I worked at Han’s Chop Suey three nights a week and used the twenty-minute train ride to decompress from school and daydream about a certain girl I was starting to like more and more. I also had a bad feeling that the more serious we got, the more difficult it would be to stay together. Why did her father have to be in the military anyway? Heck, why did she have to have a father?
Colonel Montgomery was in the Space Force and specialized in intelligence. I don’t know exactly what an intelligence officer does in the military other than be a spy, but Allison insisted her father wasn’t a spy. Besides, she would point out, no one knew who spies were because they were secretive and if her father was a spy, then he wasn’t a very good one. She had a point, but I still wondered what went on behind those secretive, reinforced concrete walls at the Pentagon and what part he played in it all.
Allison moved here at the beginning of junior year when her father was transferred to D.C. Before that they were in Japan and before that somewhere in South America. His job forced them to move around a lot, but Allison didn’t seem to mind. She made friends easily and had a sophisticated air about her. I guess living all over the world will do that to you. I wouldn’t know because I’d only gotten as far as New York City on a field trip in seventh grade.
I arrived at work a few minutes early, but the crowd was already starting to converge on the tiny carryout restaurant known for its awesome Chinese food.
“Trenton, glad you’re here,” Mrs. Han said as she stapled shut a bag full of deliciousness. The smell from the back area sailed to the tiny space up front and filled my nostrils. I could eat a horse, but would have to wait until after my shift.
I worked from four-o’clock to seven, Monday, Thursday and Friday. The rush was usually finished by seven, but sometimes I wound up staying later when the place got slammed.
The best part of it all was the free meal Mr. Han would cook for me at the end of the night. He’d make whatever I wanted and filled the plate to the max. I created my own Trenton Special that consisted of chicken, beef, carrots, and water chestnuts over a plate of steaming rice. When I was feeling risky, I’d get it spicy. Mr. Han used a dark gravy that came out thick and flavorful. The man was a genius over a wok. The eggrolls were awesome too. After several months of devouring them, I found out his secret ingredient was peanut butter. Now who in the world would’ve thought eggrolls had peanut butter in them? Wow, were they good!
I’m not sure why, but Mondays were pretty busy and this day was no exception. I packaged and rang up people’s meals as fast as I could, but it never seemed to satisfy the aggravated, dull faces staring at me from the tiny waiting area as though I had purposefully lost their order and was trying to sabotage their evening.
The truth was that most people expected their food in five minutes. I had gotten pretty good at estimating when an order would be ready, but regardless, people always showed up twenty or thirty or even forty minutes early as if they were the only customers in the world.
After having my integrity challenged by a guy with the charm of a rat when I first got hired, I began writing down the time of the order and when I said it should be ready. I always relished hitting rude people with the truth – in a polite way, of course – and never again had to deal with that warm rush of embarrassment. I longed for the day the rat would return so I could rub his grubby nose in the truth and expose him for the liar he is. What a chump!
At around seven-o’clock, as usual, the Asian guy with the curious eyes and a penchant for inquisitive questions stepped through the door. I dubbed him Number Nine because that’s what he always ordered – Shrimp Egg Foo Young with a bowl of Egg Drop Soup. I guess he liked eggs.
“Hello, Trenton,” he said, stepping up to the counter. “Can I pay now before it’s ready?”
“Sure, if you’d like,” I replied and avoided making any sort of prolonged eye contact with him. His stare was penetrating, as though he could read my undeveloped thoughts. I don’t know why I thought that, but it was spooky and made me want to stare at the fish tank and count the stripes on the yellow and blue one with the funny fins.
“So this is more than a summer job, I see,” he asked, but was that really a question or just a set up for – yep, just what I thought. “Today’s the first day of school, isn’t it?”
I nodded as I rang up his order. Alright fish, where are you because it’s going to be you and me and a good old-fashioned staring contest in a minute. Better bring out your good eye.
“No sports to interfere with your job here, I guess?”
“I’d rather make money,” I replied, “but I did think about joining the ski club.”
“Interesting. I’ve never been much for heading face first down a mountain at uncontrollable speeds – I like my bones just the way they are, thank you very much,” he joked, but it sounded forced. “Besides, where do you ski around here anyway?”
“Kursh Hill,” I replied. “They make the snow, so the weather doesn’t really matter much.”
“I’ve heard about those machines ... pretty interesting, indeed. Who knows, maybe you were a champion downhill racer in a past life.”
“I doubt it, but anything’s possible, I guess.”
“You’re a senior, aren’t you? Didn’t your Past Lives Letter answer that for you?”
“I didn’t open it so I wouldn’t know. Besides, we don’t get the full list until Friday.”
The bell above the door rang and another customer stepped up. I processed the order and she was quickly gone, which was too bad because that meant Number Nine would keep peppering me with questions.
“Waiting for a special occasion, are you?” he asked. “I did the same thing, or at least my father made me wait until the family could have a special dinner in celebration.”
“So who were you?”
“That’s kind of personal, don’t you think?” he snapped with an extra stiff stare.
I suddenly felt like I had crossed an uncomfortable line. I guess it was a personal question, but after hearing everyone at school act so excited, I just never thought that anyone who opened their letter wouldn’t want others to know. I swallowed uncomfortably, not knowing what to do, so I searched for the funny fish.
“I’m just kidding, Trenton,” he said with a broad grin. “Lighten up, young man, I didn’t mean to scare you.” He glanced toward the fish tank trying to figure out what I was looking at. “Now let’s see ... I’m not sure if you know this but we do it a little differently in China.”
“We get one life revealed each year starting at seventeen.”
“That’s weird. One life a year ... for how long?”
“Until we run out, of course.”
“Why do they do it that way?”
“It’s anybody’s guess, but I have a sneaking suspicion it has to do with government control.”
“The longer they have your list in their hands, the better chance you won’t step out of line.”
“I don’t get it.”
“You’re American. You don’t have to worry about such things.”
Mrs. Han pushed his order through the service window and rang the bell. I spun around, grabbed it and handed him the brown bag. I think he read my mind, though because he smirked.
“You should open that letter, young man, it’s a fun thing to find out,” he exclaimed and jovially stepped out the door.
Thank god he’s gone, I thought. Now I could eat my Trenton Special in peace.
I finished eating, collected my pay – they paid me under the table – and headed toward the Metro with a full belly, daydreaming of Allison impatiently waiting for me at the coffee shop. I was running a little late, but enjoyed the smile it brought to her face when I eventually showed up. This was the best part of my day, by far.
Unfortunately, as I approached the Metro stop, I was greeted by a haphazardly arranged group of orange cones and yellow tape blocking the escalator entrance. Something must have happened during the time I was at work because it certainly wasn’t shut down a few hours ago.
Now I would have to schlep six blocks to the nearest stop, which I’d rather not do. For one, that meant I was going to be even later than I already was and I didn’t want Allison to leave before I got there. Second, it was dusk and weird things seemed to happen during the twilight hour.
I must have missed the memo because the place was empty. I mean, I knew most of the old people who worked for a living were already home, but how did everyone else seem to know the stop was closed? Was there some kind of list adults were placed on when they started working that sent out important information like this? What about us teenagers who worked – were we not important enough? Who knows, maybe the mysterious ‘they’ were getting back at me because I was getting paid under the table and stiffing the tax man.
Anyway, as I worked my way down the vacant streets, my mind began to mess with me and I realized this was exactly the reason my dad didn’t want me working at Han’s. The moon was out but the intermittent clouds sliding past gave way to tricky shadows and my heart beat faster.
A man with an upturned collar walked with a quick pace half-a-block up, but the wind rustled behind me and after confirming it was only the wind, I turned back to discover the man had vanished.
I started to get that feeling again and moved even faster. It always started this way – my heart rate jumped, and a queasy, tingling feeling shot through my arms and legs. Once the tunnel vision started, I knew it was almost beyond return.
The tipping point occurred when the buzzing sound inside my head drowned out all other sounds. The next and last thing I would be able to recall was the tunnel vision turning completely black. After that, I never knew what happened, except that my normal senses would return some time later, maybe fifteen to twenty minutes or sometimes even longer, like an hour.
These blackouts were bad and although they happened infrequently, they scared me. I hated losing control and not knowing what happened during these episodes. For the life of me, I could never remember a thing.
What had I done, I always wondered. Was I doing bad things that only my subconscious could afford to witness?
The thing is, they were starting to happen more often than usual and I couldn’t figure out why. My father had tried to convince me to see a friend of his ‘offline’, but I refused. I didn’t need to see a psychologist. I mean, only nutters went to the shrink, right? I was afraid they’d soon make the sessions ‘online’ and I’d spend the rest of my days in a padded room with my meals slid through the small opening at the bottom of a steel door. No thanks, not for me. No one was going to take away my freedom, not if I could help it ... but what the hell was going on?
I was only two blocks away and turned the corner none too soon. Kitty-corner was a group of older guys who looked like they were up to no good. I recognized one of them – the bald one with a patch over one eye. Come on, who wears a patch these days, anyway? I didn’t want to find out so I quickly looked away and focused on the Metro stop just ahead. Regardless, my heart started pumping hard and I feared the worst. I glanced back and the hooligans dashed across the street and headed in my direction.
Were they after me?
All I had to do was make it another block and I would be safely in the Metro. They had cameras covering every inch inside and these guys knew it so they wouldn’t do anything stupid. One of them yelled and the first jolt of pins and needles shot through my left arm. I glanced back and they had gained on me. Now I could hear them shouting for me to hold up. Without looking back, I sprinted the remaining half-block and ran down the escalator.
Once at the bottom and safely out of harm’s way, I scanned the top, but only saw a group of shoes bumping into each other accompanied by disappointed grunts and groans. Where the hell were the cops when you needed them, I thought and welcomed the sudden rush of wind generated by the oncoming train – my hair was a simple sacrifice for safety. What a good feeling it was and when the welcoming doors slid open, I noticed the pins and needles had gone away.
What a relief.