Vera Lau, From Dumpster

‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎It all began when I was six; a month after my brother was born. At two in the morning, aliens made an international stopover in our kitchen. Our world became a strange and terrifying anomaly, and every member of our family transformed into unearthly versions of themselves. At one point my mother, Quiet Snow, fumbled for non-dairy baby formula in the pantry, and a staticky voice in her head began to possess her. Look over here, the voice demanded, and Quiet Snow’s eyeballs and neck robotically swiveled to the doorway as if by pure synaptic sorcery. You’re okay, the voice reassured her. You’re going to be absolutely A-okay.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎The voice took control of Quiet Snow’s body. Soundless, it communicated only by feeling out the English words inside her brain. A kind, kingly buzzing.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎This was the first hallucination that made Quiet Snow insist she had been chosen to host the aliens. She told us that she had been visited by ghosts who pretended to be aliens, but unlike everyone else in“the fucking family,” she could “control herself.” My mother adamantly claimed she was immune to demon/alien possession.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Quiet Snow recounted her abductions to me. She told me that once, the kitchen light bulbs began to sputter and pop pop pop. Look at the door, said the voice. An electric blue miasma mushroomed from the doorway, sparking wildly and coiling upwards like the northern lights. It was Quiet Snow’s own little aurora borealis detonating in our kitchen. Hot smoke scalded her skin. Everything churned brighter and the blue lightning zigzagged white and became aggressive. She gradually disappeared into this special-effects atmosphere, sucked up in this eddy of brightness. Everything is going to be fine, the gentle voice insisted.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎She fought the thing, emitted a mousy shriek that got louder and louder and sent my father charging into the kitchen because he thought there was an intruder. And suddenly, everything went back to normal. The lights sparked back on, the temperature stabilized, and the only thing that remained was my mother’s awareness of her newly crisp, crackly skin that had taken on the texture of barbequed potato chips.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Confucius Gentleman flipped on the lights and peered around the kitchen. “Why you want to scream in the middle of the night for? Aiya! Go sleep your fucked-up dream off,” he said.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎My mother was quick to point out that my grandmother, Poh-poh, and I required constant demonic cleansing, but she claimed she was ferocious enough to scare the phantoms away without any supernatural help.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“I had to block the ghosts out,” she would announce proudly. “Just for you kids. You wouldn’t survive if you had Poh-poh for your mommy. See, I control crazy.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎But immediately after her first ghostly-alien encounter, she became worried that thousands of extraterrestrials were waiting to ambush her if she stayed home alone while Confucius Gentleman worked at his engineering firm. Shuddering and shaking, the walls of our house were to her in the midst of some spiteful West Coast quake, and they seemed like they were crushing her. Each day the room spun spun spun in a jumbled merry-go-round in her bleary vision. She hallucinated about a couple of invisible people who randomly pinched her limbs, and her banshee squealing at random night-time hours gave me an insomnia disorder at the start of kindergarten. Other times she could be chopping bok choy then suddenly let out a squeal, and a few minutes later, she would hop frantically up and down and swipe madly with her cleaver at an invisible person. My mother was more interesting to watch than Sesame Street.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Unfortunately, I became afraid of ghosts too. Too terrified to run to the washroom in the middle of the night, I wet my bed throughout elementary school. Maybe I was imitating my screaming mother, but I got kicked out of my first Montessori for taking off my clothes, running around naked, and chucking my poofy pink dress into a garbage can. I screamed and kicked a teacher in the knee, and charged through the halls, howling. We had no behavioural rules at home, so why should I sit when I was told? Why couldn’t I say “fuck?” There was no incentive to learn if you weren’t being paid off in cash, which is how Confucius Gentleman regularly bribed me to do my homework.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎In the afternoons, I went to French Immersion School, but I was so afraid of ghosts in the dark single-stall girls’ washroom that I peed everywhere else. Story-time, art class, right on the carpet, on other kids’ shoes. One classmate nicknamed me “la fontaine.” “Est-que je peux aller aux toilettes?” the teacher tried to make me say, believing I was too afraid to ask for permission to pee. The principal called my parents in and told them not to send me back until I was toilet-trained.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎To solve her supernatural problem, Quiet Snow packed a duffel bag and moved us into our asylum: a suburban shopping mall. Monday through Friday she presided over the food court like some retired dowager, holding a miniature court with my baby brother from standard opening to closing time. At three pm, she took a break and automatically scooped up my sister and me from kindergarten/preschool, and then we all hung out at the mall until nine or ten pm. We were forbidden to return home if Dad wasn’t there because we were all in constant and terrible end-of-the-world jeopardy. She thought that if we hid out in retail paradise, the soporific elevator music, hot dazzling display lights, and blasts of cheap fatty food smells would comfort and sustain us. There was less chance of us getting killed or possessed if we were surrounded by an anonymous daytime horde, by zealous housewives worshipping dazzling red “clearance” signage. New mothers paraded their Disney strollers through the mall, unaware of the vicious Chinese ghosts who were kept at bay only because they feared ‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎To keep us busy and resolve her hallucinations, Quiet Snow forced us to loop around them all 30 times in a row. When she did this my sister and I could barely keep up with the stroller as she forged obsessively ahead. As we hysterically lapped the mall we practiced being silent in case we were ever attacked by swollen-headed aliens or shimmering spirits from space. This was Quiet Snow’s logic: if we kept active and athletic we’d be ready ‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎In the food court, my mother hogged as many as three tables with all our diapers and bottles and Garfield toothbrushes. She gave people shit-face if they asked her to move, but most people didn’t notice, or pretended not to. She was the kind of mother who kept feeding us, like a piggy bank cranking out limitless loonies for a can of orange pop at the vending machine, or a random ten dollar bill for cardboard pizza and plastic poutine. If you tuggedtuggedtugged at her bulky purse long enough, she’d eventually hand the entire thing over. And if she dawdled, I knew to keep making a fuss or scamper off to the loonie store to steal chocolate bars and expired candies and colour-by-number drawing books to keep myself amused.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Since we practically lived at the mall, at the age of six I was already an accomplished shoplifter. When I wasn’t folding napkins into wilted fortune tellers or flexing plastic cutlery into deformed stars, I was trick-or-treating in various stores. My favourite kangaroo knapsack from an auntie in Australia was large enough to hold whatever I wanted. It was fluorescent purple with a hideous stuffed head, floppy ears and creepy black eyes, so I’d pretend that it was watching my back and ready to tell me if the staff were coming.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎At the dollar store I snatched balloons, pink goodie bags for a potential birthday party, and any plastic toy I wanted. If my mother noticed that I always had new toys at the food court, she didn’t say anything. Zombified, she was always staring at someone I couldn’t see, and I was happy enough that she didn’t make me divide my edible plunder with my sister. At that age it didn’t really occur to me that my brother and sister were real, that they were related to me, probably because my mother never bothered to explain the concept of “siblings.” I saw that the useless creatures cried and complained frequently, and I decided that she and my father were abnormal to collect such loud, life-sized dolls. And I never suspected I had been a baby or toddler because of the famous Lau family procreation myth, which taught me that my parents had fished me out of a downtown dumpster.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“That’s why you’re garbage,” my father liked to explain. “All garbage have low IQ. Not like Daddy at all. I’m very, very smart because I’m from library.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“Then why you get me from dumpster?” I had asked when I was six.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“It’s free,” my father declared. “You think we want to pay money for you? Mommy and I know how to save money on unimportant things.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎At the loonie-stores, maternal women sometimes asked me where my mom was, and I lied that I was lost and hurriedly shoved a chocolate bar inside my kangaroo’s brain. Other times, they assumed I did not speak English, which was mostly true, and I pretended to know absolutely nothing either way.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Salesladies never bothered to rummage through my bag. The staff didn’t seem to care that I was prowling their store every day; no one ever said quick, hide the sweets. Usually, helpful mothers hurried me to the customer service desk, and an announcement was made on the speakers, but sometimes it took my mother two or three hours to collect me. I was bored because I knew she was holding a coma-like court with murderous ghosts who dared not harm her in public and I already knew my way around the mall without any help. To be honest, I never thought to rat her out or reveal her scheme because customer service doled out free all-you-could-eat lollipops to soothe the unwanted children of lost and found.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎As I trick-or-treated and partied in customer service, Quiet Snow spent her time probing deep within herself, plucking answers out of her skewed cranium in the food court, while my sister, Deep Thinker, gnawed on a slimy wedge of pepperoni pizza and my brother, Make Lots of Money, wailed inconsolably in his four-wheeled carriage.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎‎This was probably my happiest childhood memory: running free in the candied playground of Retail Land for three months. My gigantic toy box of limitless loot and free customer candy.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎We never left our mall sanctuary except to go home to sleep, and then, only because the mall didn’t allow customer sleepovers. When we did go home, our mother plugged in baby monitors in all our bedrooms to listen for any imminent invasions.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“What do you do if an alien or ghost attacks you?” she would ask us, insisting we prepare.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“We should go to the mall because they don’t like lots of people,” my sister and I would say in unison.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎During our in-mall stints Quiet Snow randomly dressed herself and handed us whatever—I wore fluorescent green overalls and boy’s orange t-shirts, all from my older cousins who had outgrown them. The hand-me-downs were sequined leftovers with funny, misspelled messages. My overalls had glittery ”Rain in Spring Run Mainly in Plaine” on the sides and my orange t-shirt said “Luff Thee Mother.” We were thriving suburban bums, self-made Hongcouver hippies, living in our self-imposed exile. Obviously, we never bothered to shower, and eventually my kindergarten teacher called Quiet Snow in to convey the stinky verdict.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“Does V., shower?” the woman asked. “We’ve had countless complaints.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“Of course,” Quiet Snow lied. “What kind of question is that? I mean, do you shower?”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎‎“Of course,” the teacher said, embarrassed.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“Do you think my kid smells like shit? Is that why you’re telling me? Or did a bunch of little kids complain to you? If you think she reeks, why don’t you tell her to wear deodorant? Tell me, out of all the teachers in this school, how come we got stuck with a bitch?”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Mortified, I ducked my head down and pretended I was busy colouring with a white board marker.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“Come on, V.,” my mother snapped, “let’s quit this school. You won’t learn anything from a crazy woman who thinks you smell like poo.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎But by the next week I was back, at the only school in our district that would take me.