By Alex Zhen
* 1 *
AN OMINOUS sign was looming: a mixture of a young girl’s desperate shriek, anxious cries from the crowd, the wails of ambulance and fire truck sirens, and the firefighters’ shouts before a smoke-filled apartment building utterly tore apart the tranquility of night in Nanking. The young girl, now totally paralyzed, collapsed onto her knees, with the content of her dropped bags scattering on the sidewalk, her comely face twisted in fear and anguish, and her hands dragging her long hair hard in despair. She cried out “Mother! Mother!” over and over in a kneeling gesture up towards the 12th floor of the building, where the color of flame was flashing on the window glass in a baleful manner, as if she was begging for mercy from the flames. But flames were still unrelenting, callous and avaricious, as they engulfed everything in greediness wherever they stretched to, leaving nothing but ashes and misery. It was clear from gloomy expressions of the firefighters and the girl’s desperate cries that this night would yield a miserable end.
* 2 *
IN FALTERING and feeble steps, Mr. Ai, along side his son and daughter, kneeled before the new tomb. It was twilight, and the setting sun glazed everything in a mild orange color, but not warming Mr. Ai’s heart by a bit. The photo of his beloved smiled at him from the tombstone just as always before, only now the smile had condensed into a traumatic eternality. Speechless and trembling, Mr. Ai placed his fingertip on the photo. Tragedy stroke at the most unexpected moment, left him shocked and numb. Though he was in his early fifties, Mr. Ai’s hair turned grayish white almost in one night as if he had aged another ten years.
Yes, Mr. Ai’s wife, the young girl’s mother, was the only one who died in the fire. The incident was not severe over all: most portions of the building, except for Mr. Ai’s apartment room where the fire started, remained intact. Mrs. Ai had developed Alzheimer’s three years earlier. The police department found a number of Mrs. Ai’s fingerprints on the door handle of the apartment where she was trapped, yet Mrs. Ai was not able to escape the room and finally suffocated from the dense smoke.
Mr. Ai thought that she might have forgotten that she could call for help, or she only needed to open the front door to escape. The idea haunted Mr. Ai’s mind and instigated even more agony. As a minor department director, Mr. Ai was forced to attend a routine company dinner that night, leaving his college-graduate daughter, Emily, to attend to Mrs. Ai. However, the disaster hit without warning when the daughter left the apartment for only fifteen minutes. Mr. Ai tried his best not to blame himself too much, but the notion that if he had stayed at home rather than attending the monotonous company dinner, none of the tragedy could have happened. He kept in the kneeling posture beside his sobbing daughter and son before the tomb, calling Mrs. Ai’s name with dry lips. Mr. Ai could not cry out at this moment, as sorrow had ruthlessly burned out all the tears, leaving Mr. Ai nothing but bitter regret and grief to taste.
* 3 *
THE ALARM clock rang, and Mr. Ai awoke from an uneasy sleep that he had finally fallen into before dawn break. He opened his heavy eyelids and yelled out his wife’s name subconsciously. Receiving no response, Mr. Ai felt a sudden sinking in his heart, as he once again felt overwhelmed. He scratched his head, as if he could get rid of the emptiness that way. Rubbing his eyes to dispel the sleepiness, he walked out of the bedroom to the main room.
It had been a week after the incident, and the restorers had replaced the burnt wallpaper and furniture in the apartment. Swinging open the bedroom door, Mr. Ai was about to respond to the greetings from his son and daughter, Josh and Emily, as they were preparing for breakfast by the oven. However, Mr. Ai had to choke back his morning greetings and instead let out a shriek when he suddenly noticed something “peculiar” in the main room: a shadowy, ivory-colored figure of Mrs. Ai was standing beside the gas oven, her forearms stretching out towards the oven in an eerie angle, and her glassy white eyes looking blankly into the empty space before her. She moved back and forth between the sink and the gas oven, and her lips opened and closed as if she was talking to someone, yet all her actions proceeded in terrifying dead silence.
The eerie scene at this perfectly normal morning made Mr. Ai stumble, fall and break into a cold sweat, his face twisted and body petrified in fright as if he had experienced a heart attack. For a second, Mr. Ai was about to faint, as no matter how hard he tried to blink his eyes and look back in the direction of the oven, his effort proved futile: the translucent figure of Mrs. Ai was still there. Josh and Emily instantly dashed to his side and grabbed him by arms. With both concerned and frightened looks in their sweating faces, Josh and Emily repeated asked Mr. Ai what happened in broken words.
“A…A ghost! There is a ghost of your mom besides the oven! Your mother! She’s back!” Almost in the ultimate form of terror, Mr. Ai frantically pushed himself backwards on the floor with all four limbs until he had his back against the wall.
“Dad, what are you talking about? There is nothing over there…” Josh uttered with much fright and unease after he looked over his shoulder and carefully examined the corner where Mr. Ai pointed to.
Both Emily and Josh gazed at Mr. Ai with bothered looks, as they now believed that their father must have seen a hallucination after the tragic event. They asked him to take good rests and later took him to the hospital, but none of these worked: Mr. Ai could still see the spirit form of his wife lingering in the apartment. But apart from his fright at seeing the ghost, He also noticed something unusual about the spirit of his wife: she always appears in gestures of doing housework. After two days in unceasing fear, Mr. Ai finally invited a monk from the nearby temple to his apartment to solve the supernatural issue.
“I could feel that there is something in the corner, although I cannot see it. It is most likely not a ghost.” The monk said, after he closed his eyes for a moment in middle of the main room.
“You are right, Master. I could always see a ghost-like figure of my wife in the room in the past two days. She could move freely in the apartment, but she seems to be doing housework most of the times.” Mr. Ai replied anxiously.
“Housework?” The monk muttered to Mr. Ai thoughtfully, as if he has fallen into contemplation. After a while, the monk then suddenly asked, “I suppose that only in this family can see that ‘spirit?’”
After getting positive answers from Mr. Ai, the monk nodded and said, “I think I know the cause of the spirit’s appearance now. Did your wife suffer from Alzheimer’s during her lifetime?”
“How did you know that, Master?” Mr. Ai responded in astonishment, as he had never expected such a question.
“That explains everything.” The monk sighed, as he raised his head and gazed at the cloudy sky outside the window, “Like your wife, an Alzheimer’s patient always try to remember everything from the moment they got the disease, but she would normally fail because of the disease. When her desire to remember reaches a certain extent, she will unintentionally leave imprints in the spaces she was in. Those imprints would occur after her death in the form of a “spirit,” repeating what the patient did during her last years, just as playing out a muted video. This spirit is called a ‘Memory Imprint.’ Only one person who is the closest to the patient will see the imprint. The imprint would not do any harm. If you do think it affects your life and reminds you of terrible memories, Mr. Ai, you can choose to move away.”
“‘Memory Imprint’ ……” Mr. Ai repeated silently, as he stared at his wife’s back before the sink in the posture of washing plates, and complex feelings once again beat on his heart.
After Mr. Ai drove the monk back to the temple and returned to the apartment in great haste, he approached the Imprint of his wife for the first time. Trembling, he reached out his arm and tried to put his hand on Mrs. Ai’s shoulder. The hand penetrated the ivory-colored spirit, as if there was nothing there but vacant air, just as his heart had again suddenly dropped into the abyss of emptiness that harbors nothing but sorrow. He withdrew his arm and let out a deep sigh, and a question gradually surfaced in his mind: What memories, which he was not careful enough to notice before, had his wife left behind in the last three years?