by Monte Lin
Huìhuì Gāo’s homeroom teacher squinted at his roll call. He wore a slight smile that conveyed no joy. After a few seconds, he said, “Ms…?”
Her hand hovered over her desk, hesitant, ready to catch her name. Her teacher squinted and furrowed his brow and looked about the classroom, finally settling his gaze on her. “Here,” she said, her voice cracking a little.
He nodded, made a checkmark, and shouted out the next name: “Mark?”
At the end of homeroom, her teacher gestured her over to his desk with that same slight smile. “Do you mind correcting this?”
He spun the roll-call sheet around and pointed to the ink smudge between Adam Foster and Mark Henderson, where her name should have been. She returned the joyless smile. “You forgot my name?”
“Senior moment.” His jokes never invited nor produced laughter.
“I’ve been in your class this whole year.”
“Just write down what you want to be called.”
She distinctly remembered him calling her by name earlier that week. It wasn’t an uncommon name. It was… She picked up his cheap ballpoint pen and hovered the tip over the smudge. How could he forget?! He was the adult here, the teacher. This was his job. Her own polite but annoyed smile grew until she dropped the pen and said, “I have to be somewhere,” then ran out of the classroom, the smudge unchanged.
On the way to Chemistry, she navigated half-smiles, polite but confused greetings, her unspoken name dissolving into a “hey” or “what’s up” or maybe even a “gurl.” It could have been a prank. Yet when she checked her driver’s license, she saw only a frantic scratched-out patch, as if someone had run a key over it. Her essays had scrambled letters at the top in place of her name, but the paragraphs were fine. All of these things could have been an elaborate trick, except for the fact that, now that she thought about it, she herself could not remember her first name, her English name.
That feeling of a word on the tip of her tongue had always driven her to distraction, but her own name gone sent her spinning. The smudge in her mind spun like the solvent in the beaker, waiting for the solute. “I don’t feel so good.”
Her Chemistry teacher sighed. “Ms. Gow, there are only fifteen minutes left in the lab. Can’t you wait?”
The stares from the other students convinced her not to make a big deal of it, and she clamped down on her heart the rest of the school day. At home, denial her greatest tool, she started on her algebra homework, but this only made the panic worse. She jotted down numbers and symbols with discrete and concrete meanings, but the space for her name remained agonizingly blank.
When her mother came in later her room was in disarray: homework abandoned, boxes opened, and notebooks fanned out like flowers after a rain. “Mama,” the girl said, “what’s my name?”
“What a silly question. You are a grumpy Gāo girl, so much like your father.”
“I’m serious. What is my first name?”
Her mother smiled but her eyes froze, staring at a point next to her daughter. “Huìhuì, but you’ll always be Xiăohuì to me.”
“No, my… other name, my American name.”
“Psh. More silly questions.”
“Mama, do you even remember it?” she pleaded. “Because… I don’t.”
Everyone had forgotten her name. No, not merely forgotten. To everyone, Huìhuì’s American name was like a dream fading from consciousness the moment one woke up. A pause, a flutter, and then a frustrated shake of the head. She distinctly remembered texting friends two days ago, but when she looked back at the messages, her phone only showed squares, asterisks, and punctuation marks where her name should have been.
The next day, her friends, while confused, tried to be supportive, but still insisted they needed to call her something other than “gurl.”
“Do you have a middle name?”
“It’s… the same as my first name. My other first name.” She paused for a while, having not used her own other first name since the last big family gathering. “Huì.”
“Huì.” She exhaled the word past her lips, but it felt out of place, like a loose baby-tooth.
“Uh, close enough.”
“I like it. It’s cute. How come you never told us before?”
Huì shrugged, uncertain of what to say. Because it sounded weird coming from mouths that didn’t belong to her mother or father? Because she and her cousin Katherine would only call each other by their Chinese names if they wanted to make fun of each other? Because it felt like exposing something private, not a secret exactly, just more… intimate than she liked.
Huì tried to adjust to life without one of her names. Every time someone coughed up the syllable, it bounced around her head for a while before she realized the person was talking to her. Why was it so hard? She had always been Huìhuì after all. Why would she think she’d ever had another name? Over the week, she dealt with it the same way her parents faced a problem: shrug your shoulders and move on.
“Pardon? You have to, uh, speak more clearly, Hooey.”
Huì frowned. She had answered as clearly as she normally did.
“The square root of x can’t be a negative number.”
Silence filled the room. Her Algebra teacher blinked a couple of times and tapped the whiteboard with his marker. Huì heard a couple of students snickering behind her. “Right, yes. Can’t be a negative number. Good. Well done.”
After class, Huì quickly ducked outside around a corner to find a quiet, shady area to collect her thoughts. Why me? Why isn’t this happening to anyone else? She took her phone out of her purse and re-opened all of the tabs and links to amnesia and speech disorders, reading them again.
“Way? Are you OK?” her friend said, poking her head around the corner. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to rhyme.”
“It’s fine. Just. Do I sound different? Do I still sound like me?”
Her friend hesitated a bit too long. “You sound like you, Way.”
“But you remember me having a name? Not just Huì.”
“Kinda. It’s really fuzzy. I like Way, though. And it’s your real name anyway, right?”
“The other one was real too.”
“Does it matter? You’re still you.”
“I don’t know anymore.”
Dinner was always silent in her house, but that night, Huì felt a tension in the air, like a taut hair tie ready to snap. As she ladled soup into her bowl, she said, “I was wondering if I could make my name ‘Victoria’?”
“I like it,” Katherine said. It was one of those rare nights when she wasn’t out with her art school friends.
Huì’s father frowned. Her mother tch’d and set her own bowl down with a determined thunk.
“What?” Huì said.
“What what? Why change your name? Why waste time with this?” her mother said.
“I can’t have people call me Hooey, Way, Whey, Hey, or whatever all the time.”
“Because you don’t like your name?” her father asked. “Because you think something’s wrong with it?”
“Uncle, c’mon… You’re the generation that gave us American names.” Huì’s father raised a hand to shush Katherine, who smirked and shook her head.
Huì said, in a softer voice, “No, nothing’s wrong with it…”
“You know, my Christian name is Michael,” her father interrupted, staring at her as if this revelation should have caused her head to explode. “But I don’t use it, because it’s not my name.”
“Yeah, exactly!” Her mother glared and Huì felt she had pushed too hard. Her voice dropped to a murmur. “I want to be called my name.”
“Huìhuì is your name,” her mother said. The end. No more discussion.
“Are you going to be OK, Huì?” Katherine leaned against the doorframe to her cousin’s bedroom.
Huì lay on her bed, dinner pressing uncomfortably against her ribs and bladder, full but unsated. “Victoria.”
Katherine blinked a couple of times. “Right. Yeah. Sorry.”
“No, it’s fine. That doesn’t sound right either. Even I keep forgetting.” She grabbed her pillow and covered her face. “Am I going crazy?”
“If so, then we’re all going nuts.” Katherine shrugged. “I can drive you to the doctor.”
“And tell him what? That I lost my name? Dropped it in the couch? He’ll prescribe me antipsychotics or something. Think of what Mama and Baba would tell everyone. ‘Hey, here is our crazy daughter. Look how crazy she is.'”
“No way. They’ll keep you locked up as their secret shame.” Katherine’s smile dimmed. “Hey, at least on antipsychotics, you won’t care.”
Huì uttered a dry and muffled, “Ha ha ha.”
The alarm clock screamed. She spent minutes staring at the numbers, meaningless symbols indicating something of import. Yet despite this lack of comprehension, she managed to turn off the alarm, a complicated sequence of buttons and switches designed specifically to force her to wake up enough to remember the pattern.
She lay back in her bed, eyes adjusting to the morning light. Something’s wrong. What’s missing?
She sat up straight. Mama usually came in to yank off the covers by now. Where was she?
A pair of dirty jeans, a bra, and an old T-shirt later, she ran down to the kitchen. Mama and Baba both leapt in their seats, staring at her.
“Why didn’t you wake me?”
Her parents looked at each other, silently communicating annoyance and disapproval through frowns and furrowed brows. Her father finally said, “That’s not our responsibility.”
“You… What? Mama comes in almost every morning to wake me up. She bought me that stupid clock.”
“Tch.” Mama waved the accusation away. “You don’t have to use the clock.”
“Mama. Baba. What’s going on?” When they stiffened at her question, a thought choked in her throat. “What’s my name?”
“That’s not important right now,” Baba said. “You’re late. You need to go.”
“Mama. My name.”
“You are Gāo. That’s all you need to know.”
Gāo, not a Gāo.
That never-sated feeling stuck around. Lunch period. The rice didn’t fill her stomach. Neither did the chā shāo, once her favorite. And the should-have-been-satisfying crunch of the báicài gave her no pleasure. By two o’clock, she was hungry again, so much so that the ache in her stomach kept her distracted.
She skipped soccer practice to go straight home, threw open the refrigerator door and dug into last night’s leftovers. Still unsated, she tore open a package of premade jiăozi and tossed them into an oil-covered pan, then poured some water and covered them as they crackled. With soy sauce and vinegar, it tasted right but still didn’t fill the emptiness inside. So she ripped apart a package of instant ramen, boiled some water, and waited by the plate-covered bowl, faint tendrils of steam reaching for the ceiling.
Slurping down the noodles, having eaten enough for three people, she felt as hungry as she did before.
She has become an è guĭ, her parents shouted from behind closed bedroom doors. A hungry ghost.
She’s going to eat our kitchen empty, her mother said.
We could bring a priest, do an exorcism, her father said.
That costs money.
We’re strong, Baba said. We can endure this.
Why us? What did we do wrong? Why are we cursed?
It’s not our fault. We’re good people. We did nothing wrong. We just have to figure out what to do with… it.
Maybe if we feed it enough, it will leave us alone.
“It.” Her. The thing with no name. Who belongs to the Gāo but is not a Gāo. ??? sat in her room, notebook in front of her, trying to carve out a word, on the tip of her tongue, in the back of her mind, a name that–
??? didn’t hear the woman come home, kick her shoes off, and drop her backpack by the couch. She didn’t hear the TV turn on to some silly talk show. She didn’t see her grab an orange from the kitchen.
??? sat at the dining table with the ever-growing bowl of pennies, wondering if she could get maybe ten dollars at the supermarket coin exchange machine, enough to buy a couple pieces of pizza with her friends. She shivered at the thought of pizza, hot grease slithering down her throat and covering her face, cheese sticking to her teeth like glue, the crust harsh, cutting the insides of her mouth. Instead, she grabbed a handful of pennies (cold, smooth, a comforting weight), lifted it above her head, and opened her mouth wide.
The pennies clattered onto the kitchen tile like static on a bad call, knocked away by the woman’s hand. A fire erupted in ???’s hollow stomach, almost soothing in the way it replaced the sensation of being carved out from the inside.
“Stop it. Stop! Victoria. Cousin. It’s me. It’s Katherine.”
??? had her hands out, arched like claws, bits of skin and blood under her fingernails. Katherine held out her arm, wounds beading with blood. A noise had pierced through the ping of copper on tile and the chatter of the talk show guests. A howl. ???’s voice.
“Victoria! Stop it!”
??? focused on Katherine’s face, and for a moment, it didn’t have eyes, hair, a nose, a mouth. For a moment, it looked like slices of meat, warm red soup, crunchy sinew, and gristle. Then it returned to the face of her cousin in a blink.
“Kathy,” ??? said, “what’s wrong with me?”
“Pica? What’s pica?” a voice that sounded like Mama’s asked.
“The doctor said it’s a disorder.” That had to be Katherine. “Where someone tries to eat something that isn’t food. Metal, dirt, cloth, hair, whatever.”
“Psh. You know what we call people like that?”
“Yeah, people who need therapy. Who need a doctor. She needs help.”
“Therapy?” a voice like Baba’s shouted. The chatter of the news channel almost drowned out his voice. “Waste of money.”
“Then what are you going to do to help, um… Victoria?”
“Who?” Mama echoed.
That should bother me, ??? thought, but instead, her eyes turned to her stuffed animals, the white fluffiness reminding her of cotton candy melting on her tongue, the sweetness dancing in her mouth…
“Take it with you,” her father said to Katherine.
Katherine turned to ???. “You’re welcome to sit in my class.”
“Thanks.” ??? didn’t want to be in the house either. In the days after the doctor’s appointment, she had tried to eat the bits from the electric screwdriver set (the metal looked solid, weighty, filling), but her cousin had stopped her. She had tried to eat the fingernail clippings (crispy, crunchy, salty) she found on the bathroom floor, but her mother had screeched at her to get out of the house. She did manage to eat the roses growing in the front yard (they tasted like what love should be, delicate, fragile, subtle), but resisted eating the thorns, just barely. All these familiar things wanted to be eaten, even while ??? knew they couldn’t be, shouldn’t be food.
“Maybe a change of scenery might help,” Katherine suggested.
No luck. While the instructor described a glazing technique, she, the hungry ghost, couldn’t stop thinking about how crunchy that brown ceramic cup would be. Or how chewy that woman’s purse could be between her teeth. Or how the dust on the table reminded her of potato chip crumbs in the bottom of a crinkly bag. She pressed her hands against her stomach, hoping to make it feel less empty.
“OK, let’s take a break, class. Stretch our legs.”
Katherine waved ??? over and began talking about firing techniques and different clay properties, trying to distract her. ??? put on a smile but felt her teeth clatter and grind against each other. Focus! Stop thinking about eating. Just think about… words. Pottery. Clay. Glaze.
“Hey, Kat, if you’re talking clay,” the instructor interrupted, “you might be interested in this too.” He held a clear plastic bag full of white chunks that reminded ??? of chalk, but less dusty. “It’s called kaolin clay. It’s used in porcelain to give it its luster.”
The instructor removed a palm-sized chunk, and immediately a thick, wet, rich petrichor permeated the workspace. ???’s dry tongue moistened and she sucked in her lips. “Can I see?”
The instructor blinked, startled, but handed the chunk over. ??? took a big bite.
The clay, though dry on her fingers, had the mouthfeel of crumbly hard cheese. The kaolin cooled her throat as it traveled down to her stomach, and the weight halted the ache in her gut. She felt grounded, heavy, full.
“What’s wrong with it now?” her father asked at the breakfast table.
“A hungry ghost sometimes eats things that aren’t food,” her mother replied.
“No.” Her cousin shook her head. “Kaolin clay has digestive properties. People all over the world eat it to calm their stomachs. It’s mined in Gāolĭng. That’s how it got its name. And it’s helping.”
“What is it going to eat next?” her father asked. “What are we going to do?”
“She’s not an ‘it.’ She’s your daughter. She had a name. It was…” A sound like a gasp escaped Katherine’s lips. “She has a name. Victoria. Or you can name her. You did it before.”
“What is the point?” her mother said. “It was the one that misplaced its name.”
“I’m the one taking her to the doctor. The least you could do is stop calling her ‘it.’”
Silence descended upon them, broken only when ??? took another bite of the kaolin clay.
Days of white clay collected in the garage. ??? tried to pay Katherine back with her savings, but her cousin refused. Katherine even tried her best to normalize it by packing it in a lunch box for ??? to take to school. Everyone left ??? alone, thank goodness, although in a way that signaled to her that she truly was a stranger. Her friends had stopped talking to her, not even a text or an email. At least she wasn’t hungry anymore.
What hurt most, however, was that when she sat down for dinner and Katherine served her a bowl of clay, her parents turned away to watch the television. At least they left an orange or grapefruit by her bedroom door, along with two twigs of burning incense, every night.
Being called a “hungry ghost” gave ??? an idea. She picked a spot in the cemetery where no one would bother her. She couldn’t study at school, where her friends’ eyes skipped past her. She refused to study at home, where her parents turned the volume on the television to deafening levels. At least among the dead, everyone had solitude and privacy.
She took out some míng zhĭ, bright red rectangles with little golden squares, from the shop by the front gate. She had even bought a paper cell phone and laptop. She held an old plastic lighter underneath the fake money, letting the flame catch and curl and blacken the papers before tossing them into the stone pot in front of the columbarium. She resisted the urge to bite at the ashes floating away.
“So this is where you have been hiding.” Katherine sat down next to her. “Why are you here, Vicky?”
??? didn’t turn her gaze from the orange flames. “Making an offering to the dead.” She tossed the paper cell phone into the pot, watching the fire dial the fake numbers.
“Wait, those are only used for funerals.” Katherine gestured to the paper laptop in ???’s hand.
“Yeah, péi zàng pĭn. Do you think the dead have internet?”
“Cousin, Vicky, you’re not dead.” Katherine wrapped her arm around ???. “See? You are flesh and blood.”
“Are you sure? My friends used to know me as one name. My parents knew me as another. Neither of them seemed like ‘me,’ just a label of me. Maybe I was never real.” She reached into the stone pot.
“Hey!” Katherine’s hand dove in to grab ???’s as the flames reached out. “Ow.”
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Why did you do that?! Why are you bothering to help?”
Katherine sucked on the tender skin. “Katherine’s not really my name. My parents never gave me an American one. I picked it when I turned thirteen.”
“Wait, no. I remember you always being Katherine.”
“Me too, sometimes.” She examined her hand. It had puffed up red a little. “I remember fighting my parents about it. They thought Zhĭjūn was fine. They didn’t understand.”
“But it worked. Everyone calls you Katherine now.”
“Well, sure, but I thought I did it to make it easier for me, but really, I was making it easier for everyone else.”
She stood up and offered ??? her flame-touched hand.
“You’re real. You are more than a name. Names fit the person, not the other way around. You are a person. And it’s not your fault other people won’t see that.”
During dinner, ??? sat in her room, chewing on a piece of white clay, letting it snap with a bite and crumble in between her teeth. In the English baby name book to her left, she scoured for the place in the alphabet where her old name might have been, looked for that telltale smudge. In the Chinese-to-English dictionary to her right, she slowly sifted through the characters, hoping to find the smudge, the shadow of her Chinese name.
Dinner downstairs erupted into a three-way shouting match that ended, finally, with Katherine announcing, “I can’t live here knowing you don’t care about my cousin.”
“It isn’t your cousin,” ???’s mother said. “I don’t know what it is anymore.”
“We don’t care? You don’t care,” ???’s father said. “Think of what kind of burden we carry.”
“She’s not a burden. She’s a person.”
??? listened to Katherine’s footsteps leaping up the stairs and into her room. The television downstairs got louder, drowning out the echoes of the argument.
??? went to Katherine’s room and found her furiously clicking on her mouse, staring at her laptop screen. “What are you doing?”
“Looking for an apartment. I can’t stand your parents.” She paused her clicking. “I’m sorry I can’t help. Get out of this house as soon as you can.”
“Can I stay with you? I can get a part-time job. I don’t mind sleeping on a couch. I can stay in a closet. Anything is better than here.”
“Yeah, OK. Let’s get a place, Vicky.”
???’s parents didn’t say a word when Katherine found a studio apartment, nor did they react when ??? announced she was leaving too. Katherine signed a rental agreement (??? couldn’t), they packed their boxes, and on the last day, ??? stood at the front door, looking back at her parents sitting on the living room sofa.
These weren’t the parents she knew and loved. “Look at me. Look at me!”
They both stiffened, eyes staring off into the distance.
Katherine turned around, box in her arms, and walked up behind ???. “Look at her, Uncle and Auntie. At least hungry ghosts get a festival.”
“I’m not an it. I’m a person. I’m your daughter. And I had a name. I have a name.” The bravado drained away as she spoke, each syllable growing softer and softer. “I had a name.”
She removed a piece of kaolin clay from the plastic bag she kept in her pocket and took a timid bite. It made a sharp, distinct crunch.
The sound seemed to shake her parents out of their daze. Her mother said, “Fine. You want a name? Why don’t you name yourself after what you’re eating?”
“Yes,” her father said, “if you take that name, will you stop cursing this family?”
??? looked up from the bag. She clamped her jaw together with another crunch.
“Gāolĭng?” ??? muttered, her voice white and chalky. “Gāolĭng. Gao Ling.”
“This is why we’re leaving,” Katherine said. “Family is more than just a name.”
“My name is Gao Ling,” she said, testing the words on her tongue. She nodded. “I am Ling. Vicky Ling.”
Katherine placed a hand on her cousin’s shoulder. “You don’t have to take it.”
“No, it’s fine. I… I like it.”
The ache in her stomach evaporated along with the frowns and furrowed brows of her parents. They morphed from confusion to relief to horror within seconds.
They opened and closed their mouths, chewing on possible, inadequate words. “Xiāolĭng,” they finally said.
Katherine set the box down to embrace her cousin. “Welcome back, Vicky Ling Gao.”
About the Author
While being rained on near Portland, Oregon, Monte Lin writes, edits, and plays tabletop roleplaying games. Clarion West got him to write about dying universes, dreaming mountains, and singularities made of anxieties. He can be found tweeting Doctor Who news, Asian-American diaspora discourse, and his board game losses at @Monte_Lin.
About the Narrator
S. Qiouyi Lu writes, translates, and edits between two coasts of the Pacific. Their fiction and poetry have appeared in Asimov’s, F&SF, and Strange Horizons, and their translations have appeared in Clarkesworld. They edit the flash fiction and poetry magazine Arsenika. You can find out more about S. at their website, s.qiouyi.lu.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.