Look Beside You, They May Not Be
Who You Think They Are
Best of the Net 2019 Nomination
This short story is based on true events.
The Shanghai summer heat is sweltering. Swarms of people amble along the battered cobblestone path— students savoring the scant few days left of break, joggers drenched in sweat, men and women dressed in suits far too constricting for the humidity. A businessman’s armful of Starbucks tips sideways precariously as he bends to open the door of his taxi.
Occasionally, one or two people pause, if only for a second to put small bits of spare change in a little boy’s bowl. He doesn’t speak, or even look up—he just bows his head meekly whenever he hears the clink of a coin. He is skinny, so skinny that the vertebrae of his back are visible through his thin t-shirt, and an old man sits a short distance behind him, arms crossed and eyes fixed on the boy.
Nobody pays them much mind. Beggars, even around affluent residential areas like this, are not uncommon. The only notable thing the scene offers is a sickly sheen to the boy’s skin, and the harrowing image he casts amongst the otherwise picturesque street corner. But for a moment it is as if a veil has been placed between him and the rest of the world, rendering him invisible; nobody reacts when he tips sideways and begins to seize violently, not even the old man behind him. The boy so clearly does not belong here, where the sky is cast a rare blue and the sweet scent of coffee permeates the air. His place is elsewhere—a hospital, where he can get the treatment he needs.
He remains unnoticed for several more weeks. By the time somebody finally cares to help, it is because the image he presents is too grating to ignore any longer—frothing at the mouth, sores covering his body, and barely able to remain upright. Before, he could be easily ignored, silent and tucked away by throngs of moving people, but now he sticks out like a sore thumb. A group of concerned onlookers gradually gather around him, and when someone steps forward to help, the poker-faced old man finally moves.
“Don’t touch my grandson!” he screeches, shrill, too loud.
“I’m very sorry, but he needs medical attention,” a woman, plastic bag of groceries dangling from her arm, explains. “We would like to help him.”
“No. He’s fine.” The old man replies brusquely. “Get up, get up!” he says to the boy urgently underneath his breath, pulling him to his feet with rough movements. The old man looks up, gesturing to the boy with a glare, “See? He can stand.”
“With all due respect, sir, I’ve seen him around multiple times already and he doesn’t seem to be getting better.” A teacher working at a nearby school steps forward. “He needs to go to the hospital.”
“This is none of your business.” The old man’s glare turns even flintier at the sight of a foreigner.
“I can personally pay for everything, he just needs a doctor.” The teacher doesn’t back down.
“Money isn’t the issue here,” the old man replies rudely. He startles, as if suddenly noticing the growing crowd, some filming with their cellphones out. “What the hell are you looking at?” he barks, repeating, “This is none of your business!”
“No,” the teacher insists loudly, volume rising to match his, “This is inhumane! You’re—you’re abusing him, he needs help!”
The old man scowls vehemently. He opens his mouth, but his scathing reply is cut off by the sound of tires screeching to a stop against the asphalt. Oscillating orange lights sweep over the crowd and the ambulance doors swing open, paramedics rushing out with a stretcher.
The old man whips his head around furiously. “Who called an ambulance?” he asks, voice hard and accusing.
“I did,” the woman from before says, unapologetic. “We told you. He needs help.”
“He’s completely fine!” the old man shrieks again while the paramedics shoulder their way through the crowd of onlookers, many of whom only swarm closer in curiosity. When they attempt to lift the boy onto the stretcher, the old man blocks them with his own body.
“He is fine! This is all a mistake, he doesn’t need to go to the hospital.”
It is a blatant and completely transparent lie. The boy is far from “fine; ” the only reason he is still upright is the old man’s white-knuckled grip on his shoulders. The pallor of the uninflamed parts of his skin looks morbid under broad daylight, but luckily the old man’s resistance is no match as the paramedics power forward, prying the boy away.
“Are you related to him?” one of the them asks impatiently.
The old man sends him a dirty look, sensing his defeat. “I’m his grandfather.”
“Great, let’s go,” the paramedic says.
The crowd parts like the Red Sea this time, and soon the only evidence they were ever even there is the faint smell of gasoline in the air.
Later, at the hospital, the old man seems surprised to see the woman and the teacher again, though he masks it quickly with a distrustful scowl. The teacher lifts her chin, almost defiantly, before he can speak, “I said I would pay for everything, didn’t I?”
He considers her for a moment, before unexpectedly shrugging in acquiescence. “Fine, fine,” he says. His tone isn’t hostile (but not kind, by any means), “But I just spoke to the doctor, and they refuse to release him for at least a couple more days. Just send me the money and I can pay for everything when he’s discharged, that way you don’t have to come back here.”
The teacher doesn’t think too much of it, and concedes easily enough. “All right,” she says, “How much do you need?”
The old man rattles off a number, and it doesn’t take long to wire the money. “I’ve got it,” he says gruffly when his phone pings with a notification. He doesn’t thank her.
“Can I see him?” the teacher asks, and the old man gestures to the curtain behind him. “The far right side, near the door,” he says. “I’m going to the bathroom.”
Neither of the women pay him any mind as he leaves, though perhaps they should. They don’t notice anything strange until a nurse speaks up hesitantly later.
“The man that was with you guys earlier, the boy’s grandfather? I think he just left in a taxi.”
“Oh,” the teacher says, startled. She forces a laugh. “I’m sure he’ll be back in a few days . . .” She trails off.
“Okay,” the nurse looks at her doubtfully. “Sorry to bother you.”
The teacher ignores the cold sinking feeling in her stomach, and exchanges a look with the woman beside her. The understanding they share is wordless and the realization gradual, but both are deafening in their clarity.
The “neglectful but penniless old grandfather” jig is up.
They stare at the boy in silence. He has hunched into himself unconsciously in his sleep, the tan of his skin stark and the sores on his body ghastly next to the sterile white of the hospital bedding. There is still dirt and dry mud matted in his hair, and he looks light years beyond his age.
He sighs softly as he shifts in the bed, wincing with the movement but not waking up. The women wince in tandem with him, and mourn for how young and how unfortunate he is. Because it’s unmistakable now.
He has just been abandoned, not by his grandfather, but worse—by his trafficker.
As of the Spring 2019 publication of this piece, Claire Hou was a junior at Concordia International School Shanghai. She enjoys binging rom-coms on the weekends, not getting out of bed until late noon, caramel macchiatos (with skimmed milk), and reading thriller novels on her Kindle.