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Author's note: This is my entry for Cornconic's Liminal Spaces story contest.



What was once the barren desert land of Inner Mongolia, China, had become a staggering tapestry of gleaming architecture. The transformation from wild, uninhabited territory to the brand new city of Ordos took only six years.

“It’s not finished of course,” the city’s only cab driver said to his fare that morning. He wondered if they would be able to pay. The couple he had picked up at the city’s gates looked ragged and dusty. Adventure seekers. White people shit, as his friend Taban used to say. The memory of his old friend brought a rueful smile to his face.

“Hey man, is it safe to be in here?” the male passenger asked.

The cab driver looked in the rearview mirror and could see the couple looking out their respective windows nervously.

“You’ll be perfectly safe here. Take my card and call me if you need a ride anywhere.”

The woman took the card through the little Plexiglas window. “Thank you, Bataar,” she said louder than necessary. “Did I say it right?”

“You sure did.” Bataar couldn’t help but smile.

“What brings you to Ordos?” he said.

“Well we were traveling around China with a couple we met in Beijing and they told us that we absolutely had to explore the Kangbashi district,” she said.

“They said it was damn spooky,” the man said.

“And we weren’t really planning on going this far North—“

“It’s a goddamn desert,” the man grumbled.

“-But we figured if we could scrape together the money to get here--” the woman chirped.

“Or hitchhike,” the man said.

“Right. It was a little dodgy there for a while, but we got close enough to the city limits to afford a lift. And here we are!”

“That’s great,” Bataar said. He turned off the multi-lane Werendu Road that ran through the center of town. They turned down a smaller, but still vast, two-way street. Shifu Street was flanked on either side by rows of identical, interminable skyscrapers.

“Do people live in those?” The man asked.

“Not yet. The area where your hotel is located has the densest population. They say more people will be moving in when construction is finished.”

“And when will that be?” The man scoffed as he looked up at the blank windows of the apartment buildings. Some still had ghostly plastic sheets hanging off of them. There had to be at least fifty floors.

“Who knows. They moved the best schools here from Dongsheng a few months ago. Most people are still commuting, but the hope is that families and business folks will make the move soon.”

“Do you think they will? Come here, I mean?” The woman sounded doubtful. She craned her neck to look up at the passing buildings. Their shadows touched empty, dusty streets.

“I think so. Dongsheng is kind of run down. It was bad when I was growing up there and it’s only gotten more and more crowded.” Sunlight reflected off of a massive globe of chrome at the intersection. It’s sparkling, smooth frame was the size of a cargo ship.

“That’s the visitor center. It’s open, although I don’t think anyone works at the front desk full time. You can go in and get tourist pamphlets though. Bataar pulled his sun visor down to shield himself from the glare. He ignored the faded picture of Taban that was pinned to the inside.

In Dongsheng, Taban had made life easier for Bataar and more difficult for others. Taban was stealthy, and smart, too smart for the schools that bored him and kicked him out for bad behavior.

Bataar was shocked when Taban approached him at the lunch table in grade four. Bataar was practically mute. Taban transferred in that day and chose to sit by Bataar of all people. He walked up to Bataar’s table, tie askew, shirt untucked, uniform jacket unaccounted for. He plopped down on the bench across from Bataar and smiled big, like a madman. He had a black eye, but all Bataar could see was the glint of magic in his eyes. He was the epitome of an enigma.

“A carousel!” The woman said, pointing to the brightly-colored carousel that sat at the edge of the muddy-colored, man-made river. Its lights were turned off and although it was freshly painted in bright colors, the lack of happy children and noise that would normally surround such a structure made it a gloomy sight.

Bataar smiled politely and put his blinker on at the stoplight. There were no other cars in sight, but he still followed the traffic laws meticulously. Besides, he was fairly certain there were cameras mounted all over the city. He didn’t know if anyone was reviewing the footage or if the cameras were even turned on, but he was certain that if he was sent back to Dongsheng he wouldn’t live through the year. The thought may have been a touch hyperbolic, but in the basest regions of his mind, he felt it was the truth.

As Bataar pulled up to the curb in front of the hotel, he noted that there were, in fact, a few people walking up and down the sidewalks on either side.

“Oh!” The woman said in surprise. It had been nearly an hour since she had seen anyone other than the cab driver. She would never admit it to anyone, but a creeping feeling of unease had started winding its way up and down her spine ever since they passed the visitor’s center. She had been, involuntarily, imagining the cab driver taking them to a dank warehouse and handing them over to some kind of sex trafficking ring. The driver seemed honest enough, but there was a desperate loneliness to the city that put its fingers into her thoughts and pulled at them like taffy. But here were other people and she felt her hungry curiosity rise up again and wash away the most feral parts of her fear.

“Here we are,” said Bataar, as he pulled over to the curb in front of the hotel.

“Thank you so much, Bataar!” the woman said as if to a deaf person. She got out of the cab and looked up at the massive building. The first two floors were used as a hotel for visitors, but usually only the first floor was occupied on any given night. It was meant to be a luxury apartment building, with a door man and fresh flowers in pots on either side of the French doors, but none of that had been finished yet. It was just a husk of new materials. New, new, new, but cold. That was the feeling Bataar got from just about every inch of the city, despite the stifling heat waves.

The man got out, but then crouched back down and popped his shaggy-haired head back in through the door. “Any food recommendations?” He didn’t seem cheery. Bataar wondered if their strange trip had been wholly the woman’s idea.

“There’s not much. Most people don’t stay the night so if you want dinner I would get something now and save it for later. There’s not much open past five. All the commuters are on their way back home by then.”

“Right” the man said. He stayed crouched, reluctant to remove himself from the vehicle and face the reality of where their fun little adventure had taken them.

“Here,” Bataar opened his glove compartment and rummaged around until he found a card. “Try this place. They’re open for lunch until 3pm and you’ll be so full you won’t need dinner. They serve alcohol too.”

“Thanks, mate.” The man took the card and looked slightly relieved as he exited the cab and shut the door.

Bataar waited until the door of the hotel closed behind them and then pulled out onto the road. He started driving around in a circuit. The only way to make a living was to hit particular spots at certain times of the day. When the business men got out and wanted to catch a train back to another city, he was there waiting. Most had cars, but sometimes he could pick up three or four fares a night until the last train departed for the evening.

The idea of driving a cab in a ghost town sounded like nonsense to him when he first read the offer, but he was desperate to get out of Dongsheng. Menshen, the company who hired him, paid him a decent salary on top of his fare money. He was also given free housing which, of course, they had plenty of.

By six, he had picked up just one more fare, a slender, young businessman in a black suit with hair that was rebelling vigorously against the pomade he had applied to slick it back. He looked like a little boy dressed up in his father’s clothes. The man said nothing all the way to the train station. Bataar looked at him through the rearview mirror and was disturbed by the vacant way the man stared out the window.

“Long day?” Bataar said. He didn’t normally talk to customers unless they started the conversation first. He knew all too well how annoying a chatty driver can be to someone who doesn’t like to talk. In this case, however, he felt a pull to help the man in some way. He had the look of someone teetering very close to the edge. To the edge of what, Bataar didn’t know, but he hoped he never found out.

“Fine,” the man said. His eyes didn’t meet Bataar’s.

Fine seemed a strange response, but he left it at that. The man paid his fare and walked towards the train platform as if in a dream. His long, lanky legs moved in slow motion as he disappeared around the corner and out of Bataar’s view.

The sun was setting and Bataar drove home. His apartment building was three buildings down from the makeshift hotel the backpackers were staying in.

The first floor hosted a few businesses. One was a coffee shop that was functioning, mostly for the three residents that lived in the building, including Bataar. The coffee shop owner had been brought in much like Bataar had. It was a modest place, and one of the only spaces Bataar felt comfortable spending time in.

“Busy shift today, Bataar?” The owner of the shop said as he came in through the front doors of the building. She was middle aged and petite, but she had a strength about her, probably from years of hard work. She always wore a traditional Mongolian deel.

“Oh you know, quiet like always. How are you Mrs. Geriel?”

“Fine, fine.” She winced a little as she said it.

“You still didn’t go in and see the doctor about that tooth?” She waved Bataar’s concern away. “He’s a crook.”

Bataar looked over at the other establishment directly across from the coffee shop. A pristine glass door with a long silver handle protected a darkened dentist’s office. The sign above the door said, Erlik Dentistry.

“Good evening, Mrs. Geriel, Mr. Bataar.” A fragile looking man of a stooped and meek countenance had appeared at the front doors of the lobby. When Bataar first met the dentist, he had been fairly charmed by his awkward and shy nature. He guessed that Dr. Erlik was probably about sixty-five, but he seemed older. There was something about his gait that made him appear to be always on the brink of toppling over and breaking a hip.

“Evening,” Mrs. Geriel said and swiftly turned away from the man to gather her comically large purse that she always carried with her.

“I was just on my way home. Mrs. Geriel, would you like a ride?”

“Oh, I still have a few things to finish up here. Thank you for your offer,” she said, putting her bag back down. She nodded her head as an indication that the conversation was over.

“It’s no problem at all. You both have a good evening.” Dr. Erlik turned to go.

“You as well,” Bataar called after him.

Dr. Erlik paused at the door and turned back toward them. “Oh, and Mrs. Geriel,” he said. She jumped a little at the sound of his voice calling her name once again.

“Please don’t hesitate to make that appointment with us. I can tell your pain has gotten worse. Come in for a free consultation at least. It won’t take but a few minutes.”

“Yes. Right. I will. Thank you.”

“Goodnight,” he said and left the building.

Bataar turned towards her with an obnoxious smirk on his face.

“Oh shush you,” she said and batted his arm lightly.

“Seems like he has a crush on you.”

“Enough, Bataar.” She grabbed her purse in earnest this time and started making her way to the door. Bataar walked with her and opened the door, letting her walk out first.

As soon as they hit the outside pavement, the sound buried hem, or rather, the absence of it did. They were used to it most times, but after being in a small space with other people for a few minutes, reemerging into the desolation of Ordos disturbed them all over again.

“You really should get it checked out though. It’s just going to get worse.”

“You do know that anyone can just claim to be a dentist right? You think anyone is checking credentials here? I’ve never once seen a patient go into that office. Before they took our land, I was raising goats. Maybe he was too. Now he wants to operate on my teeth.”

“Ok, ok, well, find someone else then. I don’t like to see you suffering.”

Mrs. Geriel reached up and pinched his cheek like he was a little boy. “Thank you. Now get some rest, darling,” she said and made her way to the parking lot.

Bataar went back inside and made his way to the stairwell. He didn’t trust the elevator. If it got stuck, who would come for him?

The second floor hallway was brightly lit and as Bataar entered it from the stairwell he caught a glimpse of his neighbor’s door shutting with a slam. He eyed the door as he went by, listening for any sign of life behind it, but heard nothing.

He passed three more doors. They were all unoccupied except for his apartment and his neighbor’s, who he had never actually met. He had lived there much longer than Bataar. He was fairly certain it was a male. He had once seen a pair of rather large shoes sitting outside the door.

The only other inhabitant of the building was a business woman who commuted from another town, but rented an apartment in Ordos as part of her work contract. To his knowledge, she had never actually been in the building.

Bataar took a long shower, heated up some leftovers in the microwave and watched an old familiar sitcom until he fell asleep on the couch.

At three o’clock in the morning, Bataar’s leg started to vibrate. He sat up and looked around. His phone was ringing in his pocket. He turned the TV off and dug the phone out.

When he looked down at the display, he saw an unfamiliar long-distance number. He answered it.

Static. “Hello?” he said.

More static and then, “BATAAR!” a woman’s voice was yelling his name.

“Yes, hello?” he said again.

“Can you hear me, Bataar!” the desperate voice came again.

“Yes! Yes! Who is this?”

“Please can you come get us?” she shouted again. Suddenly he recognized the woman’s voice from the cab that day.

“What? Ma’am, I’m off duty.” He glanced at the time on the phone. 3:00AM. He thought perhaps she was drunk, or rather, hoped. Her panicked tone told him otherwise.

“Please, someone is after us. We ran out to the street and…we kept running and running and I’m not sure where we are.”

“Okay, okay. Look around, what do you see?” He started pulling on his shoes and grabbed his keys.

Silence.

“Hello, ma’am?” There was no response.

“Hello?” Nothing.

“Bataar,” a low voice uttered. It was a male’s voice and much deeper than her partner’s had been. It was deeper than any voice he had ever heard and there was an echo to it. Echo was the only way his mind could classify what he was hearing. There was some kind of rebound that was happening in his brain, as if his name was ricocheting infinitely.

After a full minute, Bataar finally pulled the phone away from his ear and hung up.

Chicken shit.

Taban’s accusatory voice in his head was so clear, he looked around the room expecting to see him.

When Taban and Bataar were twenty-two and twenty-three, respectively, Taban started distancing himself from Bataar.

“Where’ve you been?” Bataar asked him after he finally got a hold of him at a grungy dive bar in Dongsheng. Taban had suggested it.

“Busy.” Taban’s eyes were all over the place, looking every person up and down. He had probably had about five cigarettes since they sat down.

“Working at that shitty restaurant still?” Taban asked.

“Yeah, but I mean I make a decent amount. I think I can maybe move out soon.”

Finally Taban looked at him. “Yeah? What’s a good amount to you?” There was a spitting anger in his tone that Bataar couldn’t understand.

“Like 200 yuan a night if I work the double.”

Taban started laughing wildly. He was really putting on a show with it too.

“What is wrong with you?” Bataar said.

“What’s wrong with me?

“Yeah what’s your problem? You don’t answer the phone anymore, you hang out at these scummy places and…you’re mean.”

“I’m mean? Are you five years old?”

In all the years he had known Taban, he had never been cruel.

“I’m just gonna go,” Bataar said. He tossed down some money on the bar and walked out. Taban followed him out and grabbed the back of his shirt to pull him back.

“Hey! Get off me!” Bataar pushed him away.

“You don’t get it,” Taban said. “I stayed here for you! All I’ve ever wanted was to get the hell out of this place. You said you wanted the same thing, but every year since we graduated high school, you come up with another excuse.”

“I’m the one with an actual job, trying to save up!”

“Bullshit! You’re never going to leave. Just admit it!”

“I-I’m working my way up to it.”

Taban started laughing again, but it was full of ripping pain. He walked around in a circle clutching his head. A few smokers that were watching started to move away nervously.

“If I’m holding you back, then just go, okay? What’s stopping you?” Bataar said.

Taban just looked at him, his face a mask of hopelessness. Bataar didn’t think he had ever seen him look so skinny and sick. It had been months since they’d last met in person. He looked him up and down and saw bruises and track marks on his arms.

“It’s too late,” Taban said quietly. A car pulled up, but Bataar couldn’t see who was inside. Taban walked over to the car and got into the back seat. A plume of smoke rose up out of the open car door and drifted away. The car drove off and Bataar didn’t see or hear from Taban for months.

In December of that year, after Bataar had assumed Taban had finally moved away without him, he received a call from Taban’s cousin, letting him know that Taban had been shot and killed by police in a drug bust.

At the funeral, they had a picture of Taban from when he was a teenager. Bataar couldn’t reconcile the face of the friend he knew with the one he had last seen outside the bar.

Chicken shit. Always an excuse. Thoughts of his only friend clawed up his throat and choked him.

Bataar clutched the keys in his hand and made his way to the door. When he passed his neighbor’s door it was open a crack. He stopped suddenly and nearly fell backwards when he saw an eye staring out at him.

“Don’t,” the person behind the door whispered.

“What?” Bataar could think of nothing coherent to say.

The eye was strained wide open. A rotten smell was rushing out of the apartment at him.

“Stay inside. You’ll get lost out there.”

“Sir, are you okay?” Bataar said.

The door shut with a muted click.

The lobby was dark when he stumbled out of the stairwell. Bataar headed straight for the front doors and started calling the number back on his phone. It just kept ringing. Someone ran by the glass doors just as he was pushing them open.

Bataar pushed open the doors and looked in the direction he had seen the figure running.

“Hey!” he called out to no one. He ran in that direction for two blocks but there was no one around. Bataar felt wild fear gripping him and ran back towards his building.

A lumpy shape was lying in the street directly in front of his apartment building that he hadn’t seen before. He went up to it and realized it was Mrs. Geriel’s purse. He looked around wildly. “Mrs. Geriel!” Nothing. A light was on in his building. Just one. A yellow square of fluorescent light was winking out of one of the dentist office windows. He went back inside the building.

The dentist office door was propped open. He went in.

The silence inside the office was suffocating and the sound of soft conversation was coming from somewhere deeper inside. “Hello? Dr. Erlik? Mrs. Geriel?”

He walked past the front desk and down the narrow, white hallway to the interior of the office.

“Dr. Erlik?” he whispered.  

The mumbling got louder. He tried a few door handles but they were all locked. It seemed nearly impossible for the small office to have a hallway that long.

Finally, he came to a half-way open door on the right. He could hear people whispering urgently inside. He could also make out their quivering shadows. Their movements seemed frantic. He very nearly turned and ran.

I stayed for you!

Taban’s voice echoing in his head. Bataar clenched his fists and moved towards the open door.

“Hello?” he said.

The voices stopped. He reached for the handle and pulled the door open with too much force. It banged against the outer wall. No one said a word. Finally, he walked resolutely into the little room. It was empty.

Erlik's Office

It was a small room for patients with a red recliner chair that was covered in a sheet of exam paper. The paper was slightly crumpled and had half fallen off the edge. A chair and table sat over on the right side wall with some paper work scattered around. Dentistry tools were laying around on the ledge near the windows.

Finally, Bataar’s eyes made it to the ceiling. There was a crystal clear skylight. Periwinkle sky and puffy white clouds could be seen through it. They looked close enough to touch. It made him at peace somehow, even though it seemed odd to him, in a hazy sort of way, that there would be daylight when it was still only around three something in the morning.

He blinked and looked around, suddenly realizing he was lying in the chair with his feet up. He sat up, confused and looked around the room. Nothing had changed except the door was closed. Suddenly, his bladder felt extremely full and his legs were stiff when he tried to stand up. He didn’t know how long he had been laying there. After stumbling to the door he found that it was locked.

“Hey! Help!” he croaked. His throat was dry and he felt incredibly dehydrated. After slamming his shoulder against the door four times, he remembered his phone and ripped it out of his back pocket. The screen was black and wouldn’t turn on. He threw it down and collapsed onto the floor.

He stood up and climbed up onto the patient chair. His hands grazed the Plexiglas sunroof. He got down and grabbed the smaller chair to stack it on top. It was wobbly, but he managed to balance on it enough to push up on the glass. It wouldn’t budge. It felt cold, rather than warm from the sun like it should have been.

“Help!” he screamed. “Hello! Somebody help me!” The chair wobbled and he fell off, crashing to the ground and thumping his head on the floor.

When Bataar woke up, his arm was asleep underneath him, and his head was sticking to the dried blood on the floor.

A bark of static made Bataar jump. It was coming from a little intercom just inside the door. He pulled himself up by the desk and went over to it and pushed a button in the center. “Hello? Can you hear me?”

“Bataar,” the rumbling baritone boomed out at him. He covered his ears and cringed away from it.

“What do you want?” Bataar said. He grabbed a metal dentistry tool off the side table and held it out before him.

“Just to help.” The voice said.

“Please just let me out of here.” He couldn’t help the tears and he couldn’t bear to stand up anymore. He crumpled to the floor.

The door opened. Dr. Erlik hobbled into the room with a cheery expression on his face. He left the door ajar behind him and then picked up the little chair and sat down in front of Bataar’s cringing position on the floor.

“Hello, Bataar,” Dr. Erlik said in an even tone. Bataar still had the tiny silver mouth mirror held out in front of him for protection. His eyes glanced towards the door.

“Who are you?” Bataar said.

“You know, I was asleep for a very long time. When I heard all the digging and the building and the sounds of godless men wandering around over top of me I was a little perturbed at first. You see, sometimes you just need a good long sleep to recover from eons of soul catching. It’s tiresome, but I’ll tell you, I had grown hungry. I decided to see what all the noise was about and low and behold there were some people walking around, ripe and juicy as can be. And not your god-fearing shepherds, mind you. These were modern iconoclasts. Easy picking. Not nearly enough of them, but enough to whet the appetite. Non-believers are especially delicious when they’re afraid.”

“Let me go,” Bataar whispered.

“No.” Dr. Erlik smiled sympathetically and still he sat in that little chair with his neatly pleated pants riding up too high on his old man’s ankles.

“It’s late and I’m not in the mood to chase you. But lucky for me, you aren’t one to run. You are adaptive, aren’t you, Bataar. I think you’ll like staying with me. Nothing ever changes. Would you rather grow old in that ratty little cab of yours, mourning over your human guilt? Let me take you to peace.”

Run!

Taban’s black eye in grade four, Taban’s smile when they snuck out of school for the first time. Taban’s sunken eyes as he looked at Bataar one last time before getting in the car.

Run, Chicken shit!

Bataar ran. He bolted out of the room on numb legs, tripping over his own feet in the hallway, but he got up again and ran faster and faster until he was out the door and into the lobby.

He looked behind him, but the dentist wasn’t following him. He kept going.

Bataar pulled open the front door and ran out onto the street. Silence pushed down on him like a giant’s hand and his vision started to narrow down to a tunnel of blackness. He kept pushing himself towards the parking lot, but his tunnel vision got smaller and smaller until it was just a pinprick. Then, it all went black.

Bataar’s vision slowly started to come back, but he could only make out fuzzy shapes and a ball of light floating overhead. He couldn’t feel his body. Finally, he saw blue. Blue sky and clouds. He was lying on the red patient chair and looking up through the skylight.

He sat up with a gasp and looked around the room. Dr. Erlik wasn’t there. He got up, but could barely stand. His legs were all jelly. He managed to make it to the door and it opened. Again, he shambled down the hallway towards the lobby, and again no one chased him. He made it to the front doors, pulled them open, and again, as soon as he stepped outside, everything went black.

He opened his eyes. Fluffy cotton ball clouds taunted him through the skylight. This time his limbs were completely useless and numb. Dr. Erlik’s smiling face came into focus. He had a sharp, silver tool in each hand.

“Welcome back.”

Bataar’s mouth was stretched open with a massive bite block and he could feel drool running down his chin.

“You surprised me. You ran quite a few times, actually. Good for you.”

Screams could be heard coming from other rooms in the hallway. Bataar tried to move his head to look towards the sound, but he could only move his eyeballs.

“Help! Please!” the backpackers screamed from different ends of the hallway.

“Let me out of here, you bastard!” Mrs. Geriel’s voice coming from two doors down.

There were countless others he couldn’t recognize. They were all screaming.

“It’s a humble meal, but delectable,” Dr. Erlik said as he began to slice into Bataar’s gums with something sharp and pointy.

The screams continued, but no one could hear them way out there in Ordos, a city of empty palaces, lost amongst the desert lands.



Written by dgrady237
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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