Chapter 25: Outside Noisy Inside Empty

25

It had been five and a half months since the overtaking of the Triad building, which made it the Year of the Rat. The informal police force had been renamed the Walled City Police. I had decided to inhabit a room in one of the middle floors. I tore a wall down and combined two offices. We scrounged for supplies to create an apartment out of it. Spring came, unstable, and wet. The humidity made everything feel slow, and I had a hard time knowing how time was passing. I measured time only by what successes the city had.

I listened to the rain when it came down, in combination with my Walkman. I hardly ever thought of Mars anymore, except when listening to that cassette tape. Leslie Cheung – The Wind Blows On – A-side only 😦. With the frequency that I listened to it, and fell asleep to it, I went through batteries constantly. They were my most expensive purchase.

On a Saturday in May, I lit a candle for my mother in the temple, and a stick of incense in my room in the evening. I did it every weekend. My own room was beginning to smell like hers. My apartment was very different from the old one. It was better maintained, and it didn’t have the draft our old place had, from the half-patched balcony, and the open ledge underneath. It certainly didn’t have the view that our old place had, being on the inner ring of the city. But I made do.

I went outside the city once or twice to withdraw money, which was fast dwindling. But I lived off what I could in the months following the overtaking, putting off looking for work, and never going back to my old job. I wondered what they thought happened to me when I never came back. Did they think I was sucked into a world of prostitution? Did they think I died? Did they ever wonder about whether anyone would return to that job if they had the choice?

One thing was still the same. I still carried Kwok’s gun around in the front of my pants every day. The nights were the hardest. I would sleep restlessly and with dreams of violence and past cruelties. I dreamt about Kai often, and I thought about Lin’s last words to me before she disappeared.

I would wake up feeling paranoid every day. I did not know if they had plans to find a new location in our city where they could still be immune to law enforcement, or if they had plans to hunt me again. I was suspicious of every new face in our building. It was easier just to stay in. But in the end, the supply of drugs in Kowloon Walled City trickled to almost nothing. The Walled City Police was in charge of handling day to day crime, disputes, and complaints. They didn’t look to me for orders as much as they used to, and, as a result, crime had gone down significantly. It was almost non-existent. The city was cleaner, a little more lively.

It turned out, that during the overtaking, the police force had driven out one of the largest drug operations in Kowloon. I didn’t know how this affected the Wo Shing Wo and its members. I didn’t know if there were many of them who suffered up and down the ladder, according to the way Li told it.

Li never came back. He was like a ghost. A man who appeared one day in my kitchen, and the only evidence I had of his presence was the fact that my mother was no longer with me.

I could not decide if this was the Kowloon Walled City I imagined. On the surface, it fit exactly what I had meant for it to be. Clean, safe, friendly, organized–at least to a degree. I had worked hard to create something respectable, to purge it from all that made it miserable and unwanted. But now I was miserable and unwanted. There were whole days where I spoke to no one, and days where I only spoke to those who were reporting to me. I fussed over reports and changes to the city, just to give myself something to do, and I longed for conversation. I was impossibly and unbearably lonely.

It was a Saturday evening when I was lighting incense for my mother, when I heard a knock on the door.

“Come in,” I said.

The door opened a crack, and then it opened all the way. Wai-Lik, the new Walled City Police captain was there. He looked bewildered and upset by something.

“What is it?” I asked, sensing something wrong.

“The city is being evicted,” he said, as though apologizing. “Next week. We’re all supposed to be out, no exceptions.”

I turned from the altar. So it’s still happening,” I said.

“You know about this?”

“I didn’t do all those things for the city for no reason,” I said. “I did it for everyone. But it’s hopeless. We’ll always look like the lowest of the low to them,” I said, remembering Li’s words. Even with all we had accomplished, they were still going ahead with the eviction.

“The Walled City Police have been around notifying residents,” Wai-Lik said, looking regretful. “Our own building is one of the last.”

I turned back toward the altar, ignoring him.

“Is there nothing we can do?”

“I’ve done everything I could do!” I heard the anger in my voice. “What else is there? Nothing!”

Wai-Lik stood at the door, perhaps unsure of what to say. Finally he said “I’m sorry,” and closed it.

I stared into the smoke snaking up from the stick of incense. Then all at once, I knocked over all the contents at the altar with my arm. I was alone, with no job, and soon I would be homeless too. After everything I had done, none of it mattered. If they had just left us alone…

#

The week passed quickly. Plenty of families moved out voluntarily, or because they felt an obligation, but many families felt like the way I had felt. They made little effort to change locations, if at all. But as the week wore on, the city started feeling more empty and abandoned. After the week, I began to see notices posted onto the building door, threatening peaceful expulsion. I tore them down and threw them into the street.

I began to think that it was our building that was being targeted, so I took a walk.

Walking from the inner ring to the outer ring was not something I tended to do anymore. So much had changed and moved around in the past year. That was the beauty of Kowloon Walled City–it could become anything you wanted it to be. The Triads knew it, I learned it, eventually. I kept going along the route I knew, feeling the light flood into the cracks of the structure as I got closer to the outside, and as the city began to thin.

Finally, I was in front of it. The door to my old building on the west side of the city. Unlike the the Walled City Police building, this one was a little more run down. Was it always this patchy looking? Five months seemed like so long ago, and I realized I couldn’t remember.

“You can’t do this!” I heard someone yell. “You can’t make us leave!” I turned to see a pile of belongings out on the wet street. A policeman, not one of ours, was adding items to the pile. An elderly man followed him out. “We’ve lived here for fourteen years. Fourteen years!” he protested.

I turned back toward the empty building and walked inside.

I stopped at the third floor, staring down the hall, remembering how it used to be filled with the bickering voices of Lin and Kai’s arguments. I continued up.

On our floor, the hall was flooded again, although it smelled like it was from a rain from weeks ago. During the rain, my mother and I used to take turns soaking up the water that leaked in. We would place pots underneath and empty them out at alternate intervals.

The door was stuck, but with a little bit of effort, I got it to open. A gust of cool air hit me, and I smelled must, and damp wood. There was evidence of rains coming in and puddling everywhere, even in the spots that were now dry. The old blood stain had partially washed out with the seasons, while the other half seemed to have settled into the floor permanently over time.

The kitchen table was still upturned, and I picked it up and set it upright, noting the bullet hole in the surface. I looked through our cupboard at all the items I had left behind in my rush to leave. They didn’t seem like they belonged to me now. It felt like I was snooping around somebody else’s home.

I went into my old room. It still had the mattress, the empty shelves, and a pile of old shirts that had belonged to my father. On the top most shelf, I found an old paycheck that I had forgotten to cash. Other than that, the room looked sterile and lifeless. I had never put anything on the walls or created a home out of it. I had never carved my own space. My most treasured possessions could be taken into my arms, and without them, the room looked like something temporary. Like no one really even lived here.

Next was my mother’s room. I hesitated before stepping inside, but I knew I had to.

Except for the missing altar, it looked exactly as I had left it–or as she had left it. I knelt onto the bed and then fell forward, splaying my limbs out onto the sheets. I tried to take in her smell, but five and a half months of a tropical climate would remove the memory from any fabric, and my mother’s bed was no exception.

The sheets were bone dry, but the bed still smelled like an old dish rag. Clutching them to me was like a goodbye. The Hong Kong Police could drag my corpse from this apartment if they wanted to. I would die at eighty or I would die today at twenty-three, it was their choice. But I wouldn’t leave this city.

I woke up on my back in my mother’s room, the gun in my pants digging into my hipbone, and feeling heavy.

I took it out and got up, going to the kitchen and setting it on the now upright table. I found our old kettle, washed it out, and put some water to boil. Then I went through our tea leaves, all of which had expired, and some of which had grown mold. I found a tin that didn’t have evidence of mold, and set some of the leaves into a strainer.

It was like I had traveled through time.

Ten minutes later, I was at the kitchen table drinking my tasteless tea when someone pounded the door.

“Attention!” the voice announced itself. “This is an eviction by order of the Hong Kong Police! Please gather your belongings and leave the area! It is unsafe for residents!”

I let my gaze flick back down to my teacup and continued to drink, ignoring the disturbance.

The pounding on the door started again. “Hello! I can hear you in there.” I said nothing. I didn’t move except to place my still-warm cup onto the table.

“I’m going to break down this door!” the voice yelled again. I slowly stood up.

When the door flung open, I was already on the other side, waiting for him. He was young and in a uniform that was slightly ill-fitting, but his white helmet seemed snug enough. I gave him a shove and he stumbled back into the hallway.

“Get out of my house!” I yelled.

The officer composed himself before running headlong into me, before I could close the door. I fell onto my back, and we rolled over the floor. I managed to scratch him across the face, but he kicked me and twisted my arm behind me until I shrieked. “You can’t take me! You can’t take me away! I won’t go!” I repeated the words over and over, flailing my arms and legs violently until I could break away from him and create some space between us.

I stood up, balancing myself by grabbing onto the ledge of the table.

The cop was standing too now. “Please, I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You’ll have to.” I glowered at him. My eyes were still on him. I tried to grab hold of the gun, which was still on the table, but I knocked over the teacup. I picked up the gun and pointed it at him.

He froze, not having noticed it before.

“Miss, you don’t have to do this,” he said. “There are other officers in the building and they will be on their way.”

My hands shook as I held the gun. I slowly moved it to my own head. His eyes got wide.

“Please, Miss.” he said.

“You. Don’t. Understand,” I said through gritted teeth. “You’re just a cop! You don’t understand! I have no job! No family! No friends! I have nowhere to go!” I shouted these words. “I’ll die if you take me. I’ll lay down and die, right here, I fucking swear it!”

He had his hands out while approaching me, and he moved nervously and deliberately, as though he were disarming a bomb.

“Are you listening?” I said.

“You won’t die,” he said. “It’s not the end. You will be okay.”

I shook my head.

“We’ve been finding people work on relocation, and we’ve been finding them temporary housing.”

I kept shaking my head, feeling my chest heave as the panic grew inside me. I heard footsteps down the hallway. Any minute and they would find me with the gun, and I would be in prison for God knows how long.

“It’s not the end,” he repeated. “We can help you.”

Now he was close enough to grab the gun from me. But he didn’t.

“Let us help you,” he said. His eyes were sympathetic. The footsteps were getting closer. Could I trust this man? I wanted to.

I lowered the gun, and held it out to him in my palm.

He took it from me, and nodded. “I won’t say anything,” he said. “Promise.” I saw his gaze shift behind me, and a second later, he slid the gun across the floor and off the ledge, the way I had seen so many other guns go in the past.

At once I regretted everything. My one ticket to freedom, the only thing that could have gotten me out of here, was gone, fallen into an alleyway where all the dead things went. How could I be so stupid?

“No,” I said. “No! No! You can’t!”

I started to struggle again, but the cop grabbed both my wrists, and shouted into the hallway, “Some help here!” Two other men showed up and soon I was down on the floor with cuffs around my wrists, but not before punching one of them in the face.

“Get her out of here!” the other one shouted, checking his lip. “Crazy bitch,” he muttered. The two remaining cops hoisted me up by the handcuffs and led me down the stairs, out of the building, and out of the city that had been my life for the last twelve years.

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