Friday, October 16, 2020

LOVE CONTAINED - Chapter 1 excerpt


Chapter 1


HE REALIZED A long time ago his whole life would forever be divided into two parts: before he’d killed his brother and after. He had to accept, too, that he was also morally obligated to bring Max back to life−as much as he could−for his parents, and possibly for Ling Su, too. He could only do that in China.

It had been easy living one life, and not that much harder living two. Though it was nearly impossible after he lost his faith.

Max and Henry Winston were

born five minutes apart, identical in every way except one. By the time they passed their tenth birthday that one distinction had leached from their souls. They’d been the best of friends in those days, inseparable brothers who seemed so often to think with a single mind. They looked alike, walked alike, and talked with the same precise pronunciation learned early on from a mother who majored in linguistics. But that mother didn’t love them equally. One of them knew he was second best and should have tried harder to be favored, but he didn’t.

Family photos were impossible to label since still shots only highlighted how much like clones they were: the same wide dark eyes, the same thick black hair, and, as they grew older, the same strong jaw and lean physique. But photos didn’t show personality differences. And differences there were. Several. When their mother or father took a video that’s when the boys were easy to tell apart. Max was quite gregarious, early on showing a propensity to become a daredevil, a crowd-pleaser, the class clown, or a flirt. His father hoped to mold those attributes in the future toward teaching or preaching since the Winstons were missionaries. Henry, on the other hand, slipped into the category of introverted, hugging his brother’s shadow, watching, thinking, judging. His father predicted he’d be more suited to a quieter life of writing, possibly becoming a translator, but time would tell.

Twin life held the opportunity for great deception. Eventually Max could imitate Henry’s serious, old-soul demeanor to perfection. Henry, likewise, could mimic Max’s ready grin and people-loving manners, even though he was an introvert. If his brother asked him to trade places, trade classes, trade chores, then with minimum hesitation Henry would comply. And if Henry asked Max to take a test for him then Max easily transformed into the meek younger brother. And while Max aced the test, Henry, sitting in Max’s class, had to psych himself into talking to girls, being the center of attention, laughing, smiling, waving. He’d work up the courage to tell his own jokes, then silently fume as Max was praised for such cleverness. Switching was always upsetting. He’d throw up later.

For the most part they were like any other brothers with all the banter, competition, and squabbling that entailed.

When the tragedy happened, they were, of course, together. One sixteen years, two months, three days old and the other the same, plus five minutes. Then one died and the other went into shock. He believed it was his fault his brother died, but he couldn’t accept it, and didn’t speak for two days. His parents weren’t sure which son they’d lost until he did speak. Even then there was doubt, for though he implied he was Henry, he wasn’t the same as before. Reserved on one day, uninhibited on the next. It was as if he needed to live Max’s life along with his own.

Or maybe he was really Max living for Henry.

*     *     *

“MR. WINSTON, MR. Winston. Are you going to come back and teach here next year?” the young teen in the black pants, tight as skin, asked. It was the first hint that she’d been paying attention. She’d been doodling and intermittently checking on the storm outside. The snow changed to rain, splattering on the window as the wind picked up.

“I don’t expect to. I’m leaving for China next week. I’m planning on finding a job teaching English there.” Henry smiled at the girl, one of the more cooperative kids in the packed class-room. He’d been subbing for their seventh grade English teacher for the last eight weeks. She would return in two days and he was right on schedule with the plans she had left.

He ran his thumb and forefinger through his beard. A shave and a good haircut were on his calendar, absolutely necessary before his mother saw him. She’d want to hold his face in her hands and say how handsome Henry had become.

“Why China?”

He paused as a thousand thoughts swooped around in his head.  Memories he didn’t want interrupting his lesson stormed in his mind. His brother’s presence was everywhere, even now six years later, in every breath, every blink of the eye, every raindrop outside. Why China? Was it all about his brother’s death or was it still about the girl he left behind?

China was the place where he first believed in God, where he let God down, let his brother down, ruined the girl, and then lost his faith. And then there was a pile of sins he’d never atoned for. He had to go back to try to find his faith again, and to right the two biggest wrongs, but of course he wasn’t going to tell these kids that.

He gave the easy answer, “That’s where my parents live. Now, back to the lesson. Apostrophes, they look like tiny little nines perched to show a missing letter or,” he turned to the screen, “what else?”

He waited a beat for a few hands to go up. This was old material, things they should have learned in elementary school, but this school served the less fortunate and they were behind in most subjects. “Molly?”

“They show possession. And why are your parents in China? You’re not Chinese.” Molly tapped her pencil on the edge of her desk, drawing his attention to how much this classroom’s old furniture resembled what he had as a student in China.

Someone from the back of the room stage-whispered, “I love Chinese food.” There were random grunts of agreement.

Henry took a breath. It was always a battle to start each lesson. It was as if these students were highly trained in pulling teachers off track, thwarting plans, wasting time. If only they’d apply their efforts toward learning. He concentrated on being patient.

“Were you, like, born there or something?” another kid asked.

“No,” Henry said, “my parents were, are, missionaries. I lived there with them when I was around your age. I had the same normal elementary school experience you had a few miles from here, but then we left for China and I transferred to a school about seven thousand miles away.”

“Cool. What was the school like?” This from the class clown who added, “Did you have to use chopsticks in the lunchroom?”

Henry smiled at the kid. “I did use chopsticks. Anything else you want to know?”

“What about church? Are they like here, with crosses on steeples and stained-glass windows?”

Henry was surprised at the interest from this particular kid. “No, churches are pretty much banned. Christians meet in homes behind locked doors or they have services online, you know, using Zoom. And there’s always the chance that members and pastors will get arrested and sent to labor camps. You kids need to appreciate the freedoms you have here.” He gave the evil eye to the class clown. “It’s no joking matter.”

Henry glanced at the wall clock, his patience fully in check. “I’ll make you a deal,” he said. “I’ll tell you how cool China was in some ways and how dangerous in others and answer all your questions if we can finish pages 102 through 106. Deal?”

Several heads nodded, a few kids who hadn’t opened their books before began to thumb through to the right page. Molly sat straighter, ready to lead her classmates to a faster finish, and the girl in the tight pants went back to doodling complex designs in her notebook.

Henry divided his attention between drilling the grammar concept with the students and keeping the troublemakers from distracting the slower learners. In the back of his mind he was nervous about heading to China. He almost wished that the regular teacher had extended her maternity leave. He would have been fine with teaching this and the other four classes all the way to June. He liked the kids and they seemed to like him. Maybe it was the way he could change his personality to fit the day. Sometimes the kids needed a serious ‘Henry day’ and sometimes a fun ‘Max day’ was in order. His brother was always with him, like a soft humming inside his brain, a hum that would urge him to burst into song, or the Henry-ish equivalent, at unexpected times. But he wasn’t going to get to keep these classes when she returned. He’d have to accept sub positions that would change daily. He had to admit it seemed as if God was helping him go to China now. He’d been striving for that goal for a long time.

Henry retreated mentally into a scrapbook of memories from the last six years.

At sixteen, he’d become an only child in a heart-broken home. It shouldn’t have been up to him to keep the small family together, but it felt like it was. He encompassed everything to his parents who dragged him to counseling with them for nearly a year after his brother’s death.

He said and did whatever he could to convince them to return to China. It was where his heart was, and though he knew the girl he most wanted to see there would likely turn away from him, he hoped to prove to her that Henry Winston would be a perfectly perfect replacement for Maxwell Winston.

But his mother found a clerking job and his father became the youth pastor at his grandmother’s church. It didn’t appear likely they would return to missionary work. His dashed hopes smothered him and he bleakly finished out high school and was funneled into the nearest college.

And then, his mother and father abruptly left without him, ‘called by God,’ they’d said, went back to China as soon as he was installed in a dorm with a roommate from a Detroit suburb. Stunned goodbyes were said over the phone.

He wanted to go back to China. He needed to go back to China. His head, his heart, his soul, all of his being would diminish if he remained on this side of the globe.

His parents thought they knew what was best for him, but now he felt orphaned, abandoned. He acted out his frustration and anger in orderly Henry-style with snatches of devious-Max manners; he partied, fooled around, and nearly flunked out of his first semester. Then he got a Christmas package with several letters from Chinese friends he hadn’t had contact with since his return to America. They’d written in overly practiced English phrases interspersed with Chinese symbols. He smiled as he read the snippets of life so far away. They’d moved on and no one mentioned Max. A solemn group photo of Yin Bai, Jiang Hong, Woo Jin, Yu Yan, and Ling Su slid out of the last letter, their faces expressionless as if smiling would dishonor Max’s memory. He studied Ling Su’s face the longest, looking for and finding that singular spark.

What wouldn’t he do to get a chance to see her again? He suddenly knew what he would do. He’d use the duplicity of his twin-ness to channel his own strengths and what he knew were his brother’s best characteristics into making himself jump every hurdle in his path to find a way to Ling Su’s heart. That meant buckling down, working hard, earning extra money to pay for the expensive trip as soon as he finished college.

He had stopped expecting the grief to fade; he’d found a way to live with it. He couldn’t exactly control it, but he could use it. He was using it now to teach on autopilot.

Someone slammed their book shut. While he’d been thinking of his brother, they had finished the last drill on page 106 with Molly’s correct answer.

“So, Mr. Winston, about China … I heard they want to kill all us Americans. Is that true?” Molly asked.

Before Henry could answer another boy said, “Yeah, and they keep sending us cheap stuff. Everything says ‘made in China’ and it’s crap.”

The class devolved into a shouting match concerning the quality of Chinese toys and computers and clothes.

“Hold on, quiet down,” Henry scowled. “It’s true we get a lot of imports from China. They come over on huge ships filled with containers. Thousands every day.”

“Thousands?” Molly challenged.

Henry whipped out his phone and did a quick search. “Says here there are five to six million containers out there crossing the ocean right now. Five to six million. That amazes me.”

He answered a few more China questions before the bell rang.

For the last two days of the assignment he taught in Max-mode, keeping the kids busy, and happy because he’d postponed the test for when their regular teacher returned.

A week later, as he flew across the Pacific toward China, he was still reflecting on those millions of containers on the ocean far below him. And the one in a million chance he had with a certain Chinese woman.

*     *     *

“FIFTY-SEVEN DAYS. That’s how long a 20-foot container can float once it has fallen from a barge.”

Henry took a breath, wondering how many of his words he correctly pronounced. Did he get the numbers right? It had been six years since he’d spoken a single word of Chinese, but it was coming back to him fast. He was the center of attention, switching between English and Mandarin with a spattering of the local dialect when questions were posed. And there were plenty of questions from the group of old friends he hadn’t seen since his brother died. Old friends−including the girl he and his brother had fallen for. “And they do fall off. Several every day of every year. Lost at sea. And we all know the sea is perilous and unforgiving.” He couldn’t look at her. Instead he blew on his Longjing tea, dis-liking the aroma and keeping his face from puckering as he sipped. He didn’t drink tea, but it was what everyone ordered tonight. Ordered and immediately paid, the opposite of an American café where he’d often wait impatiently in Max-mode for the bill.

Trying to relax, he glanced around the room at everything and everyone except her. Red and yellow paper lanterns hung over each decoratively carved table. They sat on wooden stools, also beautifully carved and polished. Against the walls were tall, wispy plants and intricate dragon statues, made of ivory he thought, like the cross on his father’s desk.

He’d spent the last two days catching up with his parents being his more introverted Henry-self. He was careful to listen more than speak and learned how angry they were now that the government was again banning Bibles, jailing pastors, and barring access to churches in the larger cities. Tonight, they’d encouraged him to meet up with his old friends at the small tea room on the main street. His father seemed particularly adamant that he get out of the apartment for a few hours. He was eager to oblige, and nervous too.

The conversations with his old friends ran the usual gamut, like a class reunion: where have you been, what have you accomplished, who are you now? But they also slipped into the more traditional tea room appropriate conversations: birds and nature, neighborhood news, and types of teas. He risked a glance at her. The ambience in the room allowed for more intimate exchanges and Henry considered asking about the current political situation. Then she, Ling Su, mentioned she worked where her father did, at the container yard, and that bit of information had prompted him to insert the scrap of container ship trivia he happened to know.

“But you did not travel by container ship,” Ling Su said, a giggle lilting her voice. Her bangs hung over her eyebrows, but didn’t hide the sparkle in her eyes. Her hair reached her shoulders, contrasting with the white blouse she wore, a tiny rose embroidered over her heart.

Henry took it all in with the briefest of eye contact. Ling Su was more beautiful than he remembered. She was sixteen when he last saw her two days after that horrible, unforgettable day his brother died. Now she was a woman. And probably married. He was reluctant to ask, certain that a furious blush would betray his faltering confidence, easily seen since he had shaved off his beard before coming to China. And the adolescent feelings he’d had for her were close to the surface; he’d tried and failed to suppress them, had tried to forget about his brother’s feelings for her, but he hadn’t buried some of the feelings deep enough. He knew he’d damaged her. After all, he’d wounded himself just as traumatically.

Her furtive glances at him were throwing him off balance now.

“No, of course not. I flew. It took more than twenty hours.” He scanned the other girls’ faces. Yin Bai, characteristically haughty and somewhat unfriendly, stared at him. Yu Yan—the girl with the name that meant ‘beautiful smile’ though she never seemed to smile—played with her phone. And his old pals, Jiang Hong and Woo Jin, now men, seemed anxious, nibbling their tea eggs. He knew that Jiang Hong had a wife and son, news his mother passed along two years ago. Something was going on beneath the surface of this friendly gathering. It occurred to him that they might be feeling his brother’s absence as acutely as he always did.

Jiang Hong set his tea cup on the table, smiled with his straight piano key teeth, and said, “I must return home now. It is good to see you Henry. We will speak at services tomorrow. We meet at Yu Yan’s home.” They nodded at one another as he zipped up his puffy red winter jacket.

Woo Jin also rose and held his hand out to Yin Bai, the girl Henry remembered as the least friendly. Woo Jin said, “We too must go. It is late and her father is strict.” He laughed and caught Henry’s eye. Henry was too polite to comment on this surprising relationship.

Before he could process it, he was alone with Ling Su and Yu Yan, two young women who he remembered being as different as … as what? A Chinese proverb popped into his head: as different as sky and earth.

He checked the time on the ornate wall clock. The chatter and two cups of tea had barely filled one hour. He was surprised that the group was breaking up so early. In America he would have spent five or six hours with a group this size, talking, goofing around, playing drinking games. Now here he was alone with two women. Maybe it was his brother’s absence that was making things awkward. His tongue was so dry it felt as if it might stick to the roof of his mouth and stay there. He was suddenly afraid he would fumble his words in classic Henry fashion.

Yu Yan looked up from her phone with cheeks so hollow that he wondered if she had recently suffered an illness; the expression on her face was unreadable.

“Ling Su,” she said, “what do we do?” She held the phone so Ling Su could read it. Ling Su gasped and pulled out her own phone. She made a call, swiveling herself on the stool to turn her back on Henry and talking low.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Henry asked Yu Yan.

Yu Yan scanned the room and then whispered. “It is a bad night. Leaders of the Early Rain Covenant Church were arrested by the Public Security Bureau. Ling Su has called her father to check on your parents.”

“My parents?” Henry’s hand went to his pocket where, before he left America, he usually had his phone, but he had left it behind. “May I use your phone?”

Yu Yan handed it over. Henry’s fingers trembled as he touched the screen. “This happens more than my mom has let on, doesn’t it?”

He waited for a connection as Yu Yan said, “The local authorities monitor us. They harass us hoping our church will disband. They took your father away once; they held him for a few days.”

Henry’s jaw nearly dropped. He had spent two full days talking, talking, talking with his mom and dad, recounting his college tales and his substitute teaching hassles, listening to their chronicles of church activities, new believers, and troubles with funding. They’d been angry about the Bible banning and the jailing of other pastors, but never had they said a word regarding any persecution in this city, let alone about his father being seized. They were holding back as big a secret as he was.

The phone rang and rang and no one answered. He handed it back to Yu Yan and frowned.

Ling Su finished her call and swiveled around toward Henry. “I’m sorry, Henry, this is really bad. My father checked on them and there was no answer at the door. A neighbor saw the Ministry of Public Security vehicles in front and …”

“I’ve got to go home.” He started to rise, but Ling Su grabbed his hand and gently pulled him back onto the stool. His skin prickled from her touch.

“Henry,” she lowered her voice, “you cannot go home. It would be too dangerous. They are certainly aware of your presence here. My father says there is still a car there, waiting.” She let go of his hand. She turned to Yu Yan and spoke a rapid-fire list of things for Yu Yan to do. Two registered in Henry’s brain: warn Woo Jin and contact the U.S. Embassy. Yu Yan left the table as a waitress ambled by with fresh, aromatic tea cakes. Ling Su called a farewell to their waitress and motioned Henry to follow her.


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