Staring at the hourglass was as boring as I’d thought, at first. After a few minutes of that task, however, things began to get strange.
Keeping focus on a single object for a long period of time was difficult. Meditation was one thing; focusing internally was easier. If I forget to breathe it becomes readily apparent not long after, and any distracting thoughts are readily discarded.
Staring intently at an hourglass though was…mesmerizing, in a way. And as my mind began to wander, I started idly playing with the dust inside. I didn’t even notice it at first, as unbidden thoughts began to change the shape of the hourglass in small ways; tapering it more intensely, widening it, changing the composition of the glass or the color and granularity of the flowing material inside it.
By the end of the hour I was left with a scale model of the desert dunes I’d been constructing, arrayed in a rainbow of colors. As the last grain fell to the bottom, I took a deep breath and opened my eyes. Thom, currently, was the only one who finished before I did.
Sifu An was looking at another hourglass off to his side. The material inside had almost run out.
He looked at me and smiled lightly. “Very good. You almost hit the full hour, unlike Thom.”
I looked at Thom, who seemed abashed. “I was out within twenty minutes.” he muttered.
I hold back my own smile at his expense. I could imagine what happened; he’d become bored like myself and time had significantly sped up. Or at least the grains had, in his impatience to get out.
Seeing we had more time to kill, I decided to ask a question that had been burning inside me the whole time.
“What’s inside an hourglass? I’ve heard it described as sand, but surely people would just say sand is white in the guidebooks if that’s what they meant.”
Sifu An looks slightly taken aback by the question.
“I’ve honestly never thought about it, Xu. Some kind of crushed rock or other finely ground dust, I would assume.”
I nod my head, as if that answers my question well enough. Which it does, in a way.
We wait in silence for a while longer, Thom and I doing some of our daily maintenance as we wait. I’m surprised when Ran wakes up most of the way through my sprints across the courtyard. They were fairly deep into my warm up routine.
I look at the hourglass, surprised as the level of the ‘sand’ indicates it’s been almost another half hour since I came out. Sifu An nods as if this is expected. “Excellent work for a first attempt, Ran.” She looks at the hourglass, confused.
“I was only in there for a half hour?” she asks?
“Hour and a half.” Thom grunts out, in the middle of a lunge.
“Indeed. I should expect Chou to come out not long after. Otherwise, we may witness the other extreme.” Sifu An comments.
His words prove prophetic; Chou comes out almost another whole hour later, looking relieved.
“That was harder than I thought.” she says, looking at the rest of us taking a break, sweating lightly.
“You were under for closer to three hours than not, so I should hope so.” Sifu An replies, letting his amusement take the steam out of any dismay she might have at that.
Sifu An nods.
“Don’t worry, it’s something we can work on fairly easily. The four of you give me a wide range of training options. Let me take a few quick guesses as to what went on inside: Thom, as you’ve already confirmed, you let impatience overtake you. Ran and Xu, you passed the time by inventing some kind of task for yourself to alleviate the boredom. Ran was more invested or engaged in hers than Xu seemed to be. Something more complex? And Chou, you struggled to keep complete focus on the clock, trying to keep perfect time.”
We all nod, not at all surprised that he’d given such accurate ‘guesses’. He’s probably seen it all before.
As he lays it all like that, it clicks in my head as well.
“It’s obvious when you lay it out like that.” I say, mentally kicking myself.
“Oh? Do illuminate the rest of your classmates then.” he directs me.
“It’s the same as doing anything, except your mind makes it real. Chou was too focused on the actual time itself, it made it feel like forever. Just like when you’re trying to do some tedious chore and keep focusing on how much you hate it that it’s even worse. Ran and I tried to fill the time by doing something, anything. I sort of half-meditated or daydreamed, and Ran…I don’t know. What did you do?”
“I was trying to figure out how to spar with you inside my own head. I was just on the verge of figuring out the trick, I think, when I realized I’d probably been in too long.”
I file that away for later, but nod. That makes sense.
“Thom, I’m guessing, should have had the same problem as Chou, but was just really good at unconsciously manipulating the sand? It just started dropping really fast but he didn’t notice?”
“Yeah.” he confirms, still looking somewhat embarrassed.
“Exactly right. Your mind works exactly the same in the mindscape as it does outside of it. The only difference is that anything you think of ha the potential to become real if you let it. None of you should feel like you failed, or time was wasted in any case. I want all of you to experience all of those feelings, the different timescales, and practice until they are second nature to you and you can call on them whenever you need to. Moving and properly keeping track of real time is no more or less useful than making time move faster or slower inside, it just serves as a good baseline once you get the hang of it. I want you all to try again, but do something different this time.”
Everyone but Chou stares at him, horror not quite showing on our faces as we realize we’re going to be the next to experience staring at an hourglass for what feels like an eternity.
It was just as excruciating as I’d thought it would be, and the end of the day didn’t come soon enough. The thought of having to do this again tomorrow made me tired already. I hadn’t felt this apprehensive about doing any kind of training in years, but purposefully torturing myself with boredom felt more like a punishment than anything productive.
And the worst part is that training wasn’t even over for the day, in a sense. Normally sleep held a kind of peace, and lucid dreaming was surprisingly relaxing. But after a full day of mindscape practice, the thought of it made me sick, a weird phantom nausea that overtook my thoughts.
I lay down after dinner. We all ate separately again, afraid of letting something slip while we’re tired, making the wind down period after training even worse as I marched toward inevitable sleep.
It takes me over an hour to drift off, and it takes all my effort not to just slip into normal sleep and lose consciousness for a few hours. But the looming time limit a few months hence gives me the impetus to push past fatigue.
What awaits me is surprising. Instead of starting the dream with my dead brother on top of me, I’m already floating above my outward recreation of the scene. I have yet to set it in motion, but the fuzzy picture is my best effort at recreating what I’d seen and what I could glean from context clues as to the layout of everything. I still don’t know why I’m doing this. A lack of inspiration for anything better, a strange obsession, a search for answers that wouldn’t and couldn’t be found here? I know nothing truly productive can come form this; any new information is tainted by being guesswork at best, and what do events that had happened over a decade ago have to do with anything in my life now?
And yet, every time, my attention wandered back to this project. Even now, tired as I am, I idly rearrange and try to clean up the images I’d seen, particularly trying to rearrange the features of the bug men, to get a better view at them and how they performed their strange magic. As usual, nothing came of it. I had never seen one up close, in clear light.
Not in this memory, at least.
At first I balk at the idea that comes to me. I could go further back, see more, maybe get more information that way. Morbid curiosity wars with a visceral desire never to view those memories, but eventually my fatigue makes the decision for me. The intrusive thoughts gain more power the harder I try to ignore them, and I find myself inexorably tugged deeper into my own mind.
The ball bounces off the wall and I dive to stop it. My fingertips brush the bottom but it spins off into the bushes behind me.
“One more for me!” Ran whoops, shoving her fists into the air. I pout at her, hiding it as I turn to get the ball. She always wins the game, but somebody I’ll beat her. Just not today, I guess.
I crawl under the bush, ignoring the thorns that tug at my clothes. I’m always covered in little scratches, and it drives mother crazy. She’s always worried over nothing.
As if to prove me right, I hear her calling for me, almost frantic.
“Xu! Xu! Come home now, it’s important!”
I smile to myself and dig myself deeper into the bushes, hugging the ball to my chest once I have my hands on it. I wonder how long it’ll take her to find me?
“He’s under there Mrs. Chen!” Ran chirps after a moment.
I frown to myself again. “Traitor!” I yell, crawling out. Mother is not amused.
She grabs me by the arm and drags me off. She stops for a moment and looks back. “You come along too Ran. Your mom is at our house.”
She looks confused, but shrugs and obeys.
It’s not far to home, and mother grips my arm tightly all he way there, like she’s afraid I’ll run away. She might be right. It’s fun to make her chase me around. But she seems serious, so it’d probably be bad to do that now.
When we get home I’m surprised to see a bunch of other people there. Ran’s mother -Mrs. Liang-, and a few other women I’ve seen around town. They’re other kids’ parents for sure, but I don’t know them as well. I mostly just play with Ran since we live next door to each other and like to play outside of town. Most of the other kids stay near their own homes and don’t go beyond the river.
My mother closes the door behind her and Ran as we enter, then pats me on the head.
“The other children are downstairs if you want to play with them. Go meet them at least, okay?”
She seems a little calmer now that we’re inside. Maybe somebody felt a storm coming? I didn’t see any clouds but that didn’t always mean a bad storm wasn’t on its way. Grandma used to be really good at telling when one was blowing in. Said it made her joints ache really bad. One of the perks of being old, she called it.
I went down to the basement while they started talking. The last thing I hear before I hit the bottom of the steps is “How much time do we have?”. That pretty much proves me right. Must be a bad one if we’re moving into the basement for it.
When I get down there, three other kids are already playing one of my board games. I’m mad at first, but only for a second. They have to have something to down here. As long as they don’t lose some of the tiles like the last time somebody borrowed it.
I introduce myself. “Hello, I’m Xu. This is my house.” I say, just like we practiced. Or close enough.
The two boys introduce themselves back, as Ling and Yen, and Ran exchanges her own greetings. The only one who stays quiet is the girl, who just looks at us and blushes, shaking her head when we ask her name.
“She doesn’t seem to talk much.” Ling says. “She’ll play mahjong with us, but she hasn’t said anything besides ’hi’ since we got here.”
Yen chimes in. “She’s good at it though. We’ve played a few rounds since we got here and she’s only lost one.”
The girl blushes again and covers her face.
“Can I play? Or did you want to, Xu?” Ran asks me and them, looking between us. I’m torn. I really want to play; it’s my game after all. But I’m already tired and just don’t feel like talking with them. “You go ahead. I’ll just watch.”
I sit down on the floor and watch several games play out between them. Ling and Yen weren’t just talking her up, the other girl really was good. She won every round except two, and those were draws.
Eventually, everyone seems to get tired around the same time.
“When can we leave? It’s been fun but I’m really tired of playing.” Ling whines.
“Well it doesn’t sound like it’s even started raining yet, so probably a while.” I pipe up.
“Is it supposed to rain?” Ran asks. Everyone looks surprised.
I shrug. “That’s the only reason they’d stick us down here, right?”
“If that was all we’d just be in my basement at home, right?” Yen says.
“Maybe our moms were bored and wanted some company for the wait?” Ran throws out.
Everybody shrugs at that.
“We could play go, too. I have some marbles and a board. Some of the pieces are missing but I have some rocks we can use for them.” I suggest. Everyone makes a face at the idea.
“Nah. Let’s go upstairs and see what’s going on!” is Ling’s idea. We argue about it for a little while longer, but eventually settle on that as the plan of action. We’re just starting up the stairs when a loud KTHOOM sounds from outside.
“See, it’s just a storm.” I smile, smug. I’m usually right, but people always doubt me.
A moment later footsteps come thumping down the stairs, and Mrs. Liang pokes her head in, eyes fearful. “Stay still. Don’t move. Don’t make a sound. Please.” She says, slowly and quietly closing the door and coming into the room. We all look at her, afraid and confused now.
“W-“ Ran starts, before being instantly shushed by her mother, a hand snaking out to clap over her mouth. Not long after, we hear more thumping at the stairs and the other mothers rush down as well.
Before they close the door, the sound of smaller cracks and the occasional louder KTHOOM sound again, before the smaller sounds are once again snuffed. I could swear I heard screaming, but nobody would be out in the storm, right?
“They’re sweeping through. The men are holding them off, but…” my mother says, voice low, but she stops herself as she takes us in. She huddles the mothers together and begins talking again, quieter. I try to listen in but can’t make out what she’s saying.
One of the others gasps and starts crying, before the others urge her to be quiet, hugging her close.
We all stay completely quiet, too afraid to ask what’s going on. So it’s not a storm? Who are ‘they’? What’s going on?
Questions buzz in my head.
I desperately want answers but am too afraid to ask. As if the world is reading my mind, it decides to answer them in the cruelest way possible. Some…thing bursts through the door, back hunched, eyes blank. It scans its head across the room, before raising one of its hands.
“Down here.” It rasps. The voice of the creature is strangely muffled and wet, as if it’s speaking from inside a damp cave, far away.
Another appears, holding something. It points at either Ling or Yen’s mother. “Move.”
She hesitates, looking confused, fear and defiance warring on her face. Eventually, defiance wins out. “You’re-“ she manages. A deafening sound fills the room, and a blinding flash emits from the creature’s hand. A gurgling sound comes from her throat as she collapses, blood pouring form a hole that suddenly appeared in her chest.
“I won’t ask again.” it says
We all follow, no idea what to expect. We march through the house, one of the creatures ahead and one behind. We’re all now aware it can kill just by pointing its hand in our direction, and flinch every time it looks at one of us.
By the time we get outside, mere moments later, we’re already afraid. The sight of our home burning down around us, our neighbor’s houses sometimes demolished, completely erased solidifies that fear into a terror that paralyzes us.
But only for a moment. Soon after, the creatures roughly shove my mother in the back, forcing her to stumble. We continue marching toward whatever horrid fate they intend for us.