The first thing I can distinctly remember was spending the day at the zoo with my parents. It’s such a clear memory, but maybe that’s because I’ve meditated on it so many times over the years. Every time I think about it, I realize something new, something that I wasn’t prepared to consider before.
It was a sunny day, warm but not too hot. I was riding around the zoo on dad’s shoulder. It was my first real experience with animals, with nature. Being a child, I couldn’t help but show off what I knew. Dad would walk past one of the habitats, and I would stop and point and yell out the name.
He took me to the lion’s den first. “What’s that one?”
I pointed into the den. “Shizi!”
“Very good.” We’d move to the next habitat – the elephants. “What’s that one?”
“Daddy, where are the dragons?”
“Dragons?” He laughed – father laughed a lot more back them. “There are no dragons, honey.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.” We moved on to the next part of the zoo, and that was the end of the discussion.
What I didn’t realize – what I only concluded recently – was that this visit was more than a family expedition. It was training. It was always training.
Lidia groped around in the half-light, eventually seizing something that she sincerely hoped was the phone. “Lidia. Who is this?”
“Miss Zhang? This is Alice.”
“Alice?” Lidia rubbed her eyes. “This is my day off. Why are you calling?”
“You were asleep? I am sorry.”
“It’s all right. I’m up now.” Lidia sat on the edge of the bed. “Again, why are you calling?”
“There is a problem at the office. Martin is…” There was yelling in the background – nothing Lidia could make out, but the sound was unmistakable. “…Please come here very fast.”
“All right. I can be there in…” Lidia squinted at the clock. “…Twenty minutes. Okay.”
“Okay. Please hurry.”
Lidia quickly dressed, ignoring breakfast and teeth brushing to shave off a few minutes. Her curiosity had overwhelmed her exhaustion. In a matter of minutes, she was out the door, down the stairs, and onto the street. The elevator was unusually slow – too many people, too many stops.
When the door finally opened at the twelfth floor, it opened onto screaming.
“WHAT DID I DO WRONG? TELL ME WHAT I DID WRONG!”
Martin was at the reception desk, looking like a hurt animal half-crazed with pain. Huang Yan was trying to keep the situation under control, but she was also on the verge of tears herself.
Lidia sprinted to the desk. “What’s going on here?”
“What’s going on?” Martin’s face was turning red. “Why did you fire me?”
“What are you talking about?” said Lidia. “I didn’t fire anyone.”
“Don’t lie to me! This was on my door when I woke up!” Martin slapped a document on the counter – a notice of termination. The notice was unfamiliar to Lidia – she hadn’t yet felt the need to use one, and had never seen one in person.
“I’ve never seen this,” said Lidia, eyeballing the notice. “My signature’s not on it anywhere.”
“What did I do?” Martin was tearing up. “I did everything right. What did I do?”
Lidia turned to Huang Yan. “Where did this come from?”
“Uh…” Huang Yan was barely keeping it together. “I get a call from the company. The staff filed this.”
“That doesn’t make any…” Lidia looked back at Martin. “I’m looking into this. Sit down and wait for me.”
Lidia took the notice and headed back to her office. There were a few other teachers milling around, but she didn’t take the time to acknowledge any of them – there was too much to do. Shutting and locking the door, she took a seat and dug through the drawers on her desk until she found her contact form and hastily dialed up the head office.
“Qingxi Yanli Jiaoyu. Zao an.”
“Give me Caris Healey.”
“Who is calling?”
“Lidia Zhang, director of the Suzhou branch. It’s urgent.”
“One moment please.”
While she waited, Lidia took a closer look at the notice. Since the teachers were under contract, it was actually a dissolution agreement, to be signed by both the teacher and someone from the company. This particular document, however, claimed some breach of contract by the teacher – the signatures were strictly for the files. Lidia couldn’t find anything on the document that suggested a reason for termination, and she couldn’t think of anything Martin had done that would be in breach. More than that, she couldn’t figure out how they could have filed this document without her permission.
Click. “Caris Healey.”
“This is Lidia Zhang in Suzhou.”
“Good morning, Lidia! How’s the position going? I keep meaning to call…”
“One of my employees just received a notice of termination, and it wasn’t from me. I’d like an explanation.”
There was a pause at the other end. “I don’t understand. Could you give me the details?”
“What details?” Lidia shot to her feet, pacing in tiny circles. “Martin Prosser had this notice sent to him this morning. I come in, he’s screaming about being fired. But I don’t see how that’s possible, because I didn’t file this, nor did I request it be filed. So please tell me how this could have happened.”
“I am in charge of personnel, am I not?”
“One second please.” There was a muffled conversation at the other end. Lidia couldn’t make out much – just a lot of frantic whispering. “Okay, sorry. Yes, you are in charge of personnel at your branch, but the central office can issue its own orders if we feel that it is necessary. In this case, we felt that it was inappropriate to keep this teacher on in light of the information we’ve received.”
“What information? There haven’t been any complaints from the schools.”
“This is based on what your branch sends to us. The information he’s filed is very incomplete, which is a red flag. Additionally, we have received comments that suggest that his demeanor is inappropriate for a teacher.”
“Demeanor?” Lidia paused, tapping her fist against her forehead. “Is there anything I can do to appeal this?”
“I’m sorry, no. Look, it’s not like he was going to stay around very long. He told everyone that he was only going to be here for a year, so you’ve only lost one semester. Believe me, you can manage.”
Lidia sighed. “Thanks.” She slammed the receiver down. For a while, she just stared at the termination notice. She always knew that this would be one of her duties, but she’d never even fathomed how hard it would be, and this particular situation had certainly never come to mind. Taking a moment to compose herself and put on a neutral face, she walked out to the front office to carry out her grim duty.
Lidia took the stairs back to the main floor – a few brief moments of peace before she emerged into the crowded streets. At that time of the morning, the lobby was reasonably crowded, both with people headed to their jobs and customers flocking to the coffee shop that sat just off the main thoroughfare. She could pick up the odd fragment of conversation, but it all seemed like so much nonsense. Suddenly, she heard something odd – a snippet of a discussion in English. She could only assume it was her teachers, perhaps lounging in the coffee shop before their classes. Lidia wasn’t the most social person, but at that moment she decided that she could use the company.
As she entered the shop, the conversation became clear. “She fired him? Any idea why?”
“Dude, I have no idea.”
Lidia hesitated, standing just inside the entrance. R.R. and Doug were seated at a table, Doug with a paper coffee cup, R.R. with a small teapot and a small round cup.
“What could that kid have possibly done?” said R.R. “There was that stuff about flaws in the lesson plan, but I can’t imagine that she would fire someone over bullshit that small.”
“Well, we’ve gotta have standards,” said Doug, punctuating his statement with an eye roll.
“How long had he even been here?”
“I don’t know, two months? Couldn’t have been much more than that.”
R.R. blew the steam off his tea. “So who do you think will get stuck with his classes for the rest of the semester?”
“All I know is that if that bitch thinks she’s sticking me with that poor kid’s classes, she’s got another thing…” Doug turned his head, spotting Lidia by the entrance. “What do you want?”
Lidia approached the two of them. “For the record, I had nothing to do with Martin Prosser’s termination. The order came from the main office. By the time I heard about it, there wasn’t anything I could do.”
“Right.” Doug pushed back from the table, grabbing his cup and storming out the door. “I got classes.”
“I’ll see you at the Bottle when you’re done,” yelled R.R. as Doug left. He finished his tea and stood up. “Well, I guess I’d better get going, too.”
“It looks like you just got here,” said Lidia.
“I came here to talk to my friend. He’s gone, so I’m not sticking around.” R.R. adjusted his jacket. “You can have the rest of my tea. It’s a Yunnan blend.”
“Damn it, I’m telling you I didn’t fire him.”
“Oh, I believe you,” said R.R., slinging his messenger bag over his shoulder.
“Then why are you treating me like this?” said Lidia. “You were friendly to me before.”
“Yes, I was,” said R.R. “I don’t have many friends here, and I thought it would be nice to have someone else to talk to. In response, you’ve insulted me to my face numerous times, you barged uninvited into my apartment and refused to leave when I asked you to. So if you think I’m going to be your friend now that you need a defender, you’ve got another thing coming.”
“That’s not how it is,” said Lidia.
“Goodbye, Lidia.” R.R. walked out of the coffee shop.
Now alone, Lidia sat in R.R.’s seat and lifted the teapot, slowly pouring the tea into the cup. She stared into the red-tinged liquid, watching the steam dance and vanish into the air. All around her, groups of people chatted idly, laughing and swapping stories. Suddenly, she realized that she’d never done this. Back in Paradise Gardens, she arrived early and left late just so she wouldn’t run into anyone who knew her. Now, all she wanted was that personal contact.
I wasn’t always like this, she thought. What the hell happened?
The next significant character in this story is Zhu Qiangwei, or – as she is more commonly known – Alice, Lidia’s assistant. And once again, I’m going to have to go into some background material before I get into this character in particular. Fair warning: I anticipate this one running a bit long.
Alice is on the local staff, the term for the Chinese employees of a firm that primarily employs native English-speaking teachers. What, exactly, the local staff does varies from company to company. When the company is a learning center – meaning that most of their classes are private sessions conducted on the premises – the staffers are often teachers themselves, who assist the foreign teachers or even give some lessons on their own. In these places, the local staff is at least as large as the foreign staff, and often larger. On the other hand, if the company primarily contracts teachers out (as is the case with the fictional QYE), the local staffers are mostly secretaries and bureaucrats. The local staff at these companies is much smaller, with as few as four or five even with a relatively large foreign staff.
Inevitably, the local staff is comprised entirely of women, with the sole exception of the on-site tech/IT guy if there is one. They are usually very young – twenty or twenty-one years old, fresh out of college in most cases. The requirements vary – some places demand some sort of teacher training or a degree in accounting or business, while others just need someone with a moderate grasp on the English language. The turnover rate is very high, to the point where I’ve often suspected that the bosses fire these women after a year or two just so that they don’t have to hand out raises.
I didn’t write too much about the local staff in Kingdom of Sharks for the simple reason that I really had no way of accurately describing their experiences. Personal interaction with these women is minimal. At a contracting company, it’s rare to have any one-on-one contact with them unless one of them is delivering a message or taking someone to an appointment. Learning centers are more open – the foreign teachers work closely with the local staff, and it’s likely that one will develop some sort of friendly interaction with a few of them. However, many of these places – including the ones where I work – actually forbid the local staff from socializing with the foreign teachers outside of a classroom setting. Obviously, no one follows these regulations to a T, and indeed, I’ve gone to dinner and social events with some of the local teachers in my time. However, those were always long-time employees. Most of these women have very little job security and aren’t going to take any risks.
So writing for the local staff is hard, but it’s necessary. As the branch director, Lidia really doesn’t have the option of dealing exclusively with the foreign teachers. I had to come up with someone to represent the staff. But does that mean I had to completely fill the local staff office?
The earliest version of The Dragon’s Heir had a lot more Chinese characters in it. I had planned on modeling QYE after the first place I worked, because that environment was more suited to the kind of character drama I had envisioned. But when I actually started writing it, I realized very quickly that most of characters were superfluous. While novels aren’t bound by the same limited resources as films, it still seemed like a bad idea to add a bunch of characters who existed primarily for flavor. Ultimately, I removed most of them. In doing so, I did lose a few subplots (most notably a love triangle involving Lidia and the tech support guy), but most of the important stuff I was able to offload to Caris Healey – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
So…Alice Zhu. Alice is the first character outside of Lidia to show up. We’re quickly introduced to Alice’s over-the-top friendliness and cheer, a personality type that should be familiar to anyone who’s worked or lived around a lot of young Chinese people (or Midwesterners, come to think of it, so I guess I’m an expert coming and going). In a lot of my previous writings, I identified this as a false come-on, but in Alice’s case it was always meant to be sincere – this is not a shark’s grin. Perhaps this is another sign that my writing is losing its cynical edge, or maybe I’m just a sucker because I never believed that these ladies were trying to get anything from me.
There are a few things that Alice does for Lidia’s character, and in fact she becomes an important part of Lidia’s novel-spanning character arc. Lidia starts off determined to do absolutely everything by herself, shoving Alice away even when she really needs help. In spite of this, Alice continues to work behind the scenes and do very kind things for Lidia, which ultimately plays into her becoming a bit warmer as time goes on. It’s hard to see it in the parts I’ve posted thus far, but I hope it comes across in the full story.
There’s also a sense in which Alice is sort of Lidia’s mirror image – similar in many ways, but exactly the opposite in others. That may well explain why Lidia is so slow to take a shine to Alice. Part of me thinks that Lidia would have turned out more like Alice had she been born in the PRC rather than the United States, but that’s a theory for another alternate universe series.
Given how…let’s say “elaborate” the universe in my novels has grown, I decided it would be prudent to take down a quick timeline. And as long as I’m doing that for myself, why not share it for the edification of my readers? What follows is a concise timeline of every major event that happened in the five main novels (including the as-yet unreleased The Dragon’s Heir). Needless to say, this contains spoilers for…well, pretty much everything.
- Mid 70′s: Atomic Energy Viability panel convened.
- 1977: Zhang Yanli sneaks out of the People’s Republic of China.
- Late 70′s: Joshua Jameson inherits Jameson Manufacturing after the death of his father.
- 1980: The Solace school district runs the first Trivia Master competition.
- Early 80′s: Jedediah DuFresne develops the technology behind the Rudra Engine. He almost immediately discards it due to safety concerns.
- 1982: While investigating a business opportunity in California, Joshua Jameson meets Zhang Yanli.
- 1982: The first edition of Aukland’s Unauthorized Almanac of Trivia and Trivia Competitions is published.
- 1988: Benjamim Jameson born.
- June 4th, 1989: Lidia Zhang born.
- 1992: Diana Liston and Will Scarbrough born.
- 1993: Joshua Jameson’s first wife dies.
- Early 1994: Joshua Jameson marries Hannah Millen, his second wife.
- 1994: Joshua Jameson commissions a study on Project Rudra.
- Mid 90′s: Joshua Jameson meets Dr. John Bellamy.
- 1995: Paul Liston and Aaron Bellamy born.
- 1996: The Aukland’s Unofficial website is founded.
- 1999: Sam Scarbrough born.
- 2002: Paul Liston and Aaron Bellamy meet.
- 2005: Aaron Bellamy has a falling-out with Paul Liston.
- 2006: Joshua Jameson approaches Dr. Otto Magnus with a deal to develop a prototype Rudra Engine.
- 2007: Ben Jameson shuns his father.
- 2008: Construction of Jameson Labs in Patmos, Illinois is approved.
- Autumn 2012: The events of Nerd World.
- Winter 2012: The events of Paradise Gardens.
- 2013: Construction of Jameson Labs is finished. Work on Project Rudra begins.
- 2015-2017: The events of The Dragon’s Heir.
- March 1-5, 2017: The events of The Sunshine Crew.
- March 5th, 2017: The Rudra Disaster.
- 2018: Sam Scarbrough leaves the bomb shelter and adopts the appelation “Storyteller.”
- Approx. 2020: “Conqueror” begins construction of Pinnacle over the ruins of Patmos.
- Early 2020′s: Lidia Zhang takes control of Middle Market.
- 2037: The events of The Fabulist.
Now that the manuscript for The Dragon’s Heir is nearing completion, it seems like a fine time to start going over the background and details. Usually, I start with the characters, and since I’ve already thoroughly analyzed Lidia that means we’re going to the supporting cast. There’s no better character to analyze than Roderick Random Butler, our leading man.
Before diving into his character in particular, I’d like to say something about the history of this particular project. The Dragon’s Heir was never mentioned in the project lists, but it’s always been there. As with Nerd World and The Fabulist, it started off as a very different project – a live action serial based on Kingdom of Sharks (the book, not this blog). This one was obviously a pipe dream, as none of my potential producers had the resources to do anything like it. Still, I did take some notes and even worked out a few episodes.
After The Fabulist, I wanted to get away from the genre stuff and back into what I consider my specialty, and a novelization of that serial concept seemed like a good idea. As an added benefit, it gave me an opportunity to further explore the background of one of my personal favorite characters. There was one downside, however – as soon as I brought Lidia on board, the story changed completely. She had her baggage and her own story arcs, which meant that I couldn’t do the lost and confused expatriate story I’d originally envisioned.
There needed to be a character to replace the two leads who represented that viewpoint in the original serial. Enter R.R. Butler.
The serial featured a senior teacher who becomes a mentor to the female lead. This character was meant to illustrate the cynicism and ambiguous nature of long-term teachers. He wasn’t a scumbag like some of the characters (in particular two that made it into The Dragon’s Heir), but he did like to ride the ethical line. This was something that troubled the young leads, until they finally accepted that their new world did not operate like the one in which they’d lived all their lives. In essence, he was a representation of necessary measures.
While the original leads were very innocent and idealistic, Lidia is much more coldly practical. As a result, the senior teacher evolved to occupy a new role. He still stands opposite the lead, but rather than forcing her to question her ethics, he forces her to question what she knows. Lidia thinks she understands what’s going on; the senior teacher is there to show her that he doesn’t. As a bonus, he allows me to explore some issues that Lidia wouldn’t encounter as a long de chuanren.
In writing for R.R., I tried to avoid making him come across as too world-weary. He’s really not. I think it’s better to look at him as a man who has adapted to his surroundings in a very intimate way. He is not, nor will he ever be Chinese, but he’s changed enough that he’s no longer a typical American. This is the kind of thing you see a lot with expats – no one ever truly goes “native,” if only because there are too many things to remind them that they don’t belong.
In the early chapters, it may appear that there is a personality clash between Lidia and R.R., but this isn’t really the case. Because of her nature, Lidia tends to respond with hostility towards any attempts to reach out to her, which means that she can’t really handle R.R.’s friendliness. This may well change over the course of the story, as Lidia adapts herself.
Historically, the Mid-Autumn Festival was a harvest holiday, held beneath the full moon at the end of the growing season. It had both religious and historical connotations and, to this day, is considered one of the region’s major holidays. However, time changes all things, and Mid-Autumn Festival was not exempt. While most people held fast to the old ways, there were some who viewed the festivals as an opportunity to make money or an excuse to get drunk. Lidia suspected that much of her staff leaned toward the latter.
Truth be told, Lidia knew very little about the festival, save what she had read and what her parents had told her. She could remember it from when she was a child, when her parents still observed it. The one thing she remembered were the mooncakes – “special” mooncakes, her father told her, from some importer overseas. They had an odd taste, and she was never quite sure about the filling – likely some sort of bean paste, though at that age she hardly had the palate to determine that. It was more about the opportunity to share something personal and sacred with her daddy.
The cab pulled to a stop outside of a row of nondescript buildings. Lidia had finally decided that she would be sitting in the back of the vehicle, no matter what the cabbie thought. Staying in the back means that she was less likely to be forced to endure a conversation with someone who assumed that she was his countryman. Lidia slipped him a few bills and stepped out onto the sidewalk. Despite having the address, she was still only vaguely sure where she was – somewhere in the densely crowded town center, near another hangout popular with her employees. This building was a typical – if unusually large – family run restaurant during the daytime hours. For enough kuai, they were more than happy to put up with a crowd of laowai for a few hours.
Noah stepped out of the doors and waved Lidia in. “You’re late, boss.”
“Sorry, trouble finding a taxi.”
“I’m just messing with you.” Noah smiled and waved again. “Come on, they’re about to carve the lamb.”
The door led into a plain white room with two large tables, a serving tray, and very little else. It was larger than the family run establishments Lidia had seen, but the aesthetic was the same – simply decorated and laid out.
The room was filled with conversation that grew mute as Lidia entered the room. “Hey! The boss is here!” yelled Madison, hoisting a large bottle of beer.
“There’s a spot for you at the head table,” said Serena, gesturing towards an empty chair. “Join in.”
Lidia took a seat and took stock of the table. To her left was Alice, along with two other women from the staff with whom she was less familiar. To the right sat Serena, Louis, R.R. and Doug. The rest of the staff was at the other table. In the center was a large lazy Susan, stocked with beverages – soda and juice (which few at the table were drinking) as well as two bottles of a clear liquid that she couldn’t quite identify. Against the wall, she spotted a crate filled with beer bottles, which – judging by the behavior of some of the teachers – they had been enjoying for a while before she arrived.
“I see that I arrived ahead of the food,” said Lidia.
“Just in time,” said Eric, leaning over the table. “The main course is roasted goat, Mongolian style.”
Doug laughed. “You know, I knew a guy who worked up north who said that they once brought out the goat before they carved it? Sitting on a little platform, head still attached, with a red ribbon around its neck.”
Gloria winced. “That’s disgusting!”
“Well, in this country they’re fine with people knowing that their food used to be alive,” said Doug. “But I checked, they won’t do anything like that.”
Noah took one of the bottles off the tray on his table. “They’re gonna be bringing out the dishes soon. Anyone want to get started?”
Lidia stared at the bottle. The characters on the label were unfamiliar to her. “What is this?”
“Baijiu.” Noah twisted off the cap. “For a good time.”
“Courtesy of the awesome bastard right here,” said Madison, pointing at Noah. She took the bottle and filled a small ceramic cup. “Who’s joining us?”
Doug grabbed one of the bottles and examined it. “Geez, this stuff is cheap. What’d you pay, six kuai a bottle?”
“Excuse me, ten a bottle.” Noah filled his own glass. “It’s not like it matters, it all tastes the same.”
“I’m not falling for this again.” Doug started to return the bottle to the center of the table. “Isn’t that right, R.R.?”
R.R. grabbed the bottle out of Doug’s hand, opened it, and poured himself a generous portion. “Actually, I could use some.”
“I’ll try it,” said Louis, reaching for the bottle. “What about you, hon?”
Serena shook her head. “One of us should remember what happened here.”
“Yeah, good point.” Louis handed the bottle to Lidia. “What about you?”
Lidia took the bottle, holding it at arm’s length. It seemed innocuous enough – a clean, colorless liquid in a colorless glass bottle. She drew it in closer for a cautious sniff. The odor was troubling – somewhere between extremely cheap vodka and diluted fuel oil, with faint notes of some sort of mint. The label suggested that it was more than half alcohol by volume.
She picked up her cup in her free hand. “What do you think?” she asked Alice.
Alice waved her off. “No. But you can try.”
“Fine.” Lidia carefully tipped the bottle into the glass, allowing a thin stream of alcohol to fill the bottom of the cup. “If this stuff kills me, I will haunt you.”
“I can’t believe that any of you would pollute yourselves like this,” said Gloria.
“I’m fine with it.” Madison raised her cup. “To the moon!”
Everyone at both tables raised their cups and drank deeply. Lidia merely stared at her own cup, pondering the wisdom of letting it pass into her body. She took a deep breath and swallowed the liquor in one shot. Immediately, the liquid burned her tongue as it slithered down her throat. Lidia couldn’t even detect a distinct flavor, just a horrible alcoholic taste that grew stronger by the second. This was followed by some manner of fumes, setting fire to her sinuses.
“Dear God,” she said between coughs. “How can you drink this?”
“You get used to it,” said Noah, sipping from his cup.
“I don’t think it’s that bad,” said Louis.
“Wait twenty minutes.” Doug glanced over at the cart. “Hey, meal’s starting.”
The following hours were filled with feasting and drinking as their hosts put on their best effort for their foreign guests. It started with rice and baskets of vegetable jiaozi, but those weren’t on the table for too long before they were joined by dishes of ji-yu fish stew and braised eggplant. The dishes came steadily, one and two at a time – spare ribs, tofu marinated in chili oil, fried sweet and sour pork, vegetable stir-fry. By the time the lamb made its appearance, everyone was already full to bursting. After that came the drinking games – simple games of chance played in between shots of baijiu. By the time it was over, the room was an absolute mess, and the guests were in little better shape.
Noah and Madison lurched past Lidia, Martin close in tow. “Hey, we’re going by Chrissy – uh, the Chrysanthemum – for the after party,” said Madison. “Care to join in?”
“I’ll pass,” said Lidia, sipping on a cup of boiling water.
Doug had his head down on the table. As the group passed, he looked up. “Good decision, boss. Chrissy is nothing but bad music and whores. Never go there.”
“Thanks.” Lidia set her cup aside. “Are you drunk?”
“Happens ever year,” said Doug. “I guess I never learned where the line was.” He looked at the empty chair next to him, a polar fleece jacket hanging from a back. “Hey, Rod forgot his coat.”
“I’m sure he’ll be back for it,” said Lidia.
Doug kneaded the fabric in between his fingers. “I didn’t see where he went. Is he…is he still here?”
Lidia looked around the room. “He’s not in here.”
“Well, he’s gonna want that coat.” Doug struggled to his feet. “He’s not so far from here. I’ll just take it by.”
“I think you should get home.” Lidia picked up the jacket, slinging it over one shoulder. “Where does he live exactly?”
“Up the block, three blocks, first on your right,” said Doug. “Building number one, apartment four-oh-one.”
“All right, I’ll drop this off.” Lidia held the door open for Doug. “You need help getting the cab?”
“I’m not that drunk.” Doug saluted as he walked out. “Great party.”
Lidia watched as Doug flagged down a cab, then turned right and headed up the block. She wasn’t terribly comfortable with walking down the streets at night, but at the very least she had a general idea of where she was going based on employee records and Doug’s drunken instructions. After fifteen minutes, she arrived at what she suspected was his building – the first structure in a small, but very modern complex, not unlike her own. She hit the button for his apartment, but received no response.
Having no interest in standing outside on what was proving to be a surprisingly chilly night, Lidia let herself in through the unlocked door and climbed three flights to his apartment. She rapped on the door. “Mr. Butler? You left your jacket at the party.” There was no response. Noticing a thin beam of light filtering through the edge, Lidia pushed on the door and found that it was open. She pushed it open a crack. “R.R.? It’s Miss Zhang. Are you all right?” She nudged the door open another inch. “Mr. Butler? I’m coming in.”
Lidia pushed the door and walked into the apartment. Most of the lights were on, and there was music playing from somewhere inside, but she could see no other signs of life. Tossing the jacket onto a nearby chair, she took stock of the apartment. It was considerably larger than her own, with separate dining and living spaces and a small patio. There was a china cabinet which had been converted into a bookshelf of sorts, packed with well-used Chinese language textbooks, photographs, and assorted tchotchkes. His meter stick rested against the side of the cabinet. The walls were covered in posters, most of them featuring Daoist or Buddhist imagery. An open box of mooncakes lay on a coffee table, next to a bottle of bourbon and a drinking glass.
A photograph in the converted china cabinet caught Lidia’s eye. She took a few steps closer, kneeling to inspect the picture. There was a group of well-dressed young people – presumably teachers – in a park, gathered around an older man. It was her father – Zhang Yanli, in all his glory. On closer examination, one of the teachers looked like R.R., minus the colorful clothing. The caption on the photograph read “QYE Staff, 2013.”
“So you met him that long ago, huh?” said Lidia to herself.
“You’re trespassing.” Startled, Lidia spun around. R.R. stood in the door, a small plastic sack in his hand. “What are you doing in my apartment?”
Lidia pointed to the chair. “You left your jacket at the party.”
“And you just came in?”
“Your door was unlocked. I didn’t figure that you’d go out and leave it open.”
“Fair enough.” R.R. lifted the plastic sack. “There’s a bodega downstairs. I darted down there for some cookies and biscuits. Is that okay?”
“Why did you leave early?” said Lidia.
“Because I don’t like most of them.” R.R. sat down on the sofa. “You want a mooncake?”
“Okay.” R.R. popped open the bottle of bourbon and poured some into the glass. “Then you can leave.”
“Did you come back here to drink alone?” said Lidia.
R.R. swallowed the contents of the glass. “I suppose I did.”
“Figures.” Lidia shook her head. “I had a friend back home who pulled this nonsense. Wound up calling me in the middle of the night, rambling about nothing.”
“I don’t care.” R.R. poured himself a second shot. “Please leave.”
“Pathetic.” Lidia looked back at the cabinet. One of the photos was laying face down, barely visible except for its stand. She reached up to fix it.
“What the hell are you doing?” R.R. dropped his glass on the table and rushed to the cabinet, slapping Lidia’s hand away. “You think you have the right to go through my things?”
“I wasn’t going through your things,” said Lidia. “I thought I knocked it over, so I was fixing…”
“All right, get out of my apartment.” R.R. angrily jabbed his finger towards the door.
“You think you can boss me around?”
“GET OUT OR I’M DRAGGING YOU OUT!” R.R. was screaming, his jaw locked into an awful grimace. “GO! GET OUT!”
Lidia raced out of the apartment, the door slamming shut right behind her. There was a flurry of activity as R.R. worked the locks on his door, and then the hall fell silent. She could never be sure, but Lidia could swear that as she turned to leave, she heard sobbing coming from behind the door.
So, so many words.
Rewriting a manuscript is a bit of a process, but there are some tricks to make it go smoother. For instance, let’s say that you’re concerned about overusing certain words. The first step, obviously, is in identifying those words. Many word count programs will list commonly used terms, and a simple search of the manuscript will pick them out, but maybe those things aren’t dramatic enough. Maybe you need something a little more visual.
If that’s the case, a word cloud may help. Wordle will take any text you enter and produce an image composed of the most common words, with the most common words appearing the largest. It’s a handy tool that may scare the crap out of you if you aren’t prepared for it.
Let me explain. A few days ago, I took what I had written (about 75% of the text) and ran it through Wordle. Here’s what I got:
This is the problem with word clouds. Obviously, the name of the main character and the sole POV character is going to show up most frequently, and that doesn’t help me much. Fortunately, Wordle offers a fix: Right-click on any word and you can specifically remove it so that it isn’t rendered. By removing a few of the more common names, we get something that’s not as striking, but is much more useful:
Now, we have a clearer picture. Some of those large words are very common and unavoidable; others are going to require some pruning down the line. Also, it looks like Wordle doesn’t like apostrophes, which makes it a bit less useful, but hey – this was just an illustration. One that’s a little depressing.
Dwelling throughout the Pacific Ocean, the bullhead (Heterodontiformes) is a small but very distinct member of the shark family. Bullheads, such as the Japanese bullhead (above), possess prominent ridges above the eyes which grant them their name. Also unique to bullheads are a set of spines located on the dorsal fins. The exact purpose of these spines is not yet well understood.
“Bud, what are you doing?”
Bud Winfred snapped back to reality with a jolt. He was leaning over a library book cart with one of the books open – a full-color guide to sea life. Another man was standing in front of him, one foot on the cart, staring Bud down.
“Oh, Ed. I was just reshelving these.”
“You’ve been walking around in circles with that thing for several minutes.” Ed reached for the book. Bud tried to cram it back into the cart, but Ed was just a little too quick. “Bud, again with the sharks?”
Bud slammed the book shut. “I was just taking a look, is all.”
“Bud, you’re not eight years old anymore. This obsession of yours isn’t healthy.”
“I’ll just put the rest of these back.” Keeping his head down, Bud pushed the cart past Ed and resumed his rounds.
Bud Winfred was not the kind of man one would normally expect to see working in the library. Six feet tall, strongly built with a short-cropped hairstyle that faintly betrayed his receding hairstyle, he had the look of an Army recruit. Bud was in his mid-thirties, but no one would guess it – his carefree demeanor and soft expressions gave him the look of an overgrown child. Owing to his friendliness, people generally enjoyed his company – until he started talking about his passion. At that point, the company grew thin.
The old cart rolled hard against the carpet as Bud maneuvered through the stacks, stopping from time to time so that Bud could slide a few books back into their proper places. He paused briefly as he reached the marine life shelf, cradling the book he was reading for a moment. It was rather shallow and had nothing that Bud didn’t already know, but the pictures were gorgeous – real art. Gingerly, he placed the book back on the shelf, running his hand over the cover one last time.
Bud’s routine meant little to him anymore, if it ever did in the first place. Books come in, get sorted, go back on the shelves, more come in, get sorted, come back on the shelves – it was the same thing every day. His co-workers all had some passion for literature, but not Bud. They were just so much paper and ink to him, except for the ones on that shelf, the one that was a few steps behind him.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, the cart was empty. There were more carts and baskets filling up all the time, but Bud had just a few minutes to himself. He darted to the bank of public computers, quickly typing in his login information and waiting as patiently as he could while the machine prepared for operation. He navigated to a search page and stopped, looking back and forth for anyone who might be watching. Fortunately, there was a lull that late in the day, and he was as alone as he could be in a public library. He entered his search phrase and watched as a world of possibilities unfolded.
He wasn’t there for more than a few seconds before he felt a jabbing sensation against his shoulder. “I’ll only be a few minutes,” said Bud, waving off the unseen person. “Use another one. There are plenty.”
Bud spun around to see Ed, arms crossed, tapping his foot. “Oh, sorry. I had a few minutes, so I figured…”
Ed ignored him and peeked at the monitor, letting out an exaggerated groan as he did. “Really, Bud? You want to deal with sharks personally now?”
Bud logged out and stood up. “I was just curious, is all.”
“This fixation of yours is starting to get in the way of your life,” said Ed. “You can do whatever you want on your time, but there’s work to do right now, okay?”
“Okay,” said Bud, trying to conceal his disappointment.
“Fine. Now, I’ve got to go process some requests for items in storage. You have a basket of DVDs to reshelve. After that, it’s your time.”
“All right, I’ll take care of that right now.”
Ed returned to his desk, and Bud walked to the film section. His dream would have to wait another day.
* * * * *
This short story was written both for the Weekly Writing Challenge and to commemorate what, thanks to search encryption, may well be the last shark-related search string I ever see. Shine on, you crazy diamonds.
“How do you feel you’re doing?”
Lidia leaned back in her chair, staring across at Martin. He seemed vaguely nervous, though he was at least keeping his composure.
“I think I’m doing okay, ma’am,” said Martin, shifting in his seat. “Yeah, I had a rocky start, but I’ve figured out I have to do.”
“Yes.” Lidia shuffled through some papers on her desk. “You have had a few errors in your paperwork.”
“Yes, I know. One of the girls…ah…” Martin cleared his throat. “…One of the women on staff set me straight on that. But I’ve been talking with Douglas and, uh, with R.R. and they’ve helped me figure that out.”
“Okay.” Lidia pushed the papers aside. “Do you feel that your classes are in your control?”
“Yes…They’re going very smoothly.”
“And you are following the lessons as laid out?”
“Well, that’s tricky because the schools keep telling me that they don’t want me to, you know, hew too much to the textbook, but uh…” Martin scratched his head as he searched for his words. “…But I think I’ve been balancing the curriculum with their demands.”
“Hmm.” Lidia leaned forward. “That sounds satisfactory.”
“Really?” Martin perked up immediately.
“Yes. Reports back from the schools are generally favorable, it sounds like they like what you’re doing. I’m inclined to follow their advice.” Lidia stood up and walked to the door. “Get your paperwork under control and sand out some of the rough spots in your lesson plans, and you should be fine.”
“Thank you very much.” Martin sprang to his feet. “It’s just, when you called me in here, I thought…”
“It’s standard practice to conduct the first few performance analyses in private. It’s my standard practice, anyway.” Lidia opened the door. “Just watch the details, and you’ll do just fine.”
“Thanks a lot.” Martin ran out into the hall, where Doug was quietly waiting. “That wasn’t so bad.”
“It never is.” Doug looked over at Lidia. “I’m going to help him with those lesson plans. They’ll be better next month.”
“Fine.” Lidia closed the door behind her. “All right, into the meeting room. I’ll be right with you.”
The foreign teacher’s office was packed – all ten teachers were waiting patiently (or as patiently as they could on a Sunday afternoon). Lidia took her place at the back of the room.
“All right. I know that none of you want to spend too much time here on your day off, so I’ll keep this brief.” Lidia took a file folder off the table. “We’ve been at this a few weeks, and as far as I can tell, it’s been going great. I would like to thank Mr. Butler, Mr. Molina and Mr. Nichols, all of whom were gracious enough to let me sit in on their classes.”
“It was fine by me,” said Noah. “Keeps the kids quiet when there’s another local in the room.”
“Thanks,” said Lidia dryly. “I would like to eventually observe each of you in your classes. I find it gives me a better idea of the techniques employed by my teachers which, in turn, will give me a better idea of where to place you in the future should you continue to stay on.” She glanced at R.R. “I’d also like to thank Mr. Butler in particular for encouraging me to try giving a lesson myself.”
Doug gaped at R.R. “You let her do one of your classes?”
“What? Oh…” R.R. jerked back to reality. “…Yeah, that was my great idea.”
“Anyway…A little bit of quick business.” Lidia flipped open the file folder with one hand, picking up a pen in the other. “We did have a few issues at the schools, and I’d like to address them now. First, I would like to reiterate that while we do not have a dress code in this company, there are certain standards of attire that I expect you’ll meet.”
“Is this about me?” said Gloria. She stood up, hands outstretched as though she were prepared to launch into a speech. “I have been tucking my pendant into my blouse, as you requested. One day, I forget and left it out. I swear to God Almighty that it was an accident.”
“I can accept that,” said Lidia. “However, I wasn’t specifically addressing you. Mr. Hlavacek, apparently you wore a shirt with a slogan that someone at your school found offensive.”
“Offensive?” Louis pressed his hand to his temple as he searched his memories. “I wore a few shirts with writing on them, but there was nothing religious or political. No curse words or anything like that.”
“In the future, I’d suggest wearing plain shirts so as not to risk another complaint.” Lidia marked through an item on the page in front of her. “Second, a few of you have been turning up late. This is obviously a problem.”
“Yeah, that’s me,” said Madison. “I slipped in late a time or two. Sorry, I don’t have a real good excuse. Cross my heart, will not do it again.”
“I missed a little bit of my first class because I got lost,” said Eric. “But I’ve been there early every day since.”
“That’s two of three,” said Lidia, crossing off two entries. “That leaves Mr. Butler, who was considerably late one day approximately two weeks ago. Do you have a reason?”
R.R. was staring off blankly. “Hmm? Oh, yeah, that. I was up late the night before and slept right through my alarm.”
“Are you okay?” asked Lidia.
“Yeah, just a little distracted.” R.R. rubbed his eyes. “I’m sorry about that.”
“Hmm.” Lidia crossed through the last entry. “The good news is that none of the schools are seriously complaining, these were more like notices. I don’t see any reason to take disciplinary action against any of you.” She shut the folder and dropped it on the table. “It’s been a good month. Congratulate yourselves.”
“What about the party?” asked Noah.
“I was just getting to that,” said Lidia. “As some of you may know, the Mid-Autumn Festival in two weeks. I assume that most of you are familiar with this?”
Emily raised her hand. “I’ve heard of it, but I don’t know too much.”
“I’ve never even heard the name,” said Gloria. “Sounds like fun, though! I managed to miss the Chinese New Year celebration.”
“Well, Mid-Autumn is the next most important festival,” said Lidia. “I’ve been told that we normally have an office party to celebrate. Right now, the staff and I are renting the venue, and we already have the catering set up. It’ll be the Saturday two weeks from now, so it will be before the actual festival day. I’ll see that each of you gets the time and location sometime next week.”
Doug raised his hand. “You getting non-alcoholic beverages? We keep getting complaints from the teachers who don’t drink.”
“I’ve been informed of the complaints, and we’ve already planned…” Lidia was interrupted by a loud buzzing sound. “…Okay, which one of you left his phone on during the meeting?”
“That’s me.” R.R. fished out his phone and stared at the display. As it did, his jaw dropped. “…Uh, I think I’d better take this.”
Lidia glared at him. “Can’t it wait?”
“No. Uhh…It’s your father.”
“I’m confused,” said Emily. “Why would her father have his phone number?”
“He has all our numbers,” said R.R., still staring at the phone.
“Holy shit!” Noah shot to his feet. “Don’t you guys get it? Our new boss is Zhang Yanli’s daughter.”
“No way,” said Madison. “You’re Zhang Lan?”
“How many of you have met him?” said Lidia.
“For the love of God, answer it!” shouted Doug, diving over the table.
“Okay! Knock it off!” R.R. lifted the phone to his head. “Wei, ni hao?…Good morning, Zhang Xiansheng…We were in a meeting, I’m sure most of them had their phones…uh, one second, sir.” He pressed the phone to his chest. “Miss Zhang? He wants to speak to you.”
Lidia pressed her face into her hands. “Not ready for this now. Tell him I’m busy.”
R.R. cautiously returned the phone to his head. “Uh, sir? She’s in her office, and the door’s closed. I assume that she’s…Sir, I wouldn’t…Okay.” He gripped the phone in both hands. “…He knows you’re lying. He says if you don’t talk to him now, he’s coming down here in person.”
“For the love of God, pick up!” said Doug, still half on the table. “He comes down here, we’re all in trouble.”
“I’m confused,” said Serena. “Who is this guy?”
“He’s the big boss,” said Noah. “Owns a piece of the company. Plus, he’s got friends. Government friends.”
“Triad friends,” added Madison.
“He doesn’t know any Triads,” said Doug, pushing himself back into his chair.
“How do you know?” Madison spun towards Lidia. “Miss Zhang, does your dad know any gangsters?”
“Shut up.” Lidia turned toward R.R. “All right, I’ll take the call.”
R.R. put the phone to his head. “Okay, sir, she’s right here…Oh, okay.” He pushed a button and handed it to Lidia. “He wants it on speaker.”
Lidia reluctantly took the phone. “Hello?”
“Good day, Zhang Lan. I have tried very hard to find you.”
“I’ve been busy,” said Lidia.
“Ah. This is good, but it is not good to be too busy for family. Still, I can understand your…predicament.”
“I’m sorry about that.” Lidia bit her lip before continuing. “Alice will send you my number and address and whatever else you need.”
“Thank you, I already have them. I thought it would be rude to call you suddenly.”
“Okay.” Lidia took a deep breath. “You mentioned something about coming down?”
“Yes. Sadly, I have no time for a visit. Perhaps I will come to you in winter. And you, of course, will come here in the spring.”
“That sounds good,” said Lidia. “Is there anything else?”
“There was one other thing, for all of you. I would very much like to thank all of you for making my daughter feel at home. This is a big move for everyone, and I thank you for your assistance.”
“I’m sure they’re glad to hear that,” said Lidia.
“Oh, and Zhang Lan, one more thing: Ni bude liu lian wang fan.”
The line suddenly went quiet.
Doug clapped his hands together. “Well, that’s wasn’t so bad.”
Lidia stared down at the floor for several seconds. “Meeting adjourned.”
“Wait, we’re not finished already?” said Noah.
“I am.” Lidia stormed off, pausing briefly at the door. “If you have any problems, send me an email. I’ll get back when I have time.”
Lidia sped through the empty lobby to the bank of elevators, mashing the down button repeatedly. Seconds later, she could hear footsteps in the hall behind her. She shut her eyes, hoping that it was someone from another office.
“Excuse me, Miss Zhang?” It was Emily Hallowell, an expression of concern on her face. “I don’t mean to speak out of turn or overstep my boundaries, but I sensed something personal going on back there.”
“Did you?” Lidia watched the numbers over the elevator change, trying not to look back at Emily.
“It was never my specialty, but I have done some work with families before.” Emily took a few small steps closer. “If you want to discuss it, I might be able to help.”
“Help me with what, exactly?”
“Well, with whatever might have happened…”
Lidia spun around. “Are you expecting to hear some sordid story of child abuse? Because if that’s the case, you’re going to be disappointed.”
“I didn’t mean to imply anything,” said Emily.
“This is nothing you can help with,” said Lidia. “In the span of twenty-six years, my father went from a close friend to a taskmaster to a complete stranger. Suddenly, he contacts me out of nowhere and I don’t know what he’s expecting. It’s nothing you can explain, because I can’t explain it.”
Emily nodded. “Sorry. I’ll leave it alone.”
“You do that.” There was a ding as the doors slid open, and Lidia backed into the elevator. “My mother was born in a Chinese-American community, and I used to ask her to explain why he acted so strangely when I was around. All she ever told was ‘If you knew where he came from, you’d understand.’ Well, here I am, and I still don’t get it. I don’t know why I came here. I’m never going to understand him.”
“Not if you don’t talk to him,” said Emily.
“Talking your problems out is what Westerners do.” Lidia hit the button for the ground floor. “Enjoy the rest of your weekend.”
The doors clicked shut, and Lidia was alone, however briefly. She leaned against the wall of the car and closed her eyes.