She had known better than to expect Long Fei’s condition to improve overnight, but in the following weeks she still grappled with impatience and frustration. For several sleepless days his condition seemed to actually worsen. He complained of new headaches, and for some time his pulse rate rose even higher. He barely ate, saying that there was a chemical taste in all the food they gave him. Haojing began to panic, asking herself why she ever trusted a crazy addict living alone in a decaying piece of machinery, proposing to march right back to Dr. Ian to demand answers. But Chien-yi remained as cool as ever, counseling patience, and in time, Long Fei’s condition stabilized.
He had taken the news of his medical confinement as she knew he would: with the unflappable toughness of someone who has always been sick. “I’ve been wanting to do more reading,” he had said to Haojing a few days after she had returned, smiling and wincing as she helped him sit up in bed. She had replied with a joke about this being the perfect excuse for him to be waited on hand and foot.
But she knew, inside, that it must be killing him to be so immobile. Long Fei had always prized his independence, and took obvious pride in the ways he found to contribute to the family – working for the metal peddler, raising cabbage in the garden, teaching his cousins to read. Years ago, before his strength had started to fail him, they had wandered miles away from the village, farther away than they were permitted to go, and climbed to the top of a lonely hill that was empty save for a rusting 18-wheeler. They had clambered on top of the truck’s cab to get a better look at the view; smoke from the innumerable human settlements below hazed the sky. It was then that he confessed to her that he could tell that his implant was slowly starting to fail, though there was not yet any concrete evidence for it. And he drew his knees up to his chest and with a trembling voice told her that his great nightmare was to become one who his mother had to take care of rather than remain one who helped her take care of others.
In those weeks after her return Haojing attempted to pick up some slack, to reassure her mother, though she had always done more than her share. She was desperate for more time of her own, to use a terminal at the computing shed, to run back to the places she had passed by on her journey and explore, to meet someone – the village was small, and here world was not exactly teeming with the kind of young people she’d like to get to know. But there was no one to tell about such things, certainly not her mother, and anyway, this was not the time, not with the reality that Long Fei was never going to get fully well. She went out of her way to be available to help her mother whenever possible. Predictably, this resulted in her mother growing more and more annoyed.
“Would you please go find something to do?” Chien-yi finally yelled, after yet another invitation from Haojing to help with the garden. “I can harvest beans myself.” And so she grabbed her bag and stalked off, with a mixture of wounded resentment and gratitude.
The water tower was in sight when she saw him. He was talking to a local character, towering over a man who was well known in the village to be half-peddler, half con artist. The much older peddler, animated and loud, had to be a foot and a half shorter than his target. Mac was dressed in the same clothes as before, but he had cleaned himself up since then, and a professional-looking bandage was wrapped around his thigh. The peddler was gesturing exaggeratedly to some artifact in his hand, one of his many cobbled-together “technological” treasures. Like everyone in the village, she knew the routine, and she knew that he was not exactly lying when he ascribed powers to the gizmo that it didn’t have. He believed he was selling things of immense value; it just happened to be the case that the rest of the world knew them to be junk. She sighed to herself for a moment, then again came to Mac’s rescue.
He was visibly annoyed, but as she approached he locked eyes on her and smiled. He looked better than the last time she saw him, all around, though that bar wasn’t particularly high. She could not quite parse how she felt about seeing him again, but at the very least he owed her a favor.
“Hi Mac,” she said, drawing a look of surprise from the peddler. “How’s it going?”
“I was just saying that I don’t need to buy… whatever that is.” He glared at the peddler, folding his arms in a way intended to make him appear tough. It was not particularly successful.
“But I was just explaining to the gentlemen that everyone needs one of these. Let me list its functions. First and most importantly –”
Haojing put her arm around the old man’s waist and took a few slow steps, gently separating him from Mac.
“Ah, but he was just going to say that he doesn’t need one because he already has one,” she said, continuing to steer him away.
“He – ah – he, he does?” said the peddler, looking back towards Mac in confusion.
“He does,” she said, letting go of his waist. “But you know, there’s usually a pretty good crowd this time of day down by the stream. Perhaps you can get a good haul of vegetables.”
“Well – I suppose –”
In a few moments she had successfully sent the peddler on his way. She wandered back towards Mac, who was shuffling awkwardly in place.
“Thanks,” he said, watching the peddler walk off into the distance. “Do I just look like a mark?”
She studied him for a second.
“Yes,” she said, nodding. He winced for a moment, then laughed.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I get that a lot.”
“You must be tired,” she said, and they ambled over to a sturdy picnic table someone had dragged out near the water tower. He sat down, awkwardly swinging his injured leg over the bench. He withdrew a canteen from his pack and offered it to her. She waved it away and pulled a metal bottle out of her own bag. For a while they sat without speaking.
“So what are you here for?” she asked.
“Well – I came – I didn’t really thank you properly, before.”
“I thought you had,” she said, feeling a bit of regret as she did. It sounded meaner than she had intended.
He opened his mouth to speak. She raised her hand in a conciliatory gesture.
“Sorry. I’m sorry. And you’re welcome.”
Some children had wandered over to the water tower nearby, gathering under one of the larger spigots to wash their filthy clothes and faces. A rivulet of dirty water ran past the table where they sat. Haojing studied the children but did not recognize more than a couple of them, which was not particularly notable. Itinerant families came and went day by day.
“How did you come to be in that position, anyway? Did they ambush you?”
“Not exactly.” He sighed and ran his hands through his beard, reflexively. Again she noted how young he really was, beneath the facial hair and dirt. “We had a deal and it didn’t go right. I was trying to buy something. We negotiated a price ahead of time, we met, they reneged, I left. I guess they didn’t care for missing out on the sale. They ambushed me an hour or so later.”
“What were you buying?” asked Haojing, pulling a bit of homemade jerky out of her pack and tossing him a piece. She sat on the picnic table bench with her back pressed against the table, still studying the children as they bathed and played.
“Uh, an air conditioner.”
She looked him over theatrically.
“An air conditioner?” she asked, rolling her food between her fingers. “Do you know how much gas you’ll need to run an air conditioner?”
“Look, I don’t need to run it now. I’m trying to get set up for the future.”
“I’ve got a place. It’s great. It’s a secret. It’s great. I’m getting it set up so one day I’ll have the perfect place for a family.”
She just nodded and sat quietly for a moment.
“And the mother to be in this family – she’s theoretical, I take it?” she asked, smiling.
He snorted angrily and wobbled to his feet, again swinging his leg awkwardly over the bench as he stamped off to go.
“Thanks again,” he growled, starting to stamp off. “I’ll see you later.”
She stood quickly and walked over to him. She grabbed his arm.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Don’t go. Look, you owe me a favor, right? There’s an old HVAC unit attached to an abandoned building half a kilometer from here. I want to haul out some parts for salvage, but they’re too heavy to carry back on my own. Will you help me?”
He glanced at his feet for a moment, brow furrowed, then nodded.
“Yeah. Yeah, I can do that.”
It was dark before they returned, dragging a dusty evaporator coil and some corroded refrigerant lines back to the house. Her mother was predictably annoyed, both at the lateness of her return and at the unexpected presence of her visitor, but just as predictably said nothing. She simply made up a plate of cabbage and yams for Mac along with those for all the rest of the mouths she had to feed. Haojing spent dinner in her usual perch next to her mother, calmly eating her share and helping distribute food to siblings and cousins, putting out various fires, and remaining generally above the fray. Mac talked and she nodded along.
It was well past dark when the whole brood was safely put to sleep. Chien-yi had disappeared for the night in her usual habit. Mac, to his credit, had been entertaining to the young boys as Haojing had gone about the business of coaxing them into bed. With the last cousin in bed, if unwillingly, she walked him to the door. The air was pleasantly chill as she deposited him outside.
“Know any place near town where I can pitch my tent for a while?” he asked. She took a moment to decide if he was trying to prompt an invitation and decided he wasn’t.
“You could park in the yard behind our house. Over on the side with the shed. Don’t go near my mother’s garden.”
“Thanks,” he said, then paused awkwardly for a while before shuffling off.
“Seriously. Stay away from the garden.”
The house was still as she climbed up the stairs to her own little nook of a room. She lay awake awhile, listening to the distant clatter of a generator, then drifted off to sleep.