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part four: the dinner party

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Kun was halfway through eating his plate of scrambled eggs with chives for breakfast when he realized he had not added any salt to his food, and the egg curds turned bland in his mouth, dry and tasteless as chalk. He swallowed the bite with difficulty, grimacing when the food grated against the sides of his esophagus like a stone against pavement, and then he sat for a while staring at his plate as his stomach made grinding noises as though in protest. The remaining eggs hardened and cooled on the plate, turning an unappealing shade of grey and becoming the texture of rubber. Kun wasn’t even that hungry.

He stood, bringing his plate with him, and scraped the remains into the trash compactor under the sink. 

His head was still in a fog. This morning, Kun had woken up with a headache pressing into the backs of his eyes, and he’d stayed in bed with a pillow over his face until he thought he could bear rolling over slowly and sitting up. 

Next came standing. After wobbling on unsteady legs into the bathroom and standing to soak under scalding hot water for so long his skin was pink all over, he managed to dry off and get dressed, changing into soft clothes he could lounge around in all day. His body was sore and aching like that time he pushed himself to run a 10K race in the summer without properly training beforehand, but he couldn’t remember what he’d gotten up to recently that would make him feel like this.

In fact, the past couple of days were all kind of fuzzy. Kun could only equate the feeling to that of a hangover after a raging party. The more he thought about the party, the fewer details he remembered. 

When he went into the living room to look for his laptop, thinking that this level of ennui he was experiencing might make for some good introspective writing, he found two empty bottles of red wine on the floor next to the couch and one glass on the coffee table on top of a tile coaster.

“That doesn’t seem right,” Kun muttered to himself, but he went over to pick up the bottles and the glass anyway to bring them into the kitchen to be cleaned, and thought his hangover theory now had some meat to it. Kun had just gotten absolutely sloshed last night and this was why it felt like everything in the world had been shifted over to the left by two feet before Kun had woken up.

As the morning crept by slowly, the sun warming the blanket of white snow that had crystallized over the ground overnight, Kun sat on his couch and scrolled through his drafts of chapters and recipes on his laptop, a mug of tea in hand. His days began to return to him. He remembered preparing the rack of lamb and bringing it to his neighbor down the street. He remembered making the chicken curry pie and waiting so long for it to bake properly, hoping the golden pastry crust would hold. He remembered making his grandmother’s mantou recipe and the nostalgia that filled him when he took that first bite of the milky white bun, freshly steamed and warm in his mouth. 

But it felt like he was watching these memories being projected in front of him from a screen reel, and he knew the film had been tampered with. A recipe was missing a vital spice Kun knew he had added to it during the testing phase. An excerpt from a chapter trailed off at the end into garbled strings of letters. Absolute nonsense.

He rubbed at his eyes and scrolled through his files again, and this time the recipes were whole, and his excerpts were coherent. Perhaps he was just tired. Browsing the pictures he’d taken with his phone of his food experiments gave him some relief. This was clearly all of his work, and yet…

Kun jumped when his phone vibrated on the coffee table, loud and grating in the silence. Seeing that it was Doyoung, he bent to pick it up.

“Yes?”

“Wow, not even a ‘hello’ for your friend and agent who is checking in on you after that freak storm the other night?”

“Storm?” Kun looked out of his front windows and admired the stillness of winter outside, but now he noticed that his car was buried under a layer of snow nearly the depth of his forearm.

“Xuxi told me your power went out.”

“Did it?”

“Yeah, that’s why you were AWOL for a day. Kun, are you okay?” Doyoung sounded both annoyed and concerned, which was very typical, over the murmur of muffled conversation and music in the background.

“Are you in a cafe?” Kun asked.

“Yeah,” Doyoung said. “That place in Gastown. The one with the maps on the wall.”

“Mm, what’s the name of it again?”

“You know the one. You took me here!” 

“Oh, right,” Kun mumbled, his head starting to hurt again when he tried to remember where he’d taken Doyoung for coffee. He wished Doyoung would just check for the name on the cafe’s branded napkins or something. He tilted the screen of his laptop down a bit so that he wasn’t being accosted by its glare. “Sorry, I woke up with a headache and everything’s a bit fuzzy. Must have been the two bottles of wine I apparently drank all by myself last night.”

Doyoung whistled into the phone. “Well, that would explain the memory gaps.”

Kun supposed Doyoung had a point. He lifted his laptop and shifted it to rest on top of a pile of magazines on the coffee table. He was having a weird morning and it was time to accept it; productivity could go out the window for a few hours for Kun to banter with Doyoung for a bit before trying to nap off this strange half-conscious state he was in. 

“I know it’s a bit away,” Doyoung continued, “but I wanted to officially invite you over to ours for our New Year’s Eve’s Eve party. We’re having a few friends over.”

“Talent agents?” Kun heard between the words Doyoung was saying.

“Well, we’ve got to start getting you back on the market for when your book comes out. Make the rounds again. TV spots don’t just fall into your lap!”

“Doesn’t Taeyong get offers just by breathing?”

“But that’s Taeyong,” Doyoung said mulishly. “We mere mortals have to work for it. He’s already excited for the party, though. You know how much he loves to entertain. And it’s not just friends who are talent agents. We’ve got regular friends like you coming, too.”

“Charming.” Kun laughed and rolled his eyes in fondness. He wasn’t very dazzled by the entertainment side of the business he’d found himself in, but he did love the opportunities Doyoung had managed to get for him to talk about food and culture with other people who loved to talk about food and culture. “Alright. I’ll be there. When is it?”

“The weekend after you get back,” Doyoung said. “Don’t worry, I’ve already put it in your calendar.”

Kun sank deeper into the cushions, nearly horizontal now on the couch, put Doyoung on speaker, and brought up his calendar app, flipping forward and backwards through time. He couldn’t believe he’d already been in this cabin for nearly four months, diligently chipping away at pieces of his next book, especially since he didn’t feel like he had much to show for it. And in another two weeks, he’d be back in his apartment in Vancouver, almost certainly doing the same thing. 

He breathed deeply in his position on the couch, closing his eyes as a bouquet of familiar scents clung to the back of his nose: cedar and pine, freshly turned dirt. A sense of longing rose within his chest. The backs of his eyes burned.

“Kun? You still there?”

“Hm? Yeah. Sorry. Like I said, it’s been a weird morning.” Kun shook his head to free himself of the feeling weighing him down. He’d miss the woods when he returned home, he supposed, but he was excited to get back in regular touch with his life, with his friends. For things to go back to normal. “I’ll send you some stuff I have that’s new to look over, okay?”

“Okay,” Doyoung said. “You must have a raging hangover. So sleep it off. And don’t be a stranger, Kun. Call me. I’m your agent, but I’m also your friend.”

“I know,” Kun said. “Thanks.”

They hung up. Kun let his phone drop against the cushions somewhere as his head grew heavy on the armrest. He was so, so tired. He looked around the living room and felt as though he were looking at it all from above, floating and lost, a spectre in his own head. The radiator clacked and clanged. The throw blanket itched against his bare feet. He saw, dangling from one of the hooks by the front door, a leather collar for a big dog, and wondered if the owners of this house had brought the dog with them, wherever they were.

.

At the bottom of the mountain, the snow had already melted off, or perhaps it had never been there at all. The market in town that Kun frequented for his fresh produce was just as lively as ever even though it was late in the afternoon and some of the stalls were packing up. Kun ambled down the aisle between vendors, his empty tote bags on his shoulders, waiting for something to strike his interest inside the huge converted warehouse.

He passed by the fishmonger’s stall, shuddering when all of the vacant, empty eyes of the fish carcasses laid out in rows over the beds of ice seemed to be tracking his movements. He passed by the farmer who sold only duck meats and duck products, resisting the urge to try one of the duck jerky samples on the counter. There was the woman who sold honey in jars. The huge fruit stand with barrels of all kinds of apple varieties in front. The vegetable stands. The fresh pasta vendor. The baker who brought in fresh loaves of sourdough, braided challah, and rye every morning. 

Everyone greeted Kun with a nod and warm smile. He approached some of the stalls to chat with the vendors who knew him by name now, asking after what was freshest in their lot today. 

“All of it’s good!” the man behind the apple barrels told him. 

“Where do you bring them in from, again?”

“All over the place!” the seller told him cheerfully before moving on to the next customer.

“Oh,” Kun said, watching him go and finding it strange he hadn’t highlighted the local orchards. Kun stood before the barrels and examined the apples. Many different varieties were available, and they were sorted by color from red to yellow to green, so that the whole visual effect from a distance was a beautiful mosaic. However, he had a difficult time reading the labels over each type of apple variety, the letters on the small tags blurred and jumbled to his eye. He had the same issue with the vegetable stand.

After a while, the way his eyes pulsed in his skull became too much to bear, so by the time he’d traveled half of the market, the muscles of his face had grown tired and his smile haggard. He could not help but feel that all the conversations he was hearing in the market were about him, that conversations started as he arrived and stopped when he moved on, like reality was a bubble around him, forming as he walked. 

He put it down to his hangover.

Past these stalls, the market began to change. In between the smoothie stands and sandwich shops and salad bars were individuals selling their goods: jewelry, artisanal chocolates, spice mixes. The couple who sold dried lavender in bundles and sachets. Used books. With a start, Kun remembered the empty tote bags swinging from his shoulders, and he sighed. He’d been distracted this whole time and didn’t pick up any produce he could work with at the cabin. Suppressing a groan, Kun turned back around, resolved to walk back through the produce aisles when a small stall to his left caught his eye.

As though in a trance, Kun wandered over. 

“See something you like?” 

Kun blinked, adjusting the bags on his shoulders, reeling a bit as he realized what he was looking at. A silk scarf had been draped over the counter, and on top of this were crystals and gemstones in all shapes and sizes, some as small and round as the fingernail on Kun’s pinky, others as large as a disk that could fit in Kun’s palm. Next to the counter sat a low bookcase, its shelves misaligned and the whole structure tilting dangerously to the right. The books within were piled on top of one another, all of them looking well-thumbed and old. Behind the booth, a van with its back doors flung open was parked, and the back seat had been removed to make more space for shelves to display more crystals—larger ones, the kind Kun could see as statement art pieces in someone’s foyer, as well as cut geodes.

“I’m just looking,” Kun mumbled. “What are these used for?” He looked up at the lone person running the booth. She was beautiful in a way Kun couldn’t begin to describe, her skin reminding Kun of the snow at the top of the mountain, her hair as black as night and falling to her shoulders. Her eyes were a muted gray color, though when she turned to look this way and that, they flashed with hints of violet.

“The crystals? Depends on which one calls out to you. Mostly, they’re used for protection. Some are good for psychic energy.”

Kun strokes his fingers lightly across a row of them, mesmerized by their smooth facades and jagged edges. Some were milky white, others black, and still others rosey pink. His fingers paused over a purple shard with streaks of white within. He knew this one was amethyst. It seemed to pulse with heat under his skin, and he drew back with a startled gasp. 

Unnerved, Kun stepped away from the table and knelt in front of the bookcase to scan the spines of the volumes within, seeing titles that hinted at sun flares and moon phases, constellations and blackholes. None were books that he recognized. He picked up a small book that looked more like a journal, its brown leather binding as soft as a feather, and read the title etched across the face of it.  

A Study of Native Flora and their Medicinal Properties and Uses, 1909. He flipped through the book quickly, interested in the drawings done by hand of plants and herbs he used regularly in his cooking, before putting it back and returning to the crystals.

He stared at the amethyst shard, chewing on his bottom lip. “This one,” Kun said. “I’d like this one, please.”

The woman hummed and nodded. “That’s a good choice. May I ask, why did you choose that one?”

“It...it feels like mine,” Kun said, then flushed at how that sounded. He wasn’t sure why he’d said that.

“Crystals often call out to the people they belong to in that way,” she said with quiet understanding, a small smile forming on her lips. “Keep it safe.”

“Right.” 

Kun paid for his purchase, and she wrapped the crystal in paper and gave it to Kun, who stuffed it into his pocket. The stone was warm against his skin the entire way home, like a piece of charcoal taken from a fire and left to smolder.

.

It took ages for Kun to fall asleep that night, and in the morning when he awoke, he wasn't sure if he had slept at all. The backs of his eyes still burned, and his chest was tight and uncomfortable. He flopped over on his bed and threw his hand out to make contact with his phone and brought it to his face, squinting at the bright screen. Not even past seven. With a weary exhale, he put his phone back on the bedside table and stared at the naked amethyst shard next to it.

He hadn't known what to do with the crystal when he got home, so he put it in a shallow sauce dish and brought it with him into various rooms as he settled in for the night. In the end, none of the rooms had felt like the right home for the crystal, so he'd brought it into his bedroom and placed it on the nightstand. He reached out to touch it and found it still warm.

"What the hell," Kun whispered to himself. The world outside of Kun's covers was nearing arctic temperatures, but the rock was not. The laws of physics seemed not to apply to it.

Maybe there was a trick involved. Or maybe he just thought it was warm because his fingers were warm, and him thinking it was warm was the fault of the slow feedback loop inside of his brain. His stomach growled and twisted inside of him, loud and insistent, but he was not hungry. Rather, he was just empty. Kun put the crystal back in its dish and pressed his hand over his belly, squeezing down in an attempt to make the emptiness feel smaller. "It's just a rock," he said aloud.

He rolled out of bed and shivered, skin pebbling as cool air brushed over his bare shins. After pulling on a pair of sweats over his boxers, he went to the bathroom and splashed water over his face, and then he just stood there with his hands over his face, water dripping down his forearms and off his chin onto the counter, into the sink. 

He suddenly wanted to cry. He could not remember the last time the bed felt so cold.

.