Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Chapter 2, 26: Graves

This chapter is a tribute to the crazy internal geography of the Hebb-Henning building complex at the University of British Columbia, which really does, or at least did, have one room numbered in the sequence of a building all the way across campus, not that it was a classroom. 

Chapter 2, 26: Graves

Chris stared down the terraced street, gripping the silvered bayonet, a little self-consciously. There was nothing.

Beside him, Billy revved the 750’s engine to keep it out of stall, then let the noise wind down again so that they could hear themselves talk. “Can you pick anything up with your sensors, Bruce?”

“Magic dogs are magic, Billy.” Bruce McNeely answered. “See here? There’s four big dogs clustered down on Fenimore Drive. They could be werewolves, but that’s a park entrance, so it could be a dog walker.” Bruce tapped his phone. “And here’s a visual on that. Wow. Who still ties bandannason their Golden Retrievers? So, uhm, yeah. Dog walker. Face it, Billy. Your baddies have vamoosed.”

Chris’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out, looked at the message on the screen, and handed it to Billy.

“What’s Mr. W. doing at the Institute?” Billy asked.

“I don’t know,” Chris said. “Maybe we can ask him when we go see him there. Like he wants us to.”

“Okay, Chris. Hop on up. Thanks for the help, Bruce.” Billy looked at the phone again. “Hey, and you’re invited, too! Coming?”

Bruce nodded. “Sure. I’ll be down on my bike soon as I’ve done the alarm shutdown paperwork. Beats explaining why there’s bits of motorcycle all over the floor in Bay 12. What you going to do about that, by the way?”

I’ll bring my pickup over after school tomorrow to get the Ninja. Maybe give the girls rides home.”
“Yeah. Don’t think they’ll need it. See you then.”

Billy and Bruce sounded a little tense when they talked about the girls, Chris thought, as he jammed his helmet on and got up on the Suzuki. By the time they were parked in Billy’s shed, Chris knew that he had been right the first time. He was very, very cold. When they stepped through the doors into the rambling Institute, Chris’s first thought was blissful gratitude at the warmth. His second was to wonder why they were going down the stairs.

“Hey, Billy. This isn’t the way to your room.”

“Nope. See the room number here? We’re going to Smith 1011.”

“And your room is 1010.”

“My room is McNeely 1010.”

“And this is the McNeely Building of the Institute for Advanced Research.”

“And “Smith” is the Lavington J. Smith Building for the Medical Sciences.”

“Which is?”

“Across campus. But Smith 1011 is downstairs.”

“That doesn’t make any sense!”

“Hey, if you don’t want to make someone late for class, why did you become an architect in the first place?” Billy said.

At the bottom of the stairs, sure enough, there was Smith 1011, right between McNeely 069 and Mcneely 070. Chris opened the wood-panelled door with the frosted glass window, and was met by the delicious smell of hot broth. Standing across a tall table, his uncle was stirring a wok mounted on a ring over a Bunsen burner with chopsticks. His plastic cookout bowls, and one plate, were arranged beside him. “Good afternoon, Chris, Billy. Thank you for joining us.” Sitting on high stools around the table were Auntie Ma, Charlotte, Father Asplin and Eve. A small vase stood at the head of the table, with a photo of his Grandfather’s portrait of Elizabeth Wong propped up on it.

“Hey,” Chris said. Billy grunted something that might have been the same.

His uncle smiled. “My grandfather always said that a good broth is the most important thing. It makes customers happy to eat less.” He picked up the first bowl and dumped it into the wok. “Preserved sausages, for the ancestors.” The next bowl was slowly poured in. “Egg for beginnings and endings.” The third bowl had noodles. He lifted them from the bowl with his chopsticks, and, in one swift motion, plunged them into the broth to break them up. “Noodles for long life.” The next bowl had a slotted spoon in it. Uncle put his chopsticks down to lift rice balls out of it and gently but quickly tip them into the wok, one by one until there were nine in the broth. “Rice so that we will never go hungry.” Then he picked up the plate in one hand, sprinling flecks of green and white over the wok. “Scallions and chicken, for the youth that are green as spring.” Then the last bowl, from which glistening wrapped dumplings slid into the wok with an expert twist of the wrist. “And wontons. Because I like them, and I'm the one going to the trouble of making soup on a Bunsen burner.”

Uncle Henry picked up his chopsticks again and stirred vigorously, as you had to do to break up the egg drops, Chris knew, having done it for his grandfather many times in the kitchen of the Golden Dynasty. “I’ve done this in the wrong order a bit. For the symbolism. Nothing says symbolism like soup. Also,” he grinned, “I’m guessing that Chris and Billy must be cold to the bone by now.” Uncle Henry picked up a bowl and a ladle, and topped it up with the soup, handing it off to his wife, who put a teacup beside the bowl, and poured green tea into it from a pot that appeared out of nowhere. Then his aunt passed the tray to his sister, who leaned over to put it in front of the picture of Elizabeth. Next to be served were Father Asplin, Billy, Eve and Bruce before family in age order, slightly inconveniently for his uncle, who didn’t finally get to put out the Bunsen burner and set the wok aside to eat until Chris had inhaled half of his soup. It might be his White half talking, but wontons were his favourite, too.

The clicking of spoons against bowls was still well underway when Chris looked up from his empty bowl, hopefully. That was almost a decent start on lunch. Across the table, his uncle caught his eye. “This is more of a symbolic meal. You kids will be having dinner at Denny’s tonight.”

Chris raised his eyebrow. “Not the Golden Dynasty? We got an Osoyoos phone number from that bastard, Tuney earlier.”
“No. Chris, I’ve arranged for you and some friends to take Elizabeth’s remains through to the Bench tomorrow, and I’ve got you a time machine so that you can fix up history. That’s a lot of favours. It isn’t good to ask for too many favours. We’ll put a team on the phone number, and a call in to Tuney’s probation officer. The funeral is for your team.”
Father Asplin, across the board, lifted his golf umbrella from below the lab-bench/table and saluted Chris. For some reason, he had it in a green cover. “We’re gathered in odd circumstances, Chris. Your aunt was laid to rest in your family cemetery over 70 years ago. It’s a real cemetery, and they were real remains. Even though Charlotte’s body never got buried. That’s a frightening business. Ghosts will walk, and we will need to propitiate them."

“Does that mean that you’re coming, Father?”

Father Asplin put his umbrella down beside him and smiled, with a certain sadness. “As a holy warrior and a Catholic priest, I only ever attended to ghosts when it was time to put them down. You need a shaman for this business. Also, my knees aren’t up to climbing the Bench any more.” He looked at Eve, and Chris followed his eyes. The cavegirl looked monumentally bored. Chris looked over at his sister. Her eyes were flashing.

“Ahem,” Father Asplin continued. “We’re asking Billy to tag along for some muscle and experience, and Bruce because he’s the splitting image of his grandfather. That’s a pretty big advantage to have if you have to infiltrate the funeral.”

“I have to skip school tomorrow to go time travelling?” Bruce asked.

Don’t worry, we’ve got Mr. Piccolo sorting it--,” Uncle Henry smiled. Chris couldn’t help noticing his aunt rolling her eyes momentarily.

“-That is so awesome,” Bruce interrupted. “Things like this never happened at Ravenswood!”

Chris turned his head to look at the excited Eighth Grader, who looked back at Chris for a second and then dropped his head, flushing. “Well, hardly ever.” He paused for a second, then continued. “There was hardly ever time travel at---“

“Bruce,” Father Asplin said, gently, “No-one’s going to get the reference.”

“Nah,” Charlotte interrupted. “Gilbert and Sullivan.”

“Ah,” the priest continued. “No-one who hasn’t made Mr. Piccolo start singing ‘Three Little Maids From School’ is going to get the reference.”

“So can Dora and Rose come along?’ Charlotte continued.

“No,” Auntie Ma said, unexpectedly and firmly. “The three of you can have your own adventure when you’re ready.”

“What if it happens before we’re ready?” Charlotte objected.

“Adventures always happen before you’re ready. It’s just that there’s a difference between the ‘before you’re ready’ when you’re ready, and the ‘before’ when you’re not. And you three still have a ways to go. Don’t rain on your brother’s parade.”

A few minutes after that, the little not-quite-a-wake broke up, and the Wongs and their guests trooped out to the parking lot, where the Mazda5 and St. Elizabeth Parish’s beat-up Chrysler minivan were parked. Auntie Ma materialised at Chris’s side as they stepped out onto the pavement, and the cold awoke again in his bones. “Here, Chris, help me put the vase in the back of the Mazda.

In moments they were standing in front of the open back trunk. His aunt reached in to fidget with the emergency bag and miscellaneous boxes, signalling that this was going to be one of those pointlessly long adult jobs of fiddling and indecision. Chris sighed to himself and tried to find some way of holding his feet so that they could both be out of contact with the numbing ground at the same time.

“I know that you’re cold and hungry, Chris, but I need to ask you something. Did you learn anything today?”


“This is a day for family and guests. What does the word ‘guest’ mean to you? Someone who struts up the walk to someone’s place and kicks the door down?”

Suddenly it crashed into Chris. “We broke into a man’s home today.”

“So you did. Anything else?”

Chris felt like he could cry. “I manipulated him into giving us that phone number. Dr. Cambridge is right. I am a sociopath. But we needed the number for our investigation.”

“Chris, no excuses, and no ‘is,’ either. You are not this, not that, the ‘this’ and the ‘that,’ they do not exist, any more than future and past.. What matters is right action, informed by the dharma. Are you regretting your behaviour right now?”

“Yes. We could have just phoned him.”

“Then you are not the person who never regrets.”


“Sociopath. This oh-so-medicalised creature that manages to never feel regret. You aren’t a sociopath. You’re Chris. Attend to that. Now let’s get into the car, where it’s warm.” She slid the vase smoothly into one of the boxes, where Chris could have sworn there was no room for something so big.

Despite the promise of the warm interior of the 5, Chris was still not warmed through by the time they reached the plaza next to St. Elizabeth’s and had to walk across the pavement and into the Denny’s. The group moved as one to the hospitality room at the back. There, they found Henry, David, Jenny, Nita and Brad waiting. “I see that we have a team,”Chris said as he sat down.

“Not for any mission you know about, I’m afraid, Chris,” David said. “Elder Worm stuff. A little hairy for you at your stage. Tonight, though, we’re here for Aunt Elizabeth.”

“Someone you never met. Some funeral,” Brad Neilsen pointed out.

“Brad,” Jenny said. “I’m sorry, guys.”

“No, it’s true, if tactlessly put,” David conceded. “As eldest at this table, it falls on me to point out that we didn’t know Elizabeth. Hardly anyone got to know Elizabeth. Even her brothers got to go study at the Eight Spirit Dragon monastery. She stayed home to look after her father, and died before she could even be married. That’s something to mourn.”

“And look what good it did,” Charlotte said. “Auntie Ma says that it should have been Aunt Elizabeth who went to study in China. Dad ran away to join the Tongs after six months, and Auntie was the first to learn the inner arts of Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu outside of China.”

David nodded. “All of this is true. One son and one daughter. That was the meaning of the prophecy. Abbot Feng misunderstood it because he could not conceive of a woman studying kung fu. Though I should point out that Grandfather Henry was at least as worried about finding wives for David and Kwan.”

“Why?” Billy asked, looking up from the menu that he was scrutinising, his head bent over into it like closer attention could help him decide between steak and shrimp and rotisserie chicken.

Father Asplin, who had been talking with their waitress, looked over. “Chinese Exclusion Act, Billy.” Billy opened his mouth to ask a question. “No ugly history for tonight, Billy.” He turned back to the waitress. “Has your mother got her tests back yet, Sarah? I know they said next week, but sometimes they’re early.”

Chris looked over. For some reason, Father Asplin’s question seemed as heavy with meaning as his brief comment about the Canadian Chinese Exclusion Act that, among other things, prevented Grandfather Henry from bringing brides over from China for his sons. Not that Chris had ever thought that that was such a good idea. The waitress shook her head, and Chris couldn’t help noticing a sparkle of tears in her eyes. Uh-oh. Probably, late tests meant that something was badly wrong with Sarah’s mother. Chris was reminded of the meeting with the doctors last June when they were told that their mother had less than a year to live.

Father Asplin whispered something to Sarah, putting his hand over her wrist. At the same moment, more waitresses arrived, carrying huge platters of cheese sticks, onion rings, chicken wings and nachos. His cousin David wrapped his glass and said, loudly, “Okay, we’ve had our dose of symbolism and mourning this afternoon at our wakes. Now it’s time to cram a little fun and deep-fried food into our lives. For Aunt Elizabeth.”

Eve had left early when Savannah and Jameel swung by to pick her up. Father Asplin left for the kitchen half way through dinner. Then Graydon emerged from the restaurant lobby. it was Bruce’s turn to be picked up.

 Bruce got to his feet, at the sight of Graydon. “Now, if everyone will just turn their backs for a couple minutes. Graydon and I will demonstrate the family’s patented “disappearing” trick.

“Oh, shut up, kid,” Graydon said, coming up behind his cousin and swatting him softly on the head. Bruce flinched dramatically, saying, “Ow!”

“Crunchy,” Graydon said, coolly. “Since when do you use hair gel, Bruce?”

“So what do you use to keep your hair down, Gray? Elf magic?”

Amazingly, the impassive and unemotional Graydon blushed at that from ear to ear. “Hey, guys! Long time no see. How’s San Francisco? How’s college?” He pulled up Father Aspliln’s abandoned table and sat down, poking a cold cheese fry in ketchup and nibbling on it as Nita began to answer. If Dr. McNeely hadn’t texted a half hour later, they would probabl have still been there at closing time. who stayed almost a full half hour catching up with the San Francisco gang before his father texted him and asked where he was.

A few minutes after that, the San Francisco gang got up, Nita,  Jenny and Brad included, and did their own disappearing act. As if on cue, Auntie Ma and Uncle Henry came out of the lobby, arms over each other’s shoulders more like newlyweds than an old married couple, Chris’s aunt dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief in her free hand.

“Okay, gang. Time to settle up and get you home.” He took a long survey of the table, his eyes boring into Chris’s for a moment. “I’ve changed my mind on the vigil. Sleep tonight, pass through the veils of spacetime to settle the angry ghosts tomorrow.”

Chris nodded. He was warm, fed, and sleepy, and he had a feeling that there was at least one ghost in his life who wouldn’t mind at all if he got eight hours before putting her remains to rest.

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