Instinctively, my fingers shot to the shrieking alarm as my chest rattled with pained breaths. Sweat streaked down my face as I recalled the dream. Scrambling loose from the damp blankets, I desperately clutched my burning metal locket and moaned, as I reluctantly got out of bed. Squinting at the harsh sun hitting my tired eyes, the humid heat of the mid-summer morning set in with the familiar shock of goosebumps as the strikingly contrasted cold, marble ground of the ancient hallway hit my feet.
The hallway is the most memorable part of our penthouse apartment unit. It’s adorned with ancient artifacts from the Qing Dynasty my mother has been collecting for what seemed like her whole life. With anything from porcelain vases as tall as myself and precious jade pendants, this hallway wasn’t far off from a museum. As I walked down the hallway, I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself as I recounted the fond memory of her constant reminders that every single artifact had a story to tell. This particular lecture took place as my eyes welled up with tears and snot poked at my mouth when I mistook a large statue of a lanky crane as a climbing zone. My nostalgic daydream blew away into the thick summer air as the familiar scent of fried rice wafting down our long hallway hit my nose. I could hear my mom humming in the kitchen as she cooked. She thought of food as an art; a way of expression. As she used to tell my ignorant teenager self, “Food have to be appreciate like art. Maybe even more.”
“Theresa-ya, you get sick if you work all day like you,” my mother nagged as I entered the busy kitchen with sleep-stricken eyes.
“Mom, I told you, it’s fine,” I responded curtly.
She took a long, dragging look at me and slowly turned away to attend to the food set up at the table. After Dad passed away, Mom never seemed to talk back with the familiar passion and ferocity I associated with her anymore. At one point, I noticed that she took down all his photos. Then, I noticed that she completely stopped talking about him. Maybe she wanted to forget him and the pain. Either way around, I pretended not to notice. After eating, I went out the doorway and headed to the gold-rimmed elevator.
The interior design of the elevator was impressive, even to me who had seen the most expensive items due to the field I work in. Working as the personal assistant of the wealthiest man in China opened my eyes to unimaginably exorbitant things. The excessively decorated elevator was one example. The velvet red walls were weaved with thin strands of gold, making it sparkle in a million different angles in the silver light of the miniature chandelier seeming to drip down the glass ceiling onto the marbled floor. The view exposed from the transparent ceiling of the elevator was impressive itself. Blue and clear, the sky seemed like a beautifully painted picture. The buttons were nothing fancy. Dented, due to the many uses, but clean due to the excessive cleaning of the janitors. In addition to the impressive visuals, there never failed to be a soundtrack of peaceful music playing. I quite liked the traditional Chinese music for it reminded me of my childhood. Feeling my eyes glaze over, I vividly recalled the memory of my music-loving father attempting to teach me how to play the viola. My Chinese mother would stand to the side, disapproval evident through her quiet tsks, as my Welsh father stood proudly above me; teaching me the beauty of the instrument. “Beautiful as well as sorrowful,” he would say. As the elevator doors shut close with a reassuring click, I pressed the familiar button leading to the very top floor of the building. I winced as I inhaled the familiar scent of the elevator. Although the elevator always looked fantastic, the subtle scent of wet towels bothered me. Although the overpowering wash of cleaning formula attempted to cover the scent, I could smell it clearly through the fake, fresh, flowery coverup. The elevator doors opened.
As always, the technology installed into Mr. Bane’s room impressed me. Year after year of walking into this room every morning didn’t seem to change how I stood staring at it for a few moments. As soon as I turned left from the hallway from the elevator, a set of sleek, black double gate doors awaited me. Boo Radley, his pit bull, stared me down as my heels clicked down the marble floor. As where my penthouse unit seemed elegant in an old, antique way, Mr. Bane’s room was sleek, minimal, and modern. I looked over to the reflective doorbell and smoothed down my hair as I carefully knocked.
“Theresa?” A smooth voice called out.
“Yes sir,” I responded with trained stability. The grand doors spread open as a small man with a kind smile appeared at the center of the room.
“Come on in,” he gestured. He walked back to his desk without looking back. Although he was extremely small and old, his demeanor of power had always impressed Tessa. His clever, gray eyes never seemed to lose their youthful glint, even as time passed. In Tessa’s opinion he strongly resembled a small, slender bird. He especially did so in his tweed gray suit today.
“Hello, Mr. Bane,” I nodded as he walked past me towards the wide window behind his desk.
“Tessa,” he accepted.
“What do you need me to do today, Sir?” I withdrew my leather notebook and pen from my messenger bag and got ready to write. As I stood in a ready position, I noticed Mr. Bane chuckling. I felt my face get hot immediately as I continued to get flustered. I looked up and he began to laugh wide openly. I couldn’t help but hide a smile. Mr. Bane was a second father to me. As soon as my blood related father got taken away, he took me and my mother in. Although my missing dad had never mentioned Mr. Bane before, he had said that he was my father’s good friend. He persisted that we stay at his very own apartment, for free, but with one exception. I would work as his personal assistant. Quite honestly, at first, I didn’t want to come here. I was suspicious; I doubted him and his plush apartment, but my mother slapped me into my senses when I first mentioned my doubts. “How dare you question, much less throw away, a gift? The heavens have noticed our grief and has sent us some relief. But you, stupid girl, will ignore that?” she hissed at me.
After that, I never dared to question his ways and worked as his personal assistant for as long as I can remember. Since then, my mother and I have never left the building, for that was also a part of the deal. No one, absolutely no one, could know who Mr. Bane’s personal assistant was. After all, he was the biggest shareholder in Asia and everyone wanted to get even a quick glance at what he exactly did. No one really knew what he exactly did, but everyone simply knew he was the richest man in Asia. Even I, as his personal assistant, didn’t know exactly what he did. He always sent me to do trivial things, such as fixing his bugged computer or organizing and cleaning his extensive storage room filled with red and blue wooden boxes. Once, out of pure curiosity, I attempted to open a bright blue box, but it was locked with a heavy-duty lock. I do remember, however, that the storage room smelled heavily of burnt sugar and bitter plants. At one point, I considered asking Mr. Bane what was in that room, but I thought better of it. After all, my number one rule was never to get involved; just do what he asks and I’ll take the money and stay quiet.
“Tessa, how many times do I have to tell you that I will willingly get you a proper device for you to keep your notes in,” he chuckled.
“Thank you, but I prefer to handwrite, sir,” I beckoned.
“Yes, but tell me whenever you are uncomfortable and would like a new… ahhhh–” he slowly shook his head from side to side whilst motioning with his hand.
“–Notebook sir,” I finished.
“Ah yes. Notebook.” He rolled the words out as if he were unfamiliar with them. I couldn’t blame him for in this day and age, paper was a rare sight. Everything was done digitally, but I loved to write as my father did. This was one part of my identity I never gave up as I began to work with Mr. Bane. Everything else, I had to throw away. My friends, my ambitions, my dreams in exchange for safe shelter and abundant food. But I would do anything, anything, to keep my mom happy and comfortable. And so, I worked. And worked. And I earned. And earned. Now, we lived in a penthouse with food we’ve never been to eat before. My identity for my mother’s happiness.
I thought it was a fair trade at that moment. Now, with every year that passes in this tower, I’m not so sure.
I got to work right away as the day ran by me.