She was really late and she knew it. Juny got out of her old car and smoothed down her ruffled hair. The street was dark and lined with trees, so she could not see the numbers on the houses. Luckily, she could hear the noise of music and chatter and she could see the glow of lights from a large house. That must be the place, she thought.
Juny was weaving her way through the mass of laughter and chatter when someone grabbed her arm. She turned around and stared into the face of a complete stranger.
“Hey!” the girl yelled at her over the noise. “It’s Ling, isn’t it? Yeah, it is you. I’m your cousin Sonya!”
Juny didn’t have time to think or say anything before she was embraced in an excited hug.
“Come on,” Sonya grinned. “I want you to meet some people. I’m so glad I bumped into you! It’s so weird, isn’t it? I mean, we’ve never met but I recognise you from the family photos.”
Sonya pulled her over to a small group of young people. Each of them looked uncomfortable as they nervously clutched soft drinks in paper cups.
Sonya excitedly pointed at each person. “This is Cindy, Donald, and Li.” They all nodded with big trapped-animal smiles.
Sonya smiled hugely at Juny, waiting for her to introduce herself.
“Uh,” she stammered, “I’m Ling.”
“Where are you from, Ling?” asked Donald. He asked this of everyone he met at the party and after that kept his mouth shut for the rest of the conversation.
“She’s my second or third cousin or something from Melbourne,” yelled Sonya. “I told you guys I knew someone at the party!”
The other three nodded knowingly, as if her coming from Melbourne explained the obvious slowness of her brain. Juny felt like she was an exotic specimen, maybe some sort of rare beetle, brought in to show-and-tell class by a six-year-old. Li suggested they fill up on their drinks. An empty glass invites the murder of party conversation.
Juny volunteered to get drinks for all of them. After they all told her what they wanted, she quickly made her escape and walked off, ignoring Sonya when she yelled at her that the drinks were kept at the opposite side of the room. Once Juny had gotten as far away from Sonya and her unfortunate prisoners as she could, she leant against a wall and started to think.
What was going on? Looking around she noticed that she was in a large, well-lit lounge room. There were bright lights and balloons and lots of people of all ages milling around. The problem was Juny did not recognise any of them. She knew that this party for her little cousin would bring in lots of relatives and family friends whom she did not know. Even so, right now she could not recognise a single awkward plate-clutcher or grinning moron in the crowd. And while it was comforting to not see her parents’ angry faces, Juny felt uneasy about not seeing any familiar faces at all.
She looked at the wall and saw that it was covered with happy photos of a family. The problem was that she didn’t recognise any of the people in the photos, not a single one. A horrible realisation began to dawn on her. This wasn’t her little cousin Jo’s birthday party. No wonder she didn’t recognise anyone. She was at the wrong party. She was at the wrong house.
Her dad was going to kill her.
Then, just as a plan began to form in her head, she felt the all-too-familiar feeling of being grabbed by the arm and dragged through the crowd. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Sonya and heard her mumble something about introducing her to the birthday boy’s parents. Juny began to sweat in fear. And, to top it all off, before she could pull away from Sonya she heard music bleat out of her pocket. Her phone was ringing. Instinctively she answered it.
“Juny Hong you are in big trouble!” It was her mother.
“Drat! I can’t find them,” said Sonya. She stared right through Juny with her mindless grin.
“You know you never did get those drinks for us, Ling!”
“Hi, mum,” Juny mumbled into her phone.
Sonya brightened. “Oh, is your mum calling from Melbourne?”
“Where are you, Juny?” her mum hissed through the phone.
Juny looked at the expectant face of Sonya. “I’m at the party, mum.”
“What are you talking about? You are not at the party—you’re late!”
“Um,” Juny looked at Sonya with growing desperation. “How’s Melbourne?”
“Juny, say ‘hi’ to your Mum for me,” said Sonya.
“Eh, Mum, Sonya says hi.”
“Juny, are you on the drugs?”
“No!” She hid the phone with her other hand and whispered quickly. “Look, mum, I’ll be there in a minute, all right?”
Sonya stared. There was a faint dip in her grin. Juny smiled weakly and put her hand over the phone.
“Uh, um, she wants me to go… she wants me to, ah, use the landline. Yeah, that’s it. The family in Melbourne want to talk to me. She wants me to use the home phone.” She laughed nervously. “You know mothers—they don’t like big mobile bills.”
“That’s okay,” Sonya said, her grin widening back to full strength. “I’ll wait till you come back. The phone is in the hall just down that way.”
Apologising to her and breathing internal sighs of relief, Juny made another escape. She ducked and weaved through the crowd, making sure she kept her arms well out of reach should another freak try to grab her. She just needed to get into the quiet, empty, inner part of the house and then figure out a way to get to the right party. She would deal with her parent’s fury when she got there.
It was an invisible weapon, she thought, this fear of public humiliation, of public awkwardness, of the slightest hint of possible embarrassment. Invisible, but very real.
Once she had stepped out of the hectic living room and into the cool, long hallway the sound dropped out as neatly as if she had shut a door behind her. There was no one to be seen as Juny walked down the polished wooden floorboards. Dull dark doors were spaced at intervals along each wall.
She picked one and was alone. Sighing with relief, Juny considered leaving the safety of her hiding spot to try another door. She opened one, carefully. It only revealed steps which led down, down, down to the basement. But, after a moment’s thought, she then realised that the basement may link to a garage or yard. In any case it would be a private place where she could think without the chance of interruption. Juny was also pretty sure there would be no phone reception down there and so she would also be safe from her mother for a while. Decided, she walked carefully, step by step, down into the dark below. She kept her hands on the walls on either side of the stairs to keep herself steady. Soon her left palm felt a switch. Eagerly, Juny flicked it on.
Looking down, her eyes blinking in the new light, she realised she was only three steps away from the floor of the basement. There was no other way out but for the stairs from which she had come; the floor was hard flat dirt and the walls were thick concrete. There were no windows and no signs of an alternate escape into the outside world.
In the middle of the room a teenage boy was kneeling over the bleeding body of an older man.
“Who are you?” the boy whispered in a strangely distant voice.
For the first time that night Juny felt real, true, honest fear, cold and steely, not the panicked, chattering social bullshit kind she had felt before. She turned to run up the stairs.
“You had better not leave.”
The boy said this in a plain, toneless voice. Juny did not know whether he was pleading with her or threatening her. He looked roughly Juny’s age and height. His clothes were surprisingly fresh in light of the amount of blood on the knife and on the floor. His face was covered in the grime and mess of many tears.
“This is my father,” the boy mumbled, nudging the man with his foot. “I killed it.” Then he was silent for a long while as if he was waiting for Juny to respond.
“Why?” Juny finally stammered. “Why?”
The boy seemed to sag a little and did not say anything for some time.
“This is the knife he gave me to cut the cake.” He held it up, limply. “Every year he would give me the knife to cut the cake. Then the next morning he would be gone. I used to miss him so. Work, it said, work, work. Be a good boy, good to your mother, it said. Each time he came back it brought me presents yet he was always a different person to everyone else. Not the same to me. Then it told me to cut the cake.”
Juny barely heard this. She wondered if she should yell, run, or try call someone. She knew she had to get away from the boy and get to the police. Yet her eyes began to be transfixed in horror on one of the trails of thick blood that had wound its way over the floor. She imagined the man standing and giving the birthday boy the knife. She imagined for one brief horrible moment what it would be like to lie there in the dark and feel the blood seeping out of her body like water losing itself into the dank earth.
In that moment the birthday boy leaped across the room with remarkable speed. She grabbed the same arm that Sonya had grabbed and pulled it behind Juny’s back.
“What are you doing here?” he hissed, holding the knife against Juny’s face. “Do you want some of this?”
Juny was terrified and speechless.
“You won’t get me,” screamed the boy. He pushed Juny across the basement. Don’t let me fall into the blood, thought Juny desperately, please don’t let me fall in. She managed to stumble against the far wall while getting only her feet and knees stained by the black treacle-like goo.
The boy paced around Juny. “You can’t prove I did this,” he said, his voice suddenly clearer and stronger. “You didn’t see it die. You can’t prove I did this. Tell me who you are.”
“You’re standing there in blood with a knife in your hand!” screamed Juny, almost in tears.
“Shut up! Don’t talk. You can’t prove anything. Who are you?”
Juny breathed deeply. “Ling,” she said, “I’m Ling from Melbourne.”
“Bullshit” said the birthday boy with contempt. “I know Ling and you’re not her. I’ll ask you one last time—who are you and what the fuck are you doing at my party?”
Some party, thought Juny hysterically, as her mouth babbled out an explanation of being late, meeting Sonya, realising she was at the wrong party, and trying to get out.
The boy narrowed his eyes. “That sounds like such a pathetic lie it’s got to be true.” He laughed an unexpected, horribly sad laugh. In that moment Juny felt the first sting of pity for the boy. “You’re pathetic, Juny, you know that? Pa-the-tic.”
With that the boy began to cry. His weeping was nearly soundless and tearless. Great whooping breaths shook his lungs and rocked his thin frame. Thick tears hid behind his eyes and nose and clogged his breath and voice. Juny could only stand there helplessly watching as the boy cried and cried and cried. It made Juny feel incredibly tired and old.
“No,” the boy said at last. “You don’t have to get involved. Just go. If you go up the stairs and through the second door on your left, you’ll be able to get out through the kitchen. Just go and get out.”
The thought of doing this was so tempting Juny could almost taste it.
“I don’t want to escape,” the boy said. “I was thinking about it and my body tells me to run away. But my heart feels that this isn’t finished until I’m punished and done with. And more than anything else I want this to be finished. All of it. Everything.”
The boy stopped looking at Juny. Juny felt that his strangely clear talk made a savage kind of sense. She started up the stairs. As she did she was intensely sure didn’t want to tell anyone about the boy. She wanted the boy to confess it all himself. As she took one step after the other up the stairs, she heard the boy behind her, crying in an almost sing-song way under his breath in a language Juny did not understand, but knew was a language of little boys when they must come home.
When Juny opened the door she saw a woman. She was looking at the floor and she had only just entered the hallway from the room opposite Juny. Juny knew that she only had a matter of seconds to slip out the door and into the kitchen without the woman seeing her. The boy would be discovered and Juny would get to the party and hear about the murder on the news the next day. It would be over, she thought, it would be finished, just like the boy wanted. She could walk away and begin burying this safely in the back of her mind. It could be healthy again, her life, her mother and family and everything, or as close to it as…
She saw her hands gently let go of the door handle. The basement door closed into darkness. She found in that her feet had begun taking a few steps back down the stairs, limply, meekly. She waited. A pause, then the door opened again. A woman’s voice. Heeled shoes and pale ankles and a long green dress. The woman wore a well-polished happy face. The birthday boy’s mother. She looked into the basement.
“Are you in here? We have to cut the—”