Chapter 1. Is It Cold Where You Are?
I hope this message finds you well. A new year is finally upon us. It is raining as I write this. Winter is closing but it smells like the height of autumn outside; almost like time is turning in on itself.
Attached is the confirmation for the invoice you have sent me. I assure you that all the money has been transferred, but please feel free to verify all of it yourself. This is no small business, after all. Certainly not for me at least.
To think that a year has already passed. Clarity seems to strengthen as time goes on. I’ve never felt more sure about my future than I do now. I suppose it is because the waiting is almost over. I will be glad when the day comes, of course, for our contract to be completed. I have been waiting for so long…but I admit I will miss the help and companionship you have provided me for the past year. None of this could have happened without you, and for that you have my eternal gratitude. Only a year ago I was…well, I was nowhere.
The rain is coming down even harder now. I wonder if it will snow again before spring comes? I wonder if I will be around to watch the ice melt this time. Will I be able to tell from all the way up in space?
Please take care, Mr. Lee. It has been an especially brutal winter.
She chewed her lip as she sat at her computer, fingers resting nervously across the keyboard. Her ring finger twitched slightly, clicking against the keys. Writing messages to Mr. Lee was always rather difficult. It always felt simultaneously like she was saying far too much, and absolutely too little.
It was January, and a cold rain drenched the winter ice outside. It drummed against the window of her cramped studio apartment. Despite it being morning, the interior of the room was drenched in darkness. There was a wetness to everything, a wetness that typically came with the throes of autumn. The sticky rain beyond the glass, and the way the shadows dripped off of her contours as she sat before the white light of her computer.
As she brooded over the contents of her message, she heard something shift in the bed behind her. Aether’s eyebrow twitched briefly before settling back down. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply through her nose, seeking to compose herself for the inevitable confrontation.
A man was in her bed, slowly rising from sleep. Memories of the previous night slipped through Aether’s mind in fleeting flashes. She had made another mistake, one she was unable to acknowledge until she woke up that morning in arms she did not recognize. As soon as she did a wave of shame and disgust had washed over her. She tried to shake it off, but it merely slipped off her and dripped to the floor, forming a puddle that mingled with the wet shadows of the room.
It happened from time to time. It shouldn’t, she knew, but it did. A cold night, a lonely disposition…then before she knew it she was starving for a human touch. It was easy, to find someone; especially for her, because men thought she was “exotic,” because they wanted to brag to their friends that they had been with a foreign girl.
The man in her bed had fully roused himself. She was facing away from him but she could see his actions in her mind’s eye. Confusion that turned to contentment, and then remembrance. The cocky smile he was probably wearing, as his eyes hungered over her slim form, eager to taste it a second time. The bare nape of her neck tingled at the thought.
“Hey.” His voice carried over to her, and Aether gave up on trying to type. “Morning.”
Lifting a hand, she shut her laptop, hiding her message. “Good morning,” she said, though she remained facing forward.
“What were you doing?” he asked. She closed her eyes, and his voice painted a memory of his appearance. The soft gasps, the gentle scrape of a beard. Two starving animals satiating their hunger in the most basic of ways. She could imagine the blood dripping from a kill, mixing with the shadows.
“Just writing an email,” she replied. Her tone was flat. Still she did not turn around to face him. She would never lay eyes on him again.
“Last night was amazing,” he continued, seemingly unperturbed by her attitude. His voice depended a fraction. “Or at least, the parts that I remember.”
Maybe that was a poor attempt at a joke. She really couldn’t tell. Reaching over, Aether checked her phone.
“Well, I’m glad you enjoyed yourself.”
“I did. Listen, I’m kind of hungry. If you’d like we could go and-”
“I’m sorry,” Aether said suddenly, interrupting him. She turned her head slightly to the side, her lips parted. “But I would like for you to leave now.”
She imagined his confused expression. “What? But…”
“I’m sorry,” she repeated, though the words felt merciless, even to her. Her heart was pounding in her chest now, though on the surface she remained calm. “But I want you to leave immediately.”
A protracted silence ensued, in which there was nothing but the darkness pouring in through the windows and from behind the walls, drowning them in blackness.
“But…” she heard him lick his lips. “…it’s raining outside.”
“They have spare umbrellas in the lobby. Feel free to take one.”
Aether could feel the conflict raging in the man behind her, but she would not yield. She smelled his well meaning attitude descend into confusion, then further into anger. But she gauged that he would not protest her demands too hotly. Based on the sex she had had last night, he was not a particularly assertive man.
At long last he muttered something to himself and got out of bed. There was a brief shuffling as he picked up his clothes from where they had been discarded, slipping them back on. After a few moments he was prepared to leave, but instead he hovered by the door, hand resting noncommittally on the doorknob.
“Will I see you again?” he asked hesitantly.
For a moment she considered letting the question go unanswered.
“Perhaps,” she said, turning her eyes to the window. “In the spring.”
He seemed to take some comfort from this, smiling before bidding her a gentle farewell. The door clicked softly behind him, and Aether was alone.
She reopened her laptop. Her message to Mr. Lee lay brooding on her screen, just as she had left it. She sat staring at it for several minutes. Already the man was fading from her memory. He was one of many. She would allow him to fade into the ether. Business school had taught her to consolidate her losses.
In the end there was nothing to be done. She sent the email without making any changes. Aether had faith that Mr. Lee would understand her true intentions, regardless of how she worded the message. Mr. Lee always understood. He was very good at that.
Without him, she almost certainly would have drowned by now.
There was a homeless man who lived about a block from her building.
Or perhaps it was not so accurate to say that he lived there. Aether was not versed in the daily activities of homeless people. Maybe he spent all his hours sleeping on top of the grate in front of the pizza store, where warm air wafted up from the subway station below ground.
Or maybe he was one of those homeless people who seemed to know all the other homeless people, and spent his days living free. In that case she couldn’t say he lived there; in that case it was just a place where he slept. The same way she didn’t think she lived in her small studio apartment. It was just a place where she slept, sometimes alone, sometimes acting like she wasn’t.
It was a frozen winter morning when she stepped outside, nearly twenty four hours after she had excommunicated her one night stand, and emailed Mr. Lee. The kind of dry morning where her breath crystallized with ease and the sun was just a decoration in the sky, no real warmth.
She stood on the corner of her building, waiting for the light to change. The security guard who watched the lobby every morning had looked up and smiled at her as she passed by. Every morning she felt like if she said something they could maybe be friends. He was a nice looking man, with an innocent mustache and wrinkles that betrayed his age. She had heard him speak before and knew that his English was not very strong. Sometimes she would think that if they spoke he would have no choice but to be friendly, like many immigrants, because they were alone enough in their status as aliens.
But she could never bring herself to take advantage of a pain she herself knew, and so every morning she met his smile with an impassive stare.
The wind ripped through her coat and she was reminded that it wasn’t spring quite yet. A frozen city shook off the ice around her. People hustled by, always in a hurry. No one moved slowly in this city. Always running somewhere, doing something, yelling at someone. Like if they made enough of a ruckus they could pretend it wasn’t so deathly cold.
The light changed and she crossed the street. Her boots crunched on old snow mixed with blue salt. She saw the humped form of the homeless man approaching.
He was an old man, though how old she could never guess. But his untrimmed beard was white, his dark skin speckled with spots of age. These days he was dressed in a thick orange parka someone had thrown out. He sat on top of his usual grate, with a big cardboard box sitting in front of his crossed legs. It was depressingly empty, as it was every morning.
There was no shortage of homeless people in the city, and this particular one was no different from the rest. But he was different to her simply because she saw him the most often, every morning on the way to work.
Streams of people passed by him, and every step brought her closer. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people probably passed him and his big box every day. Every time she saw this she thought about how crushing this reality must be. To see so many within arm’s reach, but still unreachable. Did he want to scream out loud at them all? Did he want to rise up and say, Look at me, Look at me? That was the best way to avoid being propositioned by a homeless person all, to just not look at them; to erase their very existence from the streets.
He sat hunched over on top of his grate, staring up at every single passerby, as if daring each and every one of them to look back. Maybe she stared too long when she passed, because for the smallest of moments their eyes met.
Her breath lingered in her throat, and she felt herself being drawn in. Part of her wanted nothing more than to reach out and hold him close, so that he could know a warmth that didn’t come from the exhausts of an underground train.
But the moment passed, and she recollected herself. She ducked her head after a faint smile and kept walking. Soon enough she was gone, disappearing underground into the subway station, and she became another drop in the torrent of water that sought to scrub that man’s existence from the sidewalk.
She didn’t make a habit out of telling people, but Aether was actually a country girl.
But she also knew this was a mere technicality. Three hours on the bullet train, one mountain range and twenty six years of brooding earlier she would find herself on the farm where her mother and father raised her. Yet if she were to return, she wouldn’t look like anyone who lived there. Her makeup, clothing, the way she walked, all screamed of the city. She felt like a skyscraper dropped in the middle of a rice field when she went home.
Aether only went home when she needed to act like the rest of the world didn’t exist. The city was loud but the country was deathly silent. At home the loudest thing was her own heartbeat thudding against the mattress as she lay on her side.
This was an old city, and in an old city the screaming never stops. It was only the source that changed. In the morning her alarm screamed at her to wake up. As she descended into the subway station the woman behind the intercom blasted her voice into her ear, a garbled mess of arrival times that would inevitably be delayed.
Something was banging far off in the distance. Another homeless man, playing the drums at blinding speed, using a set of plastic buckets as a substitute for the real thing. Each strike of the drumsticks against a bucket throbbed against her head as she waited for her train.
Now here came the train itself, screaming into view as it pulled alongside the platform. By now she was surrounded by hundreds of commuters who all surged forward, carrying her through the open doors of the train car. She found herself crushed between an older woman whose scratchy scarf tickled her ear, and a massive man who was already sweating beneath the heat of his coat.
As the train pulled away from the station, she thought about the homeless man sitting directly above her, and for some reason felt utterly isolated. Maybe she shouldn’t have told her one night stand to go away. But then she would just be delaying the inevitable. That was a lesson she should have learned years and years ago. No one else could give her what she was looking for.
The train was entering the tunnel now. Soon she would lose signal. Digging her phone from her pocket, she send a brief message to Mr. Lee, manicured fingers tapping across the glass surface.
Is it cold where you are?
When she took her lunch break, Aether found that Mr. Lee had replied.
She was sitting alone on one of the many balconies of her work building, roughly thirty stories above the violence of the street far below. It was a tall building, a sleek building; a quiet sentinel of the corporate world. After graduating she had fallen rather effortlessly into a corporate lifestyle. She had learned a while ago that she needed someone to tell her what to do and how to do it. Otherwise she would idle in place forever.
It was freezing on this balcony, but it was the only place where she could enjoy her lunches alone. Technically this place was supposed to be restricted access, but she had gotten to know one of the janitors who worked this part of the building, and he had been kind enough to lend her a spare key.
“Here. Consider it a favor,” he had said, holding it out to her.
She had reached out to take the key, but he had drawn it back at the last moment, leaving her fingers hovering in the space between them.
“Maybe you’ll return it one day?” he asked.
For a moment she thought he meant the key, and was about to smile and say yes. But then her ears detected the rough grate of his voice, the way his eyes flitted up and down the length of her young, supple body. She had shed her coat that day, as it was warm in the work building, but a wave of goosebumps raised their hackles across her skin.
“No one at home to help you with that?” she asked, trying to make it sound coy, but she couldn’t keep a strain of disdain from showing through.
“My wife passed away many years ago. And I don’t make a lot of money working like I do,” he said, shrugging. “I have a beautiful daughter, just turned seventeen. Reminds me so much of her mother. Sometimes I look at her and wonder…but you know, there are laws.”
“I see,” she’d said stonily, lifting her hand and taking the key from him. “Well, I’ll do my best. Maybe in the springtime.”
He had smiled and nodded, perhaps believing her. After that she did her best never to run into him again. Sometimes she wondered if he was still wandering the halls, hoping to run into her and ask, Are you ready to return the favor?
She didn’t worry too much about him. But she worried often about the man’s daughter, if she could feel the predatory gaze with which she shared a roof.
Or maybe it was better for his daughter to stay right where she was. Better than sitting alone in the cold like Aether. Even her surroundings looked cold; endless skyscrapers and flat black asphalt roads, the chrome skin of the financial district. She had a good job, and it paid well, but she hated where she worked.
Setting her food aside, she checked her phone.
A small red number hovered above her inbox.
Good morning, Aether. Yes, it is cold where I am. I hope you have been well?
A faint smile brushed across her lips. She didn’t spend much time speaking to other people anymore. When she was younger she had been so hungry for the attention of others, almost starved for it; like the more talking she did, the more the person listening would mean to her. She had valued others based on how many of her secrets they carried. But these days she kept to herself. Most days she rose and fell asleep without uttering a single word. There was no need to speak, no need to convey anything, if the only things she fathomed came from within.
But Mr. Lee was different. When Mr. Lee messaged her, she responded. She hung on his every word, because he was her salvation, the one who would save her.
Pulling her numb fingers from her pockets, she typed out a response.
About as well as I could be, considering. It’s been so cold lately. But I suppose there won’t be anymore winters like this, once springtime comes.
She exhaled, watching her breath billow forth and obscure the metropolitan skyline. Sometimes Mr. Lee responded immediately, and even engaged in a conversation; others he was curt and minimal in his replies. There was no way to tell which Mr. Lee she would get on any given day, but it was precisely because she couldn’t know him that she wanted to.
She was surprised to hear her phone buzz a minute later.
There will still be springs, and winters and more springs and winters for the rest of us. Only you will be escaping it all.
Aether found herself smiling.
I know. But it’s been difficult to think of anyone other than myself as of late.
Her phone purred in her hand.
There’s nothing wrong with thinking about yourself.
Aether’s fingers moved independently of her thoughts or feelings. Speaking to Mr. Lee always felt like somewhat of a physical experience, as if he were actually present beside her.
There’s a homeless man I pass every morning on my way to work. We made eye contact today, longer than I would have liked. I felt like I should have helped him. But I didn’t. Do you think I should have?
She didn’t know why she told him these things. There were things Mr. Lee knew about her that even her parents didn’t. During long days at work she wished she could use her phone without getting into trouble. When she sat by the window and stared at the clouds she was thinking about someone whose face she had never seen. And when she woke in the dead of night consumed by terror, the first thing she did was reach for her phone.
Who exactly was Mr. Lee? That was a question she knew not the true answer to. She could only define him in relativity to herself, the same way as the man who watched the lobby of her building, or the homeless man atop the grate. A friendly immigrant, or someone who gave her guilt; Mr. Lee was the person she didn’t have to hide anything from.
She knew not his face. She knew not the sound of his voice or his age or even if his name really was Mr. Lee. But she knew his heart, she knew the way he thought of the world; it was evident in the thousands of words they had shared through their messages. And she had realized for the hundredth time that morning that sex couldn’t save her, no form of physicality could save her.
So maybe she couldn’t reach out and touch Mr. Lee. But she hardly cared.
What would helping him have entailed? Mr. Lee asked.
Aether contemplated this question. In the end she could offer no true answer.
I don’t know. Money maybe. Or companionship. I don’t know what he wants.. Maybe I can’t save him.
Mr. Lee took a little longer to respond that. Whether this was because he was thinking over how to reply or because he was preoccupied, she could not say.
Anyone can save another, and everyone can be saved.
How true was that, she wondered? Part of her thought that this statement was a little too idealistic. But she remembered then that Mr. Lee was supposed to save her.
If only for that, she would try to believe his words.
Maybe I’ll speak to him one day.
The next reply was more prompt.
She sat back in her seat, feeling oddly drained. There was nothing else substantial she could think of to talk about, for fear of boring the one person whose attention she valued.
But her phone buzzed again. Mr. Lee hadn’t left her quite yet.
Have you been keeping close to your diet?
Since making their contract, Mr. Lee had put her on a strictly healthy diet. It was designed to help her build strength and cut unhealthy calories, apparently to prepare her body for the journey it would undertake, come springtime.
She glanced at the salad sitting by her elbow before replying.
Yes. I haven’t deviated from it yet.
She was feeling rather proud for being able to say this, as her phone buzzed again.
Have you seen your family recently?
This time she faltered before answering, but answer she did.
…No. I haven’t had the time.
His response was quick and decisive.
I encourage you to make the time. Remember that it is my condition for helping you.
A single bead of sweat crawled down the side of Aether’s face. So much of her wanted to reject this ultimatum, to fight against it, but she was consumed by fear.
Perhaps detecting the lag in her response time, Mr. Lee decided to send a second message.
Besides, the Ataraxia is waiting for you there.
Aether let out a shuddering breath at reading these words, and finally found it within herself to begin typing.
I will go.
And Mr. Lee, her moral compass, validated this response with a single word.