Mandrake’s scribblings: Happy new year! Have the first chapter of 2018!
On the third floor of the giant apartment building, a barricade has been set up at every stairs on the floor. Similar barricades are propped up in front of the elevator doors. The elevators are grounded on the ground floor and disabled for the night. The policemen are stationed at the barricades, ready to confront anything that emerge from the stairs. The situation is the same on the floors below. All the way to the ground floor, the policemen are observing the exits from behind the barricades. The SWAT teams have already ascended the floors to the middle of the building. Slowly backed up by military soldiers, they sweep through the entire floor before going up another floor.
At one of the barricades on the third floor, a policeman is acting strangely. Tang Zhi Hao, a skilled officer in the group is glancing at the rooms around him. The sight of him looking around nervously catches the concern of the other officers. One of his colleagues, Tai, questions him.
Tai: “Hey Zhi Hao, what’s wrong with you?”
Zhi Hao: “Don’t you feel it? The air feels different than before.”
When he first came in here, the air feels stagnant and heavy. It was the same feeling he remembered when he was at the cemetery 3 months ago. This feeling grips his heart as painful memories begin to resurface even after he had returned from mourning. But now, the air has changed. A warm, welcoming feeling. As if someone was cooking food over a stove all afternoon. That is Zhi Hao’s impression despite the absence of the aroma of food. But above all else, he keeps feeling that someone is calling him. His ears heard nothing yet he feels that his name is being called and looks around in confusion.
This sudden change has put Zhi Hao’s senses on alert. He looks around at the apartment rooms behind him.
Zhi Hao: “Are you sure we checked all the rooms?”
Tai: “Yes. We already sweep through all of them before setting up a barricade. Why?”
Zhi Hao: “I think someone is in one of these rooms.”
Tai: “That’s impossible. No one is able to hide in these rooms. They are all empty. No furniture inside.”
Zhi Hao: “I know. I know. I’m just going to check a bit.”
Tai: “O~ I’ll team up with you. Oi, we’re going to CO.”
He gets up from his position and walk towards his commanding officer. Tai and his two other teammates, Da and Chen, leave their stations and follow him. Going towards one of the occupied apartment rooms he finds the man he is looking for. A gruff man in his thirties. With a face that looks constantly angry and vulgar, his name is Zheng.
Zhi Hao: “Captain, I want to look through the rooms again. I think someone is in one of the rooms.”
Zheng: “We have already done a complete sweep on the rooms.”
Zhi Hao: “I know, but I want a second look at them.”
Zheng: “You are getting restless, aren’t you? Okay, just get back to your position afterwards.”
The officer waves his hand at Zhi Hao, shooing him away. Zhi Hao gives a quick salute and leaves the room. He gives a gesture to his teammates and they follow him to check the rooms. They approach the first apartment and take out their guns.
Zhi Hao: *On three. One… Two…*
He quickly opens the door and peers inside. The light from the corridor pours into the apartment. Nothing. Not a soul present. Zhi Hao eases his tension and notices the shadows cast by his teammates. He turns around looking bewildered.
Zhi Hao: *Put down your gun! What if you shoot a civilian?! The chief will have your ass and mine!*
Tai: *O-Oh. Sorry.*
Tai and his teammates lower their guns immediately. Zhi Hao gestures to the other rooms in the apartment. Tai and the others nod and head over to check the rooms. Their lights flash on before they carefully check the rooms. Zhi Hao turns on his light and shines it to the dark corners of the living room.
Zhi Hao: [Nothing.]
Despite thinking that, his senses are telling another story. All around him, he feels like he is being watched. Like pairs of eyes that can be faintly seen in the darkness with his naked eye. He shines light all around but only sees the concrete walls and the tiled floors. Fear and anxiety creeps up from the pit of his stomach, slowly reaching his heart. Zhi Hao brushes his neck out of discomfort. It is wet from cold sweat.
Tai: *Zhi Hao, there’s… nothing here…*
Tai and the others return empty handed. But something was different. Zhi Hao notices the fear their eyes, darting from side to side. Da has his face drenched in sweat. Zhi Hao has no doubt. They are all experiencing the same terror his is going through right now.
Chen: *Hey, let’s-… Let’s get out of here.*
Zhi Hao: *O. Let’s go.*
Tai steps forward and asks in a shaking voice. Zhi Hao agrees with his suggestion. None of them wants to speak in a loud voice. Whispering is as far they will take it. Like there is something they badly want not disturbed. Careful to not make the sound of footsteps, they slowly exit the room. Zhi Hao reaches for the door and closes it.
Zhi Hao: [!!!]
In a fraction of a second, just as the door us about to close, something shows itself. A white human face. With eyes wide open and the iris and pupils colored a solid black. Like a bold black and white painting, the human face stares straight at Zhi Hao when the door closes.
Zhi Hao is motionless. His body is frozen but his hand grips on the doorknob with all his strength. He holds his stance, hoping what he just seen was a trick of the eye. Slowly loosening his grip, he braces himself, fearing that the door will open once again. He lets go of the doorknob and stands back, hand tightly gripping his gun.
Tai: “Are you okay?”
His question breaks Zhi Hao’s trance. Letting out his breath, he turns over to his teammate.
Zhi Hao: “Yes. I’m okay.”
There is a small part of him that wants him to open the door to confirm his suspicions. But an overwhelming part of him warns him against it and opening the door a second time will be a different situation compared to the first. Ultimately, Zhi Hao decides to retreat.
Zhi Hao: “Let’s check out the next room.”
The faces of the officers show a hint of reluctance but they followed him nonetheless. They approach the next apartment. Zhi Hao hesitates when he reaches for the door. The fear and anxiety from before still hovers over him. He braces himself before opening the door as wide as he can.
The light from the corridor shines into the apartment like the previous one. Zhi Hao and his teammates steps into the living room slowly and carefully. After looking around for a moment, Zhi Hao sighs in relief. There is no presence in the darkness nor is his feeling of being watched. To him, this room is truly empty compared to the previous one.
Zhi Hao: “This room looks fine. Go check the rooms.”
He turns to his team and urges them to go. Sensing the same relief as Zhi Hao, they gain more confidence and proceed to check the rooms. After a while, they return with the ‘all clear’ sign. Zhi Hao nods and the team leaves the apartment.
Zhi Hao: [It seems that the first one has something bad hidden in it. I’d better notify the others to seal that door when I report back.]
Zhi Hao makes a mental note about the apartment. For now, that ‘thing’ doesn’t seem to be leaving the apartment and there is no immediate danger of the other policemen wandering into the apartment. He will report to Zheng after checking the whole floor. As he follows his team to the next apartment, his mind wanders about the warm and welcoming feeling he had felt before.
Zhi Hao: [Is it gone?] “The next room then…”
He resolves himself to continue his sweep through the apartments. He will come across it eventually. He has to. Zhi Hao shakes his head to remove the hint of desperation in his mind.
Zhi Hao: [I’m fine. I’m fine.]
The next few apartments are the same as the previous one. Empty. Cold. Dark. Despite the jarring scenery, the policemen have not felt any dread. Every time, the policemen breathe a sigh of relief. Zhi Hao on the other hand shows indifference but in his heart, a tinge of disappointment cuts through. That feeling of someone calling to him, he fears that he has missed his chance.
Da: “Zhi Hao.”
He tugs at Zhi Hao’s shoulder.
Da: “The apartments have been empty so far. Let’s stop. We’re wasting time.”
Zhi Hao turns to look as his team. His teammates, now complacent to the lack of incidents, asks Zhi Hao to end his sweep of the apartments.
Zhi Hao: “What about the first apartment? Are you sure that apartment is empty?”
Zhi Hao: “You felt something in there, didn’t you?”
Da makes a difficult face and looks at his teammates. They all have a nervous expression as they remember their experience. Then Da looks at Zhi Hao.
Da: “No. I don’t know what you are talking about.”
A bold-faced lie. Both Zhi Hao and Da know that. Without replying, Zhi Hao turns around to reach for the door of the next apartment.
Zhi Hao: “!!!”
When he grips the doorknob, a strange feeling strikes him. Like electricity, it courses through his body and freezes him on the spot. From the other side of the door, he can sense a small crowd. Standing together side by side, every one of them faces the door. As he tries to make sense of it, he hears their faint whispers.
*These rude men. We should teach them some manners.*
*They dare ignore our presence? Show some respect.*
*I going to drag that lying one across the floor.*
Zhi Hao: “Guh!”
He quickly withdraws his hands from the doorknob. Taking a step back, Zhi Hao notices the atmosphere has changed dramatically. The stagnant air from before has change to a cold and electrifying one. As if the air transformed into knives, teeth and nails. He looks at the apartments around him. They all give a similar atmosphere. All of them, including the ones they have checked through before, has a crowd of people bustling around inside.
Tai: * Amitābha. Amitābha. Amitābha.*
Da: *I’m sorry. Please forgive my rudeness.*
His teammates are cowering and praying. Da is bent over, begging for forgives. They must have had a similar experience to him. It finally dawned on them that these are…
Zhi Hao: *Spirits of the underworld!*
He isn’t strongly superstitious, but this phenomenon has no common sense backing it. Spirits has risen from the underworld and has set their sights on the police, no, everyone inside the building.
Chen: “Let’s get out of here!”
Tai: “Zhi Hao. Let’s warn the others and run!”
Zhi Hao: “O-Okay.”
They tug at Zhi Hao to move. Zhi Hao is about to move with his team to the police when he sense something else besides the cold hostile atmosphere. The same warm and welcoming feeling.
-thump thump thump thump-
Tai: “Wha- Zhi Hao! Come back!”
Zhi Hao runs into a sprint. Past his teammates. Past the apartments. The spirits hiding in the apartments sneer and hiss at him as he races past. He ignores them. He has no time for them. What lies at the end is what matters to him now.
Zhi Hao: [There!]
He skips to a stop. He then bends over to catch his breath as the fatigue finally catches up to him.
-thump thump thump thump-
Tai: “Zhi Hao! Why did you run this way?!”
Chen: “Let’s get out of here! Come on!”
His teammates catches up to him. Da is missing. He must have run away. The remaining team members pull Zhi Hao back and shake his shoulders, unnerved by his sudden departure. However, Zhi Hao ignores them and pushes them aside.
Zhi Hao: “Let me go! I’m looking for someone.”
He stands facing the apartment doors lined up in a row. His heavy breaths can be heard throughtout the corridor. His teammates are behind him, bewildered at his behavior. He closes his eyes and put all his focus on his senses. Searching. For someone dear to his heart. Zhi Hao opens his eyes and slowly steps forward.
Zhi Hao: [Can it be? Is it you?]
As he thinks that, his chest tightens. His heart trembles. His breath gets heavier. In his being, lies a tiny ray of hope pushing back a torrent of despair. He walks past an apartment door. Then another one. And another.
Zhi Hao: “…”
He then stops before an apartment door. His teammates who are following stop behind him too.
Tai: “Zhi Hao. Let’s stop and go back.”
He places his hand on Zhi Hao’s shoulder but he violently shakes it off. Zhi Hao approach the door. He reaches for the doorknob but hesitates. Instead, he gently knocks the door.
-tok tok tok-
“Ah Zhi? Ah Zhi, ah!”
The voice of an old woman is heard. The policemen are surprised at the presence of a civilian. Zhi Hao on the other hand is wide eyed and speechless. The feelings of doubt, fear and anxiety are all blown away. His mind is clear. So clear that nothing can resurface. What remains is one thing. The person who calls with that nickname. The one that he recognizes and holds dear to his heart. His tears well up in his eyes. His heavy breaths turn into sobs. Zhi Hao calls out a name in a trembling voice.
Zhi Hao: “… A… Amah…”
Old woman: “Ah Zhi! Come in! Come in! I need to speak to you!”
Recognizing Zhi Hao’s voice, the woman calls out to him with more urgency in her voice.
Zhi Hao quickly grabs the doorknob and put his weight against the door.
Zhi Hao: “AMAH!”
Bursting through the door, Zhi Hao shouts her name once more. In the apartment, standing before him, an old woman wearing traditional Chinese clothes. Her gray hair is medium length and tucked behind her ear. Her head is hunched over. Her face is wrinkled but has a gentle expression.
Old woman: “Don’t shout! Stop crying!”
His vision is blurred by tears. But there is no doubt. Standing before him is his grandmother, Tang Jia Hao, who was laid to rest 3 months ago.
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