When Ravi tees me up with that faraway voice I get nervous. He's a bright and serious kid, the kind that can lull me into being serious in return. I'm liable to get dark, forget he's a student, confirm something grim about his maturing worldview. Liable's the right word. You never really know which protective bubbles parents want to pop or preserve, and in what order.
So I stuff scrambled eggs into my mouth to give myself time to chew and edit my thoughts. Another forkful. I stuff until it's hard to breathe through my nose and turn my head to say, Yes?
He says nothing for a while. His silence brings into relief the slurping and clinking busy cutlery of a dozen strangers shoveling it in like teenage boys. Fear makes you hungry.
I'd woken before my alarm, feeling rested in my body and only caressed, not strangled, by dread of the coming workweek. Whatever dreams I'd had must have been benign. In the kitchen I surprised myself by reaching for the proper coffee instead of the instant, despite the extra labor involved. A rare and adventurous Monday. I poured out muesli and crushed up some almonds and sprinkled them from a height like a TV chef.
I opened the fridge to no milk. Luck restored. I gave it a sigh and faux-slammed the door and a few Saigon Inn takeout menus fell from their Saigon Inn fridge magnet. If I picked them up I wouldn't be able to stop myself from counting them, putting a hard figure on my laziness. I ignored them and stared at the bowl. If I hadn't added almonds I could have poured the muesli back in the box. I could do that anyway.
I prevailed. I went to find the pants with wallet and keys still in the pockets. They were on the armchair that has only ever been a clothes rack, in the living room that dropped its pretense of being a distinct part of the studio, a distinct part of my living, the day I moved in 8 years ago. I found the t-shirt that smelled least bad, took a piss, sucked on the toothpaste tube and left.
Outside, New York summer was at its coolest hour, yesterday's heat fully exhaled from the concrete and brick and today's not yet drawn in. The tons of seafood just delivered to Chinatown smelled sweet. I took strange pleasure in walking a straight diagonal to the Fus store; usually the crowd and stink and pools of melted ice and fish bits directed you this way and that. I felt the affinity for the morning that morning people must feel.
I got milk and went to the register. "Morning Mama," I said.
"Hi Will. Very sorry. No milk today."
A shotgun. I didn't comprehend it at first — just a curious thing that Mama Fu lifted to her hip from beneath the counter. Then I supposed it was a gun, but devoid of intent or consequence, just an unfamiliar thing to be held by her familiar hands. I stared at her tiny, bright yellow fingernails dotting the matte black pump-action. They'd been purple yesterday.
"On the ground, now!" shouted a sudden apparition in black military uniform, thrusting a handgun at my throat. It was Edward, the Fus' eldest son.
I comprehended. I dropped and my kneecaps struck the linoleum and seared and I screamed. Edward shouted again, this time in Mandarin and not at me and there came replies in Mandarin from all parts of the store, and shouting from Mama Fu in her English heavy with Chinese tones and some woman somewhere yowled in primal terror and Edward shouted at me again and waved his gun but I couldn't make out what he said or what the waving meant, but I guessed it was Lie down! so I did. I felt his boot on the back of my neck. Every time he shouted his weight shifted and the skin on my cheekbone caught the cold linoleum and felt like it would rip apart. With one eye I could see beneath the store shelves, across all the aisles glaring with the reflection of fluorescent lights. Running here and there were black army boots, at least 3 pairs, some kid-sized, rounding up a pair of lime green running shoes and elsewhere some paint- and grout-splattered work boots that reminded me of a Pollock. The association was so unserious, so abstracted from the guns and yelling that it made me more conscious of my panic, which surged and I cried out, screaming into the others' screams. My cheek slid happily now, lubricated by tears, and snot and spit.
A gun shot twice.
I wasn't dead. The yelling stopped or my yelling stopped or maybe my ears were ringing. Warmth grew from my crotch and belly. I pictured pooling blood but I couldn't check, my neck was still pinned. I smelled piss and prayed it was mine.
Hands grabbed me, a few pairs, yanking my arms behind my back, tying my wrists and ankles, frisking me and emptying my pockets and checking my hair as if for lice. By the time I realized it was my last chance to fight I was fully bound, sat up with my back against a wall of stacked wire shopping baskets. Tied up next to me was Ravi, a boy from my 8th grade History class.
A man shouted What the fuck's going on? and I looked up. It was the owner of the Pollock boots, thick-forearmed and beer-bellied, wearing a polo shirt with 'Marco's Plumbing' and his own bald head embroidered above the pocket. Edward and the Fu twins were frogmarching him towards us.
"Very sorry. You our guest. Not prisoner," answered Mama Fu to Marco while directing with her shotgun a woman to sit down next to me. I didn't look at her, only caught the glare of lime-green shoes and hideously-patterned yoga pants as she sat, but I sensed she was attractive — another unserious, irresponsible thought that triggered panic. My quick breath rattled the mucus in my nose, and the inspired dust made me cough and sneeze, and without free hands to cover it I splattered my t-shirt with snot and drool. I noticed a red wine stain, too, and wondered which bottle on which night was responsible, feeling ugly and embarrassed for being ugly next to someone attractive, and then I figured I should be looking for blood stains instead. I was okay. Wet with piss but okay. The woman seemed fine, and Ravi. And Marco.
I remembered the gunshots. Someone must be dead, somewhere among the aisles. My guts floated as if in turbulence.
"Get down!" Edward shouted at Marco, who was right by us now. He faked to sit then lunged with his shoulder and knocked Edward over and ran for the front door. Phillip, one of the twins, hurled a metal baton at him. It missed and crashed into a rack of cheap sunglasses. I noticed Mister Fu. He was standing on one of the checkout benches in his usual grey slacks and tucked-in black t-shirt, a gun in one hand and a Taser gun in the other. He shot the Taser and the tentacles hit Marco in the legs. The other twin shot his Taser too and it wrapped around Marco's face. Marco buckled and drifted off course and into a Coke fridge with a crack so loud that I thought it was gunfire, but when he crumpled unconscious and convulsing to the ground I saw that his head had shattered the glass door.
"Richard! Peas!" shouted Mama Fu. A three-foot-tall boy in a uniform too big for him appeared from somewhere then ran away. He came back with a bag of frozen peas, a few paper towels and Saran wrap and gave them to Edward, who wiped away the blood which returned quicker than he could swap towels for wrap; he gave up and strapped the peas to Marco's bloody head while the twins removed Taser tentacles and hog-tied him.
"Good morning, everyone," said Mister Fu from his post. It was the first time I'd ever heard him speak, and I was surprised by his neutral accent;, the kind that suggests a number of previous ones that have canceled each other out. "I am deeply sorry that it has come to this. Please understand, you are family, not prisoners. I will explain in time. Today begins the total war. We must move below."
They got us up and led us into a basement that smelled like rats and wet cardboard. On the back wall was a massive cupboard. Edward swung open its doors and triggered the flick-flick- hum of halogen lights: a tightly wound metal staircase, down.
Down, down we spiraled and I cried and begged not to die, then I begged to be dead quickly, begging to any Fu, to no one in particular, to a vague pastiche God, embarrassed by my desperation and at how cheaply I'd given in to deathbed conversion. But my spirit had given in entirely. I pitied myself for needing to be hugged by death to discover the depth of my will to live. I became dizzy with the spiraling and the stale air and the hypnotic dull amber shaft lights and the echo of the death march on the metal steps... I was no longer in my body. I said regretted my life and said goodbye to myself.
We reached the bottom. We went through a few thick steel doors and I was surprised by the smell of ginger and bleach. It was a long, cream-carpeted hallway with floral wallpaper. One wall was lined with a few dozen pairs of slippers and shoes in every color and size.
"Whoa," said Ravi.
"See?" said Mama Fu. "Family not prisoner. New home. Ooo-weee we shoulda built a lift!
"Sit down on the floor, please," said Mister Fu. "The boys will fit you with slippers."
I sat. Phillip, the twin who was in my History class with Ravi, came over.
"Hi Phillip," I said.
"It's cool." He ran a finger down the length of his nose. "Mine's busted. Like an S, see?"
"Ah, of course. Soccer?" I said, remembering.
He checked that Mama was out of earshot and then leant in. "Officially. But actually it was parkour. You know it? Yeah. Face-first into a dumpster – bam!"
"Dunno. Can't remember it. But the YouTube clip's real brutal. I'll show you later. Purple or green?" He held up a pair of slippers in each hand.
"Will Barber," said Mister Fu, coming over and crouching to meet me at eye-level. "We've never said a proper hello. I regret that it has to be so... so unceremonious. And I regret this." He showed me a vulcanized rubber collar dotted with flashing blue and red LEDs. He opened it, somehow; it was hinged, a mouth with equal jaws, now closing around my neck with a dull click and a few beeps. "It's only temporary."
He moved on to Ravi. Billy untied my hands.
"Come Will get up!" said Mama Fu. "Ravi ready? Come!"
We followed her up the hall and into a room. It wasn't the dark, dank cell I'd pictured while we descended the staircase, but an unremarkable lounge room, with sofas and TV and bookshelves and a kid-sized desk in the corner littered with crayons and comics, beneath it a stash of board games and a trumpet in its opened case.
"Sit down relax," she said and left, then yelled back from the hall, "No feet on sofa!"
Ravi and I picked a sofa and sat down. The woman hostage came in and sat on the sofa opposite and made herself as small as possible, knees hugged in to her chest and feet curled under her. She wore the lifeless, hopeless expression of someone camped out in a hospital waiting room, awaiting news she already knew.
Edward and the twins bundled Marco inside and into an armchair. The Saran wrap and peas had fallen down over his face. He was mumbling into it and trying to pull it off with hands which were now in proper metal handcuffs.
"Leave it," Edward said, slapping his hands away. "I'll clean it up properly. Richard! First- aid kit!"
Richard was pouring a cup of water for the woman. He paused to shake his head at Edward then continued. Edward whined and left. Mama Fu arrived and within a few seconds she had told the twins to stop bickering even though they weren't and scolded the woman for having her feet on the couch and sat in an armchair and settled herself in a way that suggested nobody else was ever allowed to sit there.
She switched on the TV.
BREAKING, read the ticker, as though it were a closed caption describing the news anchor's composure. With cracked voice he explained that the Destroyer USS Jonathan Greenert, a dozen Chinese and American aircraft, and hundreds of soldiers lay torn open in the South China Sea.
BREAKING: US declares war on China
Breaking, the woman hostage's heart. She cried with soft, eerie drawn out notes, hands folded in her lap, some mutant, haunting mantra meditation.
"You fucking yellow assholes!" Marco screamed. He'd managed to get the Saran wrap off. The bump on his forehead was a spilling volcano, the crater seeming to gape and close in the tempo of my heartbeat. He leapt up and flailed at Billy and missed and then ran for the door, and when he reached the threshold his collar shrieked like a fire alarm and stopped dead: his head stopped with it; his bottom half carried through the doorway, like a poleaxed running back.
He fell to the floor, mute, but his eyes did the screaming. I looked in them and knew that I'd never known pain.
Billy went over and pressed buttons on Marco's collar and a puff of mist shot out. "Shit!" said Billy, frantically playing with the collar until the alarm and LEDs went off. "No cursing!" shouted Mama. "Why you do pepper spray!"
"I didn't mean to."
Mister Fu ran up from somewhere down the hall and looked at Marco, whose eyes were swelling closed and streaming with tears stained by the blood that had run down from his forehead. Mister Fu stepped over his body and into the room.
"I meant to just turn it off, Dad, I'm sorry," said Billy. Mister Fu ignored him. Billy hung his head and helped the twins drag Marco back to his chair.
"Ooh here's my handsome!" said Mama Fu, getting up and hugging Mister Fu and nestling into him. "Quick do your talk. I gotta cook."
"Welcome, all," said Mister Fu, stepping into the middle of the room, squaring and lifting his chest, projecting his voice for an auditorium. "Today begins — can we turn the TV off? Where's the remote?"
"Oh I gotta do the introduction!" said Mama, switching off the TV then jumping in front of Mister Fu's imaginary podium. "I am Mama Fu. Here is Mister Fu. Edward. William and Phillip. And then along came new baby — Little-Richard-Big-Surprise! Ha!"
"Call me Eddie," said Edward.
"Billy," said Billy.
"Shhh!" said Mama Fu. "Now you. New family. Mr Barber you know Ravi and Phillip yeah?"
"Yoga woman say hello."
She didn't respond.
"What's your name huh?"
Mister Fu held a tablet computer which he showed to Mama. She pulled it close to her face, squinting.
"Linda! Linda say hello. So pretty in this photo. Too skinny now. Like a sick horse. Ha! You know Marco? Mr Barber you know Marco?" She looked at him. "Marco you know..." She faltered. Her animation faded and I think I heard her accent fade too — maybe she usually dialed it up in pantomime too, just like her gestures and clothes and laugh.
Mister Fu put his hand gently on her shoulder and Mama nodded. She turned and leaned in to accept a kiss on the top of her head then sat down in her chair.
"Welcome, all," repeated Mister Fu in the exact intonation as before, giving away that he'd been practicing. "Today begins the end of civilization above, and the birth of civilization below. The United States and China are at war and this war will be total. In the coming days and weeks every country will be forced to pick a side— "
"And you've picked China's," I said.
"No Will. We've chosen no side. We will never choose a side. We are the Resistance. Above, our world will divide, hate and fight until nothing is left. Here, below, humanity will endure. We will flourish. United. That's why we brought you with us."
"To die in a hole."
"To live! This hole, our home, is connected to 92 others. We've built a city. And so far..." he paused, tapping on his tablet. "Over 900 people have moved below with us."
"Quite possible, and true. And that's just in New York. We've built cities below every Chinatown in the world. Right now, globally, we are ten-thousand-strong. Ten thousand and seventy-three, to be exact, and counting. Let's see, 53 percent female, 47 percent male, median age 43, hmm that's a bit high. Genetic mix is looking good though. Excellent, in fact... Paris is still offline, damn it."
"You're full of it," said Linda. "You're insane."
"Quite sane. And why don't we see what you're full of. Here we are, Linda Matović. Blood group O, fantastic. Italian-American mother, Croatian father. I was a deckhand, once, on the Adriatic. Can I remember?... Dobro jutro. Imate lijepe oči. Mogu li cigaretu? I don't smoke anymore, of course. Or flirt."
His face was soft with nostalgia. Linda's was stunned.
"He's delusional," I said to the room. "Don't listen to him."
"I am not!" said Mister Fu.
"The cops will be here soon."
"No, no. They're powerless."
"Plus, it's not in their interest."
"Not in their interest!? What? Fucking nonsense."
"No cursing!" shouted Mama.
"I'll explain later," said Mister Fu. "We are safe."
"To starve in a hole."
"To live! We have enough food and water for thirty years. Satellite internet. We were early on Bitcoin. Very early."
"We'll eat ourselves alive."
He was fully screaming now, looking every part the unhinged dictator, a flush creeping up his veiny neck to his cheeks, boiling eyes, head jerking so much that the wisp on his bald patch couldn't pick an angle.
"Ah the pork!" said Mama Fu. She ran out of the room.
I was silent, intimidated by Mister Fu and by the recollection of what Marco's collar had done.
Nobody spoke. Mister Fu paced, calming himself. His face slowly drained its flush and became sour and deflated. He opened his mouth to address us but changed his mind and left the room.
Still nobody spoke. Billy and Phillip set up a game of chess on the floor. Little Richard went to the small desk and started drawing.
"Why did China start a war?" Ravi asked me.
I told him that we couldn't be sure that China had started it. I asked him if he remembered the lesson I gave last year, on 'Is that a fact?', and he said he did, sort of, and I said that in war, facts are even harder to come by than usual. Often revealed only once it's over. And the truth revealed later still. I recounted the exercise we'd done in class in which the students held their textbooks right up to their faces, then slowly moved them away. At first you can make out nothing, then a word or two, then more words which might confirm or change the meaning of the previous words, then sentences, paragraphs, the whole story, and then it starts to blur again and fall out of focus.
Disclaimers made, ego encouraged by Billy and Phillip who'd stopped their game and were looking at me with minds open, and by Richard who'd picked up his drawing and was moving it back and forth in front of his face, I told them exactly what had happened. I said that empires exist for a while and then don't. They never go quietly. I explained what tipping points were and said it had been obvious for years that the flashpoint, the tipping, would happen in the South China Sea. The recent pattern and schedule of US and Chinese naval deployments and withdrawals were unequivocal; gamesmanship was over.
I knew I was pontificating, but I was warmed up and enjoying myself and so I kept going, about oil and reserve currencies and tungsten-filled gold, Diocletian, boundless rehypothecation, middle class erosion, race and religion, mercenary hackers and fake- and augmented-news bots and analog propaganda strategies in an AI world...
At some point I looked up at Linda and saw that I was a complete asshole.
I shut up and nobody spoke. I reckoned with my smugness and realized that the news of war had felt good; my predictions were correct. I was smarter than everyone who had dismissed me, laughed me off or ignored me. When I saw them again I'd gloat.
When I saw them, ha. I brought my attention to the hug of my collar. Some soothsayer I was. Never before had my mental life seemed so removed from my actual life, or so pointless; for all I'd foreseen about this war, I'd seen nothing of my war, to be fought in a madman's fantasy and bunker.
I went to the bookshelf to distract myself from the shame. The bigger titles on the spines stood out, vertical and horizontal in various sizes, like some pre-internet word cloud. I looked for a theme, trying to piece together Mister Fu's ideology and insanity. I got a little thrill when I spotted The Goebbels Diaries, and then The Art of War and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and The Bible, but I knew I was only playing, willing a pattern in the tea leaves, ignoring John Locke and the JFK biographies, all the titles in Chinese I was dumb to, and the half a shelf on what to do about adolescent sons.
I joined Richard at his desk and looked over his shoulder and complimented his half-drawn horse. He said it was an orc.
Mama's heels came rapping down the hall. Richard became still and tense, listening, then turned around to face the door. I turned too. Mama Fu came in wearing an apron that had the torso of Michelangelo's David printed on it. One of the abs was missing, burned right through.
"Everybody breakfast!" she sang, beaming, hands raised above her head.
Mister Fu came in. "Wait, everyone. I have to tell you something important. You must understand that you are now family, and we will love you like brothers and sisters. That said, the Resistance believes that every person has the right to choose how they wish to live their war. We will give you that choice. In one month, if you wish to return above, you can."
Everybody spoke and shouted and stood at once.
"QUIET!" yelled Mama, long and loud enough to get our silence. "Eat first. Talk after. Go go!" With her wooden spoon she shepherded Linda out the door.
"Sit back down, Marco," said Mister Fu. "You're staying here. Someone will bring you a plate."
He took Marco's collar softly in his hand and leaned in and whispered something in his ear. Marco whimpered. The collar beeped. He passed out.
Mama had circled back behind me. She tapped me on the ass with her wooden spoon. "Go now!"
We went along the corridor past a kitchen and then into a sort of mess hall, tables and bench seats packed as tightly as church pews, room enough for thirty people. The low ceiling was unfinished concrete and exposed pipes and ventilation shafts. Light bulbs hung naked on long cables.
"Mr Barber sit here," ordered Mama, smiling, putting me next to Linda. It was obvious that she was pairing us, for sport or the survival of mankind I couldn't tell.
I'd go along, though. For the species. I thought about sex and felt less alone.
All the Fu boys made like ants, hurrying in and out of the room, fetching more from the kitchen and bringing it to Mama, who inspected the goods and dispatched them with a point of her spoon. They put plate after plate of bagels, scrambled eggs, bacon, dumplings and watermelon on the table. Little Richard climbed up on the bench next to me. "Coffee or tea?"
I drank it black because I didn't like it black; pleasure seemed out of place in Linda's presence, disrespectful. It tasted bad and I liked it tasting bad. I smirked at the circularity and decided that whatever arguments there were for being somber there were better ones for indulging whatever we could before death, and so I thought about sex again, this time without toning it down because of how despondent and lifeless she looked... our lovemaking, to my surprise, became more tender not more lustful, which meant I might fall in love.
I ate a dumpling and thought about my earlier attempt at breakfast. The muesli in the bowl, the menus on the floor, the countless micro-deliberations. The desire for milk determined my fate. Or, I chose milk and sealed my fate. I knew that it didn't deserve a second thought — pure cosmic accident, the daily lottery — and I also knew that I would think about it constantly, until I could paint each oat and part-almond in that bowl from memory, obsess until the exactness would give way to impressions, abstractions, weirdness, madness.
Linda wasn't eating. I wanted to say something to comfort her, and I want to explain myself too, to relieve myself of the judgment so clear on her face when I'd looked up from my preaching in the lounge room. My subconscious must have been ruminating ever since, concocting a tenable defence for being an asshole, because it now offered me a fully fledged excuse: on 9/11 I was in Austin, Texas. It was my freshman year. My roommate woke me from a hangover and switched on the TV. I flew home a few days later and cried and grieved with my city but there was a distance I couldn't bridge. I hadn't been there. Hadn't felt the disintegrating Towers reverberate in my bones, or woken to the choir of sirens, or squinted at the terrific sunlight glinting on the second plane simultaneously inexplicable in the sky and explicable because it was the second. I wasn't swallowed and choked by the ash cloud ever-darkening the sky. I didn't wear that ash for days in my pores and snot and under my fingernails. I endured the tragedy of missing my home's great tragedy.
And so can't you understand, Linda, that among this terror there is some sweetness for me? That having lived with this macabre version of not going to Woodstock, bound to hear the stories forever and every time feel a separation from my time and people, that now, finally, I can suffer too? I can know true communion and agency of mutual sorrow?
I said nothing. Even if it were a little bit true, the way the thoughts arose, not as emotional revelation but as a serviceable, dramatized logic, screamed trickery.
A door on the far side of the room opened. Seven strangers walked in.
"Hello hello!" sang Mama Fu, going over and hugging an Asian couple and a young girl who I guessed was their daughter. Mister Fu did likewise. Mama introduced them as the Longs. When the daughter stepped forward and waved the Fu twins jostled with each other to be more visible to her. She enjoyed the attention too much. Breaking, two hearts, soon enough.
The other four had collars on. There was a man, well-shouldered and good looking and confidently watchful, watching Linda. The love I'd conjured up evaporated. It was for the best (his genes were better, they'd make a more robust baby) but I hated him.
And then I saw a face of impossible heartache. A mother, holding a sleeping baby in her arms and being held by the belt loop by a crying little girl.
I thought about my mom and felt guilty that I hadn't earlier. I regretted that we weren't close. It occurred to me that the others had families too and I remembered, vaguely, that above in the store Marco had cried out about his children waiting in the car. I wondered whom Linda was mourning. I thought about Ravi. There had been no hint, at all, that he was missing his parents and sister. I hadn't seen him cry. When he'd asked me questions about war, he'd done so with his usual coolness, the somewhat sardonic detachment that I'd always liked him for. In class he usually had an air of being somewhere else but he was most resolutely there, with it — I'd quickly learned that calling on him when he was staring out the window would never catch him out. In fact, whenever I was tired of the other students, I could turn to him for something succinct and intelligent. His comebacks to other students' jokes were so perfect I'd often share them with the other teachers.
Now it dawned on me that he might simply be cold. There's no characteristic more disturbing in an otherwise content and intelligent child. Unalloyed coldness, the absence of sentimental organs but a shrewdness about sentimental mechanics.
I was reflecting on this, horrified by him, watching him savoring his coffee as though he wasn't usually allowed to drink it, watching too the new family, who were horrifying in their own way because of their newness and their validation of Mister Fu's fantasy, when Ravi spoke "Mr Barber?" and I stuffed my mouth with eggs to stall.
He looks at me. "Do you think they're going to kill Marco?"
Of course they are, I'm thinking, chewing. First hostage to be sacrificed when the cops come and the negotiations start. Or he'll lash out again and the collar will finish him. Dead in a matter of hours.
"And will you go back above? In a month?" he says.
I chew. I can't bring myself to peddle hope. I can't bring myself to dash it either. I sip my coffee and nod and frown to suggest I have to think about it.
The far door opens. Another family.
While I'm still counting them come through the door a tremendous growl erupts above and the air shudders, just the air, I think, not the room itself, but everyone clings to the chairs and tables and floor nonetheless and the baby screams and Mama Fu and I meet eyes for a moment and I see that her spirit has dissipated entirely. The growl doubles and rolls down from above like thunder and my ear drums pulse, and such screams and howls and screams and a blaze of Mandarin rasps and crackles on the Fus' and Longs' walkie talkies. I put a hand on Ravi's head to pull him close and shield him from the ceiling that isn't collapsing.
"We're okay, Ravi. We're all going to be okay."