map Kevin

by HC Hsu

Published in Issue No. 179 ~ April, 2012

‘He’d been having the same dream a couple of nights in a row. At least three, four times, probably more, he couldn’t remember. The dream was like this: ’

That was all the doctor wrote.

Black ink, on white paper. The ink was water-based, and bled, in places, creating lines and points of uneven thickness as well as darkness. Each stroke appeared more like a two-dimensional shape, lean, long, somewhat jagged and rough-edged. The letters were written in freely and loosely spaced cursive by and large, continuous within each word. That is a differentiating feature between a rollerball pen and a fountain pen, which forces you to stop mid-thought. With the fountain pen, the relationship is always three. There was little to no smudging, further suggesting a more controlled flow of ink, albeit far from steady and homogeneous. Unlike oil, which is found in ballpoints and in pigment-based styli (as is gel), water-based ink contains dye, which requires the light, reflective substrate of paper, to be seen. There is no more straightforward relation between pen and paper.

With white latex gloves he picked up the piece of torn notebook paper, with its punch-holes ripped apart; he flipped it over, and saw some of the ink had bled through, at random places, making a desultory pattern, some haphazard code. He held it up to the yellow ceiling light; the letters reappeared.

‘We have the tapes,’ his partner said. ‘Is there anything else?’

‘Yeah. Bag this.’ He handed the paper to him. He looked around a little bit more, then looked down.

‘And dust everything.’

He placed the tape, labeled A and dated ‘01/15/1982,’ into the deck slot, and pressed the PLAY button. The heads began to turn, making a soft whirling noise. Then a sudden ‘THUMP,’ like someone just popped out a puckered drumskin, followed by the sound of air rushing in, hissing, instantly filling an entire space. It was in the room, but was not in the room. It reminded him of the turbulent red-eye he had to catch in order to get here. He was constantly popping his ears. And each time he did so, all that surrounded him was raised a half-tone higher: reality kept shifting into a higher register.

He began listening.


Woman: It is midnight, on January 15. I am Renee Cheever. We are in my office. Can you please say your name?

Man: Kevin Barbario.

Woman: What is your occupation?

Man: Actor.

Woman: Are you agreeing to be recorded during this and subsequent sessions?

Man: Yes.

Woman: You understand you can withdraw from this at any point?

Man: Yes.

Woman: You understand this is confidential, nothing that can identify an individual will be disclosed in any resulting publication, or to anyone?


The recordings will be secure and accessible only by me. They will be destroyed after the projects completion.


Lets proceed, then.


Why are you here, Kevin?

Kevin [K for short hence]: I cant sleep.

Dr Cheever [C]: How long havent you slept?

K: Two weeks.

C: Whats keeping you awake?

K: [Pause.] Im having nightmares.

C: How long have you been having nightmares?

K: [Pause.] This one. Since last week.

C: [Pause.] You mean you have been having the same nightmare?

[Long pause.]

C: You can say:Yes.

K: Yes.

C: How many times have you had the nightmare?

K: Three, or four. That I remember. In a row.

C: In a row?

K: Yes.

C: So, you have stopped having themit, then?

K: No. Ive stopped sleeping.

C: Is this why youve scheduled the sessions for this time?

K: Yes.

C: Can you describe the dream for me?

K: Yes.


The cassette wound down, and stopped here. The room was suddenly silent. After a minute, though, he realized that wasn’t completely true. A tiny, tick-tick sound came from his watch, like a tiny insect tapping its legs on a smooth, hard surface. Time felt almost weightless.

He was struck suddenly by this feeling. He had felt it once, which seemed like another lifetime.


He lifted his head up.

Tick, tick, tick, tick


He was alone again.

January 17, 1982

K: One strand after another of smoke flies into the sky. Whitish, actually really like the clouds in the sky. No smell, maybe too far. Then melting into the clouds, up there, and vanishes. Slowly, the whole mountain starts to get foggy, hazy. The smoke is coming from close to the top of the mountain.

I am at the bottom of the mountain, looking up. [Pause.] The smoke is very regular, and rhythmic, a fold, another fold, rising. Cant see clearly where it is coming from exactly.


I keep watching.


The sky is grayish white, a few dark clouds, with a look like its about to rain. Nothing. At first, I am going to climb up on this road. I do it, sunny, rainy, every day, like so. Getting to the top is about a mile. The slope is steep, however.


Can the house be on fire? I suddenly think. Then what do I do? My instincts. I dont run up. The smoke is becoming a little, a bit, denser. The several strands contract into one, looking like a snake, swaying. I am watching. Suddenly a wave of a toasty smell, then a light breeze of cold wind, blow over me.


The PLAY button popped up again. He found it strange the doctor would, seemingly, cut him off, cut the story short, chop it up into bits, pieces, fragments. He had never understood psychiatry or psychology.

January 18. Tape C.

K: I am going to call the police. I quickly turn around, and begin to walk down.

His phone rang. Instinctively he pressed the STOP button on the deck.

Phone, ringing.



‘Hey, sport.’

‘I’m leaving for camp now.’ A clear, enunciated, crystalline-toned child’s voice.

‘OK, we have to go now, Kevin,’ a woman said loudly in the background.

‘Bye, Daddy.’




‘How’s it going, Rene?’


‘You’re not still listening to those tapes, are ya, Rene? It’s been fifteen years.’


He hung up.

That was the last time he spoke to his son.

K: Subconsciously, I sniff the air a couple of times. I am going to call the police. I am walking and, suddenly bump right into someone, that comes out of nowhere.

Its someone going up.

Oh, sorry,I immediately say.

The person smiles, then resumes walking forward.

I zone out for a moment, then hurriedly hail to that person:Its on fire up there!

The person turns around and stops, and looks at me.

I call out:Father.

The person gives me another look, then turns back around, and keeps walking.

That was all. The next tape, labeled D, and dated January 20, 1982, was blank. He had listened to these tapes, back and forth, countless times. Fast-forward, rewind, pause, play. Again. Again. Trying to find some clue, retreading his path, the sequence of events, each word was a little pebble, of the hundreds and thousands, constituting that path in its entirety, the heads of the deck turning like wheels over them, and he, following the tracks, picking up each, tiny pebble, examining it, rolling it, feeling its weight in his hands.



People don’t just vanish.

He picked up the piece of paper again.

Ive been having the same dream a couple of nights in a row.

The black letters seemed to have bled a little more across the paper, and become darker. The immense heaviness of memory is balanced only by the weightlessness of time.

All of a sudden he just felt tired. Really tired.

Kevin sat in the classroom and looked out from the window at the mossy, green mountain, far away.

Outside it was downpouring.


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HC Hsu was born in Taipei. He is the author of the short story collection Love Is Sweeter (Lethe, 2013). Finalist for the 2013 Wendell Mayo Award and The Austin Chronicle 21st Short Story Prize, Third Prize Winner of the 2013 Memoir essay competition, First Place Winner of the 2013 A Midsummer Tale Contest, and The Best American Essays 2014 Nominee, he has written for Words Without Borders, Two Lines, PRISM International, Renditions, Far Enough East, Cha, Pif Magazine, Big Bridge, nthposition, 100 Word Story, Louffa Press, China Daily News, Liberty Times, Epoch Times, and many others. He has served as translator for the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China and is currently a research fellow at the Europäische Universität für Interdisziplinäre Studien, Switzerland, where he is completing a commissioned translation of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo's biography (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).