I waded into consciousness with the mother of all hangovers. The grandmother of all hangovers. Worse than any hangover I'd had since my sophomore year at CalOc. What's more, my whole face was sore. My whole body was sore. But mostly, the pain was in my head, pulsing like a bassy EDM concert but without the molly.
"Whuh…" I mumbled.
I tried to move. I tried to speak, and things just didn't seem to be working. The side of my face was hot and slick with sweat and saliva, but it hardly mattered over the boom of pain. I forced my eyes open, and my vision gradually resolved into a dimly-lit, very-rustic room. Not the sort of place I often woke up in, even after hooking up. Especially after hooking up…
Call me shallow. I've been called worse.
What have you gotten yourself into, Lynn? It took me another minute of squinting and blinking past the pain, tears streaming down my cheeks, to recognize that I wasn't alone. I would have been a lot more worried if the woman shuffling across the room didn't bear a strong resemblance to my 'Lao Lao Rita'. For a moment, I thought the woman actually might be my grandmother, but she was a decade younger and too spry on her feet to be an octogenarian with rheumatoid arthritis. She paid a glance in my direction as she swept across the sunlit part of the room.
"Whuh…" I said again. Nope. It still wasn't happening.
The granny said something in a language I almost recognized. Comprehension nudged at my awareness before dissipating like the morning mist. When I tried to roll out of the roughspun cot I found myself lying upon, I succeeded only in flopping a rail-thin arm over the edge, a bony knuckle knocking against the smooth wood of the floor. That, at least, got the woman's full attention.
She said something again in a language I almost understood, and this time a deeper voice, a man's voice, replied. For a few seconds, terror coursed through me: I'd been kidnapped by some weirdos and they were about to go all Kathy Bates in Misery on me. Apparently, they had gone all Misery on me, or maybe Saw (I'm not a big fan of body horror), because what little I could see of myself appeared to be undernourished to the point of being emaciated. This was not my beach body. This was not me living my best life.
Then the granny shuffled over to me, concern knit across her brow. She said something with the deliberate calmness you might use for a dog or a little kid. The meaning percolated up through my brain: this will help. She tilted my head up and brought a wooden bowl to my lips.
I slurped it down. It was cool, gritty, and intensely herbal. It was… well… honestly, not too bad. The granny's concern turned into confusion - clearly, she'd been expecting a more negative reaction. Instead, I licked my lips.
"Mmmore," I croaked. Whether or not she understood English, the meaning was clear enough. She fetched another bowl and watched with interest as I slurped that one down, too. It tasted a lot like a ginger kale smoothie.
The ginger kale broth sat heavily in my belly, and within a handful of minutes, the gradual torque of pain surrounding my skull simmered to a dull ache and then a vague pressure. My head swam and my stick-thin limbs felt impossibly heavy. The hushed conversation in the background became muffled as my eyelids grew heavier and I lapsed into darkness.
"Huh?" My head jerked up as if I'd been nodding off, like those times in college where I'd stayed up too late the night before, whether studying, partying, or both, and begun to doze off during a droning adjunct's lesson. Only I wasn’t still in college, and this wasn't an airy lecture hall at California Oceanic University.
I was back in my yoga studio… well our yoga studio. We were a co-op of sorts, me and Rhiannon and Bailey were, or at least we split rent and utilities amicably. Sun streamed in from the big skylight windows and past the small jungle of potted greenery along the front window. I ran a finger along the countertop - no dust. I guess one of the other girls was finally taking cleanliness as seriously as I did. Satisfied, I wandered over to the sink to get some water for the plants.
There was a girl in the corner.
"Ahh!" I reached for the first thing at my disposal, which happened to be the 2-liter blender container, and wielded it like a cudgel. "W-what are you doing here?" I yelped.
The girl was small and frail - she didn't look any older than twelve or thirteen, clad in smelly rags, rail-thin limbs with the sallow-eyed look of somebody who often went hungry. As she looked up with her big brown eyes, a flash of recognition passed over her. I felt it, too. Somehow, I knew this girl…
"Do… do I know you?" For the first time, I noted that the corner she was curled up in was wrong. Wrong, as in it wasn't part of my little slice of nirvana, my yoga studio. Somebody had torn at the walls and peeled up tiles, exposing old, rotten, ramshackle wood.
I was almost certain the frame of our building was in better shape than that. The foundation was cement and the walls were eco-friendly earthenblock, weren't they? What in the world was going on?
The girl looked up at me, fear in her eyes, and mumbled something that sounded a lot like… "Truder."
Intruder? Was she saying I was an intruder? In my own studio?
"Honey, I don't know what's going on," I said. Some inner instinct told me that this girl shared a connection with me, and it was plain enough to see that she needed some help.
What would a responsible adult do? It was a thought I found myself increasingly making as I ticked into my early thirties, my years as a young adult officially over. The answer was clear enough: a responsible adult would give the girl a meal and call the authorities.
"Do you want a smoothie?" I asked. The girl blinked, apparently unfamiliar with the term. "I bet you'd like a banana nutella smoothie," I concluded. "Not the healthiest, but it's tasty. And it has kombucha probiotics and I'll add some hemp protein." The girl could probably do with some iron in her diet, too, but a lot of kids didn't like kale or spinach in their vegan smoothies for some reason and Bailey would throw a shit fit if anybody brought anything non-vegan into the studio. I don't think she understood any of what I said. "You'll like it," I assured her.
The refrigerator was stocked exactly how I liked it - one of the girls must have topped everything up for a change. Perfect! I tossed the ingredients into the food processor, frowning a bit at the big brown blob of nutella as I scooped it out. I reminded myself for probably the thousandth time that not every smoothie had to be optimally healthy. This girl needed calories. I filled the girl's glass to the brim and poured myself the remainder - a tiny, guilty, shot-glass-sized portion.
"Here you go!" I reached out to hand her the glass. With a small, trembling hand, she reached to take it. And our fingers… our fingers stuck.
They melded. Right before my eyes, my fingers melded into the girl's as if we were both made out of goo. I tried to pull away, but it was like pulling against a solid part of my own body. With horror, I watched on as the girl's entire hand melded into mine, disappearing up to the wrist as it got sucked into the palm of my hand. As it did, little motes of memory - vague and muddled sensations - sparkled through my mind. A woman and a man, kind-eyed. Later, the man lay limp and sweaty upon a bed, his dying breaths coming in shallow gasps.
The bare wooden floor beneath the girl pulsed, expanding outward and then contracting like ocean surf. The girl screamed and pulled against me, but separating was every bit as impossible for her as it was for me. As she pulled, my own fingers got sucked into the expanding merger between the two of us.
"What's… I'm not doing this," I shouted, trying to pull my hand back out. Two fingers popped back into existence as the girl's upper arm got sucked into my palm.
I swear I've never been a cannibal. I've been a vegan for most of my teenage and adult life. But it seemed that I was somehow absorbing the girl. I couldn't do a thing to stop it, and the more the girl struggled the more of my own body got subsumed as we merged.
"No… no!" The girl scraped and scrambled at the floor, wailing.
I teared up a little myself, just watching her. More half-formed memories flitted through my mind. She'd had a hard life, her parents dead at a young age. And then something had happened to her… the memories weren't clear on what, and her memories weren't clear ever again afterward. But after the incident, for a long time, she had a hard time moving and she was never quite the same. I noticed that her face was scarred along the right side and misshapen, as if she'd suffered a terrible injury and things hadn't healed back quite right. Her jaw was crooked and one eye was lower than the other. There was a great, pale scar along her right cheekbone.
I noted with a start that my own right arm had been absorbed, half-way to my elbow. When my attention lapsed, the tables had turned. I hated that I was forced to do this, but I couldn't live my best life if I let myself be absorbed by whatever was happening.
"I'm sorry," I said, and I pushed, not with my body but with some fraction of my will. As I did, the girl's body sucked up into mine… her left leg and most of her torso. Now they were slipping into my own side, the bizarre sensation of bones painlessly melding into one another, organs kissing and then merging into a single copy.
All the while, memories flowed into me - words in another language. Words that reminded me of my years in Chinese school as a little girl, but that weren't quite that. Years of experiences, years of enduring pain, hunger, and scorn. And the cold, dark eyes of an angry man with a short-cropped beard. A man who often beat her.
In the end, she cried for her mother - a mother that I now knew had been dead for some years, though the memories were unclear on how many. I wept even as I accelerated the process as quickly as I could. There was no reason to prolong her suffering. I felt like a monster, an utter piece of shit, for essentially devouring a scared little girl. But it was either me or her, and I had no idea what the rules of this place were. It looked like my yoga studio, but it clearly wasn't.
When the last of her slipped into my body, all that remained to confirm that something had transpired was a spilled banana nutella smoothie and a dark smudge on the white tile floor, which wiped right out when I mopped the smoothie up.
"What…" I murmured, prodding along my body. No trace of the girl remained but a litany of confused memories, many of them colored by fear and grief. What a sad life. "What an utter mindfuck."
Then I felt myself being pulled away like a carp on a hook, and the imaginary world of my yoga studio dissolved around me.
When I came to again, I found myself back on a roughspun cot in a rustic cottage. I could tell it was at least a few hours later because the sun peered through a window on the opposite side of the cottage. For all I knew, it was the next day and I'd been out all night, having weird dreams brought on by whatever herbal broth the granny had made me drink. And that dream…
The girl! In my dream, I'd literally, inadvertently, horribly absorbed a sickly little girl, scarcely a teenager. As much as I wanted to attribute that to a strange fever-dream, the memories were still there. And now I could understand the voices on the other side of the cottage… well… I could understand most of the words. Every few words, especially those that were longer or more difficult to pronounce, I had trouble with. I… I didn't want to think about the implications.
"She's awake again," the young man said.
"Go and keep her calm. I'll talk to her after I [something something] Mrs. Chin."
A young guy pushed the curtain separating the back of the cottage aside and wandered through, dark eyes fixed on me. He crouched next to the bed as I stirred, offering a sad smile. He had a kind face, but he could have used some mouthwash and a good exfoliation routine. "Good afternoon, Lin-Lin," he said - he used a cutesy child's name for me but couldn't have been out of his teenage years, himself.
"What… what happened… to me?" I croaked out in the same language.
"How do you feel? Still sore?"
I was still sore, but it didn't even compare to the muddling agony from before. "Not as much as earlier. But… please… what happened to me?" My voice was reedy and high. It… wasn't my voice. Even after accounting for the different spoken language, my voice was supposed to sound more mature. People sometimes called it 'smoky', whatever that means.
Something about my response surprised the young man. He tried to hide his reaction but did a terrible job of it. "I'll be right back," he said quickly. "Everything's fine, Lin." Everything about his body language suggested that everything was not fine.
He dipped back around to the other side of the curtain and engaged in semi-hushed conversation with the granny on the other side. He kept his voice down, but she was a lot less circumspect.
"Who knows? Something must have knocked loose when she hit her head," the granny said.
That finally got the young man to raise his voice. "Hit her head? You know as well as me that that bastard did it to her, granny. And besides, that doesn't explain how she recovered so quickly… or her eyes."
"What if Lee Dan did it? Peh! It wouldn't be the first time. Do you think I like it, boy? I don't… but what's an old woman supposed to do? The man is a cultivator…"
"He's not a cultivator," the young man said, the acid of spite heavy in his voice.
"Fine, I grant you that, my grandson. But he's taken the emperor's pill and has the body of a cultivator and a fraction of the restraint, which is even worse. And… wait. Fu, you mentioned something about her eyes?"
"Um… yeah. They're… you should see them…"
This was getting ridiculous. "I can hear you, you know!" I called out.
"Lin definitely wouldn't say that," the young man… Fu, I guess… said. "See? It's…"
"I think I'm just going to leave," I said.
"Hmmph!" The granny cast the curtain aside, dark eyes regarding me with suspicion. "You'd leave before your Granny Phuong gave you a clean bill of health?"
Was this woman my grandmother? I probed back through the girl's muddled memories. I didn't think Granny P was her literal grandmother - it was just a term of affection. If I was right, I'd basically stolen this girl's body… Lin's body… and forcibly merged our souls together. Which actually answered a lot of questions. I'd always been certain that souls existed, but Rhiannon thought she knew better because she'd been a biology major. Well, guess what, Riannon? They're totally real, and totally horrible things can happen if yours gets magically shoved into another person's, uh, soul receptacle I guess.
"Fu wouldn't tell me what happened to me, but I take it somebody beat me up pretty badly?"
Granny P sat at the side of the bed - she looked to be around seventy but had a warm, almost tangible vitality about her. "The carpenter apprentice, Xiaodan, found you not too far from your house, Lin-Lin. We don't know what happened. Not for sure." She examined my eyes, bringing a little oil lantern close - checking for concussion, maybe? She nodded uncertainly. "Try to get out of bed and walk a few steps. Come, I'll help you up."
With just a little help from Granny P, I eased out of bed, tottering uncertainly when she released her hold on my upper arm. I stretched my spine and limbs, surprising myself when a series of pops and cracks filled the room, far more than even my lao lao made when she walked around. A sore tension that I hadn't even been aware of eased into nothing. Without much effort, I took a few tentative steps. I took a few more.
"I feel better," I said.
"No stiffness in your legs?" Granny P asked.
"No. Why would there b-" I stopped myself, looking down at my bare, dirt-caked feet and then back at Granny P. Little Lin had always walked with a limp, ever since her 'accident' when she was very young. She took awkward, shuffling steps wherever she went, weaving back and forth because, between her stiff leg and her bad eye, she was unable to walk in anything like a straight line. And I'd just walked straight across the room with no problems whatsoever. "I guess that medicine really did the trick?" I said lamely.
"I guess so," Granny P agreed. "I'll come check on you in a few days, but you'll let me know if the stiffness starts to come back, won't you?"
I nodded obligingly. "Of course, granny."
"Good. Fu, will you send in the next patient and take little Lin back home?"
Fu popped his head through the curtain, not even a little embarrassed at having listened in on our whole conversation. "Sure thing, nai nai. Come on, Lin-Lin!"
I followed Fu out of the cottage, past Granny Phuong's racks of herbs, boxes of various medicines, and her big, time-worn chest filled with the other sundries of her craft. I followed Fu out and into my new life.