Updated: Sep 13, 2021
Meng was sitting at a study desk in the university library when a brown paper bag was slipped between his stack of books. The weather in Taipei had just gotten chilly, and most students were outdoors enjoying the short few days of Autumn. In the empty library, it wasn’t hard for Meng to catch Te-Yeh’s jacket disappearing behind one of the bookshelves.
As he opened the bag, he wondered why his friend was being sneaky. Inside were two books, wrapped in last week’s newspaper. The 1970 printed on the corner had lost its first number when someone, presumably Te-Yeh, used the thin inked paper to conceal the cover of the books.
Meng caught his breath when he removed the wrapping and saw the titles. He grabbed his bag and shoved the books inside, then strode into the astronomy aisle.
Te-Yeh was there, nose buried in a hardback book Meng would bet fifty dollars he understood nothing of. He turned his back towards him when he approached.
‘What the fuck,’ Meng whispered as he followed suit, taking a random book off the shelf. They stood back-to-back, like two strangers who had both happened to visit the university library in the dusty evening light.
Above Meng and Te-Yeh, Fei flashed a smirk before sinking into the space between the two heavy books on the top shelf. Meng tried his best not to react to them hovering above his head watching everything he did.
He still was not used to being the only person who could see a spirit like Fei. He had read his fair share of fantasy novels, but until two weeks ago, he never imagined himself being subjected to anything supernatural. Fei had appeared when he picked up the coin they had bound their presence to, and offered him a deal: for him to wield their power.
Of course, I can flip through possibilities myself. Much like what you can do now with the coin. I imagine this much more interesting, though. There’s no fun in seeing how things play out when I’m the one holding the script, Fei had told him.
With their power, Meng could use a simple coin to decide which reality he chose to stay in. The way one would use a head or tails to pick what to do.
‘What the fuck?’ he said again, as Te-Yeh inched within hearing range.
‘That’s Tagore, your favourite poet.’ Te-Yeh helpfully pointed out.
‘I know that,’ he said and blindly elbowed somewhere behind him. The muffled ‘ouch’ he got in response was satisfactory. ‘How did you get two of them?’
‘Hey, no need for the grand gesture. A simple thank you would do.’ Te-Yeh joked. ‘You told me I wasn’t selling the book club thing well, so I got you samples.’
I don’t see what’s so special about these books. Fei’s voice, speaking directly in his thoughts as always, rang through Meng’s head as they ducked forward and stuck their head through the fabric of his bag. The contents are the same, just written differently.
He ignored them.
‘One of these, I could’ve borrowed from this library.’
‘You can’t be a proper salesman without putting shock value into consideration,’ Te-Yeh whispered smugly, ‘Besides, you know what matters is the other one. It’s impossible to get that anywhere, legally.’
Fei chimed in. Wrong. There is no such thing as impossible with your power.
Meng simply nodded. ‘I’ll think about it,’ he said. They all knew he would be heading to this mysterious book club with a wish list in hand next session.
Te-Yeh insisted Meng wait at least five minutes before heading out of the library after him. The moment he was out of sight, Meng stepped down the stairs two at a time, leaving the school library and his evening plans behind.
Watch your steps, Fei remarked suddenly.
He could feel them grinning in his head, showing off their canines just a heartbeat before something wet splattered on his head; right as a familiar presence walked into his vision. In a panic, he reached up to wipe away the bird droppings in his hair with bare hands and succeeded in making everything worse.
Yu-Ling halted midway towards the library entrance; her attention blatantly focused on the white warm ooze on his head as she backtracked. Stopping in front of him, she looked him over before raising an eyebrow. Her messy braid and untucked shirttail screamed back-to-back classes from eight to five and a late night in labs.
‘I swear to God, you are the unluckiest person I’ve ever seen,’ she said as she dug a hand into her backpack and pulled out a small pack of tissues.
‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ he said as he pressed tissue sheets into his hair. This was getting much more embarrassing than it should be. It didn’t help that last week, she’d rejected his declaration of love.
Fei floated around Yu-Ling before reaching out to caress her cheek, the tip of their claw-like fingers dripping like candle wax. You know, you can just flip back. Less bird poop on your head just might be the thing you need, their voice echoed in his head. He knew they were just taunting him. Fei couldn’t interact with any physical beings and attempting to swat them away from Yu-Ling would only make him seem more like an idiot.
They did have a point, though.
‘Well, if you’re done with that, I’ll be heading off now,’ Yu-Ling said as she put the pack away. Her body half-turned, prepared to leave.
‘Um, wait. Wait,’ Meng stuttered, almost dropping Fei’s silver coin as he flipped it. Yu-Ling looked back, eyes questioning and opened her mouth—
Watch your steps, Fei remarked suddenly.
Meng could feel their canines as they grinned in his head. He turned his head just in time to catch Yu-Ling walking up the stairs towards the library.
‘Hey,’ he waved and saw her stop mid-step, which he counted as a win. ‘How’s class? You’re here later than usual.’
Yu-Ling looked down to check her watch before rolling her eyes. ‘I’m not. You’re just leaving early. Now, if you’ll excuse me, some of us have more schoolwork than usual this time of the year,’ she flung her bag over her shoulder and walked past him.
That was bad, Fei commented as they watch her figure disappear into the building. To think that you need bird droppings to have semi-successful small talk with someone you’ve known half your life.
I think I won’t mind an extra shower, Meng thought, as he flipped the coin again.
The mysterious book club Te-Yeh had invited him to was a secret, yes, but all types of gatherings were technically underground. They read everything they could get their hands on in an old storage room in the school gym, using mats as cushions and vaulting boxes as tables.
‘You have to bring your own notebook if you want to copy the pages,’ Po-Mu, one of Meng’s upperclassman in the club said. ‘We are sharing these precious books with several other groups of people.’
‘He means his fiancée Min-Chi and her students,’ Te-Yeh whispered loudly, earning himself a slap with a rolled-up newspaper.
Meng wondered if Yu-Ling would be interested in literature. She wasn’t as big of a bookworm as him. In fact, he was pretty sure if he placed a sci-fi book and some physics papers in front of her, she’d pick the latter to pass the time. Why she listened to any of his book rants could be one of the seven greatest mysteries of Taipei.
Probably because she pities you, Fei said.
He wondered about this out loud, three weeks after joining the club, when he and the others got some beers and sprawled themselves in the middle of the school’s sports field after sunset.
‘Siàu-liân, you need to let go. “She’s not the only woman out there,”’ Te-Yeh said and smacked his shoulder, no longer talking in Mandarin.
‘Shut uuup,’ Meng complained as he pushed Te-Yeh aside, ‘I’m so going to tell the teacher you just said that.’
‘Woah, scary. I’d have shat my pants if I were ten years younger.’
‘See, it’s fine when you swear but I should wear the sign of shame around my neck and get fined for not using the National language.’
Meng quietened on that. It was not the fault of any one of them, nor that of their parents, that schools prohibited their mother tongue. It was simply part of the martial law: to make this country better, they should not keep speaking any uncultured languages or share dangerous thoughts. Such was also the reason why some books were no longer able to be seen under sunlight.
Next to him, Fei floated in the night air, reflecting the moonlight while dripping down like quicksilver. They did not say anything, but Meng could imagine them being disappointed if he ever told them that he had no idea how to change the circumstance.
Behind them, Po-Mu stood up from the grass, schoolbag slung over his shoulder. ‘I’m returning this one to the store,’ he announced.
‘I’ll go with you, if that’s okay,’ Meng said. He always wondered about where they got the books.
Po-Mu stayed silent for a moment, then shrugged and gestured Meng to stand up. The rest of the group booed at their leaving. Meng flipped them off without a backward glance.
The bookstore itself was underwhelming. Meng expected to see something extraordinary—after all, this was the place they collected books that couldn’t be found anywhere else. Instead, the interior was tight with rows of textbooks from floor to ceiling, none of them interesting enough for him to pick up.
‘Our next batch of books will be Jin Yong,’ Po-Mu said, rubbing his hands together, ‘these will be the first ones we read on the list that aren’t translations. The oo-jí-sáng told me last month that he got a friend in Hong Kong who’s got an entire bookshelf of wuxia and still thinks The Legend of the Condor Heroes is the best. I’ve only ever heard rumours about the plot, can’t believe we’re lucky enough to get our hands on it…’
They both nearly jumped when the owner’s voice boomed from the back.
‘I can’t give you Jin Yong this week. He is too popular and the one I’ve got in the back is for another group.’
Po-Mu’s face fell. ‘You sure about that?’
‘Hey, I don’t make the rules,’ the man held up his hands in false surrender. ‘How about you kids go read Shakespeare or something for once?’
‘You said that last month, and we did.’
‘I meant legal books,’ the man rolled his eyes and started shooing them away with a feather duster. ‘Come back next week and I’ll see what I can do.’
Po-Mu held his posture but there was disappointment in his eyes. He said thank you before stepping out the door.
Aw, that sucked. If only someone could change the shop owner’s mind. Circling around them like a vulture, Fei pretended to sob. Too bad I am stuck with a coward. The previous user of this power always had an idea of what to change, and how to change them, so as to make everyone satisfied.
I don’t even know how to make this work, Meng thought as he fumbled for the coin.
It always works if you set the correct independent variables. Keep an eye on what’s changeable and the world is your oyster.
Meng wondered where they learnt all those technical terms. He had only ever heard of these when Yu-Ling was talking about her research, and he could barely remember whether the control variable was a name for something the experimenter controls or not.
Fuck it, he thought and flipped the coin.
‘The Legend of the Condor Heroes is the best. I’ve only ever heard rumours about the plot…’ Po-Mu was saying when a faint ringing noise came from the back of the store. A minute later, the owner appeared from the back, a newspaper package in hand.
‘You’re in luck, kids. I was going to tell you to come back next week, but someone cancelled,’ he pushed the books across the counter, which a grinning Po-Mu took.
‘I still can’t believe how lucky we are,’ Po-Mu said under his breath when they stepped into the alley, ‘the guy has connections, but there are only a few books each time. Yet here I am, with the most popular banned book in my bag after having the chance slip by for a month…’
‘Hey, don’t forget to share. You’re not allowed to keep it forever.’
‘I know, I know. My tiny dorm room doesn’t support my book hoarding habit, either.’ He waved him off, then jokingly added: ‘Hey, if you’re secretly working for the government, remember to tell them I’ve got nothing.’
Remembering his joke earlier about snitching, Meng’s ears turned red.
‘Really, Min-Chi had a neighbour who was arrested for—hear me out—reading Marxism. It’s been a year and she never heard of him again. Rumour said his classmate got an award for selling him out.’
‘Good thing we’re not reading anything like that,’ Meng said and got a nod in return. They headed together back to the school grounds before parting.
Meng felt fantastic about what had happened. Previously, whenever he borrowed Fei’s power, it was always about probabilities: winning a coin toss; getting better combinations in mahjong; having bird droppings land one step away from him; giving himself a series of green lights on the road. He could have the odds in his favour, yet he never considered the possibility of using it to change someone’s action.
You are not the cleverest, but I see potential in you, Fei told him before he fell asleep that night. On their metallic skin with light flowing under like a fortune crystal, he could see a smile with too-sharp teeth.
In retrospect, they should have predicted something like this would happen. When the police busted through the door, shouting ‘nobody move’, the only thought Meng had was ‘no wonder the other group cancelled their reading.’
‘You need a warrant,’ Po-Mu stood up from his mat, a forced steadiness in his voice while the others scrambled to cover up their reading materials with textbooks. His tall frame covered the leading cop’s vision. Te-Yeh intentionally knocked over a basket of baseballs. Meng shoved the books into an old torn Homeplate pillowcase and threw it into the dusty pile of mats.
The policeman shoved Po-Mu aside and entered the room, mindful of all the rolling balls. ‘This is our warrant,’ he said, patting his gun holster.
Meng was reaching for the coin when his knees buckled under a forceful kick in the shin.
I almost feel bad for you, Fei told him under the blinding lamp, but you know what, this is getting quite boring. I just might leave you for someone else if it doesn’t work out. The coin is just a medium, I can strip away its power anytime. Don’t you have any type of escape plan?
‘I don't know,’ Meng said and received a slap in the face. His fingers were shaking from exhaustion, and he couldn’t remember the last time he was this close to passing out. The police officer sitting across from him adjusted the lamp, so it was shining directly into his eyes.
I can’t believe how useless you are, Fei said. They passed through the person interrogating him. It was like they couldn’t hold their shape together due to frustration.
I’m so, so tired, he thought. He would have cried by now if he wasn’t already dehydrated. If only he could get his hands on the coin. Then he could flip back to the last time he used it. In the bookstore. He could make sure the club did not get the books. Everything will turn back to normal.
Except, there was always the possibility of this happening again, as long as the book club kept running. He wouldn’t be able to erase all the horrific outcomes. Hell, he couldn’t even fix what’s happening now. Not with all his belongings taken away by the police.
There’s nothing I can do, he thought to himself.
Fei threw their hands into the air and left.