Will you come stay this while with me,
as for the journey I prepare,
we will take each other’s hearts in hand
and speak of all the ways we care.
– Sandy Wood (1997)
CHAPTER 1: Trouble
Busted, she thinks, as trouble looms at her 12 o’clock.
“Ruth, I can never tell if you’re late for your last class or early for your next one?” says Principal Coles as he approaches, tipping his head to the side as he does when he’s not so much wondering at all.
“Dr. Coles, question.” The sophomore shakes her textbook at chest height. “Why’s it called History? Is it because the stories are about men?” She flips it open and points to a random page. “And manifest destiny?”
“Go on,” he says, repressing a smile. “Hey. Your hair—red now?” Ruthie shrugs to say she changes her exterior to distract others from aiming their prosecutorial zeal at her interior—but Coles knows this already.
It’s 11 am at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Maryland, and Ruthie had way overslept. She’d missed the bus again and not by a little, so hoofed the 1.7 miles from home. Still and all, she’s at her locker, number 436, not far from History. There’s an irredeemable minute before the bell rings, signaling students of the period change.
The corridors of the 40-year-old school are empty, with the staccato tapping of Dr. Coles’ shoes against the tile floor receding into the distance.
Ruthie is an inch past five feet, with a ponytail, hazel eyes, and a few freckles on her face. With jeans and a t-shirt featuring the OutKast logo, she wears scuffed combat boots that add another two inches to her height.
She whirls the dial on her locker door and pulls it open, looping her black winter coat with its twice-patched sleeve on the hook inside. At the bottom of #436 is a clutter of report cards and permission forms that missed their lift home, and a well-thumbed copy of The Monthly Wootton Poetry Journal.
The aspiring writer has submitted dozens of her poems to the Journal, without a single response. In an atypical fit of neatness, Ruthie scoops this mess of paper and slam-dunks it in a hall trash can. While storing her beat-up backpack, she notices the locker bottom panel is irregular. There’s a hole the size of a thumb, and a ray of light emanates from it.
Ruthie reaches down, crooks her index finger through, and tugs. The metal rectangle lurches a fraction. Ripping it out with a vicious yank, she tumbles backward to the floor. Scrambling to her feet, she peeps both ways along the hall, then into her locker. A puff of air makes her coat wobble.
Ruthie is certain—as certain as a high schooler can be about such things—that there in the gauzy glimmer below the actual bottom of her locker, she sees descending stone stairs.
* * *
Ruthie made a vow when she was nine: “On the day I turn fifteen, I will begin an all-out search for my parents.” She’d said it facing the bathroom mirror so many times she’d practically worn an image groove into it.
The day Ruthie turned fifteen, December 1, 1997, she packed a bag and stashed it under her bed, for an upcoming trip of unknown duration. Check.
She needs a friend who can drive. Perhaps if Ruthie had been aware at age nine that you can’t get a driver’s license until you’re sixteen, her vow might have been different. But you can’t change a vow, any more than you can really change your hair color.
She could take a bus or train. Not a plane; she’s scared of flying—so she imagines. She has money saved, from her $2 per week allowance. Just over $200 tucked in a pair of rolled-up socks in her suitcase and would have more but a year ago she’d started buying lunch at school most days instead of bringing it.
Ruthie knows she needs a plan. Or even a lead. And the lead—and more than one lead would be fine, too—could create the plan.
She’s not sure.
In any case, there’s a bigger issue now—an opportunity, really, right in front of her, and one that means missing History. Fledgling—albeit unpublished—poet that she is, she decides to create a verse to calm her nerves.
“Precisely what have I here for keeping?” she begins in her head, spotting the removed panel on the floor. She plants it like the thinnest book ever on the shelf of her locker.
“Precisely what have I got here so well-worth keeping?
I’m no scholar, sportster or girl boys dream of kissing.
Doubt my alcoholic aunt would find my loss worth weeping.
Wait: Bigger Problem. What if no one notices me missing?”
She taps her temple as if to timestamp the doggerel and re-dials her combination, ensuring it ends with the correct third number aligned. She angles sideways and squishes herself into locker 436 with a fraction of a gymnast’s finesse.
Grabbing the rear of the lock apparatus, she closes the door, plunging herself into near-total darkness. She edges her feet onto the top step. The bell rings, giving students five minutes to go from 3rd to 4th period.
Ruthie listens, seeking any clue as to what lies below. A drum thumps, the air rustles. Perhaps her metal cuboid is channeling the Wootton music room, the percussion class in session? No, she realizes. It’s the beating of her heart and vibrating of her knees.
Her thrift store boots are still. She can turn back. With her feet on the pinnacle of the rock stairs, she procrastinates. She’ll miss History, but her “C” is solid in there. The fifteen-year-old shuffles a step lower.
She lacks extra-curricular activities; her aunt is home asleep. She has no new poem to write. Running her fingers through her unruly hair, she realizes it’s unwashed now for a third day in a row. But it’s not likely she’ll be hanging out with supermodels anytime soon.
One hundred seventeen steps later she’s at the bottom of the cramped, bowling alley-straight, low-roofed passageway, which she notes is crumbling here and there, made of stone in the gray-white spectrum, and emitting the smell of wet cement and imminent mildew.
There’s full-on light where she emerges through an arched opening. Ruthie gasps and shields her closed eyes with no slivers of space between her fingers.
* * *
Cho has a careworn face at fourteen years of age. His clothes are too big and his body’s too small for a hostile world. He knows every inch of the ground around his neighborhood; he’s always staring down not forward.
He lives in the Chinatown area of San Francisco and helps his father Sun, a doctor.
Sun had managed the Tung Wah Dispensary for one cherished year soon after they’d come to America, until it burned to the ground in a fire in 1906. The doctor intends to rebuild what was the major healthcare destination for Asian refugees in The City by the Bay, but for now he can only offer house calls to patients in need.
The father and son were born in Fujian, a southeastern Chinese province known for its mountains and coastal cities. They’d emigrated to America when Cho was a baby. The elder speaks passable English. The younger is bilingual and serves as translator in the rare case when there’s a non-Chinese patient.
The boy would never miss a trip to see any patient, because their home jams nine extended family members in 1,200 square feet. But today is frustratingly free of the sick and dying, leaving a slender wedge of quietude ready to be claimed.
Young Cho has one book. It’s titled A Course of Pure Mathematics. Written by GH Hardy and published in 1908, it’s the classic text in introductory mathematical analysis. The 1906 fire gave Cho this weighty tome.
When the San Francisco Public Library in the Civic Center was consumed in flames, some eighty percent of the volumes it housed were fire or water damaged. They weren’t all tossed out till a decade later, in 1916, when the new library was ready.
Being Chinese, Cho could not attend the library grand opening. But he did scoot around back during the ribbon-cutting to find barrels filled with beaten-but-readable hardcover books, and he grabbed a dozen in his skinny arms.
Only one singed book—A Course of Pure Mathematics—made it home, ambushed as he was by other immigrant boys. He held on tightly to the one he wanted most and arrived back to his family’s rental with it clutched firmly against the torn shirt on his heaving chest.
He had two burgeoning black eyes and a split lower lip, but soon he’d be reading about meticulous equations that make strict sense of a topsy-turvy world. He hid the book in the back of the only closet in the house, which stored all manner of chemicals and powders in bottles, beakers, and vials—Dr. Sun tinkered constantly with new elixirs and compounds.
There’s no substance, liquid or solid, the doctor doesn’t like to refashion in shape and substance to make it better for his patients. Once he packed ice in the handle of a hollow cane formerly used to secret liquor, for a patient with intermittent knee problems. She’d use the cane to aid her walking and lay it across her knee when she had to sit to assuage her joint pain.
Another time he made a poultice of onion, mustard, mint and honey for influenza victims to apply to ease their tired lungs—the honey meant it stuck to the chest even when the patient was up and about.
On this Saturday afternoon, Cho reads in the closet, scratching words he doesn’t know with a stub of pencil on a scrap of newspaper. He’s closed the door and lit a candle, and is settling into Chapter IX: THE LOGARITHMIC, EXPONENTIAL AND CIRCULAR FUNCTIONS OF A REAL VARIABLE when he hears his father whistle.
The whistle causes an adrenaline surge. Cho’s father shouts that a railroad accident has injured several laborers, knowing Cho would spring into action. The boy kicks open the closet door, snuffs the candle and begins gathering bandages and linen pads. Delicately, he prods his math book with his toe underneath a pile of brown belt tourniquets, of which he plucks three in the hope there’s bleeding to staunch.
The boy fills a cloth sack, which otherwise has a handful of marbles in a pile at the bottom. Cho’s never played marbles, as much as he’s wanted to, but gives them out to sick kids.
Sun is talking to a stranger outside their front door. Another stranger runs up and explains it’s too late. As Cho emerges from the apartment, Sun states in his soft, stilted Cantonese something to the effect of “I am wrong; our chance has expired, son, these poor wretches have been irreversibly mauled by the ferocious equipment.”
The two strangers depart, and the doctor extracts his exquisite Meerschaum pipe, lights it and begins to pace on the street’s edge, as he would upon gloomy news of this type.
Cho returns to the closet and shifts the kit back, forming a neat pyramid on the floor. He’ll be idle until his father has another appointment or emergency. He spies marbles that must have dropped, rolling into the corner, as orderly as a row of soldiers.
Cho grabs at the runaways, yet gravity has its inevitable way. Each marble plummets through a crevice and disappears without a goodbye, and he flexes an eyebrow in surprise.
From outside the front door of the apartment, shrouded in a haze of pipe smoke, Cho hears his father again: “Cho Lung Tho, we must depart to prepare the stiff bodies.” Sun is an amateur mortician of sorts among his myriad other duties, and Cho his key and faithful assistant.
Off go father and son, side by side, to dress the dead and bring balm to the brokenhearted.