A hatchet lifts up my head. It’s attached to a glove attached to a gangster, squatting in my chum and seawater vomit inside the cage.
“We’re going to make so much money, shark cunt,” he says, pressing the blade into my chin. He yells something in Hakka to the guys hanging by the meat locker, all ill-fitting suits and tattoos. A pinstriped one swears back through a cloud of cigarette smoke before a shorter one pushes him into a frozen carcass. He doesn’t swing back. Trying to piece the hierarchy together to give my mind anything to focus on than… this. Hatchet man didn’t feel like a boss. You saw black society types walking the streets sometimes, both arms locked around girls half their age- too visible to have real power, but still enough to get you to cross over. That’s hatchet man, who doesn’t even really seem that comfortable with a hatchet. Hand flesh white from gripping it too hard. Trembles in the blade. Part of me wants to antagonize him, but I don’t fancy my chances with the rest. Not even with a body full of dead sharks. The fins had multiplied, poking out the back of my vest. Aspects of death forced out of my mouth. I am too familiar with the taste of chum, raw meat and blood, a mouth full of iron and rot. He lets my head drop. Can feel the nick on my neck. Never was good at shaving. Fucked it up until my dad caved and bought me an electric razor. Buzzing… the buzzing of hanging fluorescents, of meat fridges running forever-
Hatchet peers over my shoulder. He hocks up a glob of phlegm and spits it onto the floor. “Not ready yet. The fag surgeon said they could get bigger than that.”
Wenhui. Where is he? How long had it been? My sense of time obliterated by a superposition of spirits, a legion of mangled sharks pushing at the bounds of my mind, my skull, a screeching migraine punctured only by-
His fingers brush my back. Resident surgeon Liu Wenhui. Another time that is also happening now. A light touch, different from the way he holds me. So professional.
“You can feel this, right?” I make some noise of assent. “Ok, good. No loss of sensation in the surrounding area.”
“You don’t have to talk like that.”
“Look, this is weird, alright? Let me have my clinical detachment.”
“Alright”. The fan in the corner rumbles and clicks, not doing much other than blowing humid air back at us. Another Huizhou summer, 37 degrees in May, interrupted only by typhoons and air conditioning. Well, the A/C is dead. And I have a shark fin growing out of my back.
“Can you feel it?” He’s reached the base, just below my shoulder blades. Acutely aware of every drop of sweat.
“Yes. Oh, what strong hands you have.”
“Idiot. What about now?”
“Not that last part.”
“How do you know there was a last part if you couldn’t feel it?”
“I felt it in my skin. When you touched it.”
“You can’t feel the fin, then.”
“Well, that’s something. At least it won’t hurt.” He picks up something that looks like a chrome-plated power drill, only with a small circular saw at the end. His mouth scrunches up as if to apologize for not finding some more reasonable tool. But what would be reasonable? A hatchet?
“Just get it off.” The initial fear had worn into mere annoyance. Can’t sleep on my back anymore. Can’t wear any tops without a binder. When that stopped working, I’d cut a hole in my backpack, so I could actually go outside. No more. “Don’t care how you do it”.
“Alright…” He gets to work, albeit not in any fun, sexy way. Concentrate on anything else. Eyes flutter from blurry Polaroids-but-not of drunken excess to a creeping damp stain where the walls met that’d sure as shit come out of our deposit to the cabinet-breakfast table-skin product island and fuck this apartment sucks.
The blade whines, sputters and stops. “It’s stuck.”
“Are you serious?”
“Mm.” I hear him hitting the side of it like a jammed printer. Does not inspire confidence. “It’s all gummed up”.
“Let’s just go to the hospital-”
“Do you want to be on the news? You’d never have a normal day in your life again.” Visions of Douyin videos of the Guangdong Shark Boy, grainy phone camera footage dubbed over with a Beyond ballad and gasp sound effects. An algorithmic immortality worse than any death. He hits it again, and it whirs back into action, splattering the room and more importantly me with shark gore. “Sorry.”
“Just get it over with.”
Something explodes in my head. There’s an itch beneath my scalp, beneath bone. Do they still do trepanning? I could use that. I am swimming now (then), light bouncing off my body and painting the surrounding waters with silver. Hungry. Stalking a shoal that had somewhat not noticed me. A big shiny fish swims above and below the water. The shoal is spreading in its wake. Stupid. Had a good thing going there. All together. Big fish doesn’t know their place. Would show it. But it’s big. I chase four of the scattering fish. They stop moving forward, flopping about on their sides. Gnash forward but fins stuck in something. Fish’s eye against mine. Fear. Water goes down wrong way as the big shiny fish pulls me up. Suffocating in the air. Land things around me. Sharp help land things blood help sharp breath-
My fin is in a Ziploc bag next to cans of Wusu in the fridge. I take one to hold against the bandage.
“Is it hurting?” Wenhui is already smoking on the balcony. Line between post-coital and post-surgery’s getting blurry. “I got some painkillers somewhere. The good ones.”
“It’s itchy. Like, really itchy”.
“Hm. Well, I dunno if painkillers would help. A smoke might.” He draws another cig from the pack and holds it over his shoulder in some doofy anime guy pose. I hobble over with my beer can and wedge myself between him and the washing machine. Taking a drag I remember that not everything about this place is awful. Beyond the empty apartment buildings and below the nuclear plant’s steam clouds was the sea, beautiful as when I’d first laid eyes on it. On Wenhui, fresh meat on vacation from med school, littering the sand with cigarette ash, long hair mussed up with seawater. I don’t remember if he came up to me or I came up to him but I do somehow recall every dumb drunk thing I said. Photographic memory for cringe. Not enough to scare him off.
“You know I didn’t smoke before I met you.”
“Sure. You were just pulling your hair out instead. I think you can take a cig or two.”
“Maybe not these.” Double Happiness, but not the ones they give out at weddings. These were the ones in squishy soft cartons, the ones that’d bend and crumple in a stiff breeze. Tasted like death. Death and asphalt.
“Sure are picky for someone who isn’t a smoker. You want to give it me back, ah?” I answer him with a glare and billow of smoke.
“What are you going to do with the fin, anyway? Am I going to forward the cause of medical science?”
“Nah. Would kinda defeat the point of doing this in secrecy, no? Gonna sell it.”
This, I am sure, happened before now, before the cage. Not the beginning, but part of the chain that leaves me here. Has the future happened yet? I feel ghosts of fins flapping inside my skin, goosepimpled from the cold and bulging as they try to escape. An arrangement we’re mutually unhappy with, so why? Nature’s revenge? Black magic? Am I supposed to die here?
What happened to the people who ate me?
“You want to sell me on the black market.”
A hang-up that now seems trivial. All those people stuffing my flesh into their mouths. How many? How many fins did we sell?
“You make it sound like I’m trafficking you. No, I don’t want to sell you on the black market. I want to sell your shark fin.”
“How do you even know people on the black market?”
“I work in a hospital. How do you think? Listen, we need the money. Ever since-” He cuts himself off. A sorer subject than my gaping back wound. “We really need the money.”
“Ok.” I don’t want to argue anymore. I can feel the anxiety in his voice, teetering on the edge of rage. I down half the fin Wusu.
“Look at it this way- you’ll be doing your part for shark conservation! Your fin, indistinguishable from a real one-”
“It is a real one.”
“R-right.” I felt it was a curse. He had since given up on arguing any different, unable to find a sensible enough sounding combination of trauma and some more bespoke symptoms. “If you really don’t want to, I won’t force you”. And yet he says this in the saddest tone in the world, a tone that conveys it isn’t really a choice at all. “We could always eat it. Not that we really need the uh, benefits, ha…” No. No.
A wedding for a coworker. Her family insisted on inviting all of us, giving us our own table amongst the raft of friends and relatives from either side. Separate but together. I take every opportunity to down baijiu with the orbiting relatives, anything to make unpaid extra time with these colorless bureaucrats bearable. It’s kind of working. Or was. The next course arrives. Shredded shark fin pokes out of the bowl.
“Please, enjoy! Don’t worry, I know it’s expensive lar…” I stare at this, this flesh totem of status and male impotence, stringy and wilting under hotel lights. The shark flopping about on the ship, black eyes streaked with blood, thinking… well, does it think? Does it know what has happened to it, beyond pain? Stare too long into the bowl and the table will stare back at you, mouths full of shark flesh.
“Don’t be rude, bro,” whispers my coworker who is decidedly not my ‘bro’. “Just eat it.” But the nausea’s already rising up my throat. Now my boss is staring at me, a mouth of perfect sandblasted teeth promising to bite if I made him lose face. It isn’t real. Just tell yourself it isn’t real. Just pick it up and shove it down your throat-
I spew through my fingers onto the cage bars. Some regular vomit amidst the chum.
“You better not get any of that on me, you fucking freak.” The short one from before. Is he wearing the same suit? I don’t know if enough time has passed for that to be gross. My hands full of meat puke.
“Hey, he’s valuable, right?” Pinstripe. Guess they’d worked out their differences. “You should at least clean him off.” He tosses a hose connected to the kitchen sink. Can’t work out if this is a butcher, restaurant, or both, but a front is a front. Still don’t know where it was. Couldn’t tell if the smell of sea air meant we’re in Huidong or if it’s the sea-water drooling from my mouth.
Short cunt pushes the nozzle into my face. “Better stand back. This thing’ll blast your skin from your bones.” I want to bash in his teeth and shove it down his throat and drown him on land. I think the sharks would like that. But I don’t. My fingers drop from the bars and I stand in center of the cage and he blasts me and I feel nothing, nothing except the same sick fear icing up my veins, and if could just focus on this, this overwhelming rush of water-
My thoughts wash away in the cold chugging shower. All the money in the world couldn’t get a landlord to actually do their fucking job. Not that we had that, but Wenhui had made decent money from the fin, more than the going rate given its size.
“The going rate”, I say out loud, as if I knew what that was. But luckily for him and unluckily for me, there’d been more. His job was enough for rent, but now we could have savings, maybe get out of this place…
I stare into the mirror. There’s something under my eye. A black line next to the tear duct.
“Wenhui? You there? Comrade?” No response. Shit. Thumb through to WeChat. Resisted sending a sticker so he knows I’m serious.
“Where are you?”
“It’s ok. On break. What’s up?” Images of him balancing his phone on the balcony rail, my words below his smoke.
“There’s this thing in my eye.”
“Can you send a pic?”
I put the front-facing camera up to my face.
“Wow, you suck at taking pictures”
“It looks like a splinter. But it’s black.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Just leave it. I’ll take a look at it later, ok?”
But I can’t do that. Something in my head can’t accept it being there. Less a thought and more a pulse from some dark corner of my brain. I start pulling. It feels like… string. It doesn’t hurt but it’s rubbing against my eyelids. Still going. About ten centimeters hanging out of my eye. The black strand stained red. A sudden sharp pain. A knot. I keep pulling. After all, I can’t exactly put it back. Like pulling at a loose thread from an old shirt. Another knot. Some kind of parasite? Wenhui had tried to scare him with horror stories of pentastomida, “tongue worms” that could go walkabout and end up in your eye. His and his coworkers’ sick idea of entertainment. Can’t tell if it’s wriggling in my hand because I can’t stop shaking. It has to end. It has to, but the pile of thread keeps getting larger and I half remember the meters and meters of intestine supposedly in my body and I scream into the mirror into a face of wire and blood and-
A knock at the door. I blink for the first time in minutes. What I finally understand to be fishing net rubs against my eyelids. The knock turns to pounding. “Alright, I’m coming. I heard you the first time!” A moment of annoying normality that lets me ignore the past several minutes. I snip the blood line with nail scissors and run to the door, hand over my eye as if that’d look less weird. “Wenhui? Is that you-” The door flings open, and in the moments before I hit the floor I see the door chain snap in two and think about our cunting landlords Kumamon display picture and how he didn’t deserve to soil Kumamon for me like that and-
Blackout. I don’t know how much time has gone by. Between meals of leftover takeout dumplings and floor rice, I drift in and out of consciousness, back and forth in time. The sensation in my limbs is all off, my nerves rewired and sending signals at cross purposes. More fishing line from my eyes that I don’t bother pulling on anymore. I close them and wave my hand in front of my face. Nothing doing. My body is a ghost to itself. There are at least six fins I think but my state’s enough for the gangsters to keep their distance, not that I’ve missed being poked and prodded. Hatchet had only managed to get one, his heel grinding my face into my own sick, a rough hack job compared to anything Wenhui had managed.
They’ve got a Daoist to try and fix me, despite the protests of ‘the cunt upstairs’. A roach skitters in and out of my mouth, flanked by hanging netting and hooks. I stare into the eyes of this frightened old man. Is he afraid of the gangsters or me? Both? They’re different kinds of fear, I guess. He looks like the real deal, robed and solemn, not like the crappy Taobao costume I bought one Halloween. His eyes cast back to them before he crosses the threshold. He raises his fingers to my forehead and chants.
In that moment, I hear them. Not voices, not even sound, but will.
I twist his hand back in on itself and bite his face. Grind my teeth into his skin. Force my sick into his mouth, throatfuck him with puke. I can feel his body try to reject it. I bite down harder, my jaw dislocating. Bone unrelenting against teeth. Molars caught in nets of muscle fiber. The corners of my mouth tear.
Something hits me in the leg. Hatchet.
I feel one of me suffocating and flailing on a boat deck, fins hacked off and dumped in an ice bucket. Another is starving and struggling to be freed from a ghost net. Drowning in oil. Blended by a boat propeller… avenues of suffering connected to me with one swing of an axe.
I crumple on my knees before the vomit-blood fountain that was the Daoist. The hole we made a portal to his inner self. Fear held him upright until it didn’t. Kowtowed before me, surrounded by his own meat. I find the hatchet and lever it out from my shin. A crack and what feels like warm meat floss from a bun blossoms from the wound. No inner sensation. Probably a good thing. I palm my hanging jaw back into place and stand.
“Sit the fuck down, freak.” The short one pulls out a gun from his waistband. “Or you’ll never be able to sit again.” We move forward, my human limbs puppeted by creatures who had only ever swam, and my mind unable to argue against their hatred. They deserve to die. Not just killed, no- pull out their limbs one by one but keep them alive, throw them to the sea and let them writhe and choke and scream-
There’s a bullet in my chest. A singular shot and I am rendered singular. The warmest I’d felt since being caged, a warmth exterior in blood and mangled skin. The hatchet clangs on the floor. I stumble towards the periphery, to the manlet cunt who shot us. They’re in my hands, the hands I’ll bite him with. Thumb and index the canines around his throat. His gun trembles against me. I push into it, meld into this parody of a death dealer. I clench my fingers together and scissorcut his neck. The skin collapses and air whistles through newfound holes. His face trembles in my hands-
Wenhui’s face against my neck, all hot air and spit. We desperately claw at each other as if our bodies would disappear forever and we’d be all alone again –
My mouth locks around the manlet’s cunt face. Ram my cartilage tongue down his throat and spear his windpipe.
I push Wenhui’s head into the pillow. Another fin erupts from my back. The shark top of Guangdong.
Teeth bury deep into his face and I lift him off the ground and shake him til I hear his neck snap. Another crumpled human at my feet, their shapes all wrong. Spit out the short one’s meat, gristly raw muscle as sour as he was. Where did Hatchet go?
Need to find more of them.
Need to find Wenhui.
They’ll all answer.
He’ll understand. He’ll know what to do.
Through hanging meat and cheery hygiene ratings, I find a stairwell. They’re up there. Wenhui is up there. And then we’d get out of here, this windowless tomb. I wipe the seawater drool from my face and pull myself up the railing.
“YOU’RE NOT EVEN THE COOL GANGSTERS.” Flush the cockroaches out. “YOU’RE THE DREGS OF THE DREGS, SO ROTTEN AND PATHETIC YOU CAN’T EVEN GET A MOVIE TO SUCK YOUR DICKS LONG ENOUGH FOR ANYONE TO GIVE A SHIT ABOUT YOU, THE PREMATURE EJACULATION OF THE UNDERWORLD.” My throat’s raw and torn, the words hard to say with this immovable tongue. Ignore the door to the shop floor. No. They’re further up. We can sense their movements. There are at least three left. “COME OUT YOU FUCKING PARASITES.”
Pinstripe peers out from the doorway above. “FUCK” he yells in English. I move onto all fours, a shape more familiar for spiritual puppeteers and bound up the remaining stairs. I shove my hand to stop the door. Steel meets hand. Pinstripe pulls it back and slams it again. Again. Fishing lines and barbs crawl out my splattered wrist, from my veins and artery and fuck there is so much blood. They cast around his ankle and pull him to the ground. I get on top of him and force his face through the net, his eyes bulging between the grids. He flails and digs his nails into my skin. Chunks of us caught in nail beds. A noise like wet dog food slopping out of the can. He stops moving. I tie the web of Pinstripe gore around my wrist as a makeshift splint. I stand up. I want my last moments to be as a human.
I wander this apartment floor. A toppled mahjong table. Shattered five yuan baijiu bottles. Double Happiness cigarette cartons. Remnants of sin cast about in fear. Banal. Stupid. I stumble over to a door across from this human bomb site.
-”it’s like shaving, it’ll grow back larger than before.” Wenhui? Is that you? “You’ll need to lock them up soon. These plastic ties won’t do anything.”
I open the door. A living room filled with beds. People face down and bandaged . People with fins. And there is Wenhui, looking like he always did, not bruised or beat up, talking with Hatchet.
“I don’t care about that. L-listen. You need to get rid of them. They’re all gonna turn out like your boyfriend. He- he’s gone crazy.”
“What do you…” He finally sees me. “Oh my god.” But what does he see? Hatchet is already on the floor, screaming into the linoleum.
“PLEASE DON’T PLEASE I FELL IN WITH THE WRONG CROWD I DIDN’T KNOW I DIDN’T-”
“Wh-what?” A bundle of piss and tears at my feet.
“Leave us before we change our mind.” I can feel my brain boiling into soup. He stares up into me. “NOW.” Scurries out the door. I try to push down the roaring ghosts into some corner of my mind. “Wenhui… What- what is this?”
“I promise- I promise I didn’t know how they were treating you, comrade-” That same anxious tone, like he’d forgotten to pay the property management fee.
“Bullshit. I saw you with that cunt. And what is all this, ah? You want to make all of China like me?” I try to grab his shoulder but I can only paw at him, my hand hanging by threads of skin and crunched bone.
“The effects are getting milder. The- the curse is diminishing. Soon we’ll be able to produce fins with only mild symptoms- “
“This. This is all just for money. Y-you don’t care about me.” Emotion floods in the absence of the spirits. I cannot cry, my eyes too jammed up with death.
“That isn’t true! I want us to have a good life. I love you-” I slap away his hand from my cheek.
“Then kill me.
”Wh-what?” He backs up against the white walls, black hair and surgical gown in sharp relief. He looks so small.
“Kill me. Kill all of us. They hate us, Wenhui. I don’t even know if they’re sharks anymore but they hate us. They won’t stop. I won’t stop.”
“I can’t.” He’s shaking. He won’t look me in the eye.
“YOU WERE GOING TO LEAVE ME TO DIE. AT LEAST KILL ME YOURSELF.”
“I-” He reaches his arms out to embrace me. “I can fix-”
Too late. Our hands are around his throat, flesh held together in our flesh held together. .We lift him from the ground.
We pull off his head.
Wenhui smiles at me on the beach. He tells me he thinks I’m cute and kisses me. I am too drunk to say the right things but he doesn’t care. A passerby calls us faggots and he yells back and they bolt and in this one moment I don’t feel like broken or strange or wrong.
I hold him.
I hold his head.
I’m alone now. The sharks have left me. So have the other finned. Their hate will destroy the whole fucking world. They’ll force themselves down humanity’s throat and swim in our blood. And when all humans are turned or chum, a megalodon god will ascend from the boiling seas and serrate the sky with its teeth. The dawning of a new age. Anno selachii. Year zero. Fin domination.
Did I do good, sharks? I couldn’t kill all of them. But Wenhui is dead. We’re bleeding together. I fix his hair and broken glasses and kiss him on his cold mouth.
I taste the Double Happiness on his lips.