Congratulations to Edgar Mahaffey, first place winner in the Thriller category of the 15th Annual Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards! Here's his winning short story, "Jin's Baby."
Nothing was right. Everything was wrong. The guard wasn’t supposed to die.
Jin sprinted from the only all-woman prison in Beijing. Her long days of manufacturing prison uniforms, knitting, and making toys were over, and the days of her rescuing her child were finally continuing. Yanni would not become a sacrifice, and Jin finally understood that even if she had to kill, she’d do it. But first she had to get to Tianjin.
It’d been a long three years in prison and her country was changing fast. Jin needed information. There was no library in the prison. In China, once you’re locked up, you’re either free labor or free body parts. No sense in providing literature to those who amount to little more than animals.
But there had been a new inmate one day prior.
A woman who informed her that ID checks were mandatory on all forms of intercity mass transit. The bullet train could have her in Tianjin in half an hour. But with the new policy, she’d just wind up caught and on an operating table.
Wait, she wondered, would a government really do that? Harvest organs without giving the victim so much as a morphine drip?
Maybe Jin was as crazy as her ex-husband accused. If she was as crazy, she’d be dead soon and the world would keep turning. But if she was wrong, Yanni would be sacrificed. Jin grimaced as she inhaled air so heavy with pollution even the full moon was hidden—just like it had been that night. The night that started it all.
She’d resisted the offer. Cheng had not. Maybe it was easier for him. Maybe if it had been him that alien climbed on, he’d have resisted too. But he didn’t. He stood and watched it all. Every thrust that blurry alien had taken inside her—his own wife. And then the child. How could he love something half human and none his? He hadn’t carried the alien baby for nine months. He hadn’t nursed the young girl. For all he was concerned, he was raising a pig. One day he’d slaughter the pig and the whole world would eat bacon. But Jin didn’t want bacon. She wanted Yanni. She needed to get to Tianjin.
But first. Jin needed clothing that didn’t say Beijing Women’s Prison on the back. And weighted against every living person in the world, the life of one homeless beggar didn’t amount to much.
“Spare any change?” a wrinkled woman in dirty clothes asked, shaking a white, paper cup.
“I’m so sorry,” Jin said. Tears rushed to her eyes and the beggar could only stare.
The woman scrunched her face before turning around. “If you don’t have anything, go away. This is my spot.”
Jin cried harder as she bent down to pick up the dry piece of broken pavement. She raised it just as the old woman was reaching her pile of bags and newspapers.
Horror movies in China are heavily edited, but any twelve-year-old can download the full version. Jin had loved horror movies when she was in college. Her stomach was made of iron and no scene, no matter how vile, could ever make her feel queasy. But the sight of the open skull of the old beggar caused Jin to throw up immediately. It was the second dead body she’d seen in the last twelve hours, but at least the first one had been stabbed. At least the first still looked like a person.
She stripped the beggar of all her clothing before sorting it by least bloody. In the small, hole-filled bag kept by her newspaper mattress, Jin found a second coat. It smelled worse than the first one, but at least it didn’t have blood on it. Inside the solid black trash bag on the other side, she found bread, egg tarts, and chicken. The chicken had maggots and the other two food items had mold, but Jin continued searching the bag. She held her breath and dug until she hit the bottom. Her perseverance was rewarded when she withdrew a large stack of RMB notes—most of them ones, but a few fives and tens were tucked in as well. For a moment the only sound she heard was the rifling of cash and cars passing overhead.
Five hundred sixteen RMB. Three years ago, a taxi from Beijing to Tianjin was roughly four hundred, but finding a willing driver was difficult unless he could find another passenger. Then the price would drop to three hundred each. She looked down at her clothes before swearing under her breath. She’d never find a car or other passenger while dressed like this. She thought for a moment before taking the tie out of her hair and bending over. She ran her hands through several times before shaking her head back and forth. Then, she made her way over to the small river that ran perpendicular to the bridge. She stared at the water and an unkempt homeless woman stared back. Jin turned around to make her way up toward the road before stopping. If she were a beggar, she’d need to beg. She reached down to the fresh corpse and tugged at the white cup. The hands were clinched around it, forcing Jin to pry the fingers loose one by one.
She vomited again.
Once on the street she walked slowly, never looking at passersby. She made her way to the first shop that had clothes inside—a Japanese chain store called Uniqlo. She was quickly greeted by a well-dressed man in his early twenties.
“No, no, so sorry miss. You can’t beg here,” he said.
“It’s okay I—”
“Miss,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry. I really can’t let you beg in here. My boss’ll be angry and call the cops.”
“I saved up enough money to buy some new clothes,” Jin said.
The boy looked at her skeptically. Jin reached into her pocket and pulled out the cash and the boy smiled. Jin returned this smile but closed her mouth quickly. The narrowed eyes and slightly tilted head told Jin that her white teeth struck the boy as odd. She shuffled away from him quickly before grabbing a few items and making a beeline for the dressing rooms. The female attendant resisted her as well, but when the boy approached again and told her it was fine, she opened the room.
“You have three items now,” the attendant said as the door opened. “You’ll have three items when you get out.”
Jin thanked the girl before changing. The rough, smelly, brown clothes fell off as soon as Jin entered the room. The jeans, white undershirt, and pink blouse, however, slid on with care and precision. Jin straightened her hair as best she could with her hand before looking in the mirror. She felt pretty again, but only for a moment. She needed socks and underwear now. The shoes she wore at the prison would have to do, though, out of fear her money wouldn’t be enough for new ones as well as the cab fare back to Tianjin. She changed back into the brown clothes, grabbed socks and underwear, and after paying, made her way to the nearest bathroom.
Now. A taxi.
Jin walked out of Uniqlo and hailed the first cab she could find. When she explained she had three hundred and eighty RMB and needed to go to Tianjin, the driver laughed and drove off. The second more politely declined and the third waved his hand before flipping her the bird.
But the fourth.
The fourth was a chubby man with the body of a forty-year-old and the teeth of an eighty-year-old. He also rejected at first. She pleaded and he said no again. When she begged, he looked around and asked her what she was willing to do for the ride.
Jin asked what he wanted.
He smiled a six-tooth smile as he nodded toward his crotch. Jin leaned away slightly. He then brought his closed fist to his mouth and pretended to suck on an imaginary popsicle. Jin’s face scrunched in disgust.
“How bad do you need to get to Tianjin?” he asked.
The drive took three hours and, in a move of pure audacity, the driver even demanded Jin cover the tolls for the trip back. He did, however, at least give her an unopened bottle of water to wash the taste of cab driver semen out of her mouth.
Once they reached Tianjin, the driver dropped her off at the house she and her ex-husband had bought just over five years ago. But whereas their fifth anniversary of buying the house was three months prior, Yanni’s fifth birthday was tomorrow. The day the aliens said they’d return for what they’d bought.
Jin made her way into the gated community by asking the guards to open the gate. Jin was immediately grateful that some things never changed. Damn near every apartment complex in Tianjin is “gated,” and they’re all guarded by the cheapest labor money can buy. With the amount of deliveries from online purchasing or food bought through different apps, an entire day’s worth of work for a guard was simply opening the gate anytime someone asked them to.
The security system in her building was a joke, too. The elevators required a key fob that would scan which floor you were allowed to go to, but the stairwells were all unlocked. She and her husband had bought an apartment on the fourteenth floor, which would’ve been a mild inconvenience if she hadn’t arrived at the same time as a resident that lived on the sixteenth floor. She stepped on the elevator with her, rode to sixteen before then taking the stairs down two floors. She stopped in the stairwell and took a deep breath. Before her incarceration she’d dug out a brick from the wall and hidden a key inside. It was due for a paint job then, and she didn’t suspect anyone would notice. Someone had noticed the need for paint, however, and Jin hoped that when the maintenance people came, they weren’t thorough enough to also find the loosened brick. She pushed in on the wall. The brick shifted ever so slightly. She reached into her pocket and withdrew one of the one-RMB coins and began digging along the edges. Minutes later she had her key. She opened the door to the hallway before going to room 1404. She slid the key into the knob and turned.
She entered the apartment. Everything was foreign, yet familiar. She knew the layout, but aside from a few pieces of furniture, most of it had been changed. She immediately made her way to the baby’s room. She opened the door and tears welled within her eyes. Instead of the crib there was a bed. Instead of a rocking chair there was a small desk with fresh marks of crayon and color pencil. On a large sheet of construction paper were different characters with corresponding pictures. 狗 had a picture of a dog with a ball in its mouth, 猫 had a cat batting at some yarn, and老虎 had a fluffy, smiling tiger giving you a thumbs up. Yanni wasn’t a baby, and Jin could not wait to see how she’d grown.
She then made her way to the kitchen. A kettle rested on the stove top. When they were married, every night Cheng would ask her to make red tea. She opened the lid. Half full of water. She closed it and went to the bathroom. She opened the mirror, not sure yet what she was looking for.
Extra toothpaste. Toothbrushes. Flossers. Soap.
Jin swore as she gently closed the mirror. She then went into what had been their room. The bed was still the same—she assumed, anyway—and the bedside tables were the same as well. The only difference was the one on her side was bare. The one on Cheng’s side, however, had a box of tissues—Jin already knew there would be, Cheng was a nightly masturbator—an empty glass, and a large bottle of sleeping pills. Tough time sleeping, huh? She wondered. Was he struggling with the guilt of having his wife thrown in prison and then divorcing her? Must be tough being you, Cheng.
Jin opened the bottle. Four pills remained of the original fifty. “Waste not, want not,” Jin said as she dumped the pills into her hand. She then made her way back to the kitchen where she ground them up using the back of a steak knife and a wooden cutting board. She poured the powder into the kettle before then sticking the back of the knife into the water as well. Once it was clean, she pulled it out, wiped off the cutting board, and went back into their spare bedroom. It was just as she left it. She had always been the decorator. The maroon, floor-length curtains ran the length of the wall. Jin opened them, flooding the room with light. The spare bed was perfectly made with two pillows on each side and a yellow fifth one right on top. On the bedside table rested a copy of Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem. Jin smiled as she rushed to pick it up. It had been her favorite book before she was carried away. This was how she’d pass the time until her husband and daughter returned home.
The front door to the house opened just as Jin was turning to page two-seventy. She rose quietly, closed the maroon curtains, returned the book to the table, and then laid down beside the bed—just out of sight from the door in case someone came in. Then, she waited. An hour went by. Her daughter laughed as she told Cheng about her day. Jin wept silently as she tried to imagine Yanni telling her these things. Another hour went by, time for homework. The television switched on. Jin’s heart pounded.
The kettle whistled.
Jin worried her heart was beating so hard that the downstairs neighbor were going to call up and complain.
The whistling stopped. Jin counted to five hundred before then convincing herself she needed to count to it again. Then, she rose. She slowly opened the door. She walked down the hallway, stopping only to peak into Yanni’s room. The little girl was so absorbed in her drawing she didn’t realize she was being watched. Jin wanted so badly to tell the girl to do her homework and stop drawing—maybe then she’d actually feel like a mother—but resisted. She continued down the hallway, one step after another. Jin glanced at the clock on the stove—it read 6:59. In one minute every channel in China would switch to CCTV where the government would tell the people what to believe that day. She crept closer.
The man then lifted the kettle to pour more hot water into the teacup. He was having to lift at a higher angle to get enough water out now, and Jin guessed it was three-quarters empty already.
The intro to CCTV came on, followed by the breaking news of a daring escape attempt at the sole women’s prison in Beijing. Three women broke out, but only one got away—killing a guard in the process. They weren’t releasing names at this time. Cheng’s teacup fractured into four pieces as it hit the beautiful wood flooring Jin had picked out. The man’s hand shook. Jin took another step, and the beautiful wood flooring announced her presence. Cheng slowly turned around.
“Jin?” he asked trying to stand up.
“Daddy?” Yanni called out as she exited her room. “What broke?”
“No! Yanni, run! Ru—” he stumbled forward using his hands to brace himself against the floor before whispering, “Run,” and passing out.
Yanni stepped back, her eyes went wide as they darted between Jin and Cheng.
“It’s okay, it’s okay now baby. I’m here. Momma’s here.” Jin crouched, but Yanni didn’t step forward. “Yanni, you don’t need to see this okay? Why don’t you go draw in your room? Ah, but don’t forget about your homework.” Jin smiled, but Yanni remained frozen. Jin stepped forward and the girl recoiled. “Yanni. I am your mother. You will do as I say, do you understand?”
Yanni’s face went white. Jin stepped forward again and the girl again stepped back before nodding and backing into her room. The door creaked as the little girl brought it to a close.
Jin looked at the clock in their spare bedroom. 11:48. “Twelve minutes until your birthday!” she said, looking over at Yanni. Perhaps it was the steak knife in her hand, perhaps it was her still getting used to having a mother again, or perhaps it was the sight of Cheng unconscious and tied to a chair, but Yanni had yet to seem comfortable with Jin’s presence.
The curtains were drawn and the whole of Tianjin could be seen. “Do you see the Tianjin Eye, Yanni?” Jin asked, using the knife to point to the tall, red-glowing Ferris Wheel that sat in the middle of downtown. Have you ridden it before?”
The girl cautiously nodded.
Jin swore under her breath. “You know, when I was pregnant with you, your father promised we’d take you. He sai—”
The man groaned.
“Well, speak of Cao Cao and Cao Cao shall arrive!” She looked at Yanni. “Have you heard that phrase, honey? Do you know who Cao Cao is?”
The girl shook her head.
“Poor girl,” Jin said. “Your father’s taught you nothing, has he?”
The man groaned again before looking up.
“Headache?” Jin asked.
Cheng nodded. “What happened?” he asked before opening his eyes wider. “Jin!” he said. “Jin, please. Please, you have to listen to me.”
“No, Cheng, you have to listen to me!” Jin’s eyes watered again. “You’ve spent the last three years turning my daughter against me, and it ends today.”
“Turning your daughter against you? Jin, I haven’t said anything bad about you! Hell, I haven’t said anything about you!”
Jin pointed the knife at Cheng. “I’m saving this for when the aliens come, Cheng. But you lie again, I’ll start early.”
“Again with the aliens? Jin, listen to yourself! What aliens?”
Two tears escaped Jin’s eyes. “The aliens that you swore to give our precious child to once she turned five.”
The man shook his head. “No. I don’t know where you got that from.”
“Well listen here,” Jin continued, ignoring Cheng, “I am not letting them take her alive.”
“Alive?” he said.
“I remember the night they came, Cheng. They offer you a position in their new Earth, and you give them a child that’s half human.”
“Half hu—where is this coming from? Is this a new part of the story or something?”
“Don’t try to trick me, Cheng. I know you too well for that. I’ll always remember that night you betrayed me.”
Cheng looked down. He too then began to cry. “Jin, I was drunk and I apologized so many times. You ne—”
“Not that time. Not the time I found you balls deep in some hundred-kuai slut. I mean the night with the aliens when you,” Jin paused. She sniffled as she looked out the window. She looked toward the sky for signs of incoming ships. “That night when you traded my womb—your own wife’s womb—for a place in their world.”
“Jin, we weren’t even married when you got pregnant. Remember? That’s why we got married. No alien ever slept with you. I did. That night at the party.”
Jin stared at him. Was she crazy? She couldn’t be. And she knew why. “Prison,” she said. “If all this is like you’re saying, why send me to prison then? If I’m really the mother of your daughter, why send me to prison?”
Cheng looked up at her. His mouth was wide open as he stared into her eyes. “I didn’t send you to prison. I work in an office, what power do I have to send people to prison?” He stared at her as if he were waiting for her to remember something. “Jin, the police sent you to prison. For killing that woman you found me with. Don’t you remember?”
Jin remembered the woman, but she knew she’d never killed anyone until early today—and that was to save humanity.
“Jin. Put down the knife.”
Jin looked past Cheng at the small clock that hung beside the door. 12:01. Could he be right? She looked over at her daughter. The poor girl was terrified. She thought back to earlier in the day, the way the two laughed with each other. The way he told her to do her homework and she’d readily agreed. Their relationship was good. But her memories? That night it had been an alien that climbed onto her at that party, not Cheng. They were already married at the time. Or were they? She clinched the knife as her anger grew. What had Cheng done to make her this way? She needed evidence. Hard evidence. She looked back at the clock. 12:03. It had been her daughter’s birthday for three minutes. If the aliens were coming, they were late. They we—
A bright, white light shone through the window accompanied by a deafening sound of wind. They’d arrived. She looked into the light as it hovered just beyond their apartment on the fourteenth floor before looking down at Cheng. The typhoon-like winds drowned out his pleas for help and his promises that she didn’t understand. She grabbed the hair on top of his head and yanked back before dragging the knife across his throat. Yanni screamed, but Jin instead turned to the window.
“You see? I’m not afraid of you! You’ll never get my daughter! I’ll kill her myself before I let you take her!” The window shattered and numerous loud bangs went off that rendered Jin nearly blind. She turned around and reached out, stabbing into the open air until her free hand felt the unmistakable hair of her daughter. She yanked back hard and the girl shrieked.
“I’m sorry, Yanni,” Jin yelled. “I wish there was another way to save everyone.”
She stabbed just below where the she held the girl’s hair. Another scream. She stabbed again and again until the screaming stopped. The aliens tackled her from behind, yelling that she was under arrest but she could only laugh. She’d saved the world. It had cost her Yanni. But she’d saved the world.