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art by Tais Teng

Jade Dragon

Shelly's fiction has appeared in Nature, Cosmos Online, The Dragon and the Stars, and more. Her first novel, "The Royal Hunter," is forthcoming from Penguin Books in Fall 2011. But for now, she aspires to go to college next year, getting in a few rounds of golf in between. For more information about Shelly, her other works, and her idiosyncrasies, please visit: www.shelly-li.com.

Uncle Tang repeats the same proverb when he beats me: "Hitting you is loving you." He's not my uncle by blood, though he's done more for me than any blood relative has. My mother could not have had a brother anyway, due to China's One Child Policy when she was growing up in the early 2020s.
Ignoring the tingling bruises on my back, I walk to the kitchen. A few dirty plates sit in the soapy hot water on one side of the sink, not enough to prompt a Bot to begin washing. Uncle and I are the only humans running the restaurant.
It's been a slow afternoon. Most days, above the humming of the kitchen Bots stretching clumps of dough into stringy noodles--Uncle's noodles are famous in Hangzhou, partly because even the middle class can afford the price--I can hear the conversations of business partners talking prices and politics, or the chattering of students as they grab a bite to eat before rushing off with their bags bulging with schoolbooks.
I wish I could go to school. I haven't seen the inside of a classroom for five years now, since I was eight when my mother died and Uncle told me that education was a need for some and for others, like me, an impossible luxury.
The water pours out of the tap when it detects my presence and washes away the lines of blood running down gashes on my arm, where Uncle's fingernails cut through. I look down at the water hitting the sink, waves bunching around the drain like a wedding dress's ruffles.
It's times like these that I hate my mother, for letting my father leave, for falling ill. I hate that pang in my chest every time I clear out plates and chopsticks for kids my age, the ones who come in dressed in their weekend outfits, wearing accessories that cost a year of my salary. They hold expensive devices like babies hold rattles, debate AI boxing contenders. Of course, around their necks every kid always wears a jade stone, depicting either their zodiac or, if their parents are extremely well off, a Buddha. With Christianity flowing strong through the country, Buddhism is now a hobby for the pretentious, we-are-open-minded section of the upper class. Like all parents, my mother gave me a jade necklace. I was born in the year of the dragon.
I look down at my empty neckline. Everything seems to always rush past me, never through.
A dragon, I am not.
Uncle's voice pulls me from my thoughts. "Come out and greet the customers," he says in Xinjiang dialect so that no one else understands. "Someone wants to give you money."
I step away from the sink, and the water ceases.
Only a sliding glass door separates the kitchen from the restaurant's dining area. The Bots keep it spotless, and sometimes I feel like I'm stuck as a moving picture ignored in a frame, where people keep the memories that are not deep enough to be stored in the mind.
But today, someone noticed me.
With five tables filled in the restaurant, Uncle sits facing one. A man and a woman have just finished their meal. The man's face is hard and serious, though younger than his hunched posture.
The woman sits across, slender neck visible above the back of the chair, and I catch a glimpse of BioComm's company logo stamped under her earlobe. She is an AI companion. They are all the rage nowadays, human in every way except, of course, the fact that we are their makers and God is ours. They're modeled after deceased human beings, even programmed with flaws, anything the buyer desires. In my opinion, most people who marry AI companions either want nothing to do with the rest of humanity or simply can't stand themselves. I wonder which is worse.
As I approach, the woman turns to face me.
She is undeniably beautiful, like my mother was beautiful. She is beautiful because she looks exactly the way my mother looked before she died. They share the same eyes, brown with a ring of yellow specks, magnetizing and vulnerable, making the person behind the gaze seem like a safe person to love.
The woman smiles at me and asks, "What's your name?"
I shiver at the familiarity and fold my hands together. "Kai Wen," I answer.
"Thank you for your services, Kai Wen," she says, staring at me. I don't know what she is paying attention to, or what she is waiting for, only that finally someone is not looking through me.
As she gets up and walks closer, it takes every muscle to root myself in place. She and my mother even smell the same.
She extends her hand, and I see the bills between her fingers, the equivalent of six months' salary. But my hands cannot move to accept the money, because I cannot feel any sensation in them.
Uncle watches me silently, eyebrows furrowed. It is his philosophy that, if people offer you free money, accept it before they reconsider.
After a short pause, the woman reaches over and tucks the bills into my front shirt pocket. She sets her paper-thin hands on my shoulders for a moment.
Trembling, I realize that I am waking. My consciousness is waking, after running on autopilot for thirteen years, unaware of--and therefore unmoved by--the beauties of this world.
All my heart can do is sink. Because here, at this monumental moment in my life, all I have are the emotions stored inside this woman's eyes. And in her eyes, there is only pity.
As soon as the doors slide shut and the couple disappears from view, I feel the restaurant lights dim a shade. Emptiness nestles into me like settled ash.
"The world breaks people so easily, first their dreams and then their hearts," Uncle says, his voice carrying that rare gentle tone. "Appreciate every experience and accept that they only come once."
Without saying a word, I turn and scurry upstairs to our bedroom, a storage closet that Uncle rents for eight thousand RMB a month, the same size as the bathroom in the restaurant below.
From under my cot, I retrieve a small metal box, an old 2030s safe without DNA locks or even voice codes. After stuffing the money in there, I reach in and, digging past my other earnings, wrap my fingers around a cold stone. The jade almost feels alive, like a solid block of green water.
I pull out the necklace, untangling the blood-red string threaded through the jade. The dragon glares defiantly at me with eyes of shimmering stone. My mother always reminded me that the dragon is the mightiest of the signs, symbolizing dominance and ambition, passion and enthusiasm. When she died, I hid the necklace away and fled from all her prophecies.
Running my fingers across the commanding eyes carved in the stone, I tie the red thread around my neck, once again feeling the jade's confident weight against my skin.
My heart hurts, but this will pass.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, January 31st, 2011

Author Comments

This story is very, very special to me because it is based off of a personal experience. While my family and I were vacationing in China, we went into a noodle shop in Hangzhou and found a boy of 13 working there. He had been working for 15 hours a day, 365 days a year, since he was 8, after his parents died. (My mother did give him a huge tip--in China there are no such things as "tips".) This event struck me in such a way that I had to write about him. Before I even left the shop, I was already constructing a history for him in my mind, so when I finally sat down at my computer to write, the story flowed out in minutes.

- Shelly Li
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