It’s my pleasure to once again feature guest writer Raymond Chen (the author of the graphic novel “Borderlands”), who wrote last week’s story No One Knew Wei Loved Ella, a French Girl in China. This week, he’s sharing a fictional story of an AMWF couple that was made for each other — a love ultimately torn apart by the man’s foolish decisions.
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You look surprised. You are probably wondering how did you get to this place. It is so dark and there are no stars in the sky, even though it is obviously nighttime. It is okay. You have every right to be surprised. For I was the same long, long ago when I found myself in your same shoes. Please do not be afraid of me. I am not here to harm you. I am here to be your friend and companion for the long journey we are about to make. That is why I am holding this lantern in my hands. But most of all, I am here to help you understand the situation you are currently in. For understanding is the first crucial step to acceptance.
Now, please let me tell you straight and properly. You are dead.
You are probably now wondering, Is this man threatening me? No. It is not my intention at all to frighten you. You are dead in the truest sense, which is why you are here. Please take a moment to search your thoughts. Think long and hard about what happened before you woke up and found yourself standing in this desert. It is okay. I am a patient person.
You are starting to remember now. Which is good. It is slowly starting to come back to you.
It had just been an ordinary day in the middle of summer. You had showed up to work at that huge warehouse right at the dead-end road where the town limit stopped and the railroad tracks of the old terminal cut across the span ahead. Your supervisor had requested that you gather up a certain number of empty pallets for the delivery that is impending that day. You spotted a small stack of unused pallets resting atop a massive tower of freight that had been moved into the middle of the room. You wondered why anyone would put empty pallets somewhere so hard to reach. But you got to work immediately. One of your coworkers had borrowed the ladder, but you decided, for some unknown reason, that you would climb to the top of that tower, and throw the pallets to the ground one by one. Perhaps you wanted to save time. I don’t blame you, for I would have thought the same had I been there. However, did you really think it was that good of an idea to climb onto such an unstable mass of loosely stacked cargo? But you still went ahead and climbed.
You were almost at the top when the tower began to tilt. You only had one second. One long second, to utter a single cry of bewilderment, before you crashed to the concrete floor, breaking your back in the process. You had tried to get out of the way, but you were unable to move at all. Pallet after pallet toppled downward and crushed into you. Steel drums filled with paint thinner and kerosene, shattering every bone in your body, smashing your ribs into pieces and driving them through your lungs and heart like bullets. Your life was crushed out of you as you watched, helpless and in unbearable pain.
You woke up and found yourself here. Rocks and gravel stretching as far as the eye could see. A black, starless sky tinted reddishly at the horizon. And me, with my dusty worn coat, dirt covered slouch hat, and a lantern providing just enough light for us to see each other’s faces. But don’t worry. We ain’t staying here forever. Look to your right, where I am pointing. Do you see that road, stretching far down towards the horizon where the mountains loom and the red glow fills the sky? That is what we will be headed towards. I can see that you are scared. It is okay, for I had been just as scared as you when I walked this very road. It will be a very long walk, and when we finally reach the mountains, there will be a great river flowing at their bases. And it is there, where we will meet…him.
You are thinking now, Who is this him? Frankly, I don’t even know. I simply refer to him as the Raftsman. For he has the only boat in sight that can take us across the river. And it is when you are crossing the river in his raft, that all the deeds you have performed in your life so far will be weighed and judged before you. And perhaps, it is the Raftsman who will decide which direction your journey shall go next. But don’t worry. I know it is a long walk we will have to embark on, therefore, I shall tell you a story along the way. A story to brighten your heart and hopefully, keep the darkness and loneliness that surrounds us at bay. A true story, from a life long past.
So with that said, lets walk. Just keep your eyes and feet on the road, and follow me, and we should be fine. Now, perhaps I should tell you a little about myself and why I had ended up here. Before you had seen me as you see now, long, long ago, I had been a person just like you. In every sense of the word. I had a loving family, held a job, and had the most wonderful woman in the world to love and return my love. She was my life, and not a single day goes by without me thinking about her and yearning to return to her arms as soon as possible.
Her name was Anna, and by God I could remember the surprise on the faces of our classmates when they discovered that Anna had chosen to go with me to the prom. Me, the one that everyone was prone to teasing when they were in younger grades, albeit lightly. But Anna was a very quiet and timid girl who has just immigrated to this country from Ukraine and barely understood any English. It was her accent which had made her the primary target of the school bullies, and it was me who always came to her aid and comfort every time a page would be ripped out of her notebook or a foot will trip her up in the hallways and make her fall. I ain’t got that many friends anyway, so why shouldn’t I be with her. Someone really just like me in every bit. Even though I had black hair, and eyes that some folk like to make fun of, since they were, well, different. So it was only natural that I had spent more and more time with her. Time that I cherished, and held on to, as we grew older and matured.
However, I changed. And the worst of it is, I found myself drawn to easy money. I became a gambler, and as the poker and blackjack table slowly conquered my life, I had lost my job as well. Despite my beloved Anna pleading with me to change my ways and return to being the loving husband as I was before, I continued on the road to eternal misery.
All right now, before I continue again, please let me make you aware of a few…important things. You may have noticed now during our walk that there are shadows in the desert all around us. Don’t you look at me and pretend you don’t know what the hell I am talkin’ about. I saw you glancin’ around. You are probably thinking, This is a damn desert out here. Ain’t not one goddamn tree or shrub within miles to be casting shadows. Let me tell you right here on the spot. These ain’t shadows. What are they? How the hell should I know. It ain’t like you can talk to em’ or such. But the light from my lantern keeps em’ at bay. This I’ll let ye’ know.
Hey! Goddamit don’t stop. Keep on walking. These things can feel fear and weakness, and when they do, they pounce. I’ve seen em’ pounce. Seen em’ up close even, when I put this here lantern on the ground to rest. Their faces, Goddamit, enough with it. Just keep on walkin’, and keep yer’ feet on the road, on the path, and you’ll be fine. As long this lamp is lit, they ain’t gon’ come close.
Along the way, I had fallen into the company of evil men, who convinced me that my skills at the card table could be put into even greater use. I began to deal, and run rigged games, where the opposing side will always lose due to my trickery and ingenuity. The money I earned from these rigged games seduced me even further. I began dealing full time, working for those same men of ill repute who had introduced me to this world of thievery. And by God, how many lives I had ruined. Many of the men who came to the saloon and attended my card games were men who barely made enough to keep their families alive. I had robbed each and every one of them. Some, I had even taken their entire life savings, for no compulsive gambler could resist the urge to play on despite losing again and again.
I became a hated man. But I was drunk on ignorance, and did not care. Some of the money I had earned I had used to buy off the local sheriff, so the law will always turn its head to my goings on. I carried a pistol with me all the time. Carried on my hip, plain as daylight, to show the world that a new outlaw was in town. And he meant strictly business.
I never thought that one day, it will all catch up with me, and by God, catch up with me it did. I had become hated, but hatred was the only thing that all those men whose lives I had cast into bankruptcy were capable of.
But as time went on, some of em’ went further than just hatred. It caught up to me one bright, moonlit night as I stood outside the door of one of the saloons that I dealt in, counting my ill gotten wealth by the light of the entrance lamp. I never even had the time to draw my gun, for they hit me from behind. One of em’ smashed a crowbar into the side of my head, while another began to beat me savagely with a steel pipe. I hit the ground, gushing blood, screaming in pain. But nobody heard me. And even if some did, they ain’t giving a damn.
They had thrown me, still conscious, into the back of a pickup truck, and driven me out of town. They stopped on an old wooden bridge over a creek of whose significance I just remembered then. It was the place where she and I fell in love and shared our first kiss, all those long years ago. Anna. My sweet Anna. The one with the sweet face, blue eyes and long hair as yellow as the buttercups of summer. And the one who had long since left me and moved away when I stopped loving her in order to pursue my new vice.
I only had enough time to remember this, and shed a few tears, as they dragged my bleeding body out of the truck bed and flung me over the bridge into the creek. The creek was shallow, so I landed on my back in the water. I could hear my spine crack as it struck the rocks of the creek bottom. I stared up at the bridge again, and in the moonlight, I could see one of the men pull something out of his coat pocket. It was a revolver. Huge and glinting silver stainless steel .357 Magnum, just like the one I carried. With a barrel the length of your goddamn arm. They passed the gun amongst each other, each one blasting me in the head and chest until the cylinder emptied.
And I woke up, right here in this godforsaken desert country, in the same place you found yourself at the beginning of our journey. Where the night is eternal and ain’t no stars in the black sky, though the mountains in the horizon seems to be burning red. I walked this same here road we walked on right now. Cursing myself, crying out for Anna, for my old life back. Ain’t gonna happen though. Ye’ can’t undo what you done already.
See this road below your feet? See how worn it is. Plenty of men have walked this same road before us. Men who wish they could change what they done. George Custers’ done walkin’ down this road. So did ol’ Wild Bill, missin’ half his head from where Jack McCall done shot him at pointblank range.
I walked this road myself. And the Raftsman had judged me, just like he had judged all the others. But he ain’t sent me anywhere else. Not me, outta all those who walked here. Not me. He has said to me that I was a foolish one. One who had found love, what many have sought for, only to fail. I threw it away like a damn fool. And like the fool I am, he has given me this goddamn lantern and made me walk this road forever, telling my story to everyone that walks down this beaten path. Just like how in them old days, they make thieves stand on the street corner and wear a sign sayin’ all the bad deeds they have done, for the whole goddamn town to see. Guess that’s his way of makin’ me his personal village idiot.
Am I complainin’? After all this? Hell no. I earned it, and I git’ to spend it. By the way, look at how far we have come on this road. Them mountains sure seem closer now than before. But we still got a long ways to walk and we don’t have to wait for the Sun to come out soon. ‘Cause it ain’t gonna come out ever in this place. If you are tired, we can rest. I got matches, and there is dried grass and twigs all ’round. I’ll build us a fire and the light will keep these…fiends…at bay. For all my troubles the Raftsman had given me something I truly cherish. I thank him for every goddamn day. He’s given me all the whiskey I can ever drink, so I git’ to drink every day and think about what I done. Want a swig? Well then, take the damn bottle and drink it up pard.
Raymond Chen is the author of the graphic novel “Borderlands”, a story about a Chinese student and his beloved Peruvian wife. His harrowing journey through a landscape of death and brutality would become the fight for the survival of an entire nation. The novel is available to read at no charge here: http://blueskycountry.tumblr.com.