Lintong District, Xi’an, Shaanxi Province
A silence howled through the night. He could handle the cold, and the darkness, but the quiet drove him mad. The door was still as he sat in a chair in the corner of the room. The old man had watched it for hours. Begged for it to move. Stomp stomp stomp… Soldiers footsteps had filled the room, and had grown to a thunderous roar. STOMP STOMP STOMP… It came in waves. He walked toward the door, sure that when he lifted the handle to peak outside, an army would be there, marching in unison. The chair wobbled and his knees ached as he gripped the handle. He pulled the door open, and peered out at the empty street. The footsteps had stopped. But, the army marches eternal.
He had welcomed travelers from all over the world, and offered them an authentic Chinese quarter to stay in as they visited the Tomb of the Terracotta Warriors. In the early morning they would depart for the museum, and in the evening he would prepare a dish of hand-stretched noodles, and green tea as he recounted the story of the tomb’s discovery. He had even learned a bit of English from his guests so he could accommodate more of the travelers. It was not uncommon for them to sneak out, but nobody had ever stayed out this late.
His eyes were glazed over as they moved to the little Terracotta Warrior figures and the paintings he had on display. They stared right back at him. The sound of footsteps haunted him. He was only a boy, maybe five years old, when the Civil War began. Shot his first gun in Shanghai in 1927. Killed a Capitalist.
War made him the youngest man in China. He had known it for most of his life. In his twilight, he barely recognized the world, and he certainly didn’t recognize himself. He had no facial hair, but the rest was greying. What was left of it. His face had deep wrinkles around his eyes, and mouth. The limbal rings around his dark brown eyes had completely faded if you looked close enough. The door creaked as the man eased back into his seat. He dismissed it this time, and sat in his chair. The traveler stared at him from the doorway, then swung the door open as he stumbled in. That face has seen things, he thought. Terrible things. The old man knew that look. The traveler was out of breath, and shaking as the old man stood from his chair and grunted.
“I didn’t know you’d be here,” the traveler groaned.
“You should not be out this late,” the old man answered.
The traveler collapsed as he tried to sit, his breath getting more labored, and his body twitching. Blood dripped down his arm, and onto the floor as the old man rushed over. He rolled up the traveler’s sleeve, and discovered a large gash running from just above the elbow to the middle of the tricep.
“We need to mend this,” the old man said, pulling the traveler up and carrying him down the hallway. The traveler dragged his feet as the old man tried to keep him propped up on his shoulder, dust from his shirt coating the palm of his hand. They entered a room at the end of the hall, passing another traveler who’d heard the noises, but the other guest only stirred in his sleep. The old man struggled with every step as they approached a sheet in the corner of the room. He lowered him down, dropping the man at the last second. The traveler’s fingernails dug into the old man’s neck, and tore up a bit of his flesh. It burned immediately.
“Tell me where you’ve been,” the old man insisted.
“Nowhere,” the traveler answered, his breath getting heavier, and his voice getting faint.
“I can help. But it will only be temporary. You need to go to a hospital,” the old man said. His English was good, but he wasn’t sure what to say. He reached for an archaic looking medical box in the corner, and pulled out a set of gauze.
“Don’t touch me!” the traveler shouted.
“Where did you go?” the healer asked. “What did you see?” he said, reaching for a pair of scissors.
The traveler began to huff as he started to scratch his arm violently, then near his ribcage. He dug into the edge of his wound, large flakes of his skin coming up under his fingernails.
“What’s happening to me!” he shouted hoarsely, through labored breathing.
“Where did you go?” the old man asked again as he cut through the traveler’s shirt. The cold steel of the scissors on his skin relaxed him, but he quickly became agitated again, and the sensation started to feel like a burning. He had started to lose feeling elsewhere, and grabbed the old man by the collar, pulling himself to a sitting position from the floor. The old man looked into the traveler’s eyes, but they were pale and vacant, like the man couldn’t see a thing.
“I saw him,” he whispered, his pupils widening. “I saw his face.”
The old man helped him back down to the floor, reaching into his kit to find a suture. The wounds were considerable, especially the one in his ribs. But not deep enough to kill him. The traveler was now passed out, thankfully, as he wasn’t anaesthetized while the old man cleaned and stitched both wounds. His fingers weren’t as steady as they used to be, and he shook, tearing the flesh a bit more. He finished quickly, leaving his kit and staring at the bloody scene on the floor. He had to go tell the other traveler. They would need to leave for the hospital immediately. And even then, there might not be enough time. He walked out of the room, and thought about locking the door from the outside as he left, looking back on the scene once again, and resting his hand on the door handle.
The scissors were still in his hand in an open position as he walked back to the kitchen to pour the man a cup of tea. Usually it’d be two or three that he’d offer to the other travelers. At this hour, tea was the cue for him to tell stories about growing up around the site, and what he remembered. He picked up the teapot, then looked at his other hand. It shook violently. He dropped the scissors to the floor. The trail of blood was everywhere. He poured two cups, two bloody cups, and went back into the room putting one cup on the floor. The traveler groaned, and opened his eyes.
“Do you know what’s inside?” he asked, the old man and the room turning into a blur.
The old man approached him, wondering if he was still conscious. The traveler stared at the tea, and reached for it, but the pain in his ribs and his arms sent shocks through his body. The old man picked up the cup, and brought it to him.
“You’ve been bamboozled,” he said, wondering if that was the right word. “Bandits robbed you and left you for dead,” he said.
The traveler began to laugh as he handled the mug. He stared at it, fumbling the vessel, and spilling the boiling water all over his fingers. He opened his eyes wide, and laughed louder, as his breath turned into a heavy wheeze. He looked half-asleep, and then without warning his body became rigid, and he started laughing as he mumbled the words, “I saw him. I saw his face!”
“You need to rest,” the old man said to him, as he climbed to his feet, and hurried toward the door. “Rest.”
The traveler quieted for a second, and appeared to relax. As the old man turned to walk out the door, he heard the traveler rustling behind him, and the sound of feet sliding along the sheet. He had stood up as if in a drunken rage. To hell with this, the old man thought, slamming the door, and locking the deadbolt from the outside. The traveler rushed toward the door, banging on it with his good hand, and bloodying his knuckles. He started to scream the words over and over as he pressed his face up against the glass porthole. Each punch was getting louder; the low sound of bending metal reverberated all the way through the door. The vibrations made the old man’s teeth ache. And then all of a sudden, the shouts began to get softer. The laughing quickly disappeared, and the wheezing turned into a whimpering.
“What the hell is going on in there?” a voice shouted from behind the old man. It was the other traveler. He pushed his way past the old man and up to the door.
“There’s blood everywhere,” the traveler said, as he peered through the window.
“We are too late,” the old man, said.
“What the hell?” the other traveler answered. The banging had stopped. The room had gone completely quiet. He opened the door, and saw the trail of blood leading up to the lifeless body on the floor in the far corner. The teacup lay shattered on the floor. There was a sliver of it in the man’s good hand, and a fresh wound on his opposite wrist. Blood flowed out of it.
The old man and the other traveler walked up to him and rolled the body over. The eyes were still wide open, and he appeared to have a faint smile on his face. The other traveler looked over at the old man, and felt panic rushing through his chest as he struggled to catch his breath. He stood from the ground and began to pace back and forth frantically, looking at the old man as he struggled to find the right words. He caught his breath as he walked up to the doorway and leaned up against the wall.
“What did he tell you?” he asked, clutching the old man’s shoulders, and staring through him. The old man thought it was a weird question. He didn’t have much time to think about it as the man’s grip tightened. He looked back at the smile on the traveler’s face, thinking this wasn’t the answer the man was looking for, but he said it anyway.
“He said he saw his face.”
The other traveler went pale, loosening his grip and walking down the hall towards the front. He folded his arms and leaned into the dusty wall as a rush coursed through his knees. The terror in his face calmed as it grew into a different look. Like he was in awe. The old man watched Wyatt drop to his knees as he appeared to calm himself. He had no idea the words were exactly what Wyatt Waller had come to hear.