Abyss & Apex : October 2004: Moon Lantern

MOON LANTERN Illustration

Moon Lantern

by Rebecca A. Willman

 

My name is Lily Wu, but most people call me Scrap. I’m the one who sits in the shadows, squatted low in doorframe corners where they look past me, then curse me when they stumble. Scrap’s digging termites out of the floor again, they say. Scrap’s growing a new crop of mold. That’s when they take time to notice me at all.

It suits me well enough. I like to watch. The Moon Lantern is my feast – so many people, so little hope. I can taste their thoughts, breathe their fears. The sweat that beads on Manny’s forehead just before he jacks himself off behind the bar? It smells like pickled eggs. Nobody else cares. They just see the movie-star smile, the three hundred-dollar watch. What’s he doing with a watch like that in this hole-in-the-wall bar? Here the lipstick is blood-bright, the beer cheap. The upstairs girls in their paste-on black leather ooze through the cigarette haze, running fingers over hot skin. I hear every shuddering breath.

Maybe it’s this primal current pulsing through the bar that keeps me here. I’ll never get it for myself, but here I can lap up the dregs like a dog laps spilled beer. Manny doesn’t like me haunting the hall to the head – says I’m disturbing the customers – but he can’t make me go. I know too much. If I said even half of it, he’d be done. Even if it came from a nutcase like me.

The stereo bangs out dance tunes, the singer wailing away in Chinese. Don’t know why Manny plays that stuff. I’ll bet no more than five of the customers speak the language. I sure don’t. Still, the bass shakes the room. Dust lifts off the floorboards, lit by the dim glow of the round white lantern in the center of the room. The Moon Lantern.

I don’t like looking there. It doesn’t smell right. Never goes out, the Moon Lantern. Not even when Manny locks up and heads upstairs to the girls in the cold haze of pre-dawn. Two little lights dance inside it, swirling past each other like fireflies caught in an eddy. Sometimes I hear them laughing.

Some nights I’ll go back to my mother’s place. I can pry open the window over the porch and grab some sleep on the futon in the living room and be out again before she’s up. I’ve been stealing from her pantry since the day she threw me out.

Once, when I was sitting behind the cabbage stalls in the market I heard her telling Angie Tan that there were spirits living in her kitchen – that they stole food from her larder. Asked Angie what sort of thing to do to keep the spirits away.

“You should get a lantern,” Angie said, waving her wrinkled hand towards the riot of bright paper lanterns hanging from the awning of her stall. “Keeps away anything you want out.”

Her pinpoint eyes crinkled at the corners and her breath hissed through her throat as my mother selected a scarlet lantern with gold calligraphy that Angie swore was just the thing for kitchen spirits.

I laughed so hard I had to crawl away before they could find me. Superstitious cow. Everyone knows there’s no such thing as spirits. Not in this day. Certainly not hanging around the ghettos of Chinatown.

When I went back to my mother’s house two days later, my shoulders shook with silent glee as I shredded the thing into a crimson pile of filament-thin scraps. My nostrils flared as I imagined her reaction in the morning, the shattered teacup and the growing stain of oolong on the faded hardwood.

Most nights I sleep behind the bar at The Moon Lantern. There’s a shadow there, away from the Lantern light. I can lie in that thin rectangle of darkness, safe from the light, and breathe the smell of the day’s customers. Some of the girls wear heavy perfume. Not the good stuff — the stuff that comes in little aerosol cans that say “just like Calvin Klein” on the labels. The smell lingers like something that died under the porch.

Sometimes Manny leaves the back door unlocked. Those are the nights when they come. The men with long black coats, and no scent. The first time I saw them they scared me to death. I didn’t smell them coming. Didn’t hear them.

They come with their briefcases and their guns tucked away under their coats. Once in a while they’ve fired the guns recently — the reek of gunpowder clings to them. Manny comes down the stairs and joins them at the booth in the far corner, where the light of the Moon Lantern is dimmest. They speak low, but I can hear them. A fancy new drug. That’s why they come. Manny’s got connections from back in Beijing. That’s where he got the Moon Lantern.

One day, before my mother threw me out, I remember sitting on the crushed, stained carpet next to the staircase, listening to the mice in the wall, when Manny brought home the first shipment. Oh, how he’d crowed. There was enough of it to make a down payment on the bar. Enough to get him out of our mother’s house. And with it came the Moon Lantern.

That was the first time I heard the laughter. Manny held the Lantern over his head as if he were Atlas holding up the world. The pale light clung to his skin like fungus.

“You shouldn’t touch that thing, Manny,” I said.

“Shut it, Scrap.”

Now, usually, I wouldn’t push it, but the laughter grew and I could have sworn the light brightened. It flickered in Manny’s eyes and the smell of him changed. A new scent, musty like silk stored away for too many years, mingled with his aftershave and the last night’s cigarettes.

“Please, Manny. Send it back.”

My mother crossed the room and slapped me with the back of her hand. “Your brother gave you an order!”

I rocked back against the stairs, my cheek smarting, tears blurring my vision. That was the first night I spent sleeping in a neighbor’s Dumpster. I didn’t want to be under the same roof with that thing.

But the next day, I felt different. The memory of the Moon Lantern hung over me like smoke. I needed to see it again. Manny was already gone by the time I came knocking at his door. I poked my head into his room, which was papered with Playboy centerfolds and carpeted with old pizza boxes, but the Moon Lantern was gone. Even if it had been hidden, I would have known its smell.

I tried to tell myself it was just as well. Something wasn’t right; it was like a disease. But the need to see it again grew inside me like a cancer. By the time Manny bought the bar and hung the Moon Lantern as its centerpiece, my body shook so bad my mother thought I’d been possessed and threw me out. I needed that Lantern like an addict needs his drug.

Manny would have kicked me out too, but I told him I’d go to the cops. He’d lose his money. He’d lose the bar. He’d probably lose the Lantern.

He let me stay. Eventually, the regulars learned not to see me. No one seemed to worry where I slept or if I ate. It didn’t matter. I had the Lantern, but I often wondered whether it really had me.

fire-icon

It is a night in late November. Manny leaves the back door unlocked. I hunker down in my hole behind the bar, my head pillowed on a week’s worth of newspapers. Cold air seeps through the cracks around the windows and under the door. I’ve learned not to feel it, but the chill freezes my nose hairs and makes me want to sneeze.

A strong gust tells me they’ve come. Their hard leather soles clack on the floorboards as they cross to their usual booth. I rub my nose hard, fighting the need to sneeze.

After a minute, I hear Manny’s stride on the stairs. My eyes are watering now, and I pinch the bridge of my nose.

They begin their talk, trying to bargain. The Lantern light takes on a pale yellow tinge. I’ve never seen it do that before. I listen for the laughter, but it’s gone. My heart skips a beat.

A new sound reaches my ears. The click of a gun being cocked.

The light changes again, to a burnished amber. Another draft of cold air hits my nose and I can’t fight it any more.

My sneeze breaks the quiet of the bar like gunfire. I hear a clatter as what sounds like salt and pepper shakers and ash trays crash to the floor.

“What is this? What are you trying to pull?” hisses a voice I recognize as belonging to one of the black-coated men.

“It’s nothing,” Manny replies. “Nothing.”

“Nothing?” I feel the ripple in the air as the man raises his eyebrows. “Get out where I can see you,” he whispers in a voice as cold as the night.

I get to my feet and feel no surprise at seeing the gun pointed at my head. The crimson light of the Moon Lantern shines off of the barrel.

Manny lurches to his feet. “It’s only my sister. She’s nuts. She sleeps under the bar, digs bottle caps out of cracks in the road. She can’t hurt you.”

The man takes two steps towards me. “How much have you heard, girl?”

A muted humming emanates from the Moon Lantern, and out of the corner of my eye I can see it shaking. “Two men took a dump in the alley. The beetles and flies had a housewarming party.”

Manny squints at me. I might be nuts, but when I talk I don’t sound like it. He blinks. “I told you. Psycho. She didn’t understand a word.”

My palms are slick with sweat. The gun doesn’t waver. Manny smells like piss.

The Moon Lantern begins to sway madly on its chain. The room is lit with scarlet. Perspiration on the dealer’s forehead looks like blood. His cronies crouch at the edge of the booth, ready to pounce.

“There’s blood on the body and blood on the bone. Blood in the water, blood on the stone,” I say. Blood everywhere. The beat of it rushing in my ears threatens to deafen me.

“Come on, man,” Manny wheedles. “You wouldn’t shoot a nut.”

I smell the change in the black-coated man. From confusion to anger. I feel his muscles clench.

“Maybe not. But a man who breaks his word? Him I would kill.”

The dealer spins around, points his weapon at Manny and begins to pull back on the trigger.

I scream and the room goes black, then explodes with twin fireballs shooting scarlet whips in all directions. My body wants to hide behind the bar, but I can’t tear my eyes away. White fire licks the dealer’s gun arm and he howls and drops the weapon. It joins the salt and pepper shakers on the floor.

Manny crawls past the feet of the dealer’s cronies under the booth and cowers with his hands over his head. The twin flames ricochet off the walls of the bar and shoot towards the three black-coated men. I catch a glimpse of their eyes, glazed with fear. Singed hair and flesh send a foul odor boiling through the room.

And then I hear the laughter.

A smile creases my face as I recognize the sound. Mine. All mine. “Run, or you’ll all be dead!” I shriek, pointing towards the door, laughter struggling to surface.

And they run, the living flames toasting their heels as they flee.

As the door slams shut, the room goes black again. I stand there shaking, leaning my weight against the bar. For the first time in years I feel alive. I taste blood on my tongue. I bring my hand to my mouth and find blood on my fingers.

A burble of glee rises in my throat. Then another. Soon I collapse over the bar, my body convulsed in laugher, tears pouring down my face. I suck in the cedar smell of the wood and choke on a sob.

I raise my head and find the soft white glow of the Moon Lantern restored. I smother another sob and step away from the bar. “Manny?”

A faint rustling comes from under the far booth, followed by the sight of Manny’s head. “Scrap? Am I dead?”

Dead? I laugh again and wipe the tears from my face with the back of my hand. “No.”

He crawls out another foot. “But he shot me. I watched him pull the trigger.”

“No.”

Manny looks up at me, his forehead scrunched. “But what happened? He was pulling the trigger and then you were … laughing. Scrap, why am I under the table?”

The lights in the Moon Lantern dance madly. The corner of my lip curls up. “Why else? You had too much to drink. Go to bed, brother.”

Manny gets to his feet unsteadily and staggers up the stairs. I watch him go, aware of the tittering in the Moon Lantern. Once he’s gone, I turn and bow to the Lantern. The lights dim in response, then flare bright.

I disappear behind the bar and crawl into my hole. This time, though, I let my hand lie in the soft light of the Lantern.

I sleep.

__________

Rebecca Willman lives in Seattle, where it really doesn’t rain every day, with her husband and son. Moon Lantern is her first publication. She is at work on her first novel, a romantic fantasy. 





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