Sixteen: A Changed Woman

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Friday Evening, Day 12 – Approaching Guangzhou

 

Megyn’s seat was empty when Spence returned.

Must be another bathroom at the back of the coach.

Spence climbed back into the window seat and watched the monotonous plain of southern China streak past.

Megyn dropped quietly into the seat next to him. Spence turned to smile but stopped when he saw her face.

Always pale, her skin was now colorless, the same as the ash that had covered everything in Wuhan. Her eyes had multiple tiny wrinkles fingering out from each corner and looked sunk into dark caverns beneath her brow. There were three folds, wrinkles he’d never noticed, all the way across her forehead.

He leaned close to speak and noticed a sour odor.

“Are you sick?” He whispered.

She didn’t move or speak.

“Megyn,” he touched her arm trying to get her attention, “You look awful. Is it the train? Are you train sick?”

Still nothing.

He leaned forward and began to paw through the seat back for the vomit bag.

“Spence, I …,” she began, touching his arm to stop his search.

As he leaned back to listen, she started patting his arm, not slowly and consoling but faster, much faster.

Spence suddenly felt extremely anxious and it was several seconds before he could place it.

The rapid patting had resurrected an incident from long ago. He was eight and had shoplifted a shiny bone-handled folding knife from the display case in a neighborhood sporting goods store near home in Memphis. When his mother saw it on his dresser the next morning, she asked where it was from, he stammered he’d won it in a bet with Bebop down the street. But his Mother shook her head and said, “This is way too nice for him. Tell me this time, where did you get this knife?” He started crying as he blurted out the real story. His Mother said the knife would have to go back. He shouted, “No, you do it,” when he realized she wouldn’t do it for him. He was terrified of the store’s owners, what they might do to him and then what might happen when the Police were then called. Dismayed at his terror, she’d smiled and tried to soothe him by patting his forearm. Ultimately, the store owners had been understanding and agreed to let him off by working in the store for two weeks to pay for knife he then had to keep. He never carried the knife and it was eventually lost at the bottom of some drawer. But the panic he’d felt and the patting on his arm were burned deeply into his mind.

Spence’s heart in his ears, Megyn continued patting his arm as she said, “Spence, when you didn’t go to the Police I said you were wrong. I was afraid they would think you were involved if you didn’t come forward, that they would arrest you for the murder or, at a minimum, lock you up for not reporting it.”

She looked over the back of their seats before leaning closer.

Whispering as if confessing a secret, she rushed on, “But you were right. You were right to keep it to yourself. It would only have put you in more danger. Much more danger. You did the right thing, Spence.”

It took a moment for her words to sink in. She was agreeing with him? She was saying he’d done the right thing by not going to the Police? By keeping it secret?

Spence’s brow furrowed in confusion, her hand furiously patting his.

Why this sudden change of behavior? He wondered. In the last five minutes it was like she’d become a different person. Her appearance was different, her voice sounded different and, most of all, what she was saying was a complete reversal.

What’s changed?

Suddenly, Spence felt his stomach sink.

She’s having a stroke!

He looked at her face trying to remember the signs.

“Look at me, Megyn,” he said. “Show me a big grin.”

She turned her head slightly and gave him a quizzical look. Only one side of her mouth turned up.

Uh-oh!

Shifting half out of his seat to get in front of her, he picked up both her hands.

“Squeeze my hands, Megyn,” he ordered. “Hard!”

The sudden crush, both hands, surprised him.

“Ow!”

She flashed him a forced grin showing all her teeth.

About the same on each side, he measured.

The grin fell as fast as it had gone up and she said, “I’m not having a stroke, Spence.”

“Okay,” he said unconvinced. He pulled back his hands and flexed his fingers, scooting back in the seat but with his head turned slightly so he could keep an eye on her.

She reached over, put her hand on his and smiled.

Equal, both sides.

He smiled back.

Okay, no stroke.

Spence had just started to relax when the patting started again.

He clamped his jaw muscles and took a deep breath to suppress his automatic reaction but the patting continued. He bore it as long as he could.

Unable to wait any longer, he put his left hand atop hers to stop the drumming.

She looked down at the interruption for a moment, pulled her hand away from his and set it on top again. Both of Spence’s hands were now imprisoned beneath hers as the patting resumed.

“It’s all right, Spence,” she started, her eyes searching his. “We’re on our way. We will be on a plane, soon and out of China. We’ll be back in the United States where you’ll be safe. No one will harm you if you just keep doing what you’ve been doing.”

She gave him another forced smile before turning her head and eyes away, ending the conversation.

Spence saw her fix on something outside in the distance. She tracked it until her eyes reached his face.

“And now we should sit and enjoy the trip.”

What the fuck is going on? He wanted to scream.

The train plowed on, rocketing past large, rectangular plots filled with water.

Sounding like a tour guide, she observed, “This is the highest speed regular train service in the world. Nearly 300 kilometers per hour. How much is that, Spence?”

Spence automatically did the math. “175, maybe a little more.”

The patting seemed to match the train’s break neck speed.

The back of his hand was bright red when they finally stopped at Guangzhou South. The relief was enormous when Spence yanked back his hand and rubbed it before gathering their belongings.

On the platform, the signs were almost exclusively Chinese.

“I’ll find the train to the East station,” Megyn said, her mind apparently back to the here and now.

Two slow trains and more than a dozen stops later, they were again towing their two bags each as they stopped at the top of a short flight of steps exiting the Guangzhou East station.

It was dark but Spence recognized what he’d previewed in Google-Earth late last night.

The city park before them was a block wide and four blocks long. Winding paths with raised planters filled the park that was skirted by straight walkways along each side next to a narrow single lane roadway on each side. The far side of the narrow road was lined with six foot concrete block walls punctuated with narrow alleys that led off into the dark. Far ahead at the bottom of the park, traffic streamed past on a wide avenue. In the middle, a traffic signal periodically stopped traffic and the accumulated throng of pedestrians surged across.

Remembering the hotel’s website saying it was less than a kilometer “down through the park to the main avenue and then right 100 meters,” Spence said, “Follow me.”

He descended the six steps from the station but when Megyn didn’t follow, added, “It’s just down there to the right,” he nodded toward the traffic light. “Ten minutes, tops.”

Still, she did not move. Instead, her eyes darted about the park.

“Come on,” Spence said, climbing back up the steps. He took Megyn’s two bags out of her hands and carried them down next to his.

“Megyn, it’s all right. Look how crowded it is,” he pleaded. “Besides, I need the walk.”

“All right,” she frowned, slowly descending the steps. “I guess nothing will happen as long as you’re with me.”

They started down the wide straight walk along the right side of the park. Spence smiled at her reassuringly but his mind turned over her words, “Nothing will happen as long as you’re with me?

Looking at the crowd around them, Spence cataloged several rolling suitcases similar to theirs. A few others carried sacks— groceries, perhaps— or bags of belongings.

As was his habit for walking in unknown places, he turned his head occasionally to glance behind. On his first look, his attention was drawn to a man carrying a sagging duffel bag on his shoulder. The man hitched it higher in front of his face just as Spence looked. Twenty steps later Spence glanced back again but the man was no longer to be found.

At the bottom end of the park next to the avenue, Spence beckoned Megyn to the right. Glancing back again for safety, Spence saw a group waiting for the light to cross the avenue. As he looked, a fellow with a partially filled duffel bag— Spence thought it might be the same guy he’d seen before— darted out from the curb against the light and scurried across. On the other side, he turned right but then stopped in a shadowed area.

Rushing to make a bus going the other way? Spence wondered but didn’t see any bus.

“Here it is,” Megyn suddenly announced sounding relieved.

Spence looked ahead where she directed.

The hotel was set back from the avenue behind a circular driveway. Across the curved front rose a dozen white, two storey, gothic columns supported a covered walkway in front of the hotel. Above that, “Mayor’s Plaza” was emblazoned in three foot high English letters followed by several Chinese characters, all in bright red. The hotel’s orange marble facade was lit with bright spotlights. The combination of red English and Chinese characters against the orange building, all of it punctuated by greek-looking white columns was just too much. It reminded Spence of the ridiculous extravagance of Las Vegas.

Checking in, the female clerk handed him the keys to both rooms. As he turned from the desk to take his bags, his gaze momentarily passed through the open door to the outside. Through a momentary gap in traffic, he saw a man on the opposite side of the avenue, silhouetted from behind, facing in their direction. There was a crumpled bag at the man’s feet. Something seemed vaguely familiar about the shape of his head but Spence couldn’t place it.

“What floor are we on?” Megyn’s tired voice brought his attention back inside.

“Seventeen,” he said, checking the room numbers on the keys in his hand.

At their floor, a young woman sitting at a desk in the hallway rose to greet them. Spence handed her their keys and she wrote something in a notebook on the desk after consulting the clock. She motioned down the hall and began walking still holding their keys. They followed, baggage in tow. After a few steps, the young woman turned and, walking backwards like a tour guide, she starting speaking in Mandarin, first to Spence but then to Megyn when only she nodded.

Megyn translated, “She says there will be tea and coffee in the lobby in the morning, or we can dial 1700 during the night to call her directly if we need anything. She apologizes that her English is not very good.”

At their rooms, the attendant handed both keys to Spence, bowed slightly and then turned and walked back toward her desk.

Spence turned to Megyn and, the sensations of their night in Singapore flooding back, he held out one key and asked, “Are you Okay for the night? Do you want me to come in?”

Her finality as she took the offered key quashed any possibility. “I’m tired. We’re Okay for the night. Everything is all right now. We’re going to be safe.”

Her door closed with a decisive, “Ker-chunk.”

Opening the door across the hall with the remaining key, he used his foot to fight the abnormally strong closing spring as he dragged his roller suitcase and computer bag through.

Flipping the switch by the door, the room had a 1950s look, nothing like what he’d been expecting. Two twin beds sat against the wall, a small blond end table between them with two light bulbs to illuminate the entire room.

Showered and curled up beneath the covers in the twin bed furthest from the door, Megyn’s words in the hallway echoed in his mind. “We’re Okay for the night,” she’d said. “We’re going to be safe.

We? He wondered. Why ‘We’?

 

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