Substitute

Mr. B is a rich man.

Like many other men who possess great wealth, Mr. B is constantly haunted by the fear of death. If something happens to me, what will become of my business? Will my money all go to waste? Fear leads to superstition, especially when Mr. B happens to be a Chinese tycoon. Like his fellow Chinese rich men, Mr. B finds himself a fortuneteller.

So, Mr. B has this fortuneteller called Master M. Most fortunetellers claim to be the best of their kind, Master M is no exception. Whether his boast matches his ability, we ignorant humans don’t have the privilege to judge. But Mr. B, you see, for some reason, obey Master M’s words like a herd of sheep following the shepherd.

When Master M foresees a dangerous threat looming over his destiny, a threat which could cost him his existence, Mr. B is in real panic. Sin Master M doesn’t just glimpse at the future- he knows the ancient, secret arts to alter Fate, Mr. B still has hope for salvation.

Master M, who of course doesn’t wish to lose a rich, generous client like Mr. B, is willing to help him overcome this fatal trial, even if it means going against his worshipped God’s thoughtfully woven web.

A terrible, incurable disease will befall you, Master M says, and there is but one way to evade its grasp. Mr. B seems to be swallowing each syllable from the master’s lips. You have to find a substitute. A substitute? Yes, a substitute. A dog would be best. Feed it, nurture it and it will take the misfortune in your place.

A dog, fine. Mr. B has no love for dogs or any animals in general. Many a time has he turned down his little daughter’s pleas to have a mutt in their mansion. Please, I’ll feed him myself, bathe him myself, and clean up after his poo poo myself, please. Her voice choked with tears, her round eyes swelled with tears but still, no means no.

Needless to say how happy she is when Mr. B brings home a puppy. A cream-colored mongrel which doesn’t cost as much as a purebred. And a crippled one to boost. Part of him did not want his daughter to get attached to the substitute. After all, he didn’t buy it to be his pet; he bought it to replace his seat in Death’s table.

Mr. B spends generously with this little puppy, to the extent even his wife was surprised. He buys it the finest dog food, an expensive collar (not that he wishes to walk the pup anyway) and the most comfortable cage any dog could hope for. Like Master M has told him, Mr. B is going to pamper it till its death.

It has come at last, the day the mysterious ailment strikes. Mr. B wakes up to the shrilling tone of little Shirley and he knows immediately what has happened. Shirley never shrieks. When she does, it has to be something horrible.

And a horrible thing indeed it is. The pup’s thick fur has thinned a great deal and one of its claws has fallen off its paw, leaving behind a fresh, red hole filled with lime-colored pus. The skin wrinkles and loosens to the point it will be peel off its flesh with a single touch. His wife nearly retches at its sight and demands the pup to be emaciated right away. But Shirley will not allow anyone to touch her dog. Despite its grotesque form, his daughter holds it in her arms and cries her eyes out.

Vet after vet come but none is able to define what exactly this kind of disease is and how to cure it. Each time the vet shakes his head, little Shirley’s heart sinks a little deeper. The pup’s health is going downhill fast and since Mr. B has already known its fate, he tries his best to ease his girl’s grief (and his guilt as well) with a promise of a new, healthy pup to replace this crippled cur. But Shirley only shakes and cries.

Three days the pup struggles and three days little sweet Shirley literally spends her days by its side, despite all her mother’s pleads and threats. Mr. B assures her everything will soon be back to normal.

The forth day comes and Mr. B has half expected to wake up to his daughter’s wail. Instead, the first thing he hears is her cry of joys. Shirley stomps into her parents’ room with tears in her eyes and the biggest smile her small face can endure. It’s like a miracle has happened during the night. Not only did the pup escape its half-dead state, its fast recovery is beyond normal comprehension. Last night it was still a hairless trembling lump of meat; now it is a hungry little pup which greedily digests anything Shirley prepares. While the adults are left to their perplexity, Shirley is content with her ignorance. As long as her best friend stays with her, nothing else matters.

Mr. B doesn’t quite share his daughter’s joys. Before he realizes, a primal chill which none of Master M’s charms and spells can ward has coiled inside his stomach.

The next morning, Mr. B wakes up to find a great deal of his hair has left his scalp. On his left hand, there’s a fresh, red hole filled with lime-colored pus where his nail should have been.

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