They let Wen go on the first cold day of autumn, the day all of Harbin’s furnaces came on, and a heavy smog began growing thick by early afternoon. Wen could see it from the fourteenth floor where Mr. Hong was saying it was the Americans’ fault that profits were down and projects were stalled and everything was uncertain. It was the Americans’ brinksmanship. It was nothing personal. Everyone was cutting back. Everyone was watching the Americans. Of course, Wen was not to take any files with him. No files and no supplies. His computer was being scrubbed as they spoke. But, Mr. Hong said, of course Wen knew all this. Wen was a professional and it gave Mr. Hong no pleasure to let him go.
Wen had put on his winter hat and his scarf for the first time that morning but he’d been unable to find his gloves. He was an organized man. Every year once spring set in, he put his hat and scarf and gloves in the same clear plastic box so he could easily find them again come autumn. But for some reason the gloves weren’t there. This had bothered him immensely. He didn’t like the thought of his gloves somewhere amiss in the apartment. It suggested other things could be amiss, too, and that thought was unacceptable.
Mr. Hong finished speaking. Wen had questions. He kept his voice even because he knew Mr. Hong was watching him carefully. They had all been watching him carefully now for three days, even though he had apologized many times to many people and was, as instructed, covering the contractor’s medical bill. It was an absurdly high bill and it was still going and Wen was certain the contractor and the doctor were conspiring to take as much money from him as they could. Each day he imagined the two of them together in the doctor’s office, an office Wen pictured as that of a lazy opportunist, with nothing on the walls and hardly anything in the desk save perhaps a brick of staples. The doctor would be sitting behind the desk and saying, The nose is broken, yes, but let’s also focus on the neck and the back. The neck and the back are where the real money is.
And the round-shouldered contractor, sitting in one of the two chairs against the wall, would be nodding and saying, Yes, I’m positive there are many things now wrong with my neck. When I wake up in the morning it feels like there’s a spike in it. And the doctor would say, No, don’t say a spike, that’s too dramatic, you want to keep it less specific. An ache or a twinge is good. Stay away from spikes. Right, the contractor would say. It’s not so much a spike as an ache or a twinge that won’t go away. My wife is very worried about me. Now you’re talking, the doctor would say. That’s the stuff. Bring the wife into it. No one likes a pain that won’t go away. It drives people crazy. And the contractor would say, Exactly, it’s just there all the time, this ache that won’t go away and it’s depressing and it’s ruining my marriage. Good, the doctor would say—
And this is how it had gone in Wen’s head since he’d struck the contractor fully in the face and the doctor’s office had begun its steady barrage of calls. It had been a good punch; he had kept his wrist straight and tight and rotated it at the last moment so it was his first two knuckles that landed, and the man had fallen over in the great mud pit that was supposed to be the Huán Luxury Apartments. Wen knew he had broken the man’s nose and he knew the man deserved to have his nose broken. But each day since that morning he’d learned it was not just a broken nose, it was also a fracture in the cheekbone. Hairline, yes, but still a fracture. And then it was not just a broken nose and a fracture, but neck problems, too, from the head snapping back so fast. And then it was not just a broken nose and a fracture and the head snapping back too fast, but likely a disc or a ligament in the spine; it was too soon to tell which or both.
The women who called from the doctor’s office were always apologetic; they knew Wen was a busy and important man, but they had been instructed to speak with Wen directly concerning the patient’s bill—
Who were these people who made such calls? It was so absurd and so clearly a swindle that each time the doctor’s office rang Wen grew so angry he could no longer sit still and had to go outside and walk far and furiously until he could think again. He’d stalk north at a pace that was almost a jog, his face set and sour, his fists clenched, twelve blocks like that up to Sidalin Park where he could look across the river and see Sun Island. The Ice Palace was gone from it by then, of course, but there would be another there that winter, or if not a palace then a castle or a ship, something grand and elaborate that would make the crowds gape and murmur.
But the moment he returned to his office and sat back down, he’d picture the contractor, a short, sloppy swaggerer, sitting with the doctor in that drab ignorant office, the two of them inventing pains. Did you fall when he hit you? the doctor was asking. Unquestionably, the contractor said. Very hard. That’s good, the doctor said. All kinds of things can happen when you fall. We’ll need to run a few tests—
And all that time the Huán Luxury Apartments were not rising, and Wen’s investment was sitting there in the mud, too, and there was no spreadsheet he could run that predicted anything but a steadily darkening future.
The first question he asked Mr. Hong was why they were not letting go of junior executives. He had been there eleven years.
Oh, Mr. Hong said, that had already been done.
Wen had heard nothing about it.
Mr. Hong’s face looked sleepy as it always did, but his back was rigid in his chair. It was done very quietly, Mr. Hong said. It was done quietly and with dignity. It was never easy, of course.
Had Wen’s performance not been satisfactory?
Mr. Hong smiled tightly. It was not a question of performance. Wen had done a splendid job, the bids he had won had been excellent ones, but it was not a question of performance. It was simply the money.
Wen wanted to know if it was about— And he stopped because Mr. Hong was already shaking his head. No, Mr. Hong said, it was not about that at all. It was the money. Always the money.
Yes, the money.
Wen looked out the window behind Mr. Hong’s desk at the smog sinking over the gray sky like an elevator. It would be hard to breathe and he would need a surgical mask before the day ended. He couldn’t remember if he’d left one in his desk. And where were his gloves? These were two problems.
What could he do to change Mr. Hong’s mind?
But Mr. Hong only stood and straightened his suit jacket. He smiled his tight, sleepy smile again and said he was sure Wen would be all right. He had done well. Wen was like a cat, Mr. Hong said, and bent his fingers like he was about to play the piano. Always landing on its feet.
Wen did not want to be like a cat. He wanted to keep his job, and he said exactly this. He did not mention Huán Luxury or the amount of money he’d invested in this rival, which was a great deal, even, as he sometimes thought when he could not sleep, a foolish amount. He did not mention the doctor or the contractor, both of whom he imagined having a late, treacherous lunch together at that very moment, toasting each other with cheap beer bought on Wen’s money.
Mr. Hong expressed again his confidence that Wen would find work quickly, and then he walked to the door to show Wen the meeting was over. He did not take Wen by the elbow; he did not touch Wen at all. Outside Mr. Hong’s office the secretary smiled nervously at Wen and a security guard appeared to be examining a still life on the wall. Mr. Hong bowed curtly and disappeared behind his office door. The guard trailed Wen halfway down the hall, studying the diamond shapes in the carpet.
In the elevator was a man and also a woman, but Wen struck one of the side panels as hard as he could, anyway. The metal cracked sharply as it flexed and popped back into shape, but Wen felt no pain at all, even though the movement was so sudden and so fierce his shirt came slightly out of his slacks and his breath quickened. The man and the woman backed into the far corner of the elevator and exited at the next floor. They did not meet his eye.
In the hallway outside his office, two security guards were waiting for Wen. One of them, older, bowed and the other only stared. Wen didn’t acknowledge them at all, but went inside and sat down at his desk. There was a window to his left that looked out at the city and for some minutes he watched the smog gathering. He was on the ninth floor and from there he could see Harbin’s hundred-fold smokestacks casting forth thick, ropey clouds of coal. Was it possible Yining had taken his gloves? He had not seen her since the Ice Palace. But that was last winter. But it was possible. But he did not lose things. So it was not possible.
Several minutes passed with Wen staring out the window, tracing in his mind the elusive path of his gloves, while the security guards frowned and made motions one to the other to say something. Finally, the older one stepped to the threshold and said Wen was to put his things in the boxes. He pointed at a neat stack of bankers boxes piled in the corner. Yeah, the younger man said, we’re supposed to help you.
Wen looked at them for a long moment. No, he said at last, and he saw the two of them tense. I don’t need help. You can wait outside.
We’re to be in here with you, the first man said. He put his hands on his hips and adjusted his belt, but he had a paunch, and Wen knew that a man with a paunch could act only for show. Wen’s stomach was flat and hard.
You can wait outside, Wen said again, and before they could react, he was out of his chair and had closed and locked the door. They knocked once, politely, and then again, with more force, but once it was clear Wen wasn’t opening the door, they crowded about the sidelight. It was cross-hatched inside with wires to keep it from breaking. Through this strip of glass they watched him.
Wen sat back down at his desk and thought again of his gloves. They were good gloves, expensive gloves. They were dark leather and made in Italy and had been hard to get; over the years many people had complimented him on how beautiful they were. Yining had complimented them, too, and insisted on trying them on, even though they were far too big for her. So this is how Italians feel, she’d said, and put one hand up to his cheek. Yes, he’d said, and she’d rolled her eyes because he hadn’t gotten the joke. This is how they feel, she’d said, and tapped the glove against his cheek, and after a moment he’d laughed. Too late, she’d said, and batted him on the nose before handing the gloves back. They’re not even that warm, she said, and he said they weren’t supposed to be warm, they were supposed to be well-made. Being warm had nothing to do with it. This made no sense to her and she said so. He’d tried to explain: A well-made building was pleasing to the eye. When she showed an apartment, what did the people look at? Did they pull up the carpet and look at the padding? Did they tap the walls to find the joists? Of course not. They might later, but not then. They cared about aesthetics. They would put up with drafty rooms and thin ceilings and noisy pipes if they knew others would walk into a room and envy what they saw.
You’re kidding, she’d said after a moment.
He was not kidding. He would bet his fortune on this fact. He did not add that only two days before, when he had finished signing his stake in the Huán Luxury Apartments, he had done just that.
Well, Yining had said, I think well-made means well-made, and that gloves should keep your hands warm.
So perhaps she hadtaken them. He knew women did many things out of spite. Yet he had never seen Yining spiteful, save for the last time they’d been together, the night they’d walked through the Ice Palace. It had not been a good night, but stealing his gloves did not seem like her answer to it. Yet that didn’t mean he couldn’t imagine it. He looked out the window at the smokestacks and the lowering darkness and felt he could trust no one.
The first security guard rapped on the glass panel and Wen glared at him. The man looked through the cross-hatched wires and gestured toward the boxes. Wen took his time getting to his feet. The boxes had sturdy bottoms and cut-away handles. He would need several for his books, which were hardbound and heavy. In another he would place the globed paperweight from his desk, and the drinking bird he liked for its ceaseless motion, and the teller’s lamp he’d bought online with his own money. It was green and threw down a near perfect oval of light that he liked very much.
He began taking books from the shelf. It seemed darker than usual and he turned on the teller’s lamp. His watch read just after two, but it looked like dusk outside. The smog had thickened in the past ten minutes and some of the smokestacks that had been visible just a short time before had now vanished from sight. It would be hard to breathe, and so he set down the books and searched through his desk for a surgical mask.
When he found none, he opened the door quickly and told the guards to get him one. They could figure it out. What hewanted to know was where his gloves were.
The kind of fall you took, he imagined the doctor saying, is the kind of fall that often hurts the elbows and the wrists when you land, and the contractor would say, That’s very true, both my elbows and wrists really do hurt now. And the doctor would say, No, don’t say both elbows and bothwrists, pick one side, one side is how these things work. Yes, the contractor would say, and wince as he shrugged his right shoulder, the pain in my neck runs all the way down my right arm into my elbow and wrist. There you go, the doctor would say, and, That’s too bad, every day must be terribly painful. It is, the contractor said, and it’s going to take a long time to heal, I just know it. He walked right up to me and hit me, no reason at all, and now everything hurts. The doctor shook his head in his ugly, simple office and said, Some people.
But this wasn’t true. The man hadgiven him a reason. He had been disrespectful and Wen could not tolerate that. As he’d stood over the man in the mud pit where Huán Luxury was four months behind and barely a foundation, Wen had told the man he would not have a job were it not for Wen and his money. That had been a mistake. It had been a mistake to mention the money, but it had not been a mistake to hit the man, though now the man still had a job and Wen did not. Wen stopped packing. He was holding the globed paperweight in his hand. His fingers curled around it and for a moment he considered hurling it through the window and out into the darkness and the smog. But the guards were watching and there was still the future, and there was his money tangled in a building that had not yet left the ground.
He flung the paperweight through the window.
This made a number of things happen. There was suddenly the wind whistling through the shattered hole and with it came the frigid air and the smog. And in what seemed the same moment, there were also the security guards bursting through the door, as if also thrown, and then the three of them grappling ferociously and savagely and pitching about the room. Someone knocked over the teller’s lamp and its almost perfect oval of light swung crazily as it tilted and toppled. The bulb broke and it got darker. And then somehow there was a third guard and then a fourth—Wen had to wonder where they had all come from and so quickly—and then they were all riding the elevator down to the lobby, and he was being hustled through the front doors and out onto the sidewalk, which is where at last they tossed him to the ground.
He roared to his feet. He grabbed the handles of the glass doors and rattled them furiously when he found them locked. He wasn’t even sure what he was shouting, but he had the sense he’d been doing it for some time, and as it felt good to do so, he continued. On the other side of the glass, the guards stood like a wall and watched him impassively with their hands on their waists. Their silence was maddening. Wen let go of the handles and punched the glass once, and then again. He heard his own shouting still going on, like faraway traffic, and the guards backed up. One of them put his hand at his hip as if he had a gun there, but none of them carried guns; they carried only flashlights and keys.
Wen struck the glass a third time, the same short, sharp punch with which he’d hit the contractor, but though the glass shivered in its frame, it was thick and double-paned against the Harbin winters and did not break like the contractor had. Let me ask you, the doctor was saying, do you have any ringing in your ears? Well, it’s interesting you mention that, the contractor said, because I do, it’s like a whistle, almost, or something like that, very high-pitched. And the doctor nodded and leaned back in his chair, which of course wasn’t leather but a cheap, plastic, armless one, and said, I was afraid of that. Sometimes that happens with trauma to the head. It’s all connected, you know, and one thing leads to another—
For the first month, Wen had driven past the site almost every day. They had broken ground in early spring, and he had taken great pleasure in seeing the steady gathering of concrete pipes and great stacks of lumber and then the arrival, day by day, of backhoes and trucks and bulldozers. And then, because he knew this initial rush of progress would slow, he enforced a strict discipline in the second month and did not allow himself to pass the site at all, sometimes going out of his way to avoid it. Instead he allowed himself one phone call to Huán Luxury and was informed that construction was right on schedule and it was hoped he would have a joyful day.
He’d driven by again when spring had fully bloomed and the world was sunny and mild. What he saw was disappointing. There were the beginnings of a foundation, but little more than that, though he’d pulled over and counted at least two dozen men moving about the site. He could not understand what any of them were doing; he would pick one man and watch him for some minutes, and then pick another and watch himfor some minutes, but no one seemed to be doinganything. It was as maddening as watching ants move with meaningless fervor around the base of their hill. He’d called Huán Luxury from there in his car and demanded to know what was going on. The woman who answered told him that the construction was right on schedule, but he cut her off and told her to connect him with Mr. Zhang. Mr. Zhang was in a meeting, but could she take a message? Wen had hung up in disgust and gotten out of the car. He felt the tremendous need to dosomething, to shake someone into action or go down in the pit himself and start giving orders. For a long moment he’d stood there on the edge of the site and drummed one hand ceaselessly on the hood of the car and heard the blood in his ears. Then he’d gone home and had done one hundred and sixty-three pushups before he even loosened his tie.
By early summer there were two cranes on the site, and this made him feel better though the foundation hardly looked any different. It seemed impossible that thirty stories would ever rise from what he saw before him, and when by midsummer it was clear the cranes had not moved from where they’d been parked, he’d begun calling Huán Luxury once a week and demanding to know what was holding up the construction.
There had been a few hiccups, Mr. Zhang said at first, but it was nothing to worry about. Wen knew how these things went, didn’t he? He had to be patient.
Later Mr. Zhang said more tersely, We are taking care of it. He did not mention patience.
And still later Mr. Zhang had asked if Wen appreciated these kinds of calls at his own office. Wen had said he did not get these kinds of calls because his office always finished what it started and in a timely fashion.
And finally the receptionist would take only messages and Wen hung up on her.
His lawyer had counseled patience. To withdraw the money now would be tremendously expensive. He explained what Wen already knew. It was always a risk. Building was always a risk.
By fall Wen was not sleeping well. He would lie awake and think of the men sitting there at the site as they must have been doing all summer. They were hunkered down in the shade of the backhoes and trucks and the long shadows cast by the cranes that never moved. They had their lunches with them and they told each other dirty jokes and laughed about stupid things they’d done over the weekend. Inside the foundation seeds sprouted and grasses reclaimed the ground. Eventually he would have to rise and do push-ups or sit-ups or pace the apartment, or sometimes all of these things. Sometimes, too, he thought suddenly of calling Yining, who would find some lightness in it, but then he’d remember her final words to him and he would throw his phone against the wall. He broke a number of phones in this manner.
Finally he could take no more. On what was almost certainly one of the last mild days of the year, he’d left his office at lunchtime and driven to the site. The sky was gray and lowering after two days of rain and his mind was blank as he drove, though he could again hear the blood in his ears. He had pulled off at the edge of the site and sat there for a moment. The cranes had not moved. The men stood talking and eating in groups because it was too wet to sit.
Wen had not thought to wear his boots, and it annoyed him that his dress shoes would get mud on them. They were finely stitched but not waterproof.
And they had. The mud was slick and had pulled at his shoes with each step and seeped into his socks. He’d felt it squirming coldly against him. He crossed to the first group he could find, four men standing near a backhoe. They had set drinks and food on the running board and they stopped talking as he approached. He saw them take in the picture of him, a man in a shirt and tie slipping across the mud in dress shoes; he saw them look at each other knowingly. They had said nothing even when he stood before them.
Wen had asked who was in charge, and three of the men turned away slowly. The fourth man, the round-shouldered contractor, just shrugged.
What does this mean? Wen asked, and mimicked the contractor’s shrug.
Beats me, the man had said.
Wen wanted to know whatthatmeant. He didn’t know what a shrug was, or he didn’t know who was in charge?
Both, the man said, and Wen heard the other three suppressing their laughter. They were fully turned away from him now, but he saw their shoulders rise and fall.
Wen had asked where the foreman was, and the man shrugged again.
You don’t know where the foreman is?
Nope, the contractor said. I like your shoes, though.
Wen had looked at the man. He had a lazy smirk of a face and there was a dab of some kind of sauce at the corner of his mouth. He was shorter than Wen, though a little broader. Wen asked if the man was retarded or just stupid.
Hey, one of the other men said, and he and the others turned around. They weren’t laughing anymore.
Those are some pussy shoes, the contractor had said. His smirk was still frozen in place but his eyes had gone out. Terrible to get them all muddy like that.
The night before Wen had done two hundred and four push-ups without a break and even that hadn’t settled him. He had paced the apartment until just after 3:00am.
Let me help you out, the man said, and he had hawked up a wad of phlegm and spat it neatly onto the toe of Wen’s right shoe. There, he said, and squinted carefully at Wen’s feet. I think that’s better.
Wen hit him hard and the man was on the ground, his eyes wide and blood streaming from his nose. He made a mewling kind of sound. Wen had stood over him and talked. He wouldn’t have a job without Wen’s money. Did he understand that? It was tremendously satisfying and almost at once the rage diminished and receded back into some dark hollow. He was halfway to his car when he realized no one was following him. That was surprising. He had been ready to fight the lot of them and was disappointed in such thin brotherhood.
Except that two of the men had taken pictures of him with their phones. They had sent them to the foreman, who sent them to Huán Luxury. And so Mr. Zhang had finally called him back and also, he had guessed, called Mr. Hong.
And now he had no job.
Wen stopped yelling only when he started coughing. The air was thick with ash and it made him cough deep and hard like he was sick. He held the wide part of his tie up to his mouth and nose and banged on the doors. He yelled for a mask. People hastened past him on the sidewalk, heads down against the cold and the smog, eyes averted.
The tie did nothing. It was silk and it dampened quickly with his breath and then it was suffocating. He dropped it and began kicking the door. He shouted between coughing fits until another coughing spasm doubled him up enough to gag. In that moment, while he was bent over, hands on his knees, the far door opened and one of the security guards shoved forth a hand truck stacked with bankers boxes. When the man yanked the hand truck from beneath the stack, the whole tower swayed wildly for a moment and then fell. Wen’s coat came down with it and splayed on the sidewalk like a shadow. A man hurrying past jumped out of its way.
Wen stepped among his scattered books. He tore through the coat pockets and found his hat and his scarf. And where were his gloves? That mystery now seemed malicious and mocking. He wrapped his scarf across his mouth and nose and pulled on his coat. He started to pick up his books and then wouldn’t be demeaned like that. At last he gave the door a final, savage kick, gestured crudely at the guards, and stalked across the street. He smacked the trunk of a car that appeared suddenly out of the smog and honked at him.
Two blocks down was a cramped c-store where he sometimes stopped for oden. He coughed heavily when he entered, but the teen behind the counter did not look up. He was smug and he shorted Wen on the change. Wen told him this and the teen shrugged like the contractor had. It happens sometimes, the teen said.
Wen spat on the floor and took two extra masks. The teen shrugged again and looked up at the ceiling.
Outside, Wen could no longer see across the road. The smog and the darkness had closed with astonishing speed. They muted the streetlamps into worthless orange light and strange shapes swirled in them. Something low and dark scuttled about in the middle of the street, then vanished as a bus emerged hugely and abruptly, as from a cloud, and was swallowed again just as quickly. It was colder now, too, colder than it had been that morning, and his breath mixed into the smog. He felt vaguely dizzy. He put on the mask and plunged his hands into his pockets. Yining must have taken the gloves. Who else? It seemed possible now.
He had worn them that entire night. They had eaten near his apartment and then taken the 84line north to Sun Island. It had been a long ride and the bus was crowded and warm. Wen would have driven were parking not so difficult, but Yining’s leg pressed against his and she slipped her arm through his and he forgot about his irritation. Yining had been as excited as a child. She loved Big World, she had gone every year since it had opened, and because she had still been in high school when it did, it always made her feel young and happy. Wen asked if there had ever been a time when she was nothappy, and she laughed but didn’t answer. She had taken out her phone and was flipping through pictures of the ice sculptures sent to her by friends who had already been there. Look, she said, and held up her phone, but Wen pushed it away. He did not want to see anything before they got there. He wanted it all to be fresh and new. He did not want it spoiled in any way.
Really? Yining said. She had leaned back so she could see him better and there was a little frown in the middle of her forehead.
Yes, Wen said. I want to be impressed.
You won’t be impressed if you see a picture first?
Not as impressed as I could be, Wen said. He did not say what discipline he had exercised over the past month and a half. He had turned off the television whenever the news cut to the Ice Festival and its sculptures, and had denied himself any pictures of it online.
Yining looked at him a moment longer and he looked back at her. You really are a strange one, she said at last. But she had put her phone away, and when they finally crossed the bridge and the crowd murmured and stretched to the right side to see the lights now so close, Yining pulled his head to her shoulder so he wouldn’t look. She smelled of something light and citrine and he imagined her in his bed and her scent bright on his pillows and lighting the hall.
They had entered Big World through three great sculpted archways, the first lit yellow, the second red, and the last a deep, suffused blue. Yining squealed and grabbed his arm and pointed everywhere at once. Wen smiled because he was impressed and because he was relieved he was impressed. Before them stretched a great pavilion of ice sculptures. There was a ruined fragment of the Coliseum drenched in green light, an enormous orange Buddha, dozens of temples and pagodas, and then the staggering Ice City with its multitude of miniature skyscrapers and avenues. And at the far end of it all was the Ice Palace rising fifty feet into the air and stretching out immensely to either side as if holding the Ice City in its lap. The Palace that year was Russian in design, with onion domes and twisting spires. It was bright at its base and then rose into twilight colors the closer it got to the sky.
Wen said aloud that it was extraordinary, and he did not often call anything extraordinary.
Yining was giddy and her eyes were bright and she asked if he thought she was extraordinary, too. He hesitated and she laughed before he could answer. She was kidding, she said, she liked to watch his discomfort. Then she took his hand and led him in great wandering circles through the temples and vendors and crowds of children dashing madly from one sculpture to the next. She took what seemed to Wen endless photos of everything, sometimes just of the sculpture, sometimes of her with the sculpture, sometimes of Wen with the sculpture, and dozens of the two of them together beneath or beside a block of ice, lit by the strangely diffused light. At one skyscraper she found particularly enchanting, she had even lain down on the ground to get the best angle. Wen helped her up and duly complimented the picture when she showed it to him, her breath faster from motion and excitement.
But for Wen the Ice Palace was the prize, and he grew more and more impatient to get to it. At last Yining turned in that direction and he took the opportunity to say how much he wanted to walk through the Palace. Well, then, let’s go, Yining said, and she had taken his hand again and led them up a ramp to the first level of the Palace where a line moved slowly under an arch and into the sculpture itself. The grounds crew had laid out a long red carpet so they could walk safely on the ice, and guides up and down the line reminded them not to step off it.
The light inside the corridor was a thin blue and the air grew noticeably damper. Yining shivered. But as they proceeded farther inside the light began to change and they came out at last in a great vaulted room lit by deep reds and greens that constantly faded and changed, and the carpet widened so they could pause to look up. The ceiling was so high it seemed impossible. Wen felt dizzy with delight. In the highest blocks of ice he could see where the sculptors had carved elaborate ornamentations and he marveled at the precision with which the blocks fit together.
This is well-made, he said to no one in particular.
In the opposite wing of the Palace they passed a dining room, complete with elegantly carved chairs and a full meal laid out on the table. There were roasted ducks that shone red and white and great bowls of rice and platters with fruit waiting, neatly arranged. Yining took pictures of everything.
Wen was exhilarated. It was the finest Ice Festival he had ever been to, and he told Yining this. Her face lit up. She said it was the finest one she had ever been to as well. And Wen saw in that moment that she would spend the night with him and that he would wake with her bright scent on his pillows and in the air. The future spun out brilliantly before him, a great pavilion of frozen light. They had kissed there for the first time at the base of the Ice Palace, and then Yining took a picture of herself kissing his cheek, her eyes wide open so she could see the framing.
She had leaned against him on the bus ride back. The bus was full but pleasantly quiet and warm, and so were they. His fingers, long gone cold in his gloves, were tingling again, and he enjoyed the sensation. After a time Yining took out her phone and began scrolling through the dozens of pictures. She showed him one after another, and though he found it tiresome almost immediately, he was pleased and increasingly sleepy and let her continue. In some of the pictures he was surprised how severe he looked; it would be impossible to tell from them that he was a man having a good time. In others he looked stiff and uncertain. It was strange to see himself like that, but he dismissed it as a trick of the lens and the strange, low light.
Here, Yining had said, and held up the phone. It was the picture of her kissing his cheek at the base of the Ice Palace. I’m going to send this one to you.
No, Wen said, that was all right. He didn’t need it.
Yining looked at him and half-smiled. You’re funny, she said.
No, really. He didn’t want it. He had no pictures in his apartment.
Yining put down the phone. He felt her leg move away from his. She wasn’t asking him to frame it, she said, she just thought it was a nice thing for them both to have. He could put it on his phone. Or his computer.
Wen didn’t do either of those things. He didn’t like clutter.
Clutter, Yining said.
Yes, Wen said.
Yining had looked at him for a long moment and then turned away. She would not reply when he asked her questions. He had the sense of something slipping away but was unsure how to stop it. The bus had gone on and on as Wen struggled to define what strangeness was filling him.
He felt that strangeness rising again as he stood there on the sidewalk outside the c-store. He could not tell how near or far the other side of the street was. A taxi appeared out of the murk and was gone again before Wen could raise his arm, and then a few minutes passed where there was nothing at all. No buses or taxis or people. The smog came down all around him and the streetlamps dimmed into orange haze. As he teetered on the curb, he heard at last two people approaching him from across the street. They were two women, walking fast and arguing loudly about something. Their heels clicked and at one point Wen saw the glow of a cigarette, but the women never appeared. Where had they gone? Their argument continued around him and he looked up and down the street, but there was nothing at all and soon their voices grew more and more distant until they were gone entirely. The mystery infuriated him.
He had gotten off the bus with Yining even though it was her stop, not his. He had not said he was sorry, because he was not sorry for anything, though there remained that sense of something rushing away. He had tried to take her arm, but she had jerked it back.
That was a mean thing to say, she said. Wen had started to speak, but she stopped him. She said he was meaner than she’d thought he was. He was—here she had struggled for the word, and then paused. He was like his gloves, she said at last, then walked away. He had kept his dignity and hadn’t run after her.
In the orange blur of the streetlamps the smog began to roil and twist. Out of it came strange forms, great toothless mouths that gaped and yawned, a muddied sea turtle with no shell, and a lanky dog that ran by so close Wen jumped back despite himself. His eyes burned terribly and he rubbed them with his thumb and forefinger for a full minute and tried not to think.
When he opened them, there were his gloves in the road before him, walking about on their fingers so at first he thought they were crabs. They turned as if to look at him and he was afraid for a moment they might speak. But instead they rose into the air, one grabbing the other by the fingertips and pulling it up, then flipping position and allowing itself to be pulled so that they swung each other higher and higher. And when they had risen above the height of the streetlamps, they paused so that one could delicately tear the ring finger from the other. It came loose with an audible rending of leather and popping of bone, and then the afflicted glove with its four remaining fingers in turn plucked out the thumb of its mate.
I’ll bet those sinuses are no fun, the doctor was saying. Sometimes in a case like yours the blood gets inside the head, and you never want blood inside the head. And the contractor rubbed below his eyes and said, I was wondering why doing this hurt so much, and the doctor nodded sympathetically. You’ve had a time of it, he said, and the contractor said it was true, sometimes bad things happened to good people, that was the way of the world.
A bell rang behind Wen and he turned around. The head of the smug teen from inside floated in the doorway. Wow, it said, nice. Real nice night. Then it looked over and saw Wen. You’restill here? it asked.
It cried out the first time Wen struck it, a good punch, and as it fell backwards into the store the rest of the body appeared. This was a relief. When he struck the head a second time the foundation of the Huán Luxury Apartments grew suddenly in the street outside, and when he struck it a third and fourth time, the stories began rising in the swirling smog. Shortly afterwards the form stopped crying out and its head was a bubbling smear, but Wen did not stop. Every time he struck it another story arose and balconies appeared and great sheets of floor-to-ceiling windows glowed in the strange orange light. At one point he tore off the mask so he could breathe easier and then he resumed and the apartments soared into the smog, twice as high as the Ice Palace, then three times, then so high it was absurd to compare the two except for their brilliant emptiness, the awe they inspired, and the masterful dedication that had created them both.