When Ryan Leong received the call about his mother’s death, he had one foot crammed in a tree fork and the other dangling over the electrified fence.
He muted the visual and muttered, “I’m here,” as he jumped over the fence, landing on the stiff plastic turf of the cemetery lawn.
He nodded, clutching the cell phone with frozen fingers, and repeated after the nurse, “Kidney failure, uh huh, painless, yes, it was time.” The nurse couldn’t understand why he wasn’t at the Northern Alberta Regional Hospital with its painfully bright lights and harsh smells, beside his mother, so tiny in the smooth-sheeted bed, who had looked up at him in fogged confusion. He stumbled through a plastic shrub and almost fell. Her eyes would never open again.
He bit his lip and managed to keep his voice steady as he lied to the nurse. Yes, he was all right. Yes, he’d actually said goodbye to his mother last year when she had stopped recognizing him. Yes, he had a place to stay: his Aunt Jenna’s in Calgary.
The last fib was as bad as the first; Auntie Jenna was a vague figure from his childhood, just someone who sent red envelopes of ten dollar bills at Chinese New Year. She had been too busy managing an apartment building to have time for him. Or for his mom, even after the car accident.
Finally, the nurse hung up, after extracting a promise that he wouldn’t be alone tonight. That part, at least, was true.
He would be with Grandpa.
The lamps along the rubber pathway, triggered by his movement, made hazy spheres in the early morning ice fog. The cemetery, the largest in Edmonton, held hundreds of graves, but, now, only a couple of rows of headstones were visible as the mist reduced Ryan’s world to a matter of meters. He pulled up the hood on his university jacket and looked for security cameras. Pretty soon the system would run a fence scan and realize he’d broken in, but he should have enough time. It wouldn’t take long.
Headstones murmured and came to life as he trotted towards Grandpa’s grave. He ignored their homilies, imprecations, and laughter. A few, the oldest, didn’t have interactive software, video, or even audio—their dark, silent shapes were eerie in the fog. The gun rattled against the other items in his backpack. His feet, in cheap running shoes and thin socks, ached with cold by the time he turned onto the path leading to the Buddhist graves. No matter; tomorrow it would all be over, one way or the other.
He hesitated at the joss paper vending machine, its pay slot blinking relentlessly. Every other visit, he’d been respectful, choosing items from the selection of fake paper money, paper electronics, and paper clothes, regardless of the cost. He’d spent many long minutes folding them piece by piece before placing them in the attached burn barrel, to ensure Grandpa was properly outfitted in the afterlife.
Tonight, he might as well put his maxed-out credit card in the barrel and press the “incinerate” button. He almost laughed at the thought, but his backpack held an even more appropriate offering. And burning it right by the grave was surely more traditional.
Two rows down, four headstones in. In the six months since Ryan’s traditional “Ghost Festival” visit, grime had settled on the red synthetic marble and filled the engraved characters. He dug a fast-food napkin out of his pocket and scrubbed at the ice crystals and dirt. The napkin shredded before he was half done, and his fingertips tingled with cold.
Grandpa’s darkened screen reflected his face, pale in the lamplight. Gramma’s photo, etched on her half of the headstone, stared past his shoulder. Like most of the women’s graves, no one had seen a need to spend money on electronic enhancements for her stone.
He stepped back, placed his palms together, gave a slight bow, and moved his hands several times in a small vertical arc. His generation might not speak Cantonese or eat rice every day, but he understood the concept of xiao, the respect for elders that was ingrained in every Asian, even the “CBC” fakers like him, Canadian Born Chinese. He’d once tried to explain xiao to his Caucasian roommate, but Matt’s eyes had glazed over before he’d even got halfway. Ryan never tried to explain again, but he had continued to keep the entire dorm room clean that semester, keep his marks up, make regular phone calls to his mother, and use earplugs when his roommate watched porn.
What Ryan thought of as supportive family behavior, Caucasians seemed to find restrictive. Apparently, no price was too high for personal freedom.
Maybe, just maybe, they had had a point. Ryan was considering doing something that would have been inconceivable a few years ago.
Something really liberating. But, first, the offering.
He knelt on the frozen turf and opened his backpack. First, he stacked scavenged spruce twigs in a pile. Next, he placed the lighter and gold-edged diploma neatly to one side.
Finally, he pulled out the handgun, hefted it, then replaced it in the pack.
Ten minutes later, the lighter was out of fuel and the fancy printout, which must have had a plastic component, smoldered sickly atop the last few twigs. “Doctor of Philosophy” was still legible.
Burning his diploma as an offering to Grandpa had seemed like a good idea a few hours ago, when he’d left the hospital so abruptly. Hours of riding almost-empty buses as they jounced over badly plowed roads, hours of wandering the dark and frigid streets, had left him chilled to the core. Funny how he had headed for an empty graveyard in order to get warm.
However, this blackened, smoking mess was nothing like the warm cheery flames he had envisioned.
The offering had been for Grandpa’s sake, not his, and Grandpa should already know how much respect Ryan had for him. Ryan lowered his forehead to the icy lawn like a Buddhist monk in prayer.
After a moment, shuddering with cold, he sat back on his heels. Bushes softened the fence line. The sunrise, so far just a pink smear on the horizon, faded the stars.
Ryan had been at the gravesite long enough. Time for Grandpa to show.
The screen on the headstone crackled and lit up, a gentle smile forming amid Grandpa’s familiar creases. Once triggered, the five-minute video would loop repeatedly; Grandpa smiling as if in recognition. The audio hadn’t worked in years, ever since one particularly cold winter. Ryan had saved up for a diagnostic once, but had to spend the money on physiotherapy for Momma.
“What news have you?” His grandpa’s voice was strong and rich. Ryan jerked in surprise, then got to his feet. Crazy software.
“Hi, Grandpa. I hope you are well,” he said, glad the cemetery was empty of visitors. Lots of people talked to the graves and even believed the dead were listening. Foolish, maybe, but he felt better just hearing Grandpa’s voice. He bowed again. “Um, let’s see. I’ve graduated from university and I’m applying for every job I can.”
He bit his lip. He thought he remembered the next question. Maybe coming here rather than staying at Momma’s side had been a bad idea. At least at the hospital, no one asked him too many questions. Some things were better left unspoken, even to software.
“Now, tell me the real news.” Grandpa had no patience with social niceties, in life or in death. The inexpensive voice chip wasn’t very sophisticated, not like the interactive ones over in the newer section, but Grandpa had put a great deal of thought into the five or six phrases that repeated for every visitor. His recorded voice, tremulous and frail, had been tweaked by funeral home technicians and rang with authority as it had during Ryan’s childhood. A slight slurring on some consonants betrayed his Cantonese origins.
“Sorry, Grandpa. All my news is bad.” Start small. Leave the news about Momma until my voice steadies. “First, I graduated from university this morning with a big debt. The butt-in-chair classroom education that you taught me to treasure, well, it’s completely antiquated.” Ryan grabbed the charred certificate and crumpled it slowly and methodically as he spoke. “Online classes teach the same material better, faster and cheaper to, like, thousands of people. People from India, China, and South America. And in half the time it took me.”
He waved the ball of paper that had once held such hopes as if Grandpa could see it. “This is worth no more than the e-dip held by every eighteen-year-old in Bangalore.” He dropped it at his feet, suddenly hot and shaking. His breath puffed out in huge white clouds. “I’ve wasted six years, thanks to you,” he shouted, startling himself.
He wanted to scream. Xiao, my ass. He dug his nails into his palms.
Grandpa smiled and nodded, smiled and nodded. It was useless to explain to him about open-learning platforms, modularized courses, and distance learning. Momma had told Ryan time and again how Grandpa, as a young man in the Guangzhou slums, had taught himself English one word at a time, with nothing but a Chinese-English dictionary and a discarded newspaper. He’d insisted Momma and Ryan speak only English at home, unlike any other CBC Ryan knew, not even wanting to be called Gong Gong but, instead, the English Grandpa.
A squirrel broke the silence, chattering from a lamppost.
Ryan swore in Cantonese and shook his fist. “I did everything the way you wanted. I tried. Now all I’ve got is what’s in my backpack.”
He kicked the nylon pack. It slumped and the gun slid out an inch or two. His stubby black ticket to freedom. Ryan grabbed it with both hands and spun like a movie gangster, sighting on the fence line. A snubnose .38, the guy had called it when Ryan handed over the only thing he had left of value—the jade pendant he’d worn since birth.
The gun made no noise when he half-cocked it, then uncocked it by gently squeezing the trigger. He repeated the two actions, over and over, while he sullenly waited for Grandpa’s next question.
His memory of the pacing was a bit off, or else the software had degraded over time. His thumb and finger were aching before Grandpa said, “What else?”
“Second, a PhD in Education has no value any more. I will never teach. Live teachers in live classrooms are a thing of the past—I haven’t had one teach me in over three years—just a screen on the classroom wall. Most school boards are going to retire the staff they have. Online schools, ones like Panga India, have monopolized the industry. Bright young Indians write the interactives that run the courses.” And that’s not the worst of it.
The morning sun slanted across his pack as he pushed aside his little stash of food and dug out the box of bullets. All the essays he put his heart into, all the hours spent in hard plastic chairs—they counted for nothing.
He loaded a bullet.
“Grandpa, you remember that famous court case we discussed when you were in the hospital? Patel versus UBC? It hit the Supreme Court in 2020?” A soft snick as he placed another bullet in the chamber. And another.
Even with tubes up his nose, Grandpa had remained intensely interested in current events, right until the end.
“They finally passed that into law. Anyone can challenge any exam at any time,” Ryan continued. He closed the full chamber and spun it. The squirrel danced down the pathway, closer. “You remember Freddy Woo next door? Four years behind me in school? He challenged the B. Ed. exams after one year of online study and he’s caught up to me now. With no debt at all.” The smug prick.
Grandpa said nothing. Ryan spun the chamber again and took careful aim at the squirrel. He pulled the trigger. The bang instantly made his head ache. Pink chips flew off a headstone in the next row. A mournful dirge began to drone out of its tinny speakers. The squirrel, tail aloft, chattered at Ryan from a crypt far to his right.
“Third.” He dropped the gun and rubbed his temples. Drying sweat sent a shiver down his back. His anger was gone. “Momma…” A deep inhale, sharp with the scent of gunpowder, and he was able to try again. “Momma passed away just now. The brain injury gradually made her body shut down. She was in a coma all day yesterday. Now, she’s…she’s at peace.” He hung his head and put his numb hands in his jacket pockets. An ache started deep in his throat and spread through his chest. He hadn’t said goodbye to her last year, no, not really. This, this was goodbye. Goodbye, Momma. He fought for control.
A bead of snot dripped off his nose onto the ground, right above Grandpa’s feet. He wiped the back of his hand across his nose, then on his jeans, feeling the mucus instantly stiffen. A sniff loud enough to disturb the magpies that littered the fence line still didn’t clear his throat so he hawked and spit, turning so it landed on the pathway. He watched it freeze, the shiny glob hardening to dull ice in an instant.
“Fourth, my next move,” he croaked, then stopped. What was his next move—broke, in debt, and jobless? Declare bankruptcy and go on welfare? Go postal at the university? Money. He needed money. He nudged the gun with his foot. Knock over a convenience store? That wouldn’t be enough. Rob a bank? Somehow he had to clear the crushing debt.
“What can you-u-u do about it?” The stutter was new and made Grandpa sound a bit petulant.
Ryan started. He’d forgotten this question. The first time he’d heard it after the headstone was installed, he had thought it didn’t fit in; but eventually he’d figured Grandpa knew that most visitors came, not for traditional reasons like the Autumn Festival, but to mull things over. Grandpa’s face shifted as the loop reset and his eyes now seemed focused on the far distance.
“I can declare bankruptcy, Grandpa, with the ‘undue hardship’ clause. I know you’d hate me dishonoring the Leong name. Or, I can be in debt for a very long time. If I go to work every day for, oh, thirty years, I might pull out of it. I won’t own a house, build up any savings, or have an RRSP. I doubt anyone will want a partner who’s that much of a loser, so no wife, no kids, probably not even a girlfriend.” He looked at the gun. Or, I could end it all now. He rubbed his face.
Ryan heard the bitterness in his voice. Only twenty-four years old and already beaten by life. Grandpa never had such problems.
As soon as Ryan formed that thought, he felt ashamed. Grandpa had left China as a child right after WWII, nearly starving in Malaysia before coming to Canada. Like Chinese immigrants chasing the BC Gold Rush a hundred years before, Grandpa had thought of Canada as a “gold mountain,” a land of wealth, opportunity, and hope. He’d learned TV repair, getting on his feet just as solid state electronics hit the market. Gramma had once shown Ryan a photograph of Grandpa at this age: rigid, unsmiling, with a resolute set to his mouth. Grandpa had started again, retraining as an oilfield equipment tech, and then losing all his savings in the Slump that started in 2008.
Grandpa hadn’t quit. He’d passed away in the twelfth year of the Slump. Ryan remembered coming home from his last day at high school to a silent house and his mother in tears. The funeral had been the following week. Over fifty friends and neighbors had attended.
“How are the relatives?”
The next question.
Ryan sighed. “Grandpa, there’s just me left. Gramma died right after you. She’s buried beside you.” He glanced at Gramma’s stern photo next to the screen. “And Big Uncle Martin is in here too, the next row over. I’m sorry.” He turned his collar up against the chill. Auntie Jenna must be sixty-something by now. Ancient. He pictured her mopping a floor with arthritic hands.
“What-t-t can you do about it?”
Ryan could no longer keep on his feet. He couldn’t watch Grandpa’s kindly eyes anymore; couldn’t watch the video loop repeating endlessly. He sat cross-legged and rocked slowly to and fro, the ice-crystalled grass crunching. He squeezed his eyes shut; half-formed tears began to freeze on his lashes.
He blinked several times. The squirrel had returned, chittering from a nearby stone angel. It must be starving—its knowledge of seeds and cones useless in the cemetery’s plastic world. Sorry for shooting at you, little guy.
Maybe bankruptcy was not so dishonorable. His friends didn’t think so. Jeffery had even hosted huge parties when his student loan had appeared in his account. And Amber had already declared bankruptcy twice before she got her doctorate. So why did just thinking about it make him grit his teeth?
The squirrel reappeared on the path, hopped on the edge of a garbage can, and began rummaging at the bottom in frenetic haste.
What can you do about it? You adapt, Grandpa would have said. You build and you rebuild.
Don’t let them get you down, Momma used to say.
So, he’d rob a bank then. His only chance to rebuild. If he blew it and ended up in prison, at least he’d be warm. He picked up the gun and stroked the icy barrel.
“The…real…you?” Grandpa’s voice murmured. Ryan didn’t see how the voice chip could combine phrases like that. Maybe the microbattery was degrading.
The question hung in the air. What was the real him? He pictured himself in an airless, grey cinderblock cell.
“I could write bootleg educational software from jail, Grandpa. That will help pay my debts.” Sarcasm had always been lost on Grandpa. Ryan ground the edge of his foot into the clump of paper that had been the diploma and set the gun in front of Grandpa, like some kind of perverted offering. Here you go, old man.
“…can you…?” Grandpa’s voice was softer now.
“Yes, Grandpa, I probably could. That’s the trouble with the educational world. Anyone can do anything from anywh—”
His backpack rustled behind him and the squirrel darted by as Ryan turned, his remaining half-sandwich hanging from its mouth. Adapt. Find a way.
He squared his shoulders. He belonged to a new generation with new problems, but he was still a Leong.
Panga India might need someone to smooth out the curriculum and make it regionally understood.
He could get some dweeb labor job nobody else wanted and write software in the evenings from home.
If he had a home.
Well, he knew someone who would be struggling with her workload and might let him sleep on her sofa. Auntie Jenna. She might not even remember who he was; family ties were not so important to her. But he had to start somewhere. Find a way.
Grandpa’s screen had gone dark and silent. Ryan saw his own face reflected back at him, his expression grim and determined.
The ice fog had burnt off as the sun rose. Beyond the fence, miles of prairie stretched before him, gleaming fields of ice-sparkled gold.
He opened his phone and dialed.
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