Before our company disappeared, we worked in an old three-story house in Shanghai. Every time I stepped on the aged floor it would make a squeaky, poignant sound as if the original owners’ ghosts were still wandering. I used to walk through the dark sitting room on the first floor with my colleague Yilan and stay in the abandoned kitchen with her for a break from the news writing. Above us, all the other rooms on the second and the third floor—I figured they were all bedrooms a century ago—were our meeting rooms and offices.

Yilan loved those bedrooms. She’d look at the office desk and say, there used to be a king-sized bed here. Then I’d lie on the used desk, stretching my aching back. I’d pretend to be lying on a bed.

I saw my boss for the first time in one of these former bedrooms. He was sitting by the window, his white, fluffy cat resting by his side. Several months later he would be sending us emails informing us that we were all dismissed. And then his name, along with our company’s name, along with all the other news that mentioned his name and our company’s name, would disappear from the internet as if all of them, including me, never existed.


If you truly want to know, the elimination was a discreet, hushed process. We were dragged down with our mouths covered. It took a while before we sank.

Before our company’s bankruptcy, my colleagues had started leaving.

Before my colleagues’ leaving, our words were vanishing.

What’s before that? I asked Yilan. We were in the kitchen, waiting to sign our resignation agreements. We stood in between stacked cans of expired Coke. Outside the only window, spikes of cream flower drooped from basjoo banana trees. Their gorgeous paddle-shaped leaves covered the dusted window, leaving our house dim.

I don’t know, she said as she contemplated. And what’s after all these losses, in the end?


Before my boss started this independent news publication, he used to be a state-run newspaper’s editor-in-chief. He was quite familiar with the larger landscape and would refer to all the other media as those timid, callous mouthpieces. Those machines. 

I figured that’s how he got the investors’ funding. He bragged about how he was different; he was boastful of his bravery. Whenever he said such things, he beamed.

Do you hear the voiceless? On those weekly meetings when the investors, the CTO, and the CFO would sometimes join, he’d ask. We are here to give them voices. We are the real recorders, the couriers that send for the truth. We are the truth itself.


The first month after I joined the team, Yilan would text me now and then, suggesting topics she said I could feature. But those messages between us would sometimes become unseen, and Yilan would get uneasy because she said that meant we were being tracked. She soon figured out her way of making her messages live longer, which was using abbreviations, English, or emojis to replace certain words and turn her text into mirrored, flipped images, and I’d decode her messages one by one, unraveling them as if they were some confidential, unknown cipher. The bizarre liaising enchanted me. It was a special kind of connection, our messages being a language only she and I would recognize. Her words metamorphosed into the interlocking, mosaiced pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, waiting for me to put them together. I was always yearning to put them together.

In one of those messages, Yilan said that she was born to save the imperiled news industry from its demise. She said that she’s meant to bring the hidden facts to be seen.

Have you been holding the same aspiration as well? she asked. Is that why you joined our team?

I didn’t have any other choices, I replied. Just too sluggish for commuting. This is the only job allowing me to work from home most of the time. I’d rather die than get up early and cram myself into the metro and fail and try again.

You must be kidding, she said. We all work for something, right? We all live for a reason.

I think you are brainwashed by our boss, I said. You are too into his ideology of sacrificing yourself for the truth and stuff.

Don’t you believe in him? she said. Don’t you believe that we are changing the world?

I told you, I said. I needed a job and that’s all. 


There were other abstract things my boss would say to deceive us into lengthy, tedious work. In my first weekly meeting, he lectured about the process of purifying, the mission of creating what’s to fade away. He warned about the artificial intelligence system automatically identifying our text, which sounded like playing Minesweeper to me. Step on the keywords and the articles would be bombed right away. I mimicked the sound of an explosion silently. Boom.

After that first filter, he continued, there would be real human beings manually examining each piece. They look for the metaphors, the implications. They read between the lines. 

He was so loud. My head was ringing and roaring. I texted Yilan to ask if she wanted some salted cheese foam tea. I hid my phone under the office desk, making my order when my boss asked, of whom should we beware? Then I muted my phone and looked up, pretending to be focusing. Our beloved loyal readers that had been subscribing for years, I heard him assert from a distance. Beware, they might report us to them.


Yilan prepared me for being deleted. She told me that there would always be someone lurking there, watching for the moment to wreck what they’d seen. Whenever you published anything, she said, you’d screenshot your article at once because if it’s deleted later, the screenshot would be its only receipt.

What’s after the erasure? I asked.

You’ll see an exclamation mark on the page, she said. The exclamation mark might be red or orange or blue, depending on to what extent you were annoying. 

We were on the third floor’s balcony then. In front of us, a colossal empress tree was covered by its violet, vanilla-scented flowers, resembling a soft, swaying castle in the blowing wind. Through the foxglove-shaped blooms, we stared out to the narrow lanes in the distance. We saw, alongside the stool collection station where people cleared their barrels of waste, there was a trattoria serving burrata grape salad, black sesame gelato, and focaccia. 


Under the flower panicles’ shade, Yilan told me not to get disquieted when the deletion happened to me. 

I don’t care, I said. I know how the game plays and I really don’t care. 

It’s different, she said. Your whole life is about creating what’s to be rubbed out now. You’ll get worn down. You’ll be fired up. 

Do you really think this job matters that much? I said as I caught whiffs of the mixing scents of the billowy flower, the stool, and the baking focaccia.

The first time I got my news item deleted, I was on the ripped sofa with Yilan. My boss sent me the obituary via email, notifying me of my article’s death. I endeavored to remember what was in the erased item but failed. Even before being wiped off, I thought, it was already forgotten and dead. Then I envisaged how it was exhumed. I pictured how it was dug up in the daylight, its bloating skin being examined, its liquified organs being studied. I was amused by my own vision. 

Did you write any fatal words in there? Yilan poked her head in. Any symbols? Any deadly suggestions? 

I don’t remember a word, I said. 

Do you want to read its draft and guess? What about playing a quiz game together? We can figure out the answer by the process of elimination. Doesn’t it sound so fun? 

I turned to my phone, dozing off at the page that used to show my name, my profile picture, and my misspelled email address. There was nothing in my mind worth digging, I thought. The orange exclamation mark on the screen illuminated the room, looking quirky but alluring. It reminded me of the low moon, the citrine, and made me crave the translucent yolk oozing oil from every salted egg pastry. 

Then I imagined a cold, undisturbed automatic eye. It stayed still in front of the flickering screen, absorbing, comprehending. It interpreted my perceptions, my emotions, my sensations that I never recognized. That’s my most ardent reader, I fantasized. That’s the one that held me dear.


The fun of my quiz games soon ended. I came to realize that I wouldn’t get paid for the deleted pieces. Just as Yilan prepared me for, the erasure did lead to something. But the frustration turned out to come from my boss, who acclaimed his forthrightness while refusing to pay for my lost words, and I was sure it’s what he called the truth that led to my reduction. If he knew how the filters worked, I thought, then he should just circumvent them. Or maybe he was deliberate, deluding us into writing what’s to be erased so he could reasonably deduct our wages. I covertly loathed him for that. 

My boss was always grumpy then. Whenever we failed to be what he called good journalists, he’d become mad. And he became mad a lot. He’d yell for all kinds of reasons, such as when we used the word recently instead of specifying the date in our articles, or if we failed to add a hyperlink to certain data or a citation’s source. He’d say that only the worst news media—which to him meant all other news media—would make such mistakes, and he’d become the most furious when we unintentionally wrote the pronoun we. Never presume that you’re part of any collective, he’d say.

One time, to dodge the filters, an editor deleted a word from an interview without informing my boss.

Eunuch, my boss said when he discovered the disappearance. Before the emperor asks for your service, you’ve already castrated yourself.


I often felt outcast there. No one really talked to me except Yilan. No one really looked at me. I guessed my other colleagues were all too busy to pay me any attention, since we had to write more than fifty items a month. I stayed up all night only to find myself working the next morning, never able to finish the job. My articles would unavoidably be turned down. My boss would always say that what I wrote was trash. And even if I finally managed to achieve the fifty-items-a-month goal, some of the published pieces would still evaporate and I never got paid for them. 

The month that I got only half of my salary, the brief thought of possibly earning nothing beset me. I started to call our company a news sweat shop and myself a child laborer working in this smelly, gloomy factory. My resentment was real. I told Yilan that our boss’s claims of running the best news site were only baits tricking us into being exploited, and that our dreams of being remembered reporters were just illusions, fated to scatter and dissolve. And then it came to me that being a remembered reporter was never what I wanted. I was bewildered by my own words. 

Meanwhile I felt perpetually unfed. My stomach grew into a bottomless pit, constantly commanding me to fill it. I’d always ask Yilan if she had any snacks, and if I was alone in the house, I’d go downstairs through the staircases that smelled like mold. I’d sneak into the kitchen and rummage through the drawers for anything I could swallow. There was always something—flower cakes filled with rose petals and honey, red bean pastry with a grease smell, expired matcha candy that tasted sweet and bitter. They were left there by my colleagues, who seemed to never eat anything, while I was the rat in that old house, leeching off others like a parasite.


I told Yilan that writing so much was impossible. She taught me how to cheat. You can just plagiarize media from around the world, she said. No, it’s not plagiarizing. It’s translating. Or you can call it paraphrasing. That’s the most effective way, and you’ll never be caught.

She showed me how to do it. She told me how to browse the news around the world at the crack of dawn, pick the stories fitting for our website, and turn them into Chinese via Google Translate. She assured me to stop worrying, because everybody was doing so.

What if we were caught by our boss? I asked.

It was him who suggested translating first, she answered. 


I don’t care about being erased at all, I often told Yilan. I meant what I said. The only bad part was that when the erasure happened, I wouldn’t get the pay, and if it happened too often, I couldn’t afford my rent. If it weren’t for the money, I wouldn’t blink if I myself vanished. So I decided to join Yilan. It was an easy resolution to make. If everything I created would dissipate, I thought, I’d just stop creating instead. Maybe what I stole would live even longer. Maybe I’d earn more as a thief. I could be a pipeline, producing item after item to the end of time. I could replicate my pieces right after they were destroyed, upgrading them into better varieties. The erasure would never beset me again, I concluded. I would compete with that automatic eye. I was so determined to win.

I gazed at my name after clicking publish. I bet on myself, guessing about its lifespan. Sometimes it’s several minutes and sometimes it’s a week. I produced the newest variety once an item was dead, beguiled by my own racing game. And then I got bored with my continuous speculating. I turned to marvel at the exclamation mark itself. The giant exclamation mark. The silencing exclamation mark. The drained, drowsy exclamation mark that marked my life.


Yilan never got the fun. She was the kind of reporter who held faith in this job. She was just like my other seventy colleagues who would grieve for their murdered words as if those words were their lost babies. Who would strive to save the babies. Who would worship our boss when he lamented for their babies and said, write with your disappearing ink. 

There were more reporters than there are now, Yilan once told me. There used to be reporters on public affairs, but they all left. Long before you joined the team, they all left. They left because they’d been threatened by them.

Sounds cool, I said. What did those reporters cover?

One of the disappeared pieces was about the internet trolls, Yilan said. Have you heard about that? People were paid to post flag-waving comments online. Isn’t that insane?

Probably not, I said. Maybe those cool guys were okay with that job. Maybe they were all like me, writing whatever they were ordered just for a living. Tell me what’s the difference there.

How can you be so cold? she asked.

Do you think we are any better? I asked her back.


I reminisced about Yilan’s accusation of my aloofness that evening. I was alone in the house, working overtime. I went down the creaking stairs to get my bibimbap takeout when my boss sent me the obituary again, saying, it’s your twentieth one. Then I checked the newborn exclamation mark. That’s a cranberry, a red ant, a lip stain.

I walked through the corridor, thinking about Yilan. Sometimes I’d feel that she was my cellmate in this house, promising me a hazy hope that my life imprisonment could end. Then I discovered that I didn’t finish my talk with her earlier in the day. There might be another possibility. Maybe those paid commenters really believed that their words mattered. Maybe they never worked for the money, just like Yilan. And I started to imagine them as one side of an army, Yilan and I being the other side. We were recruited by some emperor, slaughtering with our typing fingers. And when I turned back to the red exclamation mark, I was full of fulfillment. That’s the sign of my valor,
the blood from my fierce fight. That’s the proof of my life’s meaning. That’s my way of giving my life meaning.

In the long, dingy corridors of the house, I shot out my hands. I swung my arms in the darkness, pretending to pass the fire to be extinguished. I felt as if I was becoming Yilan. I felt as if Yilan had entered inside me, the two of us being one. So that’s the new me, someone sacrificing for truth, someone adored who cannot be mentioned. I then found myself elevated to see my words expunged. I knew I was doing something rebellious, something I’d never experienced in the last twenty-eight years of my dull life. Writing what can’t be seen, performing what’s forbidden. I was sure I wanted to be remembered that way. 

I wheezed alone, craving more eradication. And it struck me that maybe Yilan had gone through the same. Maybe Yilan, my boss, and all my colleagues were all the same, voluntarily choosing to be wiped off only for the same kind of pride. And I was petrified by my hypothesis. I was afraid I would become one of them, addicted to the strange rapture of the calculated sacrificing. And I was abashed of my zealousness. I waved my hands in the air, trying to bat my fervor away. I looked around to see if anyone had seen me. Then I flipped on the lights. I hurried to the front door for my bibimbap. 

After the weekly meeting, Yilan and I would linger a little longer. We’d turn on our VPN to share our playlists on Spotify. In the empty meeting room, I proposed traveling to Japan. I’d been dreaming about the Fuji Festival for months. All those summer vibes, the lawns where bands were playing nearby. 

We don’t have time for that, she said. We’ve got to work.

Take a week off, I said. You are always so homing in on your work, but who cares about our writing except for those waiting for deleting?

Yilan contemplated for a moment. I kneaded my fingers against my jeans. The meeting room looked deserted. I was waiting for her consent when she exclaimed, oh, the VPN is offline.


I often told Yilan I was going to quit. She’d always say she’d quit with me. But she was joking while I wasn’t. I’d never worked anywhere for more than a week before, anyway. Whenever I got a job, I’d consider quitting it right away. It seemed like all my career paths would inevitably end the moment I received my offer. I was always running away. I could never keep doing anything, I’d often tell myself at that time. The only thing I could keep doing is running away.

But somehow this job turned out to be the only one I kept doing. I never stepped into my boss’s office to tell him about quitting. I guessed that’s how life would become when you were close to thirty—you finally realized there was nowhere that you could run away. And even though I disagreed with all the editing suggestions my boss made to me, I still believed that, at some point, he was right—he once said, in a weekly meeting two months before our company disappeared, that we were all on a wrecked ship. He said we all knew this wrecked ship was going to hit a rock, and we all knew we didn’t know when this wrecked ship was going to hit a rock, and we all knew it would, eventually, sink.


Our company was located in the Former French Concession then. When the weather was good, you could see people straying along the streets everywhere. That’s the place I liked the most in the city. The narrow streets. The Shanghainese lane houses. The old yet still preserved western-style high rises. They reminded me of something unfadable, something I could hold on to when my life was uncontrollably sinking. When it was warm at night, those foreigners would be hitting the bottles in the streets, and when they were getting loud, the locals would call the police to drive them away. Bitterness grew in my stomach. Was that the only thing in their lives, huddling together, drinking? Had they ever seen their names evaporating?

After a day of work, Yilan and I would wander the streets. We’d always stop in when we passed a restaurant, a café, or a gorgeous, captivating bakery. We spent all our pathetic salary on rent and food then. It almost made us broke. But gorging was our simplest way to happiness, and we never hesitated to buy happiness.

One evening, Yilan and I went to an all-day brunch restaurant near our company. I was craving an extravagant dinner. A fig tart. A bagel with smoked salmon and avocado. A roast rib shakshuka. When I was ordering, Yilan asked what I did before. I told her that I’d worked in a college as an administrator. 

It’s a terrible job, I told her. My ex-boss didn’t like me because I wasn’t obedient.

Is that why you are here? She returned the menu to the waiter.

Exactly, I said. Because I am never obedient.


In May, the seeds of the plane trees along the streets started to drift through the air. Their hairs were stiff, making me cough every time I breathed them in. When I was on my way to reporting on a conversion therapy center, these seeds made my vision blurry. I was secretly exhilarated. The uncertainty of posing as a potential client, the danger lurking behind it. I was finally doing something.

My boss sent me on the mission because I’d been curious about those centers that looked like psychiatric clinics, how they made you believe you’re suffering from a mental disease, how they corrected your distorted mindset. Before I started off, Yilan told me to act as if I was voluntary. Most patients there were voluntary, she explained. They wanted to get themselves cured wholeheartedly.

But for what? I asked her.

If only we knew the answer, she said. She pinned a spy camera behind my collar.


My plan was to pretend to have a girlfriend. I’d pretend I’d been hiding this secret for my whole life. So I’d know how the therapist would cure me. I’d be astonished by their inhumane remedies. And I’d report these treatments, which would astonish my readers as well. I’d arouse public concern. I’d get international attention as well as Yilan’s applause. She’d say that I was doing something heroic, which I didn’t really believe. And my report would probably disappear anyway. Yilan would probably applaud me for that again. 

In the center, the therapist promised to cure me with traditional Chinese medicine. Injections into traditional acupuncture points and bloodletting. No, your illness was not as serious as those who need electroconvulsive therapy, he said. For only twenty thousand yuan you will be cured.

No worries, he assured me. Your illness is caused by meridian blocks.

How can I be converted then? I asked.

I’ll insert needles into your Sanjiao meridian to balance your energy, he replied. Your Yang is too strong as a woman, and your Yin is too weak. But before that, we’d work on your mentality first. The homeostatic impulse that led to your hallucination.


Yilan had prepared a script for me to memorize. She wrote something about obeying my parents’ wishes to pass on the family name, something I couldn’t really memorize. I struggled to remember the script when the therapy began, only to find that all that was left in my mind was Yilan. So I decided to just talk about Yilan. I told the therapist she was my girlfriend.

The treatment room looked familiar, a chamber in a dilapidated high rise. I might have seen it in a ludicrous movie, or in one of my obliterated nightmares. Then I recalled that I’d been in a similar room before, years ago, when I went to my college’s wellness center providing free service, confessing something that I could no longer recollect. I recalled that, as I was hoping for some embracing, or, if possible, some company, what I confessed was reported to my supervisor as if it were some kind of confidential intelligence, some kind of crime, and I realized that the whole free counseling project was just a scheme, aiming to examine if my thoughts were qualified and correct. The troubling memory went on and on, reeling back. I was sweating when the therapist interrupted and said, it’s the bloodletting time.


Should I be purified? Was I pure enough for this place?

The therapist said that if I was the contaminated water, then he would be the efficient, automatic filter, removing all my impurities. My sediment, my odor, hardness, and dust. I nodded my head in shame. This is how my life was, I repeated after him. Full of lies and self-delusion. I was my homeland’s own disease.

Are you ready for the change? the therapist said, holding a glinting, silver needle.

I paused to ponder. Then the two of us looked to the floor. The spy camera, attached to my shirt by Yilan, fell to the ground, crumbling into tiny, pointy pieces. The therapist threatened to lock me inside the center before I managed to escape.


My report on the conversion center was deleted in a week. After that, my resentment toward my boss became public. I hated him for his arrogance, his rudeness, his supremacy. I told Yilan that I was being used. I was the one risking my life in there, I claimed, but only he would be deemed as a scarred, craggy warrior. We worked for nothing but his being remembered, I said. And he did nothing to shield us. Nothing. I didn’t even get the money.

It was sometime in June. My racing game against the automatic eye was getting intense. I’d often be with Yilan on the balcony, watching the moist, heavy clouds hanging low. I chewed over how my boss said that we were going to sink, his voice harsh and supercilious. How he could foresee that was a perpetual mystery to me, and I wasn’t sure if I should believe him. Every night, before I drifted off, I’d swear to myself that I wouldn’t bear him for another day, yet the next morning I’d still be staring blankly at my laptop, producing another item that I’d never have the patience to read. Maybe, I thought, if I held on for one more day, I could be present at the end of the story. I was bound to a ticking bomb, counting down the seconds. I was prying at the ending.

So I endured my boss’s temper. I endured him during the weekly meetings when he would howl and groan, his spit flying to the other side of the office desk. His mania became the most unmanageable when an editor made a grammatical mistake one time. He insulted her in front of us for over an hour. 

Scum, he called her. 

That editor got up and left. On the next day, she resigned. That was it. She was more valiant than me.


And I never told Yilan that I’d been to my boss’s office alone once. That was right after I was back from the conversion center when I realized I’d messed up my report. I was wondering if he could show just a little mercy on me, and if, after he forgave me for my being found out in the center, he could still let me write that failed report. I had expected him to admonish me, to mock my stupidity of dropping the spy camera, but instead, he said that I could write about how I was nearly locked up. Write the truth, he said. That didn’t sound like anything new to me.

He turned his back on me. That was his way of treating me, never looking at me when talking. He was always looking at something in the distance, something I could never see. He reached out for a bottle to take his pills, and for a second there, I felt as if he were as vulnerable as me. For a second there I wanted him to shield me. I wanted him to shield the whole company so I could be with Yilan for good. And I was so eager to be remembered once again. I wanted to use up all my vitality to write down that report. I wanted that particular report to live. It’s the witness of the most truthful moment in my life, the resin that preserved the shared memory between Yilan and me. And then I wished that everything I wrote could live. I was so tired of being erased. My entire life, I thought, I’d wanted to be heard and seen. Then I couldn’t tell if I really wanted to be heard or seen.

It was Shanghai’s rainy season then. This place is so damp and so dim, I examined his office and thought. Like a mushroom farm. Like a swamp. 


Our office was later searched without notification. I was quite okay with that, because I was always prepared. The doors were busted open when I stayed still in the room, thinking, there must be something for me to protect. I thought maybe this would be the highlight of my life, the moment when I would finally be sacrificed. Long before the search, Yilan had told me about the tales of reporters being apprehended. She had been indulging in her horrendous tales, repeating them so habitually that she was sure that they’d come true. But they never did. After checking our devices, the searchers just left. We survived.


My life was back to that dreadful routine again. I’d join the daily conference call at nine am, report to my boss my writing plan, upload my drafts to the backstage at dusk, twiddle my thumbs while my boss was making comments. If approved, those items would be published the next morning, waiting for the judgment of the automatic eye. If not, they were simply discarded by my boss as trash. It went on like this. My boss was getting even more bumptious about how he’d won the fight. I was just worn out. I was certainly wasting my life. I was thinking that I might just quit the job right away when, on an afternoon in the end of June, I tried to log into the backstage but failed. I found the backstage page to be blank.

Alone in my apartment, I refreshed the page again. Nothing was there.

I tried our website’s homepage instead. It was dead. Instead of a home-page that showed all the headlines, the videos, all the breaking news happening around the world, and all the coverage about what I never cared about, the only thing left there was just pure, cosmic blankness. The page was forever loading. The website turned into nothingness.

I called Yilan. I wasn’t sure if it was my internet connection’s problem.

She cried on the other side. I can’t open the site! she said. She sounded despairing.


All that we wrote had vanished. All that we created and stole was cremated, its ashes scattered into nowhere. In a café near our company, Yilan sniffed over her blended coconut coffee while I was by her side, hesitating if I should reach out my hand. I guessed this was the moment, the final scene where the gigantic ship was sunk, and I’d hold her hand so tightly, witnessing our inescapable demise. But as I rubbed my index finger and thumb together, she looked up to the ceiling, her eyes flaring with determination, her chest moving up and down. She said that nothing, including the massacre of our company, would stop her from speaking. Our boss had said in the email that he’d start a new company soon, she said, and she’d join him straight after he rose again. And when she was talking, I could feel the ocean, foggy and turbulent, separating the two of us since the day we met. I was sure I could never cross that ocean to reach her. 


In July, after receiving the email from HR, I went with Yilan to our company, which had already closed by then. We hung out in the abandoned kitchen, waiting for our turns to sign the agreement. It was suffocating in there. The air was scorching and steamy. Through the slits of the basjoo leaves, I could see the eerily pale summer sky. I picked up a can from the stack of expired Coke. The Coke had lost all its fizz. Then I was aware that Yilan and I would never work together again. The doom of losing her snapped into focus. And for the first time in my life, I was feeling something different. A sharp, burning pain rose from my stomach, biting every inch of my skin, eating up my insides. I was amazed by how the aching hurt me, grateful for that feeling. 


But that feeling only lasted for minutes. HR told me that there wouldn’t be termination pay. It was our boss’s decision, HR explained. 

No compensation? I said. Not even anything?

I was full of resentment again. All those steps toward being an adult blasted inside my mind, agitating me. I needed another job soon, or I wouldn’t afford my rent. So I needed to find myself a new boss soon. I needed to act as if I cared in my next interview. I needed to be forever pretending. I was so tired of that loop.


The house where we had worked was built in the early twentieth century. Before they were taken away, such houses were mostly owned by those wealthy families. I used to fantasize about the descendants of the house’s original owner passing by. I’d imagine them to be living in one of those one-room apartments right by the house, peeking at us from behind their curtains. We were indeed the parasites, I told Yilan when we were in the bathroom, taking a break at what used to be a bathtub. We were occupying this whole place.

I don’t understand you, Yilan had said to me then. This is our fortress, our undefeatable castle. 

On my way home, I remembered the way Yilan caressed the tiles. The crackled porcelain mirrored her fingers, giving me the shivers as her nails scratched its surface. With all her persistence, all her ambition and the vague, hopeful future she pictured, she’d been perpetually distracting me from the infinite emptiness. She was beautiful in that way. 

Then I stopped at the corner. I turned around. I decided to go back to the house. Maybe I should take something from there, I thought. Something to hold on to, something as a souvenir. I went back to the kitchen to get my empty Coke can when I overheard my boss talking to someone. 

Wang Kang is a jerk. He knew it would permanently destroy the backstage data. Can’t believe he did this to me. I wasn’t supposed to give him that eighty thousand anyway. This was his nasty revenge. Despicable.

Wang Kang was our CTO. It was him that did it, not them. 


The first time I had come to the house, my boss sat alone in the office. I gave him my portfolio when he said, I’m not into reading trash.

What’s your dream? he asked.

Sacrificing myself for the truth, I answered.

There was a fireplace in his office. It had been deserted for decades, its ash pit covered with mold. The mold spread, sporulated in the room, winding around the two of us. The damp scent lingered in the air.

What’s your major? he then asked.

English literature, I said.

In which year was J. D. Salinger born?

In the 1920s, I answered.

Stupid, he said. Salinger was born in 1956.

I’m sorry to make the mistake, I said in an obedient way.


Yiru Zhang was born in Nanjing, China, and has works forthcoming or published in Boston Review, Columbia Journal, DIAGRAM, The Florida Review, Reed Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. She is the winner of the Aura Estrada Short Story Contest and Columbia Journal’s Short Story Contest, and is a finalist for the John Steinbeck Award for Fiction. She works as a literary reporter and translates English short stories into Chinese.