Mr. Xing handed me the scroll and said, "You have one hundred second before it burn."
I fumbled with the wax seal, heart racing as the seconds passed, and once I'd unravelled it I pressed it flat on the table and let my eyes devour the ink drawings.
On the weathered paper were three pictures of a girl with short black hair and stout figure, an ugly port of wine stain covering half of her face. Me. I didn't think it would be so accurate, but the ink drawing couldn't be mistaken for anybody else.
My small, pudgy hands could barely keep the paper flat as I looked at the three images. In the first I stood beside a sign with three letters in red; AGO.
In the second image I watched as a man brandished a knife in a messy room. I lay on the bed, cowering in fear as he loomed over me.
Finally, in the last image I stared down at my phone, which was cracked so bad it looked like someone had shot a bullet at it.
Mr. Xing ripped the scroll away from my hands and tossed it in the fire. The paper began to curl and blacken almost immediately, and I watched as it crumbled into ash. The bell rang behind us as a customer entered the store.
Xing leaned in closer. "What you see?"
I blinked and looked away from the fire, the shape of the flames burnt into my retinas. Mr. Xing looked at me over his spectacles, furry grey eyebrows scrunched up in concentration. He looked like any old Chinese senior, wearing a beige polo and khaki pants, so for the longest time I thought that Mr. Xing was just another little old man with a bad sense of fashion. Well, he was a little old man with a bad sense of fashion, but he was much more than that.
I took a deep breath and met his eyes. "AGO, whatever that means. And then I was in a room—"
"How the room look?"
I thought back to the picture. "Messy, with lots of red. I was on the bed and a man was standing over me holding a knife."
"My phone was trashed," I said.
"But you okay?"
I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to remember. I would have seen red in the last picture if I got hurt, but there hadn't been any. "Yeah. I think so."
Mr. Xing eyed me critically, like he didn't think I was telling the truth. He looked at everyone like this.
He shook his head and muttered in Mandarin under his breath. Then bent and pulled something from under the counter. He pushed it towards me; another scroll.
"Kevin Wang, July 29, 2016, 3:46 PM, Toronto Chinatown," he said. "That give you—" He checked his watch. "—one hour."
"Shit. Aren't there any more instructions?" I asked as I stuffed the scroll in my bag. Sometimes there were little clues that helped you find them, like the words, red umbrella or top floor.
He shook his head. The customer behind me waited with a bag full of dried mushrooms.
"There's gotta be a billion Kevin Wangs in Chinatown. Come on, Xing, you've gotta help me out here—"
"Portal is ready, Lizzy." He motioned to a little doorway covered in a bead curtain that led to the back of the shop.
I opened my mouth to say something but an eery purple glow began to creep through the beads. The portal would close soon. I dashed around the front counter just as Mr. Xing greeted his customer, pushed through the beads, and dived in to the glowing violet vortex.
I landed on a patch of scorching pavement, the sun so bright it bleached the world white. My eyes slowly adjusted and I stood up, taking in my surroundings.
I'd landed beside what looked like an art gallery. A huge poster of a Group of Seven piece hung on one of the pillars holding up the overhang, and because the light caught the window I could see my reflection in the glass windows.
If there was anywhere I blended in, it was Chinatown, and even here people stared. The art gallery loomed on the foot of the neighbourhood, a long street crowded with colourful shops for clothing, Chinese herbs, and food. I wished I could understand more Mandarin (it would help with the "errands" Mr. Xing sent me on) but my parents never bothered to teach it to me. I could pick out a word here or there that I recognized, like water, big, and tree, but other than that I relied on the English translations on all of the signs.
I walked down the street, looking for anything that might help; a shop named Wang, a guy screaming, "Hey, my name is Kevin!". Tough luck.
I checked my phone. It was 2:53. I had less than one hour until the set date inscribed on the back of the scroll and then... well, no one had ever tested what happened if you didn't deliver the scroll in time. I didn't want to accidentally cause the apocalypse because I was tardy.
Holy fuck balls it was hot. The sooner this was over with the better. Vancouver never got this scorching and I looked like a doofus wearing a black turtleneck and pants.
I continued down the street, walking fast and whipping my head around as sweat pooled on my forehead and soaked through my shirt.
Ten minutes later I reached the end of Chinatown. I swallowed and spun around. My heart pounded against my ribs like it wanted to get out and I began in the direction I'd come, looking harder this time.
When I got home I was going to wring Xing's neck. I swear to fucking god I was going to do it.
A jogger ran past and bumped into me. I stumbled backwards, knocking into a stand of dried mushrooms from one of the many Chinese herb shops down the road. An old woman began yelling at me Mandarin. I speed walked away. My head felt fuzzy. The heat was getting to me and my mouth felt like sandpaper. I couldn't remember having anything to drink today.
I checked my watch, blinking stars out of my eyes. 3:38. My eyes widened.
Shit shit shit shit shit.
Come on Kevin, where are you? I spun around, nearly toppling over this time. Did I have heat stroke? I needed some water. I needed some air conditioning.
Suddenly I realised that I'd walked right beside a Tim Hortons and it felt like the gates of heaven. I could definitely find both water, AC, and English in there. I hobbled inside, sweating like a pig. There was no way to find Kevin and if the world was going to end because of it I might as well have one last drink.
I could feel everyone's eyes on me as I walked inside, probably due to a combination of the blotchy red birthmark that covered half my face and the pit stains that were slowly turning into entire-upper-body stains. The place smelled like slightly burnt coffee and the donuts glowed behind their glass prison, tempting me. About a dozen employees whizzed behind the counter making Ice Capps, toasting bagels, and packaging Tim Bits. The gentle murmur of Mandarin coming from the customers filled my ears like music.
There was no line up, thank the lord. I felt like Sponge Bob when he went to Sandy's place for the first time. You know the episode I'm talking about.
"Water," I said to the cashier. He stared at me, which I got a lot.
"Are you okay?" he asked, eyes wide.
"Well, I'm dying of thirst if that's what you mean," I said.
"No, I mean—"
"My face. Yeah, it's a birth mark. Not lethal. Not an STI, not that you'd have to worry about that unless you wanted a little afternoon delight before—you know, I run my mouth sometimes. Water. I need water."
Blushing furiously, he said, "Right. That will be a dollar."
He punched the number into his cash register. With tax it came to a dollar and thirteen cents. Jeez. Wasn't there a law against charging people for water? Like, didn't it say somewhere in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that you were entitled to it?
I rooted around in my bag, searching for my wallet, but it became apparent quite quickly that I'd forgotten it, and it wasn't like I could just make a run back to Vancouver to grab it. Sometimes it took hours to find the portal again, and I had six minutes before I had to find this guy. The only thing in my bag was the scroll, my phone, a lighter, and some old tampons.
I turned back to the cashier. "I forgot my money."
"Sorry. I'm not allowed to give you anything without paying."
I sighed, glanced at his nametag and said, "Listen, Kevin, do you know how long I've been walking outside? Do you know what temperature it is? Well I don't, but I know it's like the Sahara out there and I might pass out from heat stroke if I don't get some water and—"
I froze, then looked at his name tag again to make sure. No freaking way.
"Miss?" Kevin asked.
"Sorry, sorry. I just realized that I know you," I said slowly.
Kevin furled his brows and cocked his head to the side. "You do?"
"Kevin Wang, right?" Please say yes, please say yes, please say y—
"Yeah, but I feel like I would recognize you. I mean, no offence but you're sort of hard to miss," he said. A line had begun to form behind me, a few dirty construction workers waiting to order a double-double.
"No, no, I was probably wearing makeup. Yeah, I totally recognize you now. Tall, lanky, and might I add handsome. Don't you play sports?"
"Oh, shit. Well, I must have been drunk too. We met at the wedding, remember that?"
"Uncle Martin's wedding?"
"Yes! I'm like, your second cousin twice removed or something."
Kevin raised his eyebrows. "What's your name again?"
"Lizzy," I said.
"Lizzy... you know, I think I remember a Lizzy now that I think of it." He smiled. "How about I give a water on the house? I'll even throw in a donut. My break is in just a few minutes. We could hang out if you want," he said.
"That would be great. I have nothing to do anyway," I said. Wow, I was good.
Kevin went away for a minute and came back with a cup of water and a donut. He winked at me and pushed it across the counter, and as I turned to go away someone yelled, "KEVIN."
Kevin turned around, and a very short, very angry Chinese lady began yelling at him in mixed Mandarin and English. I caught, "You can't keep doing this" and "You're fired" and then she pointed him out. Kevin stared at her in astonishment and the rest of the employees moved around them like they were carrying some contagious disease.
Jeez, that was harsh. I sipped my water, backing away towards the door. I had three minutes before 3: 46. Kevin left from my view to get his things and came back, still wide eyed, muttering, "Mom is gonna kill me," over and over again.
I took him by the arm and steered him out, and I don't even think he noticed. He was in shock.
But then the sun hit him and he snapped out of it. He ripped his arm away. He ripped his arm away. "You!"
This was the part where he blamed me for getting himself sacked.
"You got me fired!" Kevin exclaimed, in a voice that wanted to be a yell but was too embarrassed to raise his voice in public.
"Kevin, I'm sorry. We're famil—"
"I don't care if you're family, I needed that job. Fuck you."
He began to stalk away but I ran after him and grabbed his arm, holding so tight I left prints on his skin. I dragged him into a back alley.
When I turned to face him again he glared at me, nostrils flaring. I'd never seen someone so angry before. My heart hammered as the seconds ticked by. I had maybe a minute. "I have to come clean. I was sent here to give you something extremely important. I'm not your cousin, and I never went to your uncle's wedding. It's a letter... sort of."
"What the hell are you talking about?" He tried to take his arm away but I held on tight. "Let me go!"
"Listen!" I said, and this time I wasn't faking anything. I was freaked out. I'd never cut it this close. I took the scroll out of my bag with my other hand and pushed it into his chest. "You have to open this and look it over carefully."
Kevin blinked down at it. "What is it?"
"It doesn't matter, just do it and I'll let go of you."
"You're fucking crazy."
"JUST DO IT."
Kevin ripped the scroll open and stared at it. I began counting. Almost immediately the anger melted away from his face. His eyes darted across the paper. "W-what is this?"
"Just remember what you see. You don't have long."