By: William Liao
Ruixi anxiously awaited the next train to Hangzhou, checking the luxury watch his father had bought for him during one of his overseas business trips. The rush to catch the train was so competitive and intense that he wasn't sure he could make it even if he rushed towards the railroad tracks upon catching sight of the train before anyone else did. Still, he was anxious to leave Shanghai.
It was hard for him to imagine that just a few weeks ago, Shanghai, a Chinese city blended with Western influences, had been a bustling metropolis with streets full of people, automobiles, and animal carts. That had all changed when the Japanese attacked.
Since the war broke out, all of his friends, neighbors, and acquaintances had fled. His parents, who were traveling abroad, had flown to Hangzhou and tried to get him on the first train out of town. But so many of the three million inhabitants of the city were trying to flee that the earliest ticket they could secure was for the 28th of August.
The train was long overdue. Ruixi sweltered in the oppressive summer heat of Shanghai, wondering what had caused the delay. Perhaps a mechanical failure or a problem with the railroad tracks themselves? His father had hired a private tutor for him, but the tutor, in addition to most of the household servants, had already left for the countryside. They had urged him to leave Shanghai by foot, but Ruixi wasn’t willing to part with the precious spot he had secured on the train.
As he thought about these matters against the backdrop of distant fighting, Ruixi could hear the faint sound of an airplane. By now, it was no secret to the people of Shanghai that the only purpose of the bombing raids was to terrorize civilians.
But uneasiness grew in Ruixi as the sounds of the aircraft continually increased in volume. When he looked overhead, he could see around a dozen Japanese warplanes flying above. Suddenly, a large object dropped from one of the planes, hurtling towards the railway station.
“Bombs!” he shouted while looking for a place to hide. The crowd grew frantic, everyone trying to leave the train station at once.
He watched in horror as the first bombs hit, caving the roof of the station in. People fell, their bodies bloodied by the shrapnel. Ruixi himself felt a stabbing pain in his back, but he tried to ignore it. He needed to survive.
Just then, another bomb exploded near him, sending him flying onto the railroad tracks. He felt the sharp steel dig into his skin, ripping off chunks of it from all over his body. There was nothing he could to prevent an agonizing scream from escaping from his mouth, barely audible over the noise around him.
Ruixi tried to get up, but he was too weak. Every time he moved, the pain became unbearable, causing him to slump back onto the ground, which was littered with tiny pieces of metal from the bombs and the destroyed train station. Eventually, the pain grew so intense that he started to feel less and less. Lying there as explosions shook the earth, he fell into a deep state of unconsciousness.
Sometime later, he awoke in the rubble. Slowly, he managed to get up and stared at the carnage around him. Strewn all over the ground were the bodies of the dead and injured. He could hear a baby crying somewhere, and with considerable agony managed to produce a cry for help before collapsing back onto the train tracks.
When he finally opened his eyes again, he was in a peaceful courtyard. The din of gunshots in the distance was gone. Was he in heaven?
He stood up easily, and found that the shrapnel embedded in his back was gone. The part it had gone through was merely sore now, making him realize that he was still in this world. He breathed a sigh of relief. The full shock of the situation slowly came to him as he recalled his painful fall onto the railroad tracks. He didn’t recall feeling anything between then and now. Was that what being dead felt like? How had he gotten from the smoke and wreckage of Shanghai to this beautiful place when he almost knew he wouldn’t have made it?
Just then, his mother walked into the courtyard, complete with lush plants and a tiny waterfall, and interrupted his thoughts. Seeing each other, they ran over and embraced.
Upon his mother’s insistence, Ruixi sat down onto his bed as his mother recounted the story of how he had gotten from the destroyed Shanghai South railway station to this peaceful village in faraway Hunan Province. He was eager to listen.
When his parents had heard the news of the railway station attack, they had immediately gone to Shanghai. Upon finding him, they took him to a major hospital in the city, where he had spent an entire month recovering. After that, realizing that Hangzhou, as a large city near the front lines, was not safe, they had gone to their hometown in the countryside. Here, they owned a respectable estate set upon the lush, rolling mountains of the province.
Ruixi’s mother then informed him of the terrible state of the war. In the time he had been gone, Shanghai was on the brink of capitulation.
“I wish things would end sooner,” she sighed.
Ruixi sat there in silence as he contemplated the meaning of the word. “Soon” was relative. Maybe it could be a matter of seconds. Maybe it could mean eight long years.