Sometimes they’ll return and discover I haven’t moved an inch–I’ll be staring at the view outside, watching the lights flicker across Seattle’s face. “You’re not in Taipei anymore, Kendra,” they’ll whisper. Occasionally, there’s a worried look tossed back and forth. “You’re home. It’s over, remember?” Shoulders usually wrap around me then, as if the past could be squeezed out like lemon juice.
They’re half-right: I’m home…but my house has been airlifted and plopped down into Taipei’s Seattle District. The detail is exquisite. Someone has faithfully reproduced every inch of the Space Needle, the Underground tour, Pike Place Market, Olympic Sculpture Park–everything. The entire city. Three months after we “returned,” when the expressions my friends and family wore during my flare-ups began to shift, I stopped voicing my concerns. All of them. Sympathy, no matter how it’s garnered, arrives stamped with a Best If Used By date. For the sake of my loved ones, I’m able to pretend we escaped.
Except for those nights, when my eyes are drawn miles away to the light I desperately fear, to the rhythm providing comfort I both crave and resent. They’re quite clever, the designers. I’m never leaving Taipei.
The trivial details I remember now confuse me. On the nights when I’m enveloped again, my mind focuses on minutiae, tiny out-of-focus scraps that have since sharpened and magnified. My most recent puzzle was the desk clerk’s name, something I’d been unable to recall since I lost Gabriella, since the Gates opened.
I can recall every frame of that scene now. “Stopwatch Kendra,” like they say.
The desk clerk fidgets as professionally as anyone could while being trapped in the eye of a mother’s rage. He’s young, likely a handful of years removed from university, and his attention is divided between listening to me and trying to project his competence with so much force that he’s about to faint. And my nightmare might be a valuable learning experience for the Management trainee, but the hotel isn’t gambling–fifteen feet away, older gentlemen in much more expensive suits than this clerk can afford are murmuring to each other in Taiwanese.
“I assure you, Mrs. Burgess, that we’re searching every floor,” the clerk says, his eye contact unwavering. His name badge reads CHEN WEI, the letters printed in block type next to a miniature hotel graphic. I mentally trance the curves of each shape. Why are letters so meandering? “The authorities are speaking with your husband,” he reminds me, pointing to Mark as if I’ve suddenly forgotten he’s there. “If your daughter is in our hotel, we will fi–“
The corridor barks out a short torrent of sound, and Wei clears his throat. His expression softens. “We will do absolutely everything we can,” he tries again as I stomp towards my husband, a wide-eyed Lex shambling at my side. “Our staff is experienced in matters like these.”
My gears instantly grind, and I swerve back around. “I’m sorry, what?”
Was his neck bobbing so quickly a moment ago? “I, um, stated that–“
“Because it sounded like you said the staff in this hotel regularly has to locate missing children.” My skin is singeing, failing to acknowledge the hotel air conditioning’s hard work. I can feel the snarl forming; I’d eat this man and his family whole for the tiniest crumb of a clue. “It sounded like my little girl is this week’s scavenger hunt, and if you–“
“Kendra,” Mark calls, with notable effort. I’m ready to bench-press a planet, but he’s barely able to stand upright. “He’s trying to help.”
“I…meant no offense, Mrs. Burgess. My sincerest apologies,” Wei offers politely. My eyes are still focused on Mark; the police officers are moving. “We often host travelling families, and children are occasionally separated from their parents. The vast majority of the time, they have simply wandered down the wrong hallway. Our staff is trained to–“
“Yeah, fine.” I totter over to Mark without glancing behind me. “And tell the whispering cowards in the hall, the guys in charge who are probably drawing ten times your salary, that I can hear them.”
I steer myself to the lobby sofa and collapse–literally fall into it. Mark massages my shoulder a few seconds later, though there’s zero strength behind it. “Anything?”, I manage to croak.
“Not really. They’ll be back in twenty minutes, asked us to stay put. Honestly, they don’t seem…overly enthused.”
“About investigating a missing girl?”
“No, I–” He attempts to wipe the sweat from his brow, but abandons the effort when he’s halfway across. He’s visibly aged ten years since we stepped off the elevator. I’m sure I have too. “When I was speaking with them, there was…sort of a…weird, unvoiced hesitation hovering over us. As if they were anxious. It’s just…I…well, you know what I mean.”
“I really don’t.”
“They’re stalling for time.” The words roll out in a low rumble, but not from Mark’s throat; neither of us detected the woman holding a novel, sitting on the adjacent couch and paying us too much consideration. Some type of English accent, but not RP. Was it Scouse? Geordie? Mid-fifties, perhaps. Sensible clothing, crow’s feet, auburn hair with magnificent volume. I’d covet that hair on any normal evening.
“You’re correct. They’re likely sympathetic, but their boots are dragging a tad. I haven’t met either of those officers, but I recognize the glances.” She sticks her free hand out at an angle that looks uncomfortable. “Viola Weir.”
“Kendra.” I’d steered my voice towards Firm, but landed on Huffy. “My husband and my eldest daughter,” I add, nodding to each without naming them. “Ms. Weir, my daughter’s missing and I’m already uncomfortable with this conversation, so if you’ll–“
“Why are they stalling?”, Lex blurts all over my sentence. She’s toddling on the edge of collapse, but one of her turquoise Sketchers is tapping its life out.
“Lex.” Damn it. Leaked her name.
“We have to wait here for the police anyway, right? And she knows something.”
Even planted on a sofa, my limbs are quivering. Wasn’t I ready to bulldoze Chen Wei’s desk two minutes ago? Mark scuffles over and cradles my exhausted body, or maybe I cradle his. Reality is a popsicle and I’m uncertain about everything. “Let us be, Ms. Weir,” my husband says quietly. “We’re heartbroken enough.”
“I would spare you further heartbreak than this,” the British woman whispered. “And I’m sorry. I promise you that I didn’t wade into the worst night of your lives without intending to relieve some of your pain. There’s apprehension all around us, a light nervousness…happens every year when gates are opened.”
“What gates?”, my daughter asked, undeterred.
“Lex. What did I just–“
Viola Weir’s oval-shaped eyes fall upon my daughter, her burgundy pupils widening softly. “Well, the gates of Hell, dear,” she says with just a dash of bewilderment.”Don’t you know where you are?”
A beaker of adrenaline detonates inside me, and I’m instantly standing on fatigued legs. Lex yelps indignantly as I shove her backwards, protecting her from the threat. “Stay away from us.” My voice, more static than sound, is doing its best not to quiver.
“Please. I mean to –“
“Outside,” I growl to my family, ushering them further towards the entrance and ignoring Weir. “We’ll wait by the door. If she follows us, we’ll need those officers to intervene, and I’ll be filing a harassment complaint.” Mark opens his mouth as if to add something, but leads Lex away without a word. Breathing has become more challenging; I didn’t notice when the air became so much thicker. “Stay away,” I say again, and begin to turn, leaving Weir with what I fervently hope are future regrets.
“Please, Kendra. Will you not listen?” Her plea slithers on the ground. Weir hasn’t abandoned her perch, but she’s twisted her face and body away from me. “The ache…it threatens to swallow you whole if you remain still for just a moment. But the signs are everywhere. You’re visiting Taiwan in August, when the gates are open, when the hungry ghosts are unleashed upon the world, and–” A sigh that’s weighed down by bereavement, not annoyance. She reaches for her handbag, preparing her exit. “You might not prove any more successful than I did, but you can at least not waste time.”
“Signs?” I hear my husband cough from behind me. My skin jumps, confronted with the unexpected noise. “What this about signs?”
“What happened to ‘we’re going to wait by the door’?,” I rasp.
“What happened, Kendra, is that Gabe is my kid too, and Lexi’s sister, you’re not the only person who’s TERRIFIED, and I’m asking WHAT SIGNS ??!” Weir gingerly steps back towards us, realizing that Mark’s stopped addressing me and has moved on to bellowing at her instead. I can’t recall when Mark last raised his voice.
“Signs…like, horoscopes? Like, ‘Saturn shall appear in the Third House’? Mark, this isn’t–“
“I’m not talking about astrology or horoscopes, Kendra,” Weir says in a small, flat voice. “I’m talking about actual SIGNS. Ghost Month. You can’t take a stroll outside without being bombarded–the paper boats, the water lanterns, the parade, currency being lit aflame…” She shakes her head like an extremely disappointed parent. “Having small children, perhaps you have been returning to the hotel before evening, when most of the scheduled celebrations occur…but daytime events are popping up all over the city! Surely even Americans would’ve noticed they’re walking through a street festival!”
“The ghost stuff? Yes, of course we’ve seen it,” I snap. “Can’t escape it. It’s a great tourist gimmick.”
“The island profits, yes–Ghost Month spurs hunger in both the living and the dead. But it’s no gimmick.”
A chuckle drops from my lips, sucked dry of any humor. “It’s no gimmick,” I repeat. “Lady, what century do you think this is? We’re sitting in a hotel with air conditioning, complimentary Wi-Fi, computers, automatic locks, refrigeration…no one here believes in ghost stories, and–“
The end of that thought sticks, unwilling to push through unless I choke it out. ” You believe…a ghost kidnapped my daughter.” My vision blurs. “I can’t tell if this is mental illness or cruelty! A fairy tale!” I’m only vaguely aware that I’m shouting. Lex stares into my fury-and-anguish-doused face.”Do you see what happens when you trust people?”, I whisper as I hold her.
“Kendra, that’s enough.” Mark’s voice. When did I sleep last? “You’re not going to teach her to never rely on anyone.”
“Oh? Why not, Mark? Why shouldn’t Lex be equipped for the real world? Naturally, you’d prefer that she blindly trust everyone, right? Including her dad, who somehow LOST her sister?”
“Stop,” Lex pleads. “This isn’t helping anyone. Please. Both of you.”
“Kendra, I…I know it’s difficult to accept,” Weir says cautiously. “Everything I’m hearing from you, I said myself once. But every August, the gates do open, and the ghosts consume this island. Some are starving because of the sins they committed while they lived. Others are cursed with an eternal hunger because they were denied a proper burial. So once a year, they’re released from Hell and are able to…sooth their cravings. If their family members are still alive and willing to help, some might even increase their karma and possibly reincar–“
“I don’t fucking believe this.”
“I’ve seen the food laid out for them…but why abduct my sister?”, Lex asks. “Ghosts are incorporeal; it’s not like they’re able to eat.”
“Oh. They’re incorporeal. Excellent.”
My daughter frowns. “What? I knew ‘incorporeal’ when I was nine.”
“Since I was nine.”
“The food is symbolic. But there are…rules. Whether they were virtuous or wicked in life, the hungry ghosts are condemned to eternal torment…unless they escape.” There’s a new note in Viola Weir’s voice. Discordant. Shaky. “Until the gates close, people here don’t have surgical procedures,” she continues. “They don’t purchase cars or homes. They avoid marrying. They’re careful not to take pictures after dark. No one whistles. They never swim. Because some of the ghosts aren’t simply on holiday from torture. Some…are scouting for their own replacements.”
It’s ridiculous. Completely batshit crazy. And yet, no matter how many different ways I try to bend it, my tongue refuses to work.
“No,” Lex whispers, so softly it’s nearly inaudible. “No. I can’t have been that stupid…”
“You’re saying that your ghosts…” Mark’s tongue also seems to be experiencing technically difficulties.
“They’re not my ghosts!” Weir flares up without warning. She rubs her forehead, as if she’s developed a sudden stealth migraine. “I’m…sorry. But yes. If Gabe was taken by a hungry ghost, they may have already switched places. A criminal investigation isn’t going to help you.” She hobbles to her feet, and like I’d observed with Mark earlier, I swear she looks older. “If you can locate Gabe, you may convince the ghost to surrender her. I’ve no idea what you could offer it in exchange… but it’s the only chance you have.”
“Even if I believed a word of this–which I don’t–we’ve torn our floor apart. The hotel has staff combing through every floor. The cops will be back any moment. These people live and work in the modern world–there’s no way everyone ‘s just accepting this nonsense!” My family isn’t looking at me, and somehow, more than anything else in the past hour, that fills me with an emptiness so deep that I can feel the teeth marks.
“Those two gophers,” Lex mumbles. She raises her head and I don’t recognize what I see in her eyes. “Mom. That floor manager you keep calling, and his assistant. I…I think they know something. About Gabe.”
“What? You mean…Yu-Tung and the kid who works the overnight? Sweetheart, that’s…” I should’ve forced them out of this building, away from this woman. I should’ve. “Lex, Yu-Tung’s responsible for our floor. He’s one of the first people they called. You were with me when that kid told us.” I point to Wei at the front desk, who grants me a very nervous half-wave, reluctantly letting me know he’s available if I should need anything further. “Did you see something? Why would you say that? Honey, you have to–“
“I’m so sorry.” My eldest daughter’s skin is burning, and the sobs are tearing at her. “Mom, I swear, I lost track of her for only a second…”
“What? You took Gabe out by yourself? WHEN?”
“Y-Yesterday. I took…I took her to the pool! You gave permission, remember?”
I don’t. “Honey. Lex, it’s a ghost story. Nothing more.” I hug her and glare at Weir with an intensity that would melt the sun. “And that was yesterday. Gabriella’s wasn’t–” I push. The words missing until tonight won’t budge.
“I know. But Mom, the assistant… we passed him in the hall on the back to our room, and he, like…shirked from Gabe.”
“They’re back.” Mark points to the door. The two officers he spoke to earlier are traversing the lobby. Somewhat leisurely, I notice…and then chastise myself for even entertaining that thought.
“Mom, please. Just ask him.”
I hug her again–tighter this time–and draw my husband away a few feet. Every movement hurts.
“All of us are barely functional,” he mutters quietly. “I don’t want to encourage this any more than you do, but if it’ll calm Lex to think she’s helping…go. At least one of us will be distracted. I’ll tell them what she said about the assistant.”
“Helena Bonham Carter over there got her riled, and now she’s convinced our housekeeping staff is involved with ghosts! Why, because one of them passed her and Gabe in a hallway? Mark, this’ll wind Lex up, not calm her down!”
“We’re in a crisis and watching you ask questions will help her now. Now is the only thing in front of us.” He sighs heavily. “I’ll be right behind you the second we’re done here.”
“Don’t mention the ghosts.”
“I didn’t intend to.”
I squeeze his hand and, seconds later, use it to pull Lex to her feet. “Dad’s handling things here. You and I will go upstairs, and I’ll ask Yu-Tung if he noticed anything that–“
“And En-Chi. But you’re going to listen, Lexi. You won’t accuse anyone. You won’t ask any questions.”
“OK! Yes! Fine! Now, please…can we just go?”
As I follow my daughter, I sense Viola Weir’s gaze locked onto me. “Remember,” she murmurs as I pass, “If the ghost remains in this building–if it hasn’t fled–it will look like your little girl…but it won’t be her. You must prepare yourself for that.”
“I’m powerless here.” I have to actively hold back from hollering at her. “My husband believes that your Halloween story is going to pacify my kid for the next couple minutes. Against my better judgment, while my kid is out there somewhere, I’m being pulled on a fruitless errand that will inevitably crush my other kid’s spirit later. So thanks for that.”
“Who are the fuck are you?”, I ask Viola’s gentle, worried expression. “Why spy on my conversations? Why torture us on the worst night of our lives?”
I’ve mentally prepped for anger, for indignation. But it’s relief that breaks over Viola Weir’s features. In her cheeks, in her lips, I see every time I’ve carried shadows for far too long, and then finally could share my burden…except that her shadow towers higher than anything I can contemplate.
“Because,” the British woman almost whimpers, “I’ve returned to Taipei every August for the past 13 years. They took my son too.”
Want to see everything I’ve created in the same place? Because you can do that!