The elderly woman gave a small cry.
"Heavens, a crow!"
A crow with glossy black wings had alighted on the ground at Karan's feet.
"How disturbing," the woman said uneasily. "Were there ever any crows in the Forest Park?" She furrowed her brow.
"This is a natural environment after all. There are crows, though probably not many of them," Karan replied. The crow took flight again. She thought it would fly away, but instead, it flapped its wings busily and alighted again, onto a man's shoulder.
It was Karan who gave a cry of surprise this time. She had not noticed at all that there was somebody standing this close by. During her conversation with the elderly woman, there had been other passerby: an elderly man with his dog; a girl stooping to pick up a coloured leaf; a group of what looked to be students ― but no one with a crow on their shoulder. When had he gotten so close? How long had he been there? It was a little unnerving.
The man was tall and wiry, and clad in a light-brown jacket, with trousers of the same colour. He had a full head of hair, but with streaks of grey that stood out. His moustache was also flecked with grey. Apart from the fact that he had a crow perched on his shoulder, he seemed like an ordinary middle-aged man. And he was a complete stranger.
But the man extended both his hands toward Karan with a smile on his face. He even called her name as he spoke.
"Karan, I missed you."
Before she could give a decent answer, the man grabbed Karan by the arm, and drew her toward him. Karan's small stature nestled easily into the man's long arms as they encircled her. He was holding her so tight, she couldn't breathe.
"Forgive me," he pleaded. "It's all my fault. I'll never do anything that'll make you feel bad again. I promise. You'll be the only one I love for the rest of my life."
"Sorry, what―?" Karan stammered in alarm. "What are you doing?"
"I didn't realize how much I loved you until you were gone. Please, I'm begging you. Say you'll start over with me again, Karan."
Why, he's gone mad.
Her first thought was that he was out of his mind. But if someone was insane, they wouldn't be able to roam on city premises. Just as the thought crossed her mind, she noticed the man's heartbeat. They were so close to each other that she could feel his heart beating on her own chest. It was beating with a steady rhythm. The man was neither insane, nor nervous with excitement. He was very much coolly and calmly rattling off these clichéd lines.
"I don't believe this. I've had enough!" Karan thrust her arms in front of her, and pushed the man away. "I've had enough of your sweet-talking. I'm leaving you. I never want to see you again."
"Karan, I love you. I'm really, seriously, in love with you." The crow on the man's shoulder cawed shrilly, as if to mock them. The man cleared his throat awkwardly, and bowed his head to the elderly lady, who was staring at them with her mouth gaping open.
"I'm very sorry for having to show you such an ugly scene."
"Oh― ah, you don't need to―" the woman said falteringly. "So, er, you two are―?"
"We're lovers," the man answered. "I was a fool, and I caused her a lot of pain. I just wanted to apologize to her, and start over again."
"I see. Well, that's..."
"We've got some important things to discuss, so if you'll excuse us―"
The man grabbed Karan's arm, and she was half-dragged away from the scene. The crow cawed loudly again. They took a back route behind the Park Office ― Shion's former workplace ― and exited through the back of the park, the man uttering not a single word the whole way. Karan also remained silent as she was pulled along by the arm.
There was a white car parked at the curb. It was a rather old model, seldom seen on city streets anymore. The man opened the door, and spoke quite without any hesitation.
"No, thank you."
"Get in," the man repeated. "I have something I want to talk to you about." With a great swoosh of its wings, the crow swooped noisily from the man's shoulder to the back seat of the car. Then, it looked at Karan and jerked its head, as if to invite her to follow.
"He looks like a smart bird," Karan observed.
"He's a little too smart for his own good." The man's long-suffering tone was telling of how much trouble the bird must have caused him. The crow opened its beak widely and made a cackling sound. It sounded like it was laughing. Karan, found herself laughing a little, too. Only after she finished laughing did she realize how she had gone these past few days without laughing, or even smiling at all.
Karan continued holding the crow's gaze as she slid into the passenger seat. The electric-gasoline hybrid car glided forward soundlessly. When they merged onto the highway, the man pressed the switch on auto-drive and took his hands off the steering wheel.
"Did you know? A new bylaw is being put into place, and we won't be able to use gasoline starting as early as next year. Which means I won't be able to drive this car anymore either."
"I've heard that fossil fuels have nearly been depleted, except for coal," said Karan. "I guess we wouldn't have any other choice but to switch to another energy source."
"Who did you hear that from?"
"Who―? Well, it's been announced in the city's energy policy―"
"Exactly. An announcement by the authorities. The mayor's speech on his administrative policy, word-for-word." The man twitched his moustache in a cynical smile. "No one questions it. Everyone accepts what the city announces as it is, and agrees to it without a thought. God, everyone in this damn city is so obedient and naive. Doubting their superiors is the last thing on their minds. They probably can't even imagine doing that, or want to. Having suspicions takes energy. It's easier just to sit back and say, yes yes, I agree, to everything."
Karan threw a sidelong glance at the man's face.
Then are you saying that you have suspicions? Instead of nodding obediently, are you saying you're stopping to question it?
She resisted the urge to ask him. It wasn't wise to say such reckless things to someone she barely knew. She had to be cautious, like a cowering herbivore.
Karan drew herself up, and tried to change the direction of the conversation.
"May I ask you a question?"
"Who are you, and how do you know my name? What made you go so far as to stage that half-baked act to pull me out here?"
"Half-baked is a little harsh, no?" said the man wryly. "I thought I pulled it off quite well. You played along nicely, too. That's Best Actress Award material."
"Why, thank you," Karan said pleasantly. "The role of romantic heroine isn't one I get to play often at this age."
"Well, I don't see why not. You're young and beautiful enough, quite, quite. You could play any heroine you wanted, Karan."
"Where did you learn my name?"
"From my niece."
"Says she's a fan of yours," said the man. "Or I should probably say, a fan of your muffins."
A small, round face floated up in Karan's mind ― the girl who always came to the store with coins clenched in her fist.
"Ma'am, you won't close this bakery, would you?" ― The girl who had shown sincere concern for Karan. She, along with the words and gazes of encouragement from others, had supported her in her dark days after Shion had been taken into custody by the Security Bureau.
"That's the one," the man affirmed. "Lovable Lili. She's my younger sister's daughter. Says she likes your cheese muffins a hundred times more than ol' Uncle here. She told me last time I saw her."
"I was ticked off, so I was going to put in my own two-cents about these muffins of yours, and took a bite out of one to taste..." The man's mouth made a chewing motion. He poked the tip of his tongue out, and licked his lips.
"They were good, weren't they?"
"They were. I hate to admit it, but they were delicious. Guess it can't be helped that Lili would like them more than some old uncle who only pops by once in a while."
"Well," said Karan, "at least now I know that you're Lili's uncle, and that you learned my name from that adorable niece of yours."
"Thanks for understanding. Did you think I was someone suspicious, by any chance?"
"I still do. What was that act back there? Did you want to pull me away from that respectable madam that badly?"
"You bet. She was dangerous."
The car turned slowly. It was going into Lost Town. It seemed safe to believe that this man intended to take her home.
The old car went back along the same path she had taken this morning, deep in thought. She had taken a day off from the bakery today. Was Lili disappointed?
"You were a hair away from voicing your dissatisfaction toward the city. Am I right?"
I don't think this city is a utopia.
Indeed, she had been about to voice those words. But she had been interrupted at that very moment by the sound of the crow's beating wings.
"That was dangerous?"
"There's a possibility it might've been. What would you have done if that lady decided you were trouble?"
"Trouble? What do you mean?"
"What I'm saying is, she would've gone to the authorities and told them that the women sitting on the park bench has a dissatisfaction with the city."
"You mean she would secretly turn me in?"
"Finding it hard to believe?"
"Of course," Karan blurted. "That's nonsense. That madam was concerned about me. She spoke to me out of kindness."
"Exactly, because you looked so depressed. In this utopia, in No. 6, everyone has to be happy. Even seriously ill or injured people have almost all of their pain removed by leading-edge medical technology. People who are troubled, or who contemplate, or who lose themselves in thought ― those kinds of people don't exist. They aren't allowed to exist."
"That's not―" Karan protested. "I mean, there are always people on the bench who seem to be lost in thought."
The man shook his head, and tapped a corner of the small monitor on the dashboard that was displaying road information. Small digits expressing the time popped up on the screen.
"Do you remember how long you were sitting on that bench for?"
Karan gazed at the numbers, and shook her head. She had forgotten completely about the time. She had sat on that bench, contemplating, wrestling with her thoughts, and unable to find an answer. She had lost the will to stand up and keep walking.
"Your time limit is thirty minutes," the man muttered.
"Citizens are allowed to space out for thirty minutes, at the most. If they're thinking deeply or losing themselves in thought for longer than that, the flags come up and someone'll jump in to check."
"So you're saying ― that madam approached me to investigate, because I was brooding for such a long time?"
"I couldn't say," the man answered. "All I know is that there was a possibility. Maybe she was just a little old woman who thought she was being kind and generous ― the kind that won't mind doing something nice, as long as it's not too much trouble for them."
"What a horrible way to put it."
"It's the truth. This city is teeming with those kind of self-proclaimed good Samaritans. There are so many of them, it gets pretty hard to distinguish the ones that are actually good. Still, if that madam was one of those, it wouldn't be a problem. But what if she was a snitch? That would've been a close call for you, wouldn't it?"
Karan didn't answer him. She didn't want to be suspicious of the elderly madam. She wanted to believe that the woman had been a kind soul who had spoken to her, a stranger, out of genuine concern.
She had had such gentle eyes, smiling behind her spectacles―
Karan drew a sharp breath.
"You've finally noticed? They were a little big and clunky for a sophisticated madam like her, don't you think? Maybe they were built in with a microphone and recording device."
Karan closed her eyes, and let out a long breath.
Thirty minutes was her time limit. She was not allowed any more.
To contemplate deeply; to wrestle with one's thoughts; to immerse oneself in the realm of one's mind; and from there, to find one's own answer ― it was all prohibited.
The same question welled up inside her breast again.
What have we been doing all this time? Why have we created a city like this? Where have we gone wrong?
She swallowed her sigh. She felt exhausted, and felt as if the mental will to retaliate, and the strength to become angry, had all withered within her.
"I've probably been tracked by the authorities all this time," she said quietly. "They must have been keeping me under surveillance, and not only because I was lost in thought. I am the mother of a convicted murderer, after all."
"There'll be none of that," the man said sharply. "No putting yourself down." His tone was that of a father scolding his daughter. "Do you really think your son is a criminal, like the authorities have told you?"
Karan lifted her gaze off the floor, and shook her head. She had not believed for an instant that her son had murdered someone.
"This is also something I heard from Lili," continued the man. "She says your son ― name's Shion, right? ― says he's really nice. When she'd break her toys, he'd always fix them for her. Says she likes him a lot more than Uncle here, though not as much as your muffins. She was wondering if he had a girlfriend."
"Was she? Oh, dear," Karan said, with a hint of a smile in her voice.
"Cheeky, huh? Acting older than her age. But for all it's worth, she can't seem to realize how attractive her own uncle can be. Don't know how my sister raised her, for her to turn out like that."
"And if I ask Lili, would I be able to find out what name this attractive uncle of hers goes by, and what he does?"
The man laughed at Karan's words, and tapped the panel lightly again.
"God knows what might happen if you asked Lili. She'd probably tell you that Uncle Yoming is a weird man who wanders by the house once in a while, eats 'til he's full, and scoots out of the place."
"Yoming. That's your name."
"Yeah. And this is my job."
The panel filled with images of bread, cakes and other light fare, followed by caloric content and nutritional information, price, and name of the stores that served them.
"I run an electronic newsfeed for all sorts of entertainment in the areas, all of them except Chronos. Which isn't much, I mean, apart from dining and seasonal events, which is mostly what I do. Since the city oversees all the plays, concerts and print publishing, there's not much we can write about other than food and drink. The Food Bureau's out of the question, no way I could get inside that place ― so it's just stuff like where to eat good cakes, or good places to have lunch, or things like that. I do the best I can. It's actually quite popular. I mean, after all, in Lost Town, there's not much to do for fun other than eat or drink, so everyone's eager for information."
"Then by any chance, are you―"
"Right on," the man said energetically. "I want to run a feature on your bakery's breads and cakes, with a spotlight on the muffins. Will you let me interview you?"
"Are you sure you want to write about my shop?" Karan said worriedly. "Won't the authorities turn their eye on you too?"
"I don't care if the authorities turn their eye on me, or want to trip me up, what-have-you. I can't let those delicious muffins go without any publicity." He paused. "Though Lili probably wouldn't be too happy if a crowd of customers came and cleaned out your muffins. Uncle, you never do anything right, she'd probably say."
"Never," smiled Karan. "―But my bakery's been on the news before, with my son's incident, and all. People from Lost Town might still come ― but what about people from other areas?"
Yoming shrugged his shoulders, and erased the image on the touch-panel screen.
"Karan, the people of this city aren't very good at remembering things." His voice was hoarse, and hard to catch.
"They forget everything at the blink of an eye. No matter how serious an incident. Gone. What's more, they don't even see the possibility that there might be something underneath the surface. Remembering, doubting, contemplating. It's hard for them to do. But they don't even have to do it ― the day still goes on, and peacefully, too. It's a terrifying place, this."
Yoming's words sounded so much like an open criticism of the present condition that Karan found herself straightening in her seat. If this conversation reached outside ears, that would be more terrifying than anything. As if perceiving Karan's agitation, Yoming relaxed his face in a smile and waved his hand nonchalantly.
"Don't worry. This car is equipped with an anti-tapping device. But who knows, maybe all the new cars rolling out next year will have tapping devices built right into them."
"Yoming, why are you so critical of the city? How can you be so certain that this is a frightening place?"
After a brief silence, Yoming tapped the touch-screen three times.
The image of a young, delicate-faced woman appeared. A baby was sleeping in her arms, bundled in a white blanket. The woman's smile was filled with the bliss of motherhood. Her chestnut hair, cropped in a short bob, framed her alert and energetic face, and her gentle smile was memorable.
"My wife. That's our son in her arms. This picture is from a long time ago."
"Did something happen to your―?"
"Same as with your son, she left the house one day and never came back. The only thing that's different from your case is that she disappeared along with our son, and that she was filed away as a missing person."
Karan's breath caught in her throat. Yoming's calm and levelled way of speaking made the fact even more shocking.
It's the same as Shion― there's someone who's been through the same thing―
"She was a school teacher," Yoming said quietly. "She taught art and music to kids like Lili. Said no other job could suit her better. She always told the kids to cherish what they felt in their hearts. Whether it be for drawing a picture, or writing a song, she said the most important thing was to look straight at your feeling and emotions, and express them truthfully."
"That's beautiful," Karan breathed. "I don't think I've heard such touching words in a long time."
"Yeah. She was an admirable woman, touched a lot of people. She had firm beliefs, and taught her children based on those. But she started getting more and more stern warnings and directions from the Education Bureau... they told her to teach the kids strictly by the book. The book that they'd published, of course. Naturally, she resisted― and she got fired from her workplace. She got her license revoked too, because they deemed her as unfit for teaching. I think during that time, there were quite a few teachers like her who were removed from their jobs. You didn't know, did you?"
"I had no idea― I can't even remember..."
"No need to be ashamed. It's natural you shouldn't know," Yoming said grimly. "It didn't make the news. The authorities were already starting to manipulate information by that time. There you had the seeds of a system that would eventually prevent anything inconvenient from being publicized as tangible information."
The car was already entering Lost Town. This district was always the least-maintained and the last to be updated in its facilities, and was an area of haphazard mish-mash. Amidst its restless buzz, Karan found herself sighing a breath of relief.
"She was planning to build a school for children, with other exiled teachers ― she was trying to teach in a place where the authorities would have less influence. She'd left for a meeting to discuss plans for the school that day ― and she never came back."
Yoming clenched his fist, and pounded the steering wheel. The crow cried plaintively in the back seat.
"I'll never forget," he said through clenched teeth. "No matter what happens, I'll never forget. I'll keep it alive in my memory. It was cloudy that morning, and it looked like it would rain any minute. I'd gone to the dentist because my toothache was getting unbearable. I was off work that day, so I should have been the one babysitting our son at home. But she took him with her so I wouldn't have to. She put him on a stroller with a blue hood, and she was wearing a beige jacket. There were small embroidered flowers on the chest. We promised that if my toothache settled down in the afternoon, and it didn't rain, we'd go out to the Forest Park to take a walk. At the door, we kissed and said goodbye. I kissed my son on the cheek, too. He laughed, and kicked his feet. He was wearing tiny little white socks. There were flowery patterns sewn on them too. They were purple violets. I still remember. I still haven't forgotten a single thing. I could never forget."
The car stopped.
You have arrived at your destination, announced the car navigator. They were in front of Karan's bakery.
"I'm sorry, I got a little worked up," Yoming said. "Rude of me, since we've only just met."
"No―" Karan said softly. "Thank you for bringing me home."
She paused uncertainly. She questioned herself whether it would be alright to tell him about Safu. She was unable to decide whether she could completely trust the man in front of her.
Someone rammed full-speed into Karan's waist as she got out of the car.
"Ma'am, why did you take a day off today? Are you sick?"
Yoming called over from inside the car.
"Lili, she's fine. Madam here just had some errands to run. She'll bake muffins for you tomorrow, I'm sure."
Lili blinked, and her mouth gaped open.
"Hey, is that you, Uncle Yoming? Did you come to eat dinner again? Why do you always come when we're having chicken and mushrooms?"
"See, this is what I get. Horrible, isn't it?" Yoming smiled wryly, and leaned forward to peer into Karan's face. "If you can, open your bakery again tomorrow. And keep on at it. You've got a job to do, Karan."
"Never despair. You can't give up, no matter what. It's only when you despair and decide that there's nothing you can do, that you really lose. It might seem easier to just give up―"
Karan placed a hand on top of Lili's head, and shook her head firmly.
"No, I won't give up. I have my responsibilities."
"Yes. I'm a grown adult, and I've been living alongside this city for a long time. I've done my best to live respectably, but if the result of that is what this city has become ― then we've made a huge mistake somewhere along the way. I'm not sure where we've made it ― but I know I've got to take responsibility for it. We can't let children like Lili suffer because of a crime that's not their own, right?"
"Shh―!" Yoming lifted a warning finger. A young woman on a bicycle sped past the car. "I understand how you feel, but don't say those kind of things out loud here. You don't know who might be listening."
Lili giggled, and pulled at Karan's skirt.
"Uncle Yo's always being cautious. He's a scaredy-cat, even though he's a grown-up."
"When you grow up, Lili, you'll start to understand what the really scary things are."
"Well, I think Mommy is the scariest when she's angry," Lili said matter-of-factly. "She's really scary, you know. Daddy says he's scared of Mommy the most, too."
"Ah, that's right, of course," Yoming replied gravely. "I agree, your Mommy can be very scary."
Karan burst out laughing. Lili's mother would often scold her children in a booming voice that was hard to imagine coming from her slender frame.
"Lili, Yoming, and Mr. Crow, too ― if you have time to spare, how would you like to stop by for a bit? I wouldn't be able to serve you muffins, but I could whip up some pancakes."
"Really? Yay!" Lili clasped Karan's hand tightly. Her hands were soft. Karan's heart swelled with an outpouring of love.
I can't let this little girl go through what Shion and Safu did. And I must save those two, somehow. Yes ― we have a responsibility to fulfill.
Her eyes met with Yoming's. They stared back at her, the colour of crow's feathers. Karan nodded, and unlocked the door.
"Lili, come in. You too, Yoming. I still have things to speak to you about."
Just then, a small black spot flitted across her vision. She heard the buzz of wings.
"What's wrong?" Yoming followed Karan's gaze and glanced around as he got out of the car.
"There was an insect ― I thought I saw a bee flying around."
"Bee? It might be warm still, but I don't think they should be active anymore."
"I guess you're right."
It was winter. There was no way bees would be flying around. Even if there were, it was probably a single insect that had wandered out into the air, drawn by the sunlight and warmth. But she could not shake the foreboding feeling in her heart.
Lili stared up at her from below as she stood still in the doorway.
"Oh, sorry about that. Come on in."
My nerves are just on-edge. I must be tired. Karan reassured herself, and opened the door. She stepped inside, and shook her head violently, as if brushing away the buzzing sound that had lodged itself in her ears.
Read Chapter 3.