie Lau usually writes about ocean acidification and whale corpses, but when she has free time she’ll turn to lighter genres such as apocalyptic fiction. She is a feminist, caffeine addict, and Radiolab’s #1 fan. Check her out on Tumblr if you want to be introduced to other fantastic young writers, admire Star Wars gifs, or gape at the general struggles of life.