Santa Monica, USA
The word fits around his gums like a mouthguard. He purses his lips, trying to unravel the vowels of the word. The girl shakes her head and pronounces it again: “Otosan,” the weight landing on the “t” like a blade to cleave the heart from the body. A dapple of sunlight moves across her face, illuminating all the patches of sympathy he has been trying to avoid. She fingers the edge of the photograph lightly. She’s looking at the black and white image with too much reverence. There’s no piety to be commanded from the portrait of the guilty.
They stand under the blood-red pillars of a tori gate that leads to the shrine behind them. The taxi driver told him on the way there that the shrine is dedicated to a protector of military men. The solemn gray lines of the shrine’s roof bow in folded hands, a slanted prayer to honor the bravery that bloomed in the whispers of history. History is what he is hunting down now, but there are no prayers to be offered. God is the second person on his list, but the first name is the one pictured in that photograph, the one whose scent he’s tracking across continents.
He stands there a moment longer, waiting for the girl to find some trace of recognition in the photograph. His chest aches. His lungs are pushing against the bars of his ribcage like a water balloon squished between a child’s fingers.
She shakes her head regretfully and returns it. “Gomen nasai.”
The two Chinese characters seem uncomfortable standing beside each other. He knows they read as “father” only because the hotel manager told him so. He had asked the manager to help him translate the questions he wanted to ask at the police station. Amid the scribbled indecipherable lines, the manager had circled those two characters with a thin red pen. The character on the left is simple, two intersecting strokes crossing in the center, but the other one is tall and woven with strokes like scaffolding.
At the police station, he pushes the photograph along with the written note under the slot in the window. The young officer behind the glass takes one look at the paper and immediately looks up at him with too much pity. His dark eyes flit between the scribbled words and the photograph before turning around and beckoning to another officer in the next desk.
He stands and waits, wondering if he should have had the clerk translate more. If he should have had him translate how he wasn’t looking for the man in the photograph for reconciliation, but for retribution. He imagines what the officers might be saying; how they might wonder what kind of parent would leave their child with nothing but a colorless image and a grown echo of their likeness staring with eyes too hollow to have been dragged down by years.
Aside from the language lesson, he also gets a drag from the young man’s joint. “You look like you need it,” the youth tells him.
He angles his head away, muscles clenching with the barrage of coughs charging out. Smearing a hand across his lips, he wipes the blood away and finally takes the joint.
“Fathers are overrated,” the youth goes on, hands in his pocket and back pressed to the spine of the bench. “My old man kicked me out long ago. Best thing he ever did. I’ve made my own way, to the States and back, and now I’m getting married to a girl I’ll make sure he never meets.”
Smoke escapes from his lips and withers away into the September air. The shrinking joint passes between their fingers, a union wordless and true.
“Why are you hunting down your dad now?” The blue eyes of the youth travel up and down his rumpled suit jacket and crooked tie. “Do you need money from him?”
He shakes his head. The joint dangles between his knuckles as he rests his hands on his knees. Inhaling deeply, he tries to pull a few ribbons of air into his battered lungs. “Not money,” he says at length. “I need something more than that.”
The knife slices through the soft flesh of the lulo fruit, opening its orange facade to reveal a quartet of green seeds joined elbow to elbow like petals. Chunks slide through the woman’s fingers and into the empty blender before they are buried in a scoopful of ice cubes. A fight unleashes the moment the blender button turns on, sharp frozen angles resisting the plump softness of the fruit. After a moment, the struggle is lost, and they yield to each other, purring into a blend of sunshine orange.
“Mi papa,” the woman gestures to an older man sitting at the back of the fresh fruit stall. Her eyes crinkle with a smile, and he tries to match it with his own, a line on his face that barely curves.
He’s never been able to say those words, to turn and introduce an old man as his own. He thinks of his father in aging strokes only because of the calculation of his current age and not because he’s actually ever seen him like that. Somehow the imagined portrait feels more genuine than the actual photograph he’s been carrying around. The image in the photograph merely taunts him with the idea his father once knew how to love someone other than himself.
The woman wipes an arm against the curls sticking to her forehead, jabbering on in a language he only understands flickers of. The blender tips over, spilling the frothy sweetness into a tall glass, and she hands it to him with a twisty blue straw.
“Sientate,” she motions to the plastic stool beside the older man she just identified.
He sinks down into the seat, body sagging from the perilous weight of standing. With a practiced motion, he lays the photograph out for the man to see. As he waits for the now-familiar shake of the head and sympathetic noise, he faintly wishes he was this man’s son. He would much rather die in this stranger’s home than have the eyes of a traitor be his final vision.
He scribbles out the name of the painkiller his doctor once prescribed, and the pharmacist frowns at the inscription before turning to the shelves behind him to investigate. Words like morphine and fentanyl massage his mind, a placebo to help ease the pain more than any local equivalent will. The doctors had advised against his pilgrimage, of course; they would rather have him turn over the contents of his savings so they could hook him up to needles and drugs that would not prolong his life but would extend his suffering.
The day after receiving his final diagnosis, he had summoned up enough energy to demand to be allowed to go home to die. He paid his landlord the last month of rent and then had taken his gun out of the safe under the bed and put it on the bedside table. While preparing for his apartment to become his mausoleum, he found the photograph of his father in the box of his late mother’s belongings. It was a picture from their wedding day; his father’s young face filled the frame, cheeks pinched in a boyish grin.
It was then the idea bloomed in his mind. He could shift the burden of what he was carrying onto the shoulders of the one who remained unjudged by the gavel of the world. He had a reason to live now, because there was still justice he could serve. For what could be crueler than reuniting a father with his son, only to tell him that he was dying?
The pharmacist turns back, holding up a small bottle, and he hands over the crumbled bills without question. With his half-formed hand, motions and the pharmacist’s broken English he figures out directions on how to get to the beach. Truthfully he’s never been one to cherish the bitterness of sand and scratchiness of ocean waves. But he wants to allow one more curse upon himself; he wants to feel the fury of the sun to burn his pale skin so he will be even more unrecognizable to his father when he meets him.
The pharmacist points to a bottle of sunscreen, and he shakes his head determinedly. What’s one more cancer to his decaying prison of flesh and bone? He walks out, disappearing between the married scents of grilled meat and crumbling white cheese.
The skyscraper looms over him like a parent offering a shoulder to shield him from the buffeting rains. The smooth metal of the wall he’s leaning against leaves a dent in his forehead, but he doesn’t care. Elation is coursing fast and reckless through his veins. He forgets the photograph still in his hand as his fingers form a fist, reducing the image to a wad of crumpled lines.
“Jonathan Clark went back to his hometown a few weeks ago,” the man at the trading company had told him a few minutes ago. Suddenly a ribbon had appeared at the end of the marathon, a red line to snap at the brush of his fingertips.
Five weeks. That’s how long the doctor had given him. That’s how long he had to survive crisscrossing the globe to find a father whose voice he cannot remember.
It’s been nearly three weeks now. His body has become a fearful thing, a torpedo wrapped in sweating bed sheets, and yet he is ready. He is ready to hurl the dark shape of himself onto the spike of the sun.
Above his head, palm tree fronds flop against the typhoon winds determined to tear them from their trunk. The browned fronds know they cannot survive the gale; still they cling desperately to what little remains of their string of fate.
He meets his father coming out of Saint John’s Health Center.
They speak to each other in the cafeteria, sitting across diagonally.
“I’ve been looking for you,” his father says.
He doesn’t want to know why. He looks around at the vacant halls of white death and he knows why.
“I’m dying,” his father says, and he simply shakes his head.
“No.” No, because he has been dying, and being able to deliver the news to his father was the one twisted rope he’s been burning his hands by hanging on to.
“Why were you looking for me?” his father asks.
Why now is the unspoken refrain. Instead, he fixates on the first word of that question. Why indeed. Why would the spawn of your DNA cleave to you like residual cake crumbs? Why would the boy who shares half your likeness beat his fists against the world to find you?
“Because,” he starts, and then a bout of coughing ambushes him. He grabs the corner of the table to keep himself from folding over. Against his chest, a battering ram sings, and he pushes his palms against his ribs as they creak and cry.
A hand lands gently on his shoulder. The hand of his father. It is a strange shape that does not fit right.
“You’re not well,” his father says. “What’s wrong?”
He sits up, pushing the hand off. It is far too late to be kind. “Because,” he continues, letting the blood dribble from his lips down to his chin, “I wanted to have someone to leave behind.”
The macaroni salad remains untouched on the plastic tray. He leaves before his father even opens the berry yogurt cup.
He goes back to his apartment and puts the gun from his bedside table into his backpack.
That night the nurse lets him in past visiting hours because his father is scheduled to go in for surgery the following morning. “He has a good chance of surviving this,” she tells him, pink sleeves rustling noisily as she leads him down the hall. “The doctor caught this tumor in time. It could save his life.”
“I hope so,” he says and means it. Survival is the only sentence fit for someone like his father.
He sits on the chair beside his father’s bed until the old man stirs.
“You’re here,” he whispers, raspy, surprised, grateful.
“I am.” He releases the photograph from his grip, and it lands on the edge of the blanket. A few grams that sink down like a ton. There are more miles on that small piece of glossy paper than in his entire lifetime.
He moves his hand into the backpack and holds his father’s gaze. “I was three years, three months, and twelve days old when you left me. I am now thirty-three years, six months, and twenty days old.” His finger caresses the lump nestled there before he pulls it out, the silver teeth of the pistol winking in the moonlight. He presses the muzzle to his own forehead. “I won’t let you abandon me twice.”
A spasm of terror from the old man fills his final vision, enough to make him smile as he pulls the trigger.
Elena Sichrovsky is an Austrian-Tawainese writer living in Shanghai, China. She's a student there at the Shanghai University of Engineering Science and also a member of The Shanghai Writing Workshop. Through her work she seeks to find the beauty in the terrifying and the terror in the beautiful. You can follow her on Instagram @elenitasich or Twitter @thesoundbtween.