Thursday, February 9, 2017

NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2017: To The Moon And Back

It's that time of the year again - and the new NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge starts spinning my creative wheels. Here is the assignment I got this time and my story. 

Genre: Crime Caper
Subject: An Invitation
Character: A surgeon

Image Credit: http://thaoski.com/category/photographic-stories/couples-in-love/

To The Moon And Back
If people are of one heart, even the yellow earth can become gold.
Chinese Proverb
Meifeng Lin had been waiting for the letter for one year and seventy-three days. It came with a return address in Beijing, in care of a Mr. Bingwen Yu, but she knew it was from Jian. She was about to open it when her sister, Meirong, came to call her for dinner. 
“Who’s this Mr. Yu?” she asked. She had obviously seen the letter. Maybe it was she who left it on Meifeng’s bed. “I’ve never heard of him before.”
“A friend of Jian’s,” said Meifeng, sliding the letter under the pillow. 
“Jian who? Jian who hasn’t written one letter since you came back home? What does his friend want?”
Meifeng kept her lips pursed, hiding a smile. What did Meirong, her twin, know about her and Jian? The three of them grew up together, of course, and Meirong witnessed her sister’s friendship with the boy grow into love. However, when Jian and Meifeng moved to Japan, it was suddenly only two of them, and when Meifeng returned to China, she was a totally different person, while Meirong stayed the same. Their bodies were still identical, with the same narrow brown eyes, thick shoulder-length black hair and sun-kissed skin (though in Japan Meifeng spent less time out in the sun and looked much paler), but their minds went different ways. Was Meirong insane to think that Jian could have abandoned her? Meifeng never doubted her lover for a moment. Well, maybe for a moment only. They were soul mates, two daredevils sharing the same ambitions - Jian’s ambitions. It was his plan to move away from their poor mountain village of Yihezhuang and begin a new life in a different country, where democracy and wealth promised endless opportunities. Meifeng followed. She would follow him anywhere as long as she could.
She opened the letter after dinner, and her heart bounced at the sight of familiar handwriting. Feeling her eyes get teary, she raised the letter to her lips and kissed it. Jian invited her to come back. He had finally saved up the money. Meifeng was to go to Beijing to withdraw it and visit Dr. Yu to mobilize their plan.
It was not only Jian she missed. She missed sleeping in a comfortable room with heat and electricity, which poor homes in her village did not have. The beds warmed up by the fire underneath were the only source of heat in their house. Food was scarce and had to be cooked on open fire. Meifeng longed for a better life for herself and her family. Back in Tokyo, she earned a good living working as a waitress and sent money back home every month. How could she eat good food while her family was nearly starving? Her dream had been to some day move the family out of Yihezhuang to a bigger town, or maybe even a city.
And yet, when she came back, she was not the daughter who helped, but the daughter who left. Both her parents and Jian’s mother, Mrs. Zhou, (his father died of dysentery when Jian was a teenager) seemed content with their life and called their children ungrateful and rebellious. Meifeng was glad it was she and not Jiang who returned. His mother’s condemnation would have broken his heart. She wrote him short, thankful letters, but told the neighbors he abandoned her for a woman.
“He’ll abandon you, too,” Mrs. Zhou once said to Meifeng. “One who abandons always abandons.”
Meifeng replied nothing. In her heart, she knew Jian was not one who abandons, but she would never dare to argue with an elder. She just bowed her head and walked away, like she often did in her own home. Oh, she was ready to go back to Japan, where she was a loved woman. In Yihezhuang, she was a stranger in her own home, an unloved, treacherous daughter. As far as Meifeng was concerned, it was easier to be unloved at a distance.
Without much hesitation, she packed a small bag and left for Beijing at 6:30 the following morning. Jian’s letter consisted of three separate pages. On the first one was a love letter, for her eyes only, in which Jian professed his love and asked her to fear nothing and come to him at any cost, along with several Western Union transfer numbers, for access to the money for all of her expenses. The second page contained directions to Dr. Yu’s office on Dashilan, the famous shopping street of Beijing, always noisy and full of tourists, and the details of the procedure Dr. Yu was to perform. On the third and final page was Jian’s Tokyo address and phone number, so that she could find him when she would arrive. Meifeng reread the letter multiple times on her way to Beijing.
Four buses and seven hours later, she was finally on Dashilan. It was a hot and humid summer day, and sweat appeared on her forehead as she maneuvered between the myriad of tourists and locals, who came here to buy hats, shoes, silks and anything else the Dashilan shopping center offered. She walked quickly and almost missed the medicine store from Jian’s letter. Only by chance did her eyes single it out, and she stopped suddenly, hearing nothing but her heartbeat for a moment. Denying herself the opportunity to panic, Meifeng pushed the door decidedly and walked into the shop.
“Hello, how can I help you?” the shopkeeper greeted Meifeng.
“Good afternoon. I’m here to see Dr. Bingwen Yu.”
“This is a medicine store, Miss,” the shopkeeper shook his head, giving her a suspicious look. “There’s no doctor here. You must be mistaken.”
Meifeng knew she was not. She learned the name of the store by heart before she got on the first bus and kept repeating it all the way to Dashilan. The shopkeeper’s eyes showed either cautiousness or disdain. Meifeng believed it was the latter. After all, she did look like a small-town woman in her old-fashioned linen dress that used to belong to her mother, and she spoke a different dialect of Mandarin, distinct from the way people talked in Beijing.
“I came on recommendation from Jian Zhou,” Meifeng insisted. The shopkeeper gave her a blank stare. “I have a letter here.”
She reached into her bag and showed him the envelope with Dr. Yu’s name and address on it and the page with instructions and details of the surgery. The shopkeeper read the letter, and Meifeng watched him intently, feeling her face flush and sweat even more.
“I see,” said the shopkeeper after a long pause. “Did you bring the money with you?”
Meifeng nodded. He motioned her to follow him to the back of the store and led her through a long corridor to an adjacent building, a small and shabby private house. The shopkeeper knocked on the door, and a short and hunched elderly woman in a greasy robe opened.
“How are you, Mrs. Chen? This young lady came to Dr. Yu with a recommendation.”
“Come in,” the woman said without a greeting, nervously looking around.
Are all people in Beijing as rude and terribly mannered? Meifeng wondered.
She followed the woman inside and saw that the house (or at least its back side) was furnished like a real doctor’s waiting room with four chairs and a wooden desk, cluttered with piles or paper.
“You can wait here. The doctor will call you when he’s done with the previous patient,” said Mrs. Chen and left Meifeng on her own.
“Thank you,” Meifeng replied. She sat down in one of the chairs and fanned herself with Jian’s letter. She was parched, but no one offered her a glass of water, and she was too polite to ask.  
Forty-five minutes later, Doctor Yu came out of his cabinet followed by a slim woman dressed in black from head to toe with a bandage covering her nose. The woman said goodbye without acknowledging Meifeng’s presence and walked right out of the door.
“Hello, and please excuse my patient,” Doctor Yu said, stretching out his hand to Meifeng. “People do not come here to socialize, and they certainly do not wish to be remembered. I’m sure you’ll feel the same way.”
Doctor Yu’s appearance and demeanor surprised Meifeng. He was not old and gloomy, as she had imagined, but a young man with a goatee and a smiley face. He wore jeans and a light blue dress shirt with a few drops of blood on the left breast pocket. The blood was the only sinister thing about him. Other than that, he was as talkative and likable as Jian.
“Good afternoon, I am Meifeng Lin, Jian Zhou’s girlfriend. He said you’d help me.”
“Sure, but please do tell me what it is I can help you with.”
Meifeng hesitated. She had never had to tell her story to anyone before, not even to her family. Meirong thought she came on her own will because she missed home. “I was deported from Japan for overstaying my visa, and Jian said I’d be able to sneak back in if you altered my fingerprints… so that they wouldn’t know at the border that I’d been deported.”
“I’ve had patients who came here with similar requests, and I was certainly able to help them. May I ask if you have the money to pay for this expensive procedure?”
“I’ve brought the money with me,” said Meifeng and gave him the envelope with $8,000 Jian sent her to pay the doctor. “It’s everything at once.”
“Good,” the doctor nodded. “Then we can start whenever you’re ready.”
Meifeng nodded her readiness. The doctor led her into his cabinet and gave her a pill.
“Take this and please lie down on the operating table with your arms by your sides and your palms facing up. The medication should relax you and prepare you for the procedure.”
He left her and came back in a few minutes with some tools Meifeng preferred not to look at. Slowly, she started growing sleepy. The doctor’s voice sounded monotonous when he talked to her, putting her even more at ease.
“I’ll give you thirty more minutes to ensure you’re completely relaxed and feel minimal pain during the procedure. I will then remove the skin from the fingers on your both hands, and then I’ll transfer the skin from the fingers on your right hand onto the fingers on your left hand, and vice versa. Do you understand?”
Meifeng nodded. Her tongue felt too heavy to answer. She drifted into the state between sleep and consciousness. She still understood what was going on around her and saw the doctor scraping the skin off her fingers, but she felt like an impassionate observer rather than a participant. She switched her thoughts to Jian, remembering the way dimples appeared on his cheeks when he smiled and the way his eyes light up every time he looked at her.
When she came back to full consciousness, all of her ten fingers were already bandaged.
“You’re all set. As I understand, you came from far away. You’re welcome to stay here for the night… for a small fee, of course.”
Meifeng agreed. She felt lightheaded from the anesthesia and could not imagine the long trip back to Yihezhuang right away. Besides, her fingers hurt as though they had been burned with acid.
“Thank you,” she exhaled, almost in a whisper. “I’ll leave tomorrow morning, I promise.”
“You’re welcome. You should keep the bandages on for at least a couple of days and please wear gloves to avoid damage. Your fingers will heal in about three weeks.”
“How long do you think it will be until I can safely travel?”
“I’d say wait for at least six months to a year to get your new visa. If they notice the scars on your fingers, they may become suspicious. But don’t worry. They usually don’t look closely. Just take my advice. Don’t rush and be safe.”
***
On the flight to Tokyo four months later, Meifeng remembered Doctor Yu’s words and wondered if she proceeded too quickly. Getting a new visa with her sister’s passport was a piece of cake. Meirong had never been abroad, and they did not have her fingerprints in the system in the Japanese Embassy. Meifeng was in and out within an hour. Anxious to get to Jian as soon as possible, Meifeng “Meirong” headed straight to a travel agency and booked her flight and hotel, as Jian instructed. For immigration officers in Tokyo airport, she would be a tourist visiting Japan, not a woman in love reconnecting with her lover after a long separation. Needless to say, she also mailed a letter to Jian with the details of her flight.
As soon as she got off the plane, she was placed in a line of foreign visitors. Having “her” passport and her ticket ready, she tensed her hands to prevent them from trembling visibly and took a couple of deep breaths to calm down the throbbing in her temples.
“Good day, Miss Meirong Lin. How are you?” the immigration officer smiled, piercing her with his eyes. He checked her passport and studied her face. “Please place your left index finger on the scanner right here. Oops. Something went wrong.”
Meifeng felt her heart stop for a split second. He found me out, she thought in panic. He’ll look at my fingers now and see the scars.
When the customs officer touched her left hand, it took Meifeng a great deal of control not to pull it back right away. He pressed her fingers to the scanner.
“Here we go,” he said. “And now the same with the other hand. You weren’t pressing hard enough, and the machine couldn’t read your fingerprints. Sorry about the delay and welcome to Japan.”
“Thank you,” Meifeng nodded as her heartbeat slowly returned to its normal rate.
She collected her luggage and went to the waiting area. Jian was not there, so she walked outside to hail a taxi. Then she saw him running across the street, panting, trying to pass before the streetlight changed to let the cars go.
Their eyes met, and she saw his face light up in a dear and familiar way.
“Hello, Mei Lin,” he said, taking her into his embrace. “I was running a bit late, and I was so worried I’d miss you.”
“I’ve missed you,” she whispered, “but I hope we’ll never miss each other again.”
“Me too,” he nodded, pressing her tighter against his body.

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