Back to Hard-boiled Wonderland

a short story by Teo Yu Sheng, based on Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Read the story on the original site. 

Back to Hardboiled Wonderland Cover 3

“We’ve got to escape from the End of the World,” I said when I got back to the library.

“Escape?” the Librarian asked. “But how?”

“Through the Southern Pool,” I said. “Yes, I know it sounds crazy, but you’ve got to trust me. That’s the only way out. My shadow has already gone through it, and now it’s our turn.”

The Librarian looked down and stared at the accordion in her left hand. For a brief moment, the only sound in the room came from the cracking of the fire in the stove.

“While you were away, something happened,” she said, placing the accordion onto the table. “I was guarding the accordion as you asked, and it suddenly started to glow. It warmed up, and beads of light began to dance around it. I knew what I had to do, so I touched the lights, and all of a sudden, memories started flowing into me. started flowing into me.”

“That’s great news!” I said, as I reached out and held her hands. A tingling warmth now radiated from her, and as I touched her skin I could feel her presence pulsing through my body.

“How are you feeling?”

“I feel like spring,” she said, “and summer, and autumn, and winter, all at once. Like a bird without legs, soaring freely in the sky, but unable to rest. Like a library, full of the purest of books, and the darkest of thoughts.”

Her hands began to tremble, so I held on even tighter.

“I’m scared,” she said, her pale eyes staring at me, “and there’s a lot that I still don’t understand. I’m not sure that I’m ready for this. I’m sorry, all these memories and emotions make me weak.”

I pulled her close and hugged her. “It’s ok,” I said, stroking her head gently. “I’m here, and everything’s going to be ok.”

She started crying softly on my shoulder, as my shirt slowly soaked up her warm tears.

“I’ll get us out of here, I promise,” I reassured her as I continued stroking her head. “I know there’s a lot for you to handle right now, but we’ve got no time to waste. By now the Gatekeeper would have realised that my shadow is gone, and he’s probably already making his way here. We need to get to the Pool now.”

“What’s out there?” she asked softly after a slight pause.

“If we move fast, there shouldn’t be anyone in our way. We’ll have to head south and cross the river to the Southern Hill. From there it’ll be a five-minute walk to the Pool. It’ll be tiring, but I’m feeling stronger now, so I can carry you up the hill if necessary.”

“No, that’s not what I meant,” she said. “Tell me, what’s there in the outside world that we need to leave this place?”

For a short moment, I had nothing to say. All these while, escaping from the End of the World made so much sense to me that I’ve never stopped to question its purpose. And now that she’s raised the question, I felt as though my entire existence has been called into doubt.

“It’s the world where I belong,” I finally said, repeating what my shadow has told me over an hour ago.

“Does it matter so much?” she asked. “You still have your mind, and now I have mine, too. We can live an eternity here, in this perfect world, where there’s no good or bad, no right or wrong, where the clock tower is without a clock, and where the concept of time is merely ornamental.”

“But time still exists,” I said, “even if all the clocks in the world are dead. You must understand that this is a perfectly imperfect world, where everything is so distorted that nothing is true anymore. And because of that, everything appears true and eternal. But it isn’t. Besides, what meaning is there in a world without good or bad, without right or wrong?”

“You mean a lot to me,” she said softly. “I’ve known that for a while now.”

“You mean a lot to me too,” I said, “and that’s why we’ve got to escape from here, together. That’s the only truth I know now. That, and the fact that I love you.”

I drew my face close to hers, and kissed her lips. A warm sensation passed through my body, like a ripple on the surface of a still lake, a perfect circle that expands and grows until it eventually becomes the lake itself.

“Let’s go,” I whispered. She nodded silently.

When we got out of the library, night had fallen. The sky was dark, and the entire town was cloaked in silence. We made our way across the Old Bridge, and headed south towards the hills. But just as we were about to climb the hill, the Librarian stopped and pulled me away from the track and into the trees.

“What’s the matter?” I asked as we hid behind a tree.

“Listen,” she whispered. I quietened my breathing and listened to the surroundings. From the distance, I could make out a heavy pair of boots ploughing through the snow towards us.

“Gatekeeper,” I whispered.

She nodded, but pointed at the sky, indicating that there’s something else that she has heard. I held my breath and strained my ears as I looked up at the night sky, trying to detect the faintest of sounds.

Then I heard it. It was soft, but there was no question that it was there: music.

A melody was playing in the air from above, as though the stars were singing to us. As each second passed, the music became louder, and the singing more distinct. The two of us stood there amongst the trees, mesmerised by the music, waiting for the words to become clear to us.

Close my eyes and feel your mind,
time has passed,
I walk like a shadow.

“I’ve never heard that song before,” I said.

“I think I have,” she said, “but there’s no time for that now; the music might have been triggered by your shadow when it left this world. We’ve got to reach the Pool quickly, before the music stops.”

“Right,” I said, suddenly reminded about our task at hand. I peeked through the trees and tried to look for the Gatekeeper, but there were no signs of him. We hastened our pace and continued heading south, hidden amongst the woods, up the hill and down the other side. Within half an hour, the Pool was in sight.

As we walked over to the Pool, I turned back one last time to check that the Gatekeeper wasn’t following us. The Librarian walked to the side of the Pool and gently touched its surface. The water, once still and tranquil, started to gurgle softly again. And even though it rose and fell at different parts of the Pool, there was not a ripple on the surface of the water.

“I think it’s time,” she said. “The music is starting to fade now, so we’ve got to hurry. Your shadow has gone through first, so you must go next, or else my mind might end up in your body. I’ll follow you right behind.”

A light breeze blew past, and as the Librarian’s milky eyes sparkled in the moonlight, I suddenly became aware of the inadequacy of my existence without her.

“Promise me that you’ll come after me, that you’ll not stay behind here,” I said.

“I’ll never leave you, I promise. I’ll follow you and stick with you, until the end of time.”

“Until the end of time?”

“Yes,” she said. “And when that time comes, it wouldn’t matter if the sky splits in half, or if a huge ball of flame begins swallowing everything up, because it’ll be enough to know that I’m with you.”

“You know what?” I said. “You’re probably the only one I know who can make the end of time sound so desirable.”

I ran my fingers through her hair. “See you at the other side.”

She smiled lightly and nodded.

I walked to the edge of the Pool, drew in a deep breath, and took a plunge. The water was much colder than I had expected, but I tried my best to resist struggling. Before I knew it, I was pulled below the water’s surface.

***

I open my eyes to the blinding golden gleam of the setting sun.

I look around me and realise that I’m in the front seat of my car, with Mai Kuraki and Stefanie Sun’s duet playing on auto-repeat on the stereo. It’s funny, though. I don’t remember putting that song on. Not that it really matters anyway. I’ve made it. Stretching my arms and yawning deeply, I wonder how long it has been since I slipped into limbo. I pull out my mobile phone to check the date and time. Great, I’ve only lost a few hours. I sift through my contacts and dial the number to the library.

“Good evening, and thank you for calling the National Library Board. Please note that your call may be recorded for quality monitoring and training purposes. How can I help you?” a male receptionist answers.

“Hi, I’m looking for a female librarian: twenty-nine years old, skinny, big appetite,” I say.

“Oh,” he says. “She didn’t turn up for work this morning. Probably sick at home.”

“Oh, right,” I say. I wasn’t expecting this answer from him. “Can you give me her number? I need to look for her urgently.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t give you the personal information of our staff,” the man says.

“Hmm, can you give her a call then, and let her know that I’ll be going down to her apartment?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but I’m afraid that I can’t do that either,” the man says.

“Ah,” I say. “Great. Thanks for your help.”

“No problem, sir,” the man says before hanging up.

I don’t recall her being sick earlier this morning. Perhaps she felt a little too tipsy for work after drinking up all that beer. No matter, she’s probably at home now; I’ll just drive up to her apartment to look for her. I could make quiche for dinner, or, if I get lazy, we could have pizza delivered. I’m not a picky eater, and she’ll probably eat anything that’s served on the table, so either way’s fine. There’s just one last phone call that needs to be made.

I pick up my phone again, and dial the number to my apartment. After three rings, the chubby girl in pink picks up the call.

“Surprise, surprise,” I say. “I’m back, and I’m afraid I’m going to need my apartment back.”

There is a moment of silence, and an image of the chubby girl’s shocked expression floats into my mind.

“I’m feeling fine, you know,” I quickly add. “There’s nothing to worry about. Other than the throbbing in my head, I’m feeling pretty alive.”

“Hello again,” she finally says. “Is that really you?”

“I think so,” I say. “Have you finished reading your book?”

“Just finished reading it.”

“Great timing, then. Is it any good?”

“It’s fascinating,” she says. “Hey, you promised that we could have sex if you woke up, remember?”

“Well, about that. I didn’t really say sex, did I?”

“Damn, I was hoping your memory will be affected by all that limbo,” she says.

“No way,” I say. “My memory is still clear as eve-“

“Good. Forget about sex. It’s not important anymore. Let’s talk about the situation at hand.”

“What?” I ask, slightly taken aback by her change in tone.

“Who did you pull in?” the chubby girl asks.

“Pull in?” I ask. “What do you mean by that?”

There is a slight pause at the other end; she seems to be choosing her words very carefully this time.

“You’ve got to understand this: there’s no way you could’ve escaped from your subconscious prison. Well, not directly, at least. Grandfather was pretty thorough when he re-programmed your brain. Your subconscious world needs a mind within it to continue its existence: to hold the walls up, to keep the river flowing, things like that. Without a mind, your entire subconscious will collapse onto itself. It will cease to exist. You will cease to exist. It’s a simple self-destruct mechanism: anyone who attempts to escape from their prison will perish with it. But here you are, back in the real world, talking to me over the phone,” she says. “So that either means that Grandfather has made a mistake, which is impossible, or-“

“Or there’s another mind trapped in my subconscious.”

“Exactly. Grandfather thought that no one would be willing to trade places with someone as dispensable as you, so he left that little loophole open. But now it seems that he was wrong, and there really is another mind in your subconscious,” the chubby girl says.

“Seems like it,” I say, as my mouth slowly turns dry. My heart begins thumping in my chest as I piece together the signs that lay within my reach all the while.

It all becomes clear now.

“The Gatekeeper was right when he said that everyone has a role to play,” I say, more to myself than to the chubby girl. “I shouldn’t have pushed so hard. I’m sorry.”

“What are you going to do now?” the chubby girl asks.

I inhale deeply and slowly, and close my eyes as I gather up my thoughts, hoping that the throbbing in my head will somehow recede.

“I’m going to fix this,” I say.

“How?”

“There’s only one way to do that.”

I look out of the car window as the tip of the sun touches the surface of the sea, instantly turning the sky from a shade of gold to a deep orange hue.

“Are you going to be ok?” the chubby girl asks after a moment of silence.

“Yes,” I say, “soon enough. I’ll be back where I belong, and everything’s going to be ok. And it wouldn’t matter what happens at the End of the World after the end of time, because all that matters is that I’m there.”

“Listen, I haven’t moved since I woke up, so you can still collect me at the same place. But it’s no more Bob Dylan on the stereo, though. I’ve changed it to Mai Karuki and Stefanie Sun, my new favourites. You should listen to them when you have the time; they’re really good, especially Stefanie Sun. And I doubt I’ll have much use of my apartment now, so you can have it back.”

I pause for a while.

“There’s no need to put me in deep freeze, you know? I’m serious. I’m going to have an eternity, and an eternity is quite enough.”

I hang up before she could say anything. I turn up the volume of the stereo, recline the seat, and stare out into the sea. The sun is about to sink below the horizon, and the sky is now a perfect shade of crimson. The seawater is starting to turn dark, and by this hour all activity at the pier has stopped, so barely any ships are left in the open sea.

The water becomes still, with no ripples on the surface. I close my eyes and let the tides take me away.

Tonight, I feel close to you.
You open my eyes and light the sky above. 
When I need a friend, you are there right by my side,
I wish we could stay as one. 
I wish we could stay forever as one. 

***

Cover illustration and design by me.

If you like this, please appreciate it at my Behance page: http://bit.ly/1osIjZ3!

If you like this, you might like: The Train Moves On, a short story

The Train Moves On Cover

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2 thoughts on “Back to Hard-boiled Wonderland

  1. Pingback: What Happens After Goodbye? | don't burst the bubble

  2. Pingback: Twinkle | don't burst the bubble

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