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Assassin, Alchemist by Robert Ren


Robert Ren’s “Assassin, Alchemist” is the third-place winner of the 2019 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize, judged by Elizabeth McCracken.


“Assassin, Alchemist” starts with a mystery—a serial murderer lies in a coma in a hospital bed, giving up nothing about his motives or his identity—but it ends, as good short stories do, I think—with more and deeper and truer mysteries. The narrator of this story is a nurse at the hospital who has come home to live in his late parents’ house, trying to put both the house and his entire life in order. There’s a chill to the story—a literal chill, because it’s a winter story—but it’s also a deeply human story, heartbreaking in its details and the way it imagines that connection is possible: through food, through culture, through sex and sympathy. It’s eerie and lovely for its eeriness, a kind of love song played on a theremin.
Elizabeth McCracken


 

For weeks now, the police have been looking for a man. Thin build, five-foot-six, black hair. Sketches make him look like a scrawny, scruffy, Asian Robert Downey Jr., though even in black and white, graphite on smooth grain paper, I can see something slippery behind his eyes. I think, not for the first time, that if I didn’t shave, I’d look like a scrawny, scruffy, Asian Robert Downey Jr.

 

The way he arrives is not unusual—spread out on a gurney, technicians and paramedics in formation, his shirt soaked in red. For a moment, the resemblance, as slight as it is, makes it seem as if I am watching myself dying. Then training kicks in. I help usher him into surgery. I set up IV drips, blood for blood, drugs on top. They remove his spleen in search of the bullet lodged deep in his abdomen. I replace the bags of blood. I watch as they sew him back up, his stats rising steadily.

Then I release a breath, practically foul for how long I’ve been keeping it held in.

After my shift, I walk into the ICU and watch the monitors floating at his bedside. Nguyen, another nurse, stares at me for a while and says, “I’m here to make sure nothing happens to him.”

“Oh yeah?” I say. “Yeah,” she says, “He’s on a lot of medication. So, I’m not worried about him.” I laugh a little. “Maybe you should be worried,” I say, “You’re just his type.” She doesn’t smile.

 

On the news, they called him the Assassin, as if begging for some FBI profiler to roll through our town and knock heads in a reenactment of the thousands of TV shows we’ve all seen. We wanted some authority to decree that these acts were the result of indescribable psychological trauma, or the manifesting of certain rage against specific machines. We wanted to believe that this wasn’t purely random, that death followed the basic science of cause and effect. Instead, the victims failed to line up neatly in categories of race, gender, or age. The murders were not gruesome in so much as we imagine serial murders to be inevitably gruesome. There was no tabloid nature to them. No sign of sexual assault. No mementos shipped to family members. No haunting messages for the police. There was no postmortem rearrangement of the bodies into pagan totems, sacrificial altars, or modern art pieces.

The truth was, he had no type. This was just death delivered as inscrutably as it ever was.


A snow storm hits just as my night shift begins. My nose, clogged and frozen, at least cannot detect blood or bile, soap or antiseptic on my hands. Tedious, endless, mundane, all of my tasks are. I have spent more time restocking medicine cabinets and emptying bedpans than I have saving lives.

Dawn in a hospital is a certain thing. Dim hallways suddenly flush with bright, bold, shadow-free fluorescence. The rising sun aureoles behind curtains and blinds. There is really only one reality here, sustained by mechanical rhythms and the confines of steel, concrete, glass. Everything to keep nature and death at bay.

 

The heater in the house of my parents is broken and I stay up most of the morning trying to fix it with used parts and how-to videos on YouTube. My fingers are numb with cold, notched with scabs. My father never once hired a repairman. Despite the months of work I have put in, the house still hasn’t sold. Perhaps it’s just the clear white sheen of the front lawn, the murky Indiana light, the lingering musk of its deceased owners that makes my childhood home seem so unappealing to buyers.

I’m short on money, but I call the Alchemist anyway. She arrives in the early hours of the morning in her little Toyota. Her techniques of seduction are hardly glamorous. She lays me out on my old bed and gives me a perfunctory blowjob that includes wet naps and a condom.

The Alchemist often reeks of floral perfume, like the town in fall. Full groves of apple trees lie just beyond the highway that demarcates the town’s northern limits. When I first moved back, the rot and spoil of the fruit seemed to permanently render the air into the simulacrum of scent.

Floral. Erotic. False.

Her perfume is heady and vile, but I suspect that it’s expensive, so I never have the heart to tell her. She must’ve learned the trick somewhere to associate sex with scent, to collapse the abstract sensation of lust into a tangible potion.

For the remainder of the hour, she coos to me in Chinese, asking why it’s so cold in the house. Though my own Chinese is terrible, I tell her that they caught the man. She had admitted once that all the news about the murders frightened her, but today she just says simply, hao xiaoxi. I want to think that she too finds comfort in our conversations, to be speaking Chinese in Nowhere, Indiana, but each time when the hour is up, she immediately rises, puts on her clothes, and drives off in her Toyota with my money in hand.


Nguyen has been replaced by a police officer who stands outside the room, but within, the killer sleeps unattended. His vitals are steady though he hasn’t woken. A coma from the blood loss, the charts indicate. He might never wake up.

Someone shot him at one of those ATM alcoves where you have to slip in your debit or credit card to get in. Not some cop, just your average asshole with a gun. A little frightened, a little excited, the asshole recognized the Assassin from the news. He shouted, “freeze,” but I guess the Assassin didn’t freeze, probably didn’t even hear him in the alcove. The asshole fired twice. The first turned ATM glass into smithereens, clipped the Assassin’s ear. The second glanced off rib bone, landed deep in his stomach. It could’ve been worse, I suppose. Or it could’ve been better. The asshole wasn’t even arrested.

With the pretense of checking his vitals, I circle him once, twice, and then I hear him burble through dry lips, “My parents are dead.” Automatically, I respond, “Mine too.” Then—I’m certain of it—a sympathetic smile erupts across his face.

 

It’s just past midnight and Nguyen is eating a sandwich. Turkey on rye. Spicy mayo in between. Nguyen and I have very little in common. She’s Vietnamese, petite and pretty, smells of coriander and cinnamon. She disguises her beauty under a heavy mask of mascara. She flirts with the male patients, flatters the women. She has perfect bedside manner. I hate mayo, rye bread, turkey. Still, we eat our lunches together when we can. Partly because we’re the only Asian nurses in the hospital. Mostly because it’s better than eating by ourselves.

“Coma, huh,” I say. “Might never wake up,” she says. “Maybe that’s for the best,” I say. She seems wistful for a moment, dabbing mayo off the mole on her lip. “Probably,” she admits.

I pick at my ramen in Styrofoam. “Listen,” I say, “have you heard him say anything?” Nguyen states the fact slowly, “He’s been in a coma.” I nod to admit my idiocy and then pretend that I’m getting paged. Before I go, I ask, “Are your parents still alive?” “That’s not a polite thing to ask,” she says. “I know,” I say. She takes another bite of her sandwich before she says, “Yeah, they’re not so healthy, but they’re still living.” With that, the distance between us grows.

 

I used to come home twice a year. Once for my father’s birthday in the late spring and then again around the holidays, which coincided with my mother’s birthday. I would stay for a week or two, in my old room above the garage, and only come down for mealtimes. The people I used to know in town had either long since left or long since forgotten me. Now, my neighbors occasionally raise a hand thinking from a distance that I am my father.

I have his square shoulders, his short figure. He liked to dye his hair black so as not to show his age, which was otherwise difficult to discern from his small, weathered features. It is not so difficult to assume that seeing me, wrapped up in my father’s old puffy winter coat, pushing a snow blower across the cracked driveway, debunks the news of his passing.

He was not born here. We were not born here. Our hair, black as anything, contrasts so vividly against the sheer winter.


I call the Alchemist before my shift ends so she’s waiting for me at my house when I arrive. She complains again about the cold, so I say, “I’ll warm you up,” and take her upstairs and undress her quickly. She’s unused to me doing anything but sitting docile and in the end, she sighs as I do, everything but our fingers and toes filled with a deep pressing warmth.

“What made you want to be a nurse?” she asks in Chinese. She’s forgotten that she has asked me before. With hesitation, I explain that it’s a practical job. You can be a nurse just about anywhere.

Nurses are always in demand. It was not hard for me to relocate back to my hometown and find a job.

“Aren’t women usually nurses?” she asks. Her understandings of gender roles and expectations are antiquated, foreign.

“Nurses are not so different from doctors,” I reply. “We confront death with none of their ego.” I shrug and kiss her toes. “Can I make you breakfast?” I ask.

Before my parents died, they taught me to make Chinese bing. Greasy oil-soaked pancakes embedded with scallions. I hard-fry eggs in the remaining oil and tip soy sauce over them.

Bu cuo,” the Alchemist says, a little impressed as she bites into the pancakes, but a few bites into the egg, she adds, “tai xian le.” So, I try to make some plain congee quickly in the rice cooker to balance out the saltiness, but before it finishes, the Alchemist seems to lose interest in the meal. “Your heater is broken?” she asks.

“Yes,” I say.

“You have money to fix it?”

It is too embarrassing to admit that I’ve bled most of my savings away on her while the rest of my money is tied up in this house, but technically: “Yes. I have money.”

This is better, I suppose, than more taboo topics, like “Am I your only customer?” or “Are you charging me for this time?” but as she’s leaving, she merely pockets the usual two hundred. When I return to the kitchen, the rice cooker plays a musical melody to let me know the congee is ready. No longer hungry, I return to the heater and fumble through its innards in the dark of the basement.

For a week after my shifts, I sleep four hours until about noon, and then try, ever so slowly, to turn the basement into something that doesn’t look like a morgue. My dad got rid of the foam ceiling tiles and was in the process of erecting some plain wood walls to at least hide all the plumbing in a back room. I strip away linoleum-tiled floors and replace flush-mounted ceiling lights with an array of wall sconces.

For all the home improvement shows on television, they don’t show the reality, which is full of misspent resources and hammer-smashed thumbs. I go back into work where the ER doc just tosses me an ice pack and a prescription for painkillers.

The Assassin had predicted it. I was changing his sheets, rolling him gently on his side when he informed me, “You will hurt yourself soon,” and when I complained that such soothsaying was hardly specific enough, he added, “your thumbnail will fall off.”

It does. That part is surprisingly painless.

 

While it would seem that the internet is full of personal information, it remains perfectly useless in trying to locate any information about the Assassin’s victims. There are Twitter accounts, Instagram and Facebook posts that make them seem maddeningly mundane. Their only commonality is that they all seem happy, saddled with family and friends who not only star at the center of these photos but also linger on the borders, like an off-key Greek chorus, chiming in with an endless commentary.

Did he see something in their futures? Had he spared them a more brutal end?

His hair has grown steadily and its black and coarse nature seems to belie a hidden vitality.

Nguyen catches me staring at him through a window and says, “You look like you wanna hurt him. Did you know one of the victims?”

“I wish,” I almost say.


At first, I felt a sense of relief at my parents’ passing. They had endeavored to make my life painless and easy but in doing so could not help but look upon my life with the utmost scrutiny. I imagined their support as a trellis, a system upon which I might grow but never separate.

My mother was always uncertain what I would become. She wanted, I knew, for me to follow in her footsteps and become a doctor. We knew a few families like us in the States and almost every one of their sons and daughters would end up going to medical school, that apogee of assimilation.

When I became a nurse, it was a compromise; they never wrote to my grandparents of my achievements. Still, why did they ever dare hope that my life transplanted from native soil onto foreign lands could ever be so successful?

In China, my grandparents still live. Why wouldn’t they? Universal healthcare. A network of friends and family in their hometown.

 

My parents had wanted, insipidly, grandchildren. I threatened to bear them illegitimately, as many as they wanted, and for a moment they seemed entirely at ease with the notion of bastards in legion who they might welcome into this house.

Wo de fumu shi yiyang, the Alchemist offers in sympathy.

Last summer, I stayed at a college friend’s expensive New York high-rise apartment. The city was loathsome, the smell of it in heat, sepulchral. The crooks of my elbows, the backs of my knees blistered into eczema in the humidity and I stayed in too often. James, Taiwanese, rich, successful, was never home. In his absence, I discovered the evaporation of any camaraderie that we might have once had.

Instead, I spent borrowed money to drown myself in the company of prostitutes. Can you imagine the ease with which you can arrange these appointments? The simplicity offered by the internet, these exchanges summoned at a whim. Interactions rated on review websites. Caution and privacy assured, perhaps with a cheap burner phone, but more often, it seemed, no one was looking to monitor or persecute.

Wo zhi dao, the Alchemist says, obviously.

Clandestine rendezvous in Midtown hotel rooms, love nests tucked into seedy buildings, women sent directly to the apartment, skating by the doorman despite their English adorned with heavy accents. They minded not the scabs behind my knees, my laconic anxiety, my inelegant visage. Therefore it always seemed a performance, particularly in the aftermath of used towels, spent hormones, discarded condoms.

Gen wo yiyang ma? the Alchemist asks. I tell her it isn’t the same with her. She rises out of bed and I realize that it’s spring and I can smell everything. My room reeks of sex. We’ve passed through a whole winter with mornings like these, these sour-scented sheets the only thing between us and the chill of spring rain.

I was there all summer, the summer after my parents died. I had not wanted to go back to Indiana. What I’d wanted to do was just to not disappear, to not be forgotten and if a modicum of validation could be wrested through these experiences, if someone could just see me for a little while, then maybe—

The Alchemist shushes me. The look she gives me is not of concern. She presses a hand to my brow and says, shui yi sha ba. So I listen and sleep for a while.


Since the Assassin has been in the hospital, reams of evidence have come to light. Crime scene details, eyewitness testimonies, financial receipts, cell phone data, internet search histories. But no logic, no reason, no source for all this pain and misery. Of course, should the Assassin ever wake, there would be interrogations, a pressing for information that might staunch the loss of the aggrieved and condemn the perpetrator in the absolute.

He doesn’t care. He continues to sleep.

Once, he mumbles, “Her name is Lucy Cho,” and when I look her up on my phone during a break, I hate him for ruining the fantasy of the Alchemist. Lucy is just a college student. Her major undeclared. She’s not even Chinese. She’s Korean. She looks truly unhappy in photos, but that may be entirely because she isn’t very photogenic. Her black hair is too wispy and dangerous to easily frame. Her dour look, charmingly self-serious in person, is passive or, at best, coy in the photos.

 

It’s four in the morning. I walk into the Assassin’s room and I demand to know how a man turns to murder. Was he as lonely as me? Did that loneliness manifest outwards rather than inwards, as mine did? His lips are perpetually bloodless, nearly invisible. Suddenly, his breath catches in his throat and his back arches violently. His monitor beeps a steady alarm. He’s not breathing. His throat is closing up from within. I intubate him—stick a tube down his windpipe and start to manually inflate his lungs. It’s instinct. I’ve done it before at other hospitals, but later, after the doctors come in, they tell me that nurses are not allowed to perform intubations.

“What was I supposed to do?” I ask.

“You should’ve gotten a doctor.”

“There was no doctor around.”

“There was. Dr. Menge. He was a floor up.”

“I’ve performed intubations before.”

“And I’m sure that’s reasonable and expected at some hospitals, but not here.”

“Am I in trouble?”

“What were you doing in his room anyways?” they ask. I understand that they’re just supposed to chastise me for insurance reasons. Broken protocols are hardly rare and often remedied with pay deductions, slaps on the wrist.

“I’m just interested in his case,” I say.

“Interested, how? Medically? Or do you mean the investigation? Did you know any of the victims?”

“Do we know why his airways collapsed?”

“It’s not that uncommon in coma patients. Not necessarily at this point but it’s not an extraordinary situation. You know that with a coma, any given patient may either recover consciousness or…”

I take a sip of coffee. It tastes like sticking my tongue onto an ashtray.

They look me over and at last they offer, “You’ve been a good nurse. You’re disciplined. You’re dedicated. We have no reason to draw this out. Just next time, if this situation happens, please grab a doctor.”

It is mid-morning. A cloudless sun-soaked sky. I have missed my morning appointment with the Alchemist.


I have avoided most rooms in the house other than the kitchen and my old bedroom. I am unused to this much space. I have always preferred studio apartments where I can spin in a circle and touch almost everything I own. Tonight, I go into the den, which is rustic with its exposed brick, its hardwood floors and there, I watch some old movie on cable television on the large screen TV that’s glitched and displays, unintentionally, everything in neon 3-D.

The Alchemist is not returning my calls. I’ve called her three. Four. Five. Six times. Nothing. I fall asleep in front of the screen and wake just before my shift when my phone rings. It’s my realtor. She says, congratulations, I’ve sold the house. I murmur a belated thank you as I drive to the hospital. It’s dark still and I’ve left no lights on. The house looms for just a moment in the rear view before I turn a corner and lose sight of it.

When I arrive at the hospital, Nguyen greets me with excitement. “The Assassin is gone,” she says. I run up to his room immediately and see hospital staff being questioned by police officers.

Nguyen, hardly offended that I didn’t believe her, comes up behind me and says, “About three hours ago, he woke up, walked right out of here. Even if he wasn’t medicated, even if the guard hadn’t been asleep, that would’ve been pretty hard, maybe impossible with muscle atrophy. He shouldn’t have gotten very far at all.” “No one saw anything?” I say. “Another nurse said she saw him leave out of the emergency room doors. She tried to stop him. He was wearing his robes.” “And?” I ask. “She’s in the ICU,” she says.

 

The dorm room is fragrant and damp. Lucy Cho must’ve just gotten out of the shower. Her hair, wet; her face, unmade. She says, “You can’t be here,” even as she frantically waves me in.

“How did you find me?” she asks. Her English is perfect. I sit tentatively on dorm furniture, sleek, lacquered, resilient, resembling plastic more than wood.

I say cautiously, “Social media.”

“You should not be here,” she says. “I will get in trouble.”

“You haven’t been returning my calls.” I stand up now.

“I have been busy. Tests,” she says.

“I thought you were a graduate student.”

She shrugs a little. She’s in one corner by the stacked double beds. I’m in the other, by the clutter of desks.

“I thought you were older,” I add.

“I am not a liar. Sometimes information is wrong,” she says. She smells of shampoo. Wet spots darken her T-shirt just beneath her shoulders.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“My roommate is coming back,” she says.

“I just wanted to see if you were okay. The Assassin escaped,” I say.

“Please leave,” she says.

“Will you see me again?”

“Please leave,” she says.

I realize that I have closed the distance between us. I realize I am standing practically on top of her. She is looking down at her feet and I’m staring at her hair. It smells incredible, imbued with bottled, floral scent. Lavender. Hibiscus. Honeysuckle. I don’t know. I touch it only for a moment to affirm that it is just wet rather than black mercury.


I’m sipping cold orange juice in my kitchen and staring out at the backyard when I see the Assassin. He is as pale as the early morning light. I grab a knife from the countertop, but he doesn’t stay. He looks as if he’s inspecting the backyard, checking the grass for weeds, seeing if there’s space for a garden. Then as he wanders off, he raises a hand, waves.

 


ROBERT REN is a PhD fiction fellow at Black Mountain Institute/University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has a BA from the University of Chicago and an MFA from Columbia University. He is also the assistant fiction editor of Witness literary journal.

 

Author’s Note

At its origin, I wanted a story that risked compassion for some loathsome characters and I suppose the only way I could do that was to have everyone play a little against the archetypes we’ve all seen before. The Alchemist and the Assassin are neatly labeled by their monikers, but they are unwieldy in their true natures and consequently are designed to push and pull at a narrator who is fully adrift in his loss.

Some things that resulted are unintentional. We are situated with the narrator in a house that is haunted and therefore, there is a touch of the gothic, the sense of repression unearthed. This operates between the dual possibilities of romantic redemption and of succumbing to death and destruction. The tension between these possibilities helps sustain the story, despite a relatively simplistic plot.

Then, the only other thing I intentionally wanted was a narrative in which all the main characters are Asian, to create a through line of sympathy between characters who are very different yet similar in the way they stand out in this Midwest environment. It is also cultural wish fulfillment.

I often seek many friends to critically assess my stories and offer feedback, but for the most part, I wrote this story quite furtively and did not ask for comments. In part, this was because the story explores some personal concerns and I cannot help but suspect that vulnerability is what drives this story beyond my original intentions.

I am hesitant to offer craft advice, especially anything that can be taken too literally or broadly. A story demands its own attention; its craft is inherently specific. However, the only thing I firmly believe when it comes to writing a story is that it should not be easy to contain within its original parameters and design. There must be some element of discovery. I returned to this story over and over for a long time. It felt perpetually unfinished and that was the draw for me. I hope there is a similar draw for you as readers.

 


ROBERT REN is a PhD fiction fellow at Black Mountain Institute/University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has a BA from the University of Chicago and an MFA from Columbia University. He is also the assistant fiction editor of Witness literary journal.