Tommy awoke with a start. He had been dreaming of his daughter, who had been sharpening a knife to cut his fingers off. As the blade came down across his knuckles, he awoke. The sun glared in through the train window, through his eyes and into his brain, that hurt nearly as bad as his hand did. He looked down at his bandaged hand and saw that his blood had seeped through the gauze. At least he thought it was his blood. Given the violence over the last twenty-four hours, he couldn’t be sure. He looked over at Brig who was awake and looking out the window, his face puffy and bruised.
“You look as bad as I feel,” Tommy quipped.
“Then you should probably see a doctor,” Brig volleyed. They laughed and then grimaced at the same time, causing them to laugh harder.
“What time is it?” Tommy asked while bringing his chair up to the full, upright position.
“Around 9, I guess. We passed through some place called ChangShi about an hour ago.”
“Changsha. It was probably Changsha.”
They sat for a moment, looking out the window, listening to the hum of the train. “What happened last night?” Brig finally asked.
“I can only assume that A-fai didn’t make it, and the brotherhood is now aggressively seeking payback.”
“He’s dead? I killed somebody?” Brig asked, a little too loudly.
“Keep it down,” Tommy whispered back to see if anybody around them had noticed. “Look. I don’t know if he’s dead, but it was self-defense…if you hadn’t stepped in, it would likely have been me and then you. Those guys last night were looking to get even, but they didn’t count on Tarantino.”
“Tarantino shot those guys?”
“Well, it wasn’t the mommy-san,” Tommy said sarcastically and adjusted his arm.
“While you were in the bathroom, getting your little brother serviced, Yoyo came in with those two thugs.”
“That was the girl I was telling you about. White hair? Big breasts?”
“That’s her. She and I go way back, but somehow, the bad guys that are chasing us got to her first. They came into the room. One of them had a gun. They asked where you were, and when we told them we didn’t know, he shot Peter. I yelled at them, and as they turned their attention to me, T was able to drop them.”
“Jesus! I thought guns were hard to get in China.”
“… oh they are… it depends.”
“Depends on what?”
“Who you know. Who you are.”
“… and who are you?” Brig asked.
“Me? I’m nobody. I’m just an old man from Hong Kong.”
“Really? Are you in a triad?”
“Me?” Tommy laughed unconvincingly. “No. No! Of course not. But I know people who are. Tarantino for example. He’s triad. But you can’t live in Hong Kong and not know somebody who’s in a triad. Shit. Every time you get on a bus or ride a taxi, the driver is more than likely a triad member.”
“Fuck your mother! Yes, really! And here, in China? The largest triad in the world is China’s army.”
“Are you kidding me? I thought triads were extinct…a 1980s thing.”
“Fuck your mother. The triads are stronger and more widespread than ever, they’re just more mainstream these days. They’re not as flashy. They run regular businesses and are as much a part of the system as your republicans or democrats.”
“Would you stop saying that?”
“What?” Tommy asked genuinely. “That the triads are mainstream?”
“No, that thing about my mother.”
“You mean, ‘Fuck your mother?’”
“Yeah, that’s the one!”
Tommy laughed, “Fuck your mother? Shit, it’s just a thing we say, like ‘Have you eaten your rice yet,’ or ‘Good Morning.’ It’s reflexive. I’m not sure I can stop saying it.”
“You know, I’m not really going to fuck your mother.”
“You couldn’t even if you wanted to…she’s dead.”
“Oh. Sorry. My sincere apology. It means nothing.”
“Then don’t say it. It’s disrespectful, and my mother is the only person, dead or alive, that I respect. Respected.”
“Done. I won’t say it again. My mother is probably dead too.” Brig looked warily at Tommy, waiting for the punchline. “But I never met her… or my father.”
“You were an orphan?”
“I don’t know where I was born, or who my parents were, but I was raised in the Walled City of Kowloon. Do you know the Walled City?” Brig nodded that he did. “I had an aunt who sort of watched out for me and about twenty other homeless kids.”
“Your aunt? If you knew your aunt, didn’t she know who your mother was?”
“Fuck your…” Tommy checked himself. “She wasn’t a real Aunt. It’s just what we called her. I haven’t seen, or heard, or thought about her for years.” Tommy’s train of thought drifted into his past. “It wasn’t like the woman loved us, but she gave us a place to sleep and made sure we didn’t go hungry…I don’t remember her ever beating us, though maybe she did.”
“Must have been tough.”
“I guess, but what did I know? You just tried to survive to the next day.”
“Kind of like we’re doing right now,” Brig quipped. “You seemed to have turned out alright, though. I mean, you made it this far.”
Tommy laughed, “If you only knew.”
“Were you ever married? Do you have children?”
Tommy looked at Brig circumspectly. He had unwisely revealed too much to Brig already.
“I’ve got to go clean up.” Covering his bloody, bandaged hand with his coat, he stood and made his way to the small, immaculate wash closet and shut and locked the door behind him. He unwound the gauze from his hand. As he got closer to its end, it became difficult to peel off as the blood had dried. The stump looked bad and had started to bleed again. He ran the wound under cold water to clean it and sniffed at it to see if it was infected. It didn’t smell, but it was probably too soon to have any noticeable signs of infection. It hurt like hell.
He re-wrapped the stump, trying to place the cleanest part of the bandage on the wound. Once wrapped he pulled out his phone and saw he had a new message. It was from Johnny.
“Message received from Brig’s father…“NICE TRY.” What next?”.
Tommy was dumbfounded. “Nice try?” What did that mean? Was the message intended for him, Brig’s captor, or to Brig? He knew Brig and his father were estranged, but was his father so cold that he would let his son die, or did he think Brig had staged the kidnapping himself in an attempt to trick him into sending him money?
“Give me a day to come up with something. Will respond soon.” Tommy texted back.
Tommy returned to his seat and saw that Brig had fallen back asleep, head resting awkwardly against the window. He put his phone back on the charge and considered his response to Brig’s father. How could he make the father believe that Brig was truly in mortal danger? There was no way his father could’ve known the pictures they had sent him were staged.
Tommy was running out of time and needed to change tactics. Perhaps Brig despised his father as much as his father despised him. He considered sharing his plans with Brig. Maybe Brig would work with him.
“Who are you texting?” Brig asked, causing Tommy to jump in surprise.
“Fuck! You scared the shit out of me.”
“Sorry. Just wondering if you’ve heard from Tarantino or anyone. It sucks not having a phone.”
“Tarantino’s a few hours behind us. We’ll get off the train soon and wait for him to catch up.”
“Could I use your phone to text a person or two?”
“What?” Tommy hadn’t seen this request coming. “Why? Who would you text?”
“I don’t know. I was thinking of sending something to my ex. Maybe she heard I was in Hong Kong and has been trying to reach me? Maybe somebody back home, let them know I’m alright.”
“Alright? I think you’re far from alright. Besides, I thought you hated your family.”
“Yeah. But, you know what they say about absence.”
“No. What do they say?”
“We have a saying in English, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” It means that, when you’re away from someone, you appreciate them more.”
“We have a similar saying in Chinese, (小别胜新婚) “The lover’s heart may grow even fonder after a short separation.”
Brig shook his head and sighed, “Man, I know that.”
“You really liked this girl, huh?”
“Liked? I was hoping to marry her. She made my life worth living again. Smart. Beautiful. Sexy. Funny. And then without saying anything, she left. No goodbye. Nothing. Just left.”
“Wow. That’s cold.”
“Yeah. I’m not stupid. I know that if she loved me, or had any positive feelings for me, she would have said something, but I can’t seem to get my head around the finality of it. No ‘closure.’” Brig hand signaled air quotes.
“She doesn’t sound like a very nice person.”
“So it would seem. Still…”
“What about your family? Did they like her?”
“Ha! My family. They never met her. They would have hated her. She wasn’t Mormon. She wasn’t Anglo.”
“So you and your family weren’t close.”
“No. We weren’t close. We weren’t even on the same planet. My father’s a piece of work, and my sister…she does whatever he tells her to do. But, some of it was my fault. I did some pretty shitty things to them.”
“But writing you out of his will? Cutting you off from the rest of your family?”
“Did I tell you that? When did I tell you that?” Brig challenged.
“Yes. Of course, you did,” Tommy scrambled. He wasn’t sure if he had learned this from Happy, or Brig. “That night we met in Hong Kong. We had a good long talk.”
“You know way too much about me, and I know hardly anything about you. You never answered my question. Do you have a family?”
“What’s to tell? I’m boring.” Tommy hoped that Brig would let it go, but he waited for Tommy to continue. “Yes. I have a daughter. She’s younger than you. My wife died of cancer many years ago. I haven’t seen or spoken to my daughter in years.”
“I’m sorry about your wife.”
“Why don’t you talk to your daughter?”
“It’s not my choice,” Tommy revealed. “I made some poor decisions as a young man, and I’ve been paying for them ever since.”
An announcement interrupted their conversation, informing passengers they would arrive at the next stop, Xining, in ten minutes, and for those that would terminate their travel to prepare to disembark.
“Are we almost there?” Brig asked.
“To Lhasa?” Tommy laughed out loud. “No. We’re only halfway there.”
Brig’s face fell. “Fuck your mother!”
Tommy laughed. “It’s a long trip. Let’s get off here and wait for Tarantino to catch up with us.” Tommy stood and stretched, as did some of the other passengers.
“When we get to Lhasa, will you be getting in touch with any of your relatives?” Brig asked.
“What are you talking about?”
“You told me that Lhasa was your ancestral city? If you were an orphan, and you didn’t know your parents, how could you know you were from Lhasa?”
Tommy scrambled for an answer. “Truthfully. I don’t know for sure. My aunt told me that my mother had told her that my father was from Lhasa, and many people have said I look Tibetan. What does it matter anyway? I’m paying for you to get there!” Tommy said, a little more testily than he intended.
“Sorry!” Brig apologized for probing. “But I get the feeling you’re not telling me something.”
“So now you don’t trust me?”
“Trust you? I hardly know you!” Brig regretted what he said almost immediately, worried that he might have hurt Tommy’s feelings. “I trust you. What choice do I have?” The train slowed and Brig got up from his seat. He was understandably sore. He reached up above their seats and retrieved his and Tommy’s bags. After shouldering his pack, he helped Tommy with his, trying to minimize Tommy’s discomfort. Tommy’s hand was obviously hurting him. As the train came to a stop, Tommy peered anxiously out of the train’s window, concerned that their enemies might be waiting for them. He saw nothing unusual, and when the train’s door opened, Tommy and Brig stepped into the cold, polluted air of Xining. They weren’t in Shenzhen anymore.