Escape Pod 367: Lion Dance

Show Notes

Rated 17 and up for language and adult situations

Lion Dance

by Vylar Kaftan

I knew Wing’s idea was stupid.  But we were all so goddamn sick of quarantine that it sounded great anyway.

“Chinese New Year on Halloween night, huh?” I asked him.  We sat on his broken futon and some folding chairs, passing a bottle of Captain Jack among the eight of us.  Someone leaned on a car horn outside our apartment.  When they didn’t stop, my buddy Matt leaned out the window and swore at them in Mandarin.  Matt was loud–even a flu mask didn’t muffle his bellowing.  I swear, even though every restaurant in San Francisco Chinatown had been closed since February, tourists still cruised the streets.  Even a pandemic couldn’t stop them completely.

“Dude.  Someone will shoot us,” said the guy from 4B, who I think was named Jimmy Li.  We all lived in the same nasty building on Grant Street above a dim sum place owned by our slumlord.  I knew Matt, who’d invited me, and my little brother Jian of course.  Wing lived here in 3A.  I’d just met the Chao twins who had different haircuts, and then Jimmy and some dude Xiang.  At twenty-three, I was pretty sure I was the oldest guy here.

“That’s the point,” said Wing heavily, as if he’d explained this a hundred times when he actually hadn’t.  “We’ll be in costume.  First off, all the riots will be in the Mission, so that’s where the cops will be.  Second, no one’s going to shoot a New Year’s lion.  Dude.  It’s Chinatown.  All the old cops here are superstitious.  Can you imagine how much bad luck it would bring?  Even if some cop got itchy on the trigger, he’ll think about it long enough for us to run away.”

“No one’s shooting anyone,” said Matt.  “For God’s sake, this isn’t Montana.”  He pushed his mask aside, swigged the Jack, and passed it to Jian.  I snagged the bottle out of his hands.  No freaking way would I let my little brother drink from that bottle.  Who knew where the other guys had been?  They might pull off their masks and drink, but damned if I let my little brother do it.  Jian glared at me, but didn’t fight back.

I passed the bottle to Wing.  “They might shoot if things get out of hand,” I said.  “It’s Halloween.  Everyone’s twitchy.  But you’re right, I heard a bunch of people are gonna swarm the Mission.  That’s where the cops will go.”

Wing took another swig.  He wasn’t wearing a mask; that was only Matt and Jian and me.  Wing went to the kitchen and reappeared with a stack of well-used disposable cups and washed straws.  He swiped an unopened bottle of Jose Cuervo off a shelf and handed it to me.

I thanked him and poured myself way too much tequila.  I knew I wasn’t supposed to peel the mask off, even for a minute, but it’d been a bad week.  My parents were getting evicted and Jian’s antivirals were out of stock everywhere.  Pissed me off–HIV drugs did crap against the flu, but people were desperate and they got prescriptions from quacks.  So my little brother might develop full-blown AIDS thanks to those selfish jackholes.

I slid my mask aside and sucked furiously on the straw.  The Cuervo burned my throat as it went down.  Screw it all.  I felt so goddamn helpless.  More than anything I wanted to do something to make things better, but what could I do?  I couldn’t cure the flu or save anyone’s life.  All I could do was avoid getting sick.  I mean, I’d thought about helping at the hospital or something, but I had to protect my brother.

“Bo,” said Jian, leaning over, “come on, gimme some of that.  Please?”

I looked at him.  He didn’t ask for much.  When he was fifteen and ran away, I’m the one who hunted him down in the Castro, where he was turning tricks for drug money.  When my parents kicked him out at sixteen for being gay, I brought him to my apartment and took care of him.  He was clean now, and hardly drank at all–so if he was asking, he really wanted it.  I poured half a finger of Cuervo and gave him a straw.

“Thanks,” he said, and turned away from the group in case someone sneezed near him.  Didn’t help much, but it couldn’t hurt.  He slid his mask and drank.

Wing was saying something about how his grandpa made lion costumes in Anhui Province and brought them to America.  “They’re in the closet,” he said proudly.  “They’re awesome.  And the best part is, we get an excuse to run around outside without having a damn ‘essential errand’ to do.  People will love it too.  Hell, everyone missed the big parade in February.  Stupid city, shutting everything down.  I heard they’re gonna get even tougher with winter coming back round.”

I missed the New Year’s parade too, but it turned out the fast response saved San Francisco.  Internet said that infection rates here were one of the lowest in the country–only 19% sick.  Too bad we all had to live in lockdown until whenever the city ended quarantine.  The buses didn’t run, the power browned out a lot, and sometimes the toilets didn’t flush.  At least I had streaming movies online.  Coulda been worse–Dallas and Miami didn’t shut down public spaces until June, and by then it was way too late.  There was this big mess where Dallas was taking hospital supplies from smaller towns to treat their victims.  All their hospitals were understaffed and overflowing, just like ours–but worse.  And of course there were the riots and shootings in Helena, but that was a bunch of idiots with guns.  I just said, “We’ll all wear masks, right?”

“Hell yeah,” said Wing.  “No telling what’s out there.”  The others nodded.  Lots of people were out of masks by now, or just careless about them, so I was surprised they agreed so fast.  I gave up on the straw and slugged a mouthful of booze.  It did sound like fun.  But if I went, Jian would go–and I couldn’t live with myself if Jian got sick.  Hell, Jian was the reason I was extra-freaking careful when I left the house.  You’d never catch me out without a mask.

“Check this out,” said Wing, getting off his chair.  He went to his bedroom and returned holding a giant red lion costume.  Like all lion dance costumes, it was a two-person beast, like that Snuffy thing on Sesame Street.  The big red head looked at me quizzically, as if it wondered why I wasn’t wearing it right now.  It had two palm-sized eyes with a googly expression like a cartoon character, plus a phoenix horn and a black dragon beard.  Bright ribbons decorated its mane and haunches.  It was shaggy and colorful and totally tempting.  Even Jian didn’t know this, but as a kid, the lion dancers were my favorite part of the New Year’s parade.  I always wanted to be one.

Wing put the head on, letting the body drag behind him, and did some goofy kicks and spins.  The lion looked injured, like someone had broken his spine and left him to die.

“Ha!” said Matt.  “You need the drums.”  He whacked the futon arm with a good beat.  Wing danced like a homeless guy on meth.  Ribbons flew everywhere as he worked the lion’s jaw open and shut with the inside levers.  Jian tossed his cup and wriggled into the lion’s backside.  They looked even funnier like that, since Wing would turn one way and Jian the other, and both of them wore blue jeans instead of colorful lion leggings.  Now the lion looked like a surgical mishap.

But even so, it was awesome.  Wing was right–people would look out their windows and love this, and even the cops would probably smile.  As long as we didn’t get carried away, it would be great to be outside for a while.  And Jian looked so excited, dancing around like that.  He was a lot more outgoing than me, and the quarantine seriously depressed him.

Jian shrugged off the heavy lion coat and looked at me.  “Bo,” he said, “if we don’t freaking do this, you will regret it for the rest of your life.  Plus, I will call you a chicken-pansy-ass every day for the next nine months.”

I knew he wasn’t serious, but that final push was all I needed.  I’d already wanted to do it anyway.  “Okay,” I said, “Let’s go, as long as we stay close.  Clearly the lion dance is an ‘essential errand’.”

That phrase had become the new slang of the last eight months, ever since quarantine canceled the February parade.  The phrase was in all the constant warnings from the CDC.  Wing lifted the lion head and grinned at me.  “We’re outta Jack.  Going out is totally an essential errand.”

A couple of the guys whooped, and I knew we were doing this thing.  I pulled Jian aside.  “Dude,” I said quietly.  “Keep your mask on, and if there’s any trouble, we’re outta there.  Got it?”

Jian clapped me on the back.  “It’ll be awesome,” he said.  “But yeah.  No trouble.”

I knew Jian was grown up now—but damn, he was only nineteen, and I paid the rent.  Not to mention, his judgment wasn’t the best in the world.  “Promise?” I asked.

“Promise,” he said carelessly.

Before I could answer, Wing tossed the red lion head at me.  I caught it by the giant eyeballs, one hand on each.  Wing said, “You guys be the red one.  That’s the courage lion.”  He whipped the shaggy leggings at me, which fell on the lion head.  He tossed the green lion costume at the Chao twins, and then brought out the gold one.  “Jimmy, get your butt in here with me.  Matt, you’re drumming.  Get the drum from the corner.  Xiang, get the cymbals.”

Suddenly the room filled with crashes, curses, and laughter.  Matt pounded the drum and Xiang smacked the cymbals.  Good thing you only needed two instruments for a lion dance, ’cause they weren’t any good.  The tequila filled my head and I shouted a loud, “Yeaaah!”  I stripped down to my boxers and t-shirt, and squeezed into the lion pants.  I looked stupid, but it’d be better with the rest of the costume.

I picked up the head, and Jian grabbed my arm.  “Nuh-uh,” he said, laughing.  “I’m topping tonight.”  He disappeared into the lion head and used the levers to move its face.  The lion stuck its tongue out at me.

I punched his arm and crawled underneath the blanket-like back end.  I grabbed his waist and hung on.  It was kinda like doing a bent-over conga line.  All I could see was the stained carpet, other people’s feet, and Jian’s butt.  Sweat dripped around my flu mask, and I realized it was gonna get stinking hot under this thing.

Matt thumped the drum a few times and Xiang rattled the cymbals.  Jian stepped forward and I lumbered after him.  Crap, this was harder than it looked!  I banged my knee on the futon.  “Ow!” I yelled. “Hey, stop killing your butt!”

But then Wing shouted, “Xin nian yu kuai!”  We all roared the greeting back at him.  Forget Halloween–it felt like New Year, dammit.  The biggest holiday in Chinatown, and the parade was the best part of the whole thing.  The cymbals crashed together and the drum pounded a frenzy of energy.

We all whooped as loud as we could.  And then we ran down the apartment fire escape, three drunk Chinese lions with our equally drunk musicians.  Tripping all over ourselves and each other, laughing and shouting like nothing was wrong with the world.  Each step wavered below my feet.  Jian swerved and I crashed into the railing.

“Slow down!” I called, but I was laughing.  I didn’t really care.  This was going to freaking rule.

Jian hollered, “This is for Steve!”

“Who’s Steve?” I yelled, but I don’t think he heard me over the cymbals.  I figured it was probably a guy he’d been seeing.

We hit the street.  Rain-dampened cement and dried-up gum raced before my eyes.  Sidewalk cracks sped by like telephone poles from a car.  All I could hear was Matt bashing the drum by my ears.  The streets reeked of piss even through the drizzle.  God, this place was gross.  They cut trash collection to once a month back in April ’cause so many people were down with the flu.  We ran down Grant Street, kicking empty cans and crumpled paper out of the way.  Something splashed against my leg and I couldn’t see what.  Smelled like bleach.  Maybe someone disinfected their front gate–like that did any good.

“Jian, where the hell are we going?” I shouted.

“Who cares?” he yelled.  “I’m following Wing.”

Next to me some gold lion legs kicked wildly near my face.  Almost nailed me in the nose.  “Knock it off!” I yelled.

Jian was laughing so hard he could barely speak.  “It’s Wing,” he said.  “I guess he actually knows some serious karate moves.  He wasn’t shitting us in the apartment.  Awesome.  Hey Wing, check this out!”  He tossed a few sidekicks toward Wing.  Jian had done pretty well with kung fu as a kid.  We lurched sideways as I tried to keep our balance.

“Shit, man!” I yelled.  “Warn me when you do that.”  Wing came back at us with a kick, but Jian took cover behind the Chao twins, and I guess Wing lost interest.

We headed up Sacramento Street.  The street-level stores were all iron-gated.  The pandemic screwed all the Chinatown shopkeepers, including my parents.  You heard lots of stories on the net about people starving in their houses and eating rats and whatever, but I don’t know how true that was.  I was one of the lucky ones–I still had a job with Wells Fargo, crappy as it was.  And I could work from home.  Some of the big businesses were putting their people in lockdown hotel conferences for months and stuff, but that was for rich people.

I heard shouts from the apartments above.  People played drums from their windows, keeping Matt’s beat.  Someone yelled New Year’s greetings at me from high above.  Something small and pointy struck my back and bounced off.  I trampled a mini Hershey’s bar on the sidewalk.

“Ha!  They’re throwing candy,” I said, laughing.  “Trick or New Year’s!”

“There’s a couple other people out here,” said Jian, who could see a little bit when he lifted the lion’s chin.  “Old ladies with masks, staring at the costumes.  There’s Superman making out with a witch.  Oh, there’s a cop.  Big white guy.  But he’s not stopping us.  Dude, there’s an old Chinese cop or security guard or something.  In front of the bank.  He’s smiling and watching us.  I’m gonna dance with him.”

I knew this was the stupidest thing we’d done yet, but I went with it anyway.  Enough Cuervo and I’d kiss my cousin.  Jian launched us forward and kicked like a real dancer, which I tried to copy.  Actually, the more we did this, the better I was getting and I thought maybe we could pass for bad lion dancers now.  At least I’d stopped stumbling sideways when he changed directions.

And then–holy crap, there were cop-legs flashing all around me with crazy kicks.  Jian stopped.  I lifted the lion’s flank and looked.  The old cop had some serious-ass lion dance moves.  Hell, maybe he was a parade dancer–some of those guys had been doing it for decades.  I couldn’t tell from his uniform if he was a backup local cop or just a volunteer security guard.  The cymbals crashed louder and faster, challenging the cop to dance like a maniac.  He did a handspring–with his holstered taser and everything–and then bowed to us with his hands folded.

“Holy shit!” Wing cried.  “Did you see that?”  He whooped and lifted his lion head to the sky.

I was laughing so hard I could barely walk.  Everyone was fucking sick of quarantine, sick of being understaffed and overworked, sick of never relaxing.  I was finally doing something good for the world, even in all this awfulness.  I was making people smile.  It was the goddamn awesomest feeling.  And this cop–he knew we weren’t a threat.  Hell, this guy was my hero.  I yelled to him, “Hong bao na lai!”

Jian laughed.  The cop called me a greedy little boy for demanding holiday cash, but I knew he was teasing me.  I was giddy with daring.  Wing had been right–no one would stop the lion dance.  Even the cops loved it.  Fuck the flu.  Fuck everything else.  The lion dance was on.

“Let’s dance in front of the hospital!” Jian called out.  “Guys!  Come on–Chinese Hospital!”

He dragged me at top speed through the street.  I tried not to step on broken glass.  My ears rang from the drumming.  I caught glimpses from under the costume–a few pumpkins on steps, and one storefront with glowing orange decorations.  Looked like a fake post office extension–the kind where people took your money to mail packages, except lots of them were frauds that stole your stuff.  Mail took freaking forever now, anyway, so any flu germs on your stuff would get bored and die.

Jian hollered as we ran past our family’s abandoned store, and I shouted along with him.  We grew up in that place.  But my parents were getting evicted from their apartment, ’cause their whole income had been that Chinese junk shop for tourists, and they had no money left.  And my uncle went bankrupt–’cause when San Francisco closed the public spaces, he lost his restaurant to creditors, and my cousins were both in the hospital last May.  I dunno–the city might have stopped the germs, but they trashed the economy.

Something smelled like puke, and Jian veered us away from that.  No one knew what would happen after the pandemic, or how many people would be dead.  I tried not to think about it, because it scared the crap out of me.  Seriously.  They said H2N2 hadn’t been so bad in 1957, but since it recombined, we were all fucking toast.  I felt helpless for a minute.  Then I realized, shit, I can lion dance, and I got all excited again.  This was the best night I’d had in months.

We lurched around the corner.  The drizzle turned to steady rain, which made the streets smell better.  My arms were sore from hanging onto Jian.  I heard more drumming from nearby apartments, and some voices nearby that I didn’t know.  I guessed some random people had joined us.

Jian said, “Oh wow!”

“What?  Is this the hospital?”

“Yeah.  But in front of it–looks like zombies.  A flash mob or something.  Dead-looking people with cell phones.  Dude, don’t these people know what quarantine means?”

I peeked out.  A zombie mob was right.  About a hundred people wore awesome zombie gear–tattered clothes, fake wounds, and N95 respiratory masks.  Most of them looked totally real, although I saw some sloppy make-up jobs.  A few of them wore nurse’s costumes and carried stethoscopes.  There was even one dude pushing another in a rusty wheelbarrow.  One of the zombie chicks was totally hot, and I wished I weren’t hidden in a lion’s butt.  The zombies moaned when they saw us, and shambled our way like Night of the Living Dead.  Seriously freaking creepy.  These were people who knew how to do Halloween.

I dropped the costume back into place.  “Dude.  They win.”

“No way,” Jian said.  “We’re a goddamn lion.  RAAR!  Let’s show those zombies how to party!”

He pulled me forward.  I caught a glimpse of the green-legged Chao twins next to me, and then all I saw was lots of zombie legs.  Tattered jeans, sickly-green bare legs with stinky paint, and someone with loose flesh flapping off their shins like a kite.  The zombies muttered things around me, mostly “braaains,” and a couple of them poked my back and arms.  I guessed they were sampling us for a meal later.  I wondered if we could zombify the lion costume with some green make-up or something.

A couple of zombies started hammering on things they carried.  Xiang clashed his cymbals together faster.  Matt drummed harder and Jian dragged me forward.  The whole thing was like a weird ritual.  “Dance!” Jian called out.

I’d gotten better at matching him, so I copied his kicks.  Except he was clear of the mob and I wasn’t, so I had to half-ass it so I didn’t smack a zombie.  We rocked back and forth, trying to keep ourselves steady.  Someone dropped a lit cigarette, which rolled under my face.  I shoved Jian forward and stomped it out.  He pushed back, which shoved my butt into someone’s hips.  They swore at me.

“Hey guys,” Wing yelled over the drumming, “Check this out!”

I couldn’t exactly see, but I heard some karate-cries nearby.  I peeked out.  The gold lion was dueling a bus-driver zombie.  The zombie slashed with plastic claws, while Wing landed kicks near the guy’s head.  All for show, of course, but it was pretty epic.  I heard cheers from the hospital windows above us.  I don’t know who it was, since anyone with the flu was dead to the world for a month, and anyone well enough to be off the respirator was sent home to free up the bed.  Maybe it was the nurses or something.  I wondered if a cute nurse would dig a New Year’s lion.

Jian dragged us towards the battle.  Just then, the bus-driver zombie yelled at the top of his lungs.  Someone shouted and swore, and then someone else shoved me.  Matt stopped drumming, though the cymbals kept the beat.

“Jian, what’s going on?”

“Aw crap, the zombie’s all in his face.  Maybe Wing clipped the guy with a kick.”

“What?”  I peeked out.  The bus-driver zombie was cussing out Wing.  He was a big guy and looked totally pissed.  He marched forward, pushing Wing back.  Wing lifted the lion head and punched the guy in the gut, then fell backwards over Jimmy who was his back half.  The zombie mob roared with anger.

“Oh shit!  Come on.”  Jian took a sharp left, which whipped me sideways, but I kept my feet.  I heard fists thudding into body parts and someone hit the ground.  Someone dropped a plastic shovel by my feet that I nearly tripped on.  If I’d been thinking, I would’ve jumped out of costume so I could see, but I was totally into the lion thing and I half-forgot we could separate.  Totally dumbass, I know, but it was the tequila.

Jian led us away and said, “Slow down now, we’re at a wall.  We’re safe here.”

I panted, trying to catch my breath.  I was choking in my mask, and sweat soaked my t-shirt.  Glass shattered nearby.  The crowd roared.

“Aw, shit! Someone threw a rock,” shouted Jian.


“That was a store window–someone’s climbing in now.  Liquor store.  Holy crap, this is–”

Shit!” I yelled.  “Jian, get out of here!”  Oh my God, a riot–this would be another fucking Helena.  Nineteen people dead when that was done, ’cause some moron brought a gun to a cop fight.  All over a bunch of toilet paper.  God knew what people would do for booze, once someone started it.

Jian ran, and I stumbled after him.  I couldn’t keep hold of his waist.  He got ahead of me and I slid out the costume’s back.  I grabbed the trailing fabric like a bridal veil and raced after him.  I scraped my elbow pretty bad on the brick wall as we turned into the urine-soaked alley, but I was more worried about getting away.  We ran past the Chao twins, and I saw a full bottle of Jack peeping out from under the lion’s flank.  Bastards musta stolen it.

Jian tugged on a heavy door which was propped just a crack open.  “Not the hospital!” I yelled at him, but too late.  He ran inside and I chased after him.

We stood inside the bare white hallways, breathing hard.  Not a soul in sight.  The place smelled like antiseptics and death.  Half the lights were off.  A bunch of red letter-strings gave the hallway some color, which was creepy once I realized the tattered paper said “Happy Valentine’s Day”.  I guess no one had time to deal with it all.  God, this place couldn’t be any worse if it tried.

An alarm suddenly sounded from the door we’d come in, which made me jump.  Jian stripped off the lion head and yanked the haunches away from me.  He wrapped the fabric around the head, tucked it under his arm, and stared at me defiantly.

I said, “What the hell are we doing here, dude?  Hey, Jian?  Jian?”

He stalked away from me, like a man on a mission.  I heard sirens outside and someone yelling on a loudspeaker.  People were shouting.  I couldn’t tell if the fight was breaking up or escalating.

“Jian, what the–”

“Come on,” he called to me.

I ran after him and grabbed his arm.  He pushed me off, which got me mad.  The hospital scared me.  Every surface was covered in germs–I know how hospitals really are.  There’s gross stuff no one can clean up, not to mention germs in the air.  But worse, just about every bed was filled with flu patients.  It’s not like I’m some crazy germaphobe, but this H2N2 thing–it killed healthy young people.  People like me.  And if Jian got it–no way in hell his body could fight it off.  While the flu might not kill him, it’d trigger his viral load for sure.  And without the right drugs–

“Oh shit.  Jian, are you gonna steal your antivirals?  Come on, man…”

He ignored me as he read the names scribbled on door placards.  I was torn.  I hated stealing, but Christ–he couldn’t get these drugs shipped from Canada, and everyone local was out.  Wasn’t this some famous moral question or something?  I had no idea what I thought, and I didn’t want to decide while running through a darkened hospital, wearing lion leggings and a respiratory mask.  But hell–people were here every day.  They wore masks when working and they didn’t always get the flu.  I’d be okay.  So would Jian, even with HIV, because he had a mask.  That’s what I tried to tell myself.  I was sobering up fast.  I guessed it might be okay if Jian stole his antivirals, just this once.

But Jian walked right past a door labeled “supplies” and kept reading placards.  I don’t know if that room held drugs or vacuum cleaners, but he was looking for something else.  We passed a small waiting area with a couch and a window.  Outside, the cops were frisking zombies against the cop cars.  I couldn’t see any of my friends–no idea if they’d run off or what.  It was eerily quiet inside, now that we were away from the door.  The arrests through the window were like watching a muted TV.

“Jian,” I pleaded, “let’s go.  Come on.  Security will be back any minute.  And they’ll turn us over to the cops.”

Jian stopped at a door reading “Wu Gary.”  He raised a hand to push aside the door-curtain.  I grabbed his arm and wrenched it behind his back.  He yelped and dropped the lion head.

“We are not going into a room with the goddamn flu in it,” I told him.  Where the hell were the nurses?  They should’ve been helping me out here.  But so many had died of the flu already.  All the hospitals were incredibly short-staffed.  That’s why they kept begging for volunteers.  And still had Valentine’s Day signs on the walls.

He stared at me, his eyes bright.  “Bo, please.  I’ve gotta go in there.”

“No way.”

“Gary is my boyfriend,” he said.

My jaw dropped.  Yeah, of course I knew my brother was gay–so did most people who met him.  But I’d never actually met any of his boyfriends, even though he lived with me.  When he was younger, he slept with anyone who fed him–and although he’d cleaned up a lot, he still didn’t want me meeting his dudes.  I dunno–maybe he worried I’d scare them off.

“Your boyfriend?”

“My lover,” he said, with more dignity than most nineteen-year-olds had.  “He’s poz like me.  I met him at the Lookout.  I’ve wanted to see him ever since I heard he landed here.”

“But you haven’t left the house much since–”

He rolled his eyes.  “E-mail, dumbass.  He got sick three days ago and I found out from a friend.”

“Why didn’t you say something sooner?”

“Cause you’d just worry about me like you always do.  Now let me go see him or I will kick your goddamn ass.”

I knew he wouldn’t actually fight me for this.  My little brother was asking my permission.  Thing was, I couldn’t possibly say no–not when we’d come so far.  Slowly I dropped my arm.  Jian picked up the lion head.  We stared each other in the eyes, and then he went in the room.

I thought about staying outside, so at least only one of us was exposed–but I couldn’t.  I figured if Jian had the courage for this, I had it too.  Besides, I reminded myself–I had a mask, and that’s what they were for.  Flu germs were probably swimming in the air anyway.  So I brushed aside the curtain and went in.

A hollow shell of a guy lay on the bed.  Didn’t seem like Jian’s type, but what did I know.  Dude was old, maybe fifty, and drowning in a too-large hospital gown.  His arms were like bones and I wondered how he was alive.  This was not a guy who’d been sick for three days–he’d been here longer, or starving for a while, or something.  My stomach twisted as I saw all the clear plastic tubes over his nose and mouth.  They hooked up to a big machine, which showed constant streams of numbers I didn’t understand.  He was either asleep or sedated.

This room was on the far side of the hallway.  We couldn’t hear the cop cars outside, or the drumming or anything at all except this guy breathing.  Oh my God, the room stank of death and sickness and everything else.  It made Halloween vanish, the lion costumes vanish, the fighting and the dancing and the candy thrown at us vanish.  Everything before now was shit, and this was real.

I sat down in a chair, wanting to be anywhere else.  Jian held the guy’s hand and squeezed it a few times.  We sat there silently.  It felt like forever, but it couldn’t have been very long.  After a while, a nurse came through the curtain.  She caught her breath when she saw us, and said in English, “Hey, who are you?  Did you sign in?”  Jian looked up but didn’t answer, so she asked again in Mandarin.

Then Jian turned to the guy and said, “Steve wanted me to tell you it’s not your fault.  And he loves you.”  Then he stood up and walked right past the nurse, who was typing on her pager.  I leaped up and ran after him, not wanting to meet security whenever they got there.

We walked out the front door to the street.  No one paid us any attention.  No sign of the zombie mob or our friends anywhere, aside from a broken bottle of Jack in the gutter.  A cop car sat by the curb, lights flashing, but I couldn’t see who was inside it.  Jian stopped walking and leaned against a lightpole.

“Come on,” I urged him, in case any of our friends had been arrested.  We still wore our lion leggings and I didn’t want to be seen.  We crossed at the corner and headed back on Stockton Street.  I saw a few people doing the Halloween thing–a vampire, a French maid–but all the costumes looked crappy and cheap.  I don’t know if it was the tequila, but my stomach churned and I almost puked in the road.

When we were two blocks away from the hospital, I grabbed Jian’s shoulders and confronted him.  “You’ve never met that man before in your life,” I said.

He wouldn’t look at me.  I shook him and said, “What the fuck was that?  I don’t care if we were wearing masks–that was stupid.  Christ.  We should never have come here.  You might die.”

“Steve did die.”

“Who the hell is Steve?”

“Gary’s husband.  He got sick after Gary did.  They ended up in separate hospitals.  Gary gave it to Steve probably and then Steve died.  And before he died, Steve emailed me and begged me to tell Gary it wasn’t his fault, nothing was his fault, because fuck this flu and the quarantine, and fuck you for making me lie to you, and shit!”

He broke free, threw down the lion head, and ran off down the hill.  I chased him, but slowed down after a while and decided to let him run.  Jian had always been faster anyway.  I watched him head into the darkness and turn the corner out of sight.  I was sure he’d come home eventually; he knew how awful life was on the street.  Everything made sense now.  Jian risked his life to visit a stranger, because he cared about a friend.  Made me look like a chicken-pansy-ass after all.

“Shit,” I said, and kicked a can down the street.  It scuttled along the curb and landed in a trash pile.

I walked back to the lion head, which was stained with rain and gutter-crap and whatever people left on the ground.  I picked the head up, gazing into his cheerful face.  The jaw fell open as I lifted it, making the lion look very surprised to see me again.

God, I was an ass.  Here I was, worrying about germs through my stupid mask, and hiding in my apartment for the last eight months.  I didn’t deserve to be the courage lion–not even the lion’s ass.  There was so much shit in the world, so many people dying–and here I was, healthy and not doing anything to help them.  Not only that, I was keeping Jian from helping either.  All because I didn’t want to lose him.

I kept saying I couldn’t do anything, but that was a lie.  Screw that.  The hospital needed help.  I could volunteer.  I was fluent in two languages–even if I didn’t know anything about nursing, they could use me.  I could work evenings instead of sitting at home watching movies.  Fuck me for being a jackass so long.  I’d do it.  Tomorrow evening, I’d come back to the hospital and volunteer.  Hell, I knew for a fact I could do security–and they needed me.  They’d just suffered a terrible lion break-in.

I grinned at the lion head, figuring he could see through a flu mask.  “Thanks, buddy,” I told him.  I pushed his jaw shut and carried him home.

About the Author

Vylar Kaftan

Vylar Kaftan

Vylar Kaftan writes speculative fiction of all genres, including science fiction, fantasy, horror, and slipstream. She won a 2013 Nebula Award for her novella “The Weight of the Sunrise”, as well as a 2013 Sidewise Award for Short-Form Alternate History. She was also nominated for a 2010 Nebula Award for her short story “I’m Alive, I Love You, I’ll See You in Reno.”

Her stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, and Clarkesworld. Her work has been reprinted in Horror: The Best of the Year, honorably mentioned in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and shortlisted for the WSFA Small Press Award.

A graduate of Clarion West, she’s volunteered for that group as well as the Little Owls mentoring program for young writers. She’s a member of SFWA, Codex, Broad Universe, and the Carl Brandon Society. In 2011, she founded FOGcon, a new literary-themed science fiction and fantasy convention in the San Francisco Bay Area.

She lives with her husband Shannon in northern California. Her hobbies include modern-day temple dancing and preparing for a major earthquake. Her favorite color is all of them. She prefers the term “differently sane.”

Find more by Vylar Kaftan

Vylar Kaftan

About the Narrator

John Chu

John Chu designs microprocessors by day and writes fiction by night. His work has been published at Boston Review, Asimov’s and

Find more by John Chu