All The World Isn't Falling

by R.S. Powers

Siv’s a motherfucking rockstar. Her band’s very first show of the Mainland tour, at least ten cities with a chance to end in Hong Kong, is happening as dusk dies just outside Shanghai’s art district in a converted industrial warehouse she’s heard will be demolished soon. After a year as an ungovernable four-piece, who cares if they don’t have posters or t-shirts or a demo. The metal band they’re supporting is one of China’s biggest, if not the biggest. They’ll be seen, remembered. Calling their contribution The Neverland Tour was her idea—as in never again will they have this chance. For the rest of her life she’ll be reliving this moment’s fever dream.

During their sound check the stage scaffolding shakes and creaks, the drum set is missing its second top tom, the hi-hat pedal sticks. Adam and Nico, her guitarist and bassist, fellow expats from east-coast America and southern Italy respectively, say they can’t hear one another. Wei’Zi, her singer from Inner Mongolia, is missing until they’re backstage about to go on.

“We’re going to slay,” Siv says and drops her empty cymbal and drumstick bags by her backpack which has her phone. Multiple missed calls from her parents’ house in Uppsala, Sweden, six hours behind China time. Now, Siv picks up and it’s her younger sister Frida who Siv can barely hear. Something about pappa. “You show pappa what I sent you?” she says. When her band first arrived at the venue, Siv sat behind the kit and had Adam take photos of her smiling and flexing, along with a video of her soloing for a minute then blowing a kiss.

“Pappa’s stomach cancer is back,” Frida says.

Siv scoffs. Frida has to be joking.

“Don’t be a fitta,” Siv says, deploying her sister’s favorite vulgarity. “He sounds fine.” When Siv last spoke with her father the day before, before boarding the fast train to Shanghai, she told him after the tour she was probably going to Wacken, Germany for a week-long international metal competition—as a drum tech or backstage cheerleader, something fun, in support of a screamo band that took first place in the Beijing leg. She’s friends with the screamo band’s guitarist, but she wouldn’t go just for him. She’d plug her own band, and she could visit home again after Germany. Siv’s father told her: You truly are a rockstar.

“He doesn’t want you to know,” Frida says, lowering her voice.

“You’re lying,” Siv says. “What is wrong with you?”

“He’s been in treatment for a month.”

“Is pappa home? Put him on.”

No time. Siv hangs up. They take the stage. Wei’Zi, tall and gruff with messy, lengthy dreads, leaps vodka-drunk onto the stage and hoarsely screams: “We are Quixote, a real international post-metal band from Beijing. Here we go!”

In between songs, Siv counts: about fifty people when they begin, almost a hundred when they finish, easily their most ever. As they play, it becomes newly obvious their first four songs are somewhat good, their seventh and last one nearly great—Pink Floyd meets System of a Down meets Bon Jovi? Siv has never a fan of how Wei’Zi likes flipping between beastly grunts and quavering warbles—but songs five and six are painfully mediocre. After those, the waiting crowd simply stares back at them, like they’re waiting for an apology.

“Too fucking great,” Wei’Zi says, stumbling into the small backstage room.

Adam, tall and chubby with a patchy faintly-red beard, hugs Siv. “They actually liked us,” he says. “You see that moshing?”

The next show is starting soon and Nico, short and plump, who’s also the bassist for the headlining band, puts on his black friar’s cloak. The headlining guitarist, already in white face paint and fake-blood-splotched butcher’s uniform, his long black hair teased to look like he’s been electrocuted, helps Nico with his red and yellow face paint. Their lead singer, in white workout pants with no shoes or shirt, tattoos up his beefy arms and neck, is practicing his screeches and scales while pacing in a circle and waiting for the dozen lines of traditional black and red calligraphy painted on his back and chest to dry. Siv makes her way through the still growing crowd of hundreds yelling for the show they came to see to begin. Opaque linens dyed to look like they have thousand-year-old blood stains are being draped across the stage. Spotlights turn anyone behind them into wispy shadows.

Outside on the street, Siv calls back, feels the dawdling smokers gawk at her, the waifish emo girl from the opening band.

“It’s like mamma doesn’t see him getting worse.” Frida says. At their father’s last appointment their mother decided against teaching during summer. She’s in the back garden planting a rainbow of snapdragons and dark-red sunflower seedlings.

“Put fucking pappa on the fucking phone,” Siv says.

“You can’t tell him I told you,” Frida says.

Inside, the lights dim, everyone roars, and the sound system plays a recording of a lone er’hu, a dual-stringed upright fiddle, droning a floating, melancholic melody, soon joined by a groan-humming Mongolian throat singer and splashes of small tuned-gongs. The idling crowd jostles further into the venue. Siv’s swallowed by a bruising, sinking queasiness.

She sits on the curb. She should be crying.

“What’s wrong?” Siv’s mamma sounds like she’s in a hurry.

“Is pappa sick?” Siv says.

“What did your sister say?”

“The percentages go down if it comes back.” Siv met the oncologist just once, not twelve hours off the plane, her first time back home after leaving. She went with them for her father’s final check-up to confirm he was in the clear. Entering the back office, Siv shook the doctor’s hand and he asked her father who she was. “It’s only been six months.”

A greater din as the band takes the stage. Their drummer begins a clicking beat striking the sides of the toms. Their guitarist plucks a sustaining church bell-like note run through a pedal that slowly flutters the discordant sound in and out of tune. Nico strikes a single booming note as their singer begins a high-register wailing. Their sound is of the underworld in lament.

“He doesn’t want you to cancel your dream tour. He says you’re going to Germany? You have a cousin in Berlin studying to be a chemist. You should visit him.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“He’s on his daily walk. He’s in very high spirits.”

The phone her mother’s on is in the kitchen. Siv can hear ordinary birds in the backyard. Frida must be overstressing the worst of what’s happening. Nothing will stop this tour.

“You can’t worry about things you can’t control,” her mother says.

A tribal drum beat swells with a chugging guitar that suddenly crashes into the singer belting out a series of guttural chants as the linens are pulled away and the band rips into a grooving thrash beat, the crowd circling and moshing to bellowed lyrics.

At its very best, Siv knows, Quixote will never look or sound so great.






Six months prior, weeks after meeting the oncologist, Siv was still home for Christmas—Frida and mother in ugly sweaters entering the den at noontime dusk to announce trays of spiked hot cocoa for father’s school friends seated by the fresh tree and fireplace. Frida with exceptional exuberance said everyone should decorate the tree together and the gathering of mostly middle-aged Swedes in thick scarves and thin coats applauded the idea.

Officially in remission, pappa’s cynical glow had returned. In lieu of a speech, he stood to tell everyone a story about a little white fox he recently came across while on a walk through thick new snow. He first heard it crying a terrible sound like it was slowly dying, then saw it collapse onto the footpath in front of him, its face and mane a gory mess. He ran after it. He wanted to scoop it up in his scarf and hat, find an animal hospital with his daughters, but he became quickly and painfully out of breath. He coughed up phlegm if not flecks of stomach lining. He tripped face-first into muddy snow, scratched his bare hands and chin on a tree trunk, his IV bandages coming off inside his coat. All the while the fox kept moaning and leaving a trail of blood. He followed. He couldn’t just give up. “Life and death can be such a silly dance,” he said. The fox finally stopped at the base of a great dead tree where there was a recently ravaged container of raspberries, maybe dropped by a homebound supermarket shopper or left as a sweet gift. The fox, sitting upright like a happy puppy, burped then smiled, as if showing off. Close to midnight, Siv and her pappa bundled up and went into the woods with a banana to give to the first fox they came across. They sat and turned off their flashlights. But none came.

Their well-wishing visitors applauded the story then got to work with the boxes of new ornaments. Most knew nothing about his other daughter, not even twenty-five and abroad for years. Siv, he told them, patting her on the back, is a great musician.

“Without her, I’m barely a proud pappa!”

Outside the venue in Shanghai, no one is here for the music as the headlining show roils along. Across the street, at a cheap streetside fried meat-on-a-stick vendor, a group of shirtless hump-bellied men at a table spitting sunflower seeds are arguing with their young female server. Something like she didn’t bring them all the fried lamb they ordered, and they were missing at least a half-dozen bottles of beer. How could she be so stupid? Their server shouts she did so bring everything they asked for, or, no, she’s apologizing for not bringing what they wanted. Or they’re apologizing to her? They share a laugh. Siv wishes her Chinese listening skills were better. She still plans on applying to work in the Swedish embassy when she finishes her distance-learning master’s program in international relations. At the embassy they’ll daily give her stacks of obscure and popular newspapers in Chinese and it’ll be her job to scan and annotate pertinent items. One day, she might even go to work for the security services and she hasn’t told anyone about that one other nagging dream, which goes to show how good she’d be with keeping secrets, though she isn’t crazy about helping sell arms to the tinpot sociopath class, which wouldn’t directly be her job per se but it’s not like she’s dumb and doesn’t know what’s really going on in the world, but maybe she’d be asked to wear government-issue pumps and sequined dresses and open-cup bras to schmooze and plant bugs on lecherous diplomats and even worse criminal men whose mansion server rooms she’d sneak into to exfiltrate terabytes of data via a USB device hidden in her earrings—for love of country she’d finally get her ears pierced. If she must, Siv knows she can get away with anything.

The show’s encore has ended and everyone’s filtering back outside. Siv stands. She manages to say out loud: “This tour is going to be a breakthrough for our band.”

She makes her way back inside. Wei’Zi emerges from the backstage room chasing his shy girlfriend who’s almost half his height.

“There you are,” Adam says from the sofa. “You see the show?”

“Wei’Zi says he might have to return to Beijing,” Nico says, still in costume. “I think he’s breaking up with her again.”

Siv looks like she’s seen a ghost. “My dad’s sick,” she says.

“He got better,” Nico says, taking off his friar’s cloak.

“He’s sick again.”

Adam and Nico look at one another. Siv’s waiting for them to tell her to go home.

“My sister called and said he’s getting treatment again. He could die.”

“Are you sure?” Nico says.

Siv isn’t sure what she’s saying. “Last time I talked to him he said he wishes he could see our tour.” After Siv’s Christmas visit home, her father and mother returned with her to Beijing to be tourists for a week. They sat in on one of her band’s clamorous practice sessions.

“‘Quite loud, quite good,’” Adam says, quoting Siv’s father.

The venue has emptied and is mostly quiet.

“I don’t know what to do,” Siv says.

“Go home,” Adam says, standing.

“You think a tour is so easy to arrange?” Nico says.

“We’ll do another one,” Adam says.

“I’m not giving up on anything,” Siv says.

They’d planned to return to the hostel as a band but Wei’Zi is nowhere to be found. In the cab, Nico in is the back with Siv, Adam and his upper-intermediate Chinese in the front. Adam gives the driver the address, smiles explaining they’re students living in Beijing, that they’re in a metal band. He switches back to English to tell Siv about the older sister of a high school friend who had breast cancer, who didn’t think to go to a doctor because she didn’t think much of the hard knob under her armpit. When she was finally diagnosed it took her whole family to talk her into chemo because she wanted juice cleanses. She died, Adam says, in under a year. Adam twists around to put a hand on Siv’s knee poking through one of the tears in her black jeans. “But your dad’s a doctor. He’ll welcome help,” he says. “He’ll know what to do.”






By herself in their hostel room, Siv ignores an hours-old deluge of imploring texts from the Germany-bound screamo guitarist asking her to come with him and quickly changes into her Linda Hamilton white tank top, her tight leather biker jacket with oodles of zippers and spiky studs on the shoulders and around the wrists, her black liquid metallic leggings and platform black boots. In the full-length mirror in the bathroom she retouches her smokey eyes. She’ll get in a cab and ask for the closest dance club. The previous weekend, in one of downtown Beijing’s biggest clubs, Siv finally went home with the kindergarten teacher who would always dance with her, who made Siv feel powerful, in complete control. The teacher wanted her thin and quiet boyfriend, who wouldn’t even try to dance with them, to sit fully clothed in their bedroom’s one comfy chair in the corner and watch. Siv remembers the boyfriend saying in English before all three left the club: Whatever makes her happy. She tries the purple-black lipstick she brought and last used at her roommate’s Halloween party. Siv model-walks away from the mirror, twirls and crosses her arms like she might kick you across the room and step on your throat if you left her no choice. Hands on hips she approaches like a friendly stray. She spreads her fingers on the mirror, brings her lips and nose up to the glass, slowly exhales hot breath, tenderly kisses the moist spot, closes her eyes, opens her lips, puts her tongue on the smooth surface. She remembers what she thought her father’s funeral might look like.

When she was flying home before Christmas, even though it was caught early and his treatment had gone well, and who really knew what her mother and sister thought of her showing up so late well after the worst of it, Siv made herself consider the ring of flood lights around the same plot where her father buried his own mother when Siv was a new teenager, bringing a harsh light back to a dead-of-winter day. She imagined Frida taking terrible photos of shrubbery shadows with her loud SLR. Her mother on a cheap fold-out chair, hands on her lap, unblinking and out of her mind, on a beach somewhere in the astral plane. A long line of strangers laying bunches of flowers on the coffin and mumbling sad greeting-card things.

The nausea is familiar, like a slow-turning knife.

Siv sits on her thin hostel bed.

She looks up last-minute tickets and can’t get back up.

When she wakes before noon, all the lights are still on. Nico and Adam are asleep. Wei’Zi’s bed is empty. Siv changes out of her club gear and heads outside, down the two flights of dirty stairs and through the lobby. Her father hasn’t called so she calls the house knowing he’s already up, whisking diced fruit into a waffle batter since it’s a Saturday.

“Hej!” he says after the second ring. His voice is scratchy and loose but connotes stalwart vigor. “How’s my rockstar? I was just leaving.”

Siv’s eyes hurt, like they don’t belong in her head.

“Are you hiking every day?”

“At least twice a day from now on.”

“What about waffles?”

Siv’s father sounds surprised when he laughs. “Ready to be poured into the machine when I return. Your mother needs to send you photos of the little botanical garden she’s made. You wouldn’t recognize the backyard. The new neighbors, they want her to do the same for them. That strange bartender couple who moved, remember them? The new neighbors say it’s like they salted the earth before leaving. Nothing will take in the soil. Absurd!”

“Can you take me with you?”

He doesn’t understand.

“Take your mobile with you.”

“I’m fine. I promise.”

Just down the street from where Siv is walking a subway car’s brakes are singing inside a white station platform enclosed in a glinting cathedral of dust-scuffed glass over a four-way intersection bustling with pedestrians, jammed city taxis and buses, hordes of single-gear bikes. The train arrives, passengers get in and out. Across the street boarding a bus, everyone has somewhere to be: a tall coughing man in a black suit; an angry mother thrusting forward her toddler daughter’s wrist; three young European women arguing in French and with their hands; a thin elderly man struggling to keep a bulging bag of glass bottles on his back.

“Your sister gives false alarms. All the world isn’t falling. The doctors say it’s like an aftershock. The treatment will be the same bad tango, but things could be worse.”

“Should I come home?”

“Absolutely not,” he says. “I don’t need another maid.” He tells Siv to treat her mother and sister well. “Email more photos.” The back door opens. “I’m leaving!”

Siv sees the call lasted almost two minutes. She returns to the room, washes her face and changes again. She finds the closest supermarket and returns to make herself rice with tofu, eggs, and cherry tomatoes in the small adjoining kitchen. In her bed, on her laptop, she starts rewatching episodes of The West Wing, a vitally mindless act. Adam and Nico groggily wake, aren’t sure what to say. “Wei’Zi and his girlfriend made up,” Nico says.

“Wei’Zi body slammed the other drummer outside the restaurant,” Adam says.

“I don’t know where he is,” Nico says.

“They went to the hospital because the drummer was bleeding from his nose.”

“I’ll make sure Wei’Zi’s at the show tonight,” Nico says.

“They’ll remember us,” Adam says, hugging Siv.

“We’re a real international band,” Siv says, trying to smile.

Adam and Nico leave to eat and scout the next venue. Siv vows to keep rewatching a show she finds to be a loathsome and superficial take on politics until the sun is gone.

She takes a cab to their second show. The crowd is smaller but so is the venue. They play to a packed house. Wei’Zi, for a change, is sober. Upon leaving the stage to sustained applause, Siv realizes only their last song is any good. Adam is sorely lacking in technical skill. Nico can’t keep a beat. Wei’Zi’s lyrics are gibberish: their Chinese audience must think he’s singing in English; their non-Chinese audience must think he’s singing in Chinese.

Siv takes a cab by herself to the hostel.

We’ll be remembered like the Tower of Babel, she thinks. Mystifying ugliness.






Noon the next day, both bands are on a ten-hour sleeper train, hilly inland China rolling along in pockets of lush settlements that remind Siv of an English countryside.

No one is picking up at home.

Wei’Zi had been minutes from missing boarding, making his way through the full car with his girlfriend. “What’s up, silk-dicks. Forgot my suitcase,” he said, sitting as the train began picking up speed. Barely outside Shanghai, Wei’Zi returned from the dining car with ten warm cans of beer in his arms, one for everyone. “To the best bands in the whole world,” he said, cracking one open. On his fourth beer, Wei’Zi taps Siv on her shoulder.

“I’m sorry about your dad,” he says.

“He’s not dead,” Siv says.

“Oh.” He sips loudly. “I misheard Nico.”

The next day, before their show in Wuhan, the headlining band’s guitarist suggests they go to East Lake and rent bikes. The day is cloudless and cool and clean. The stone path around the green-blue water is full of families and couples. Elderly men and women throw hunks of bread at gaping koi. Adam pulls up beside Siv and nervously takes his time to again confess amorous feelings for her. “We’ll be okay,” Siv says. She’s not going anywhere, she knows her father isn’t about to die anytime soon, that nothing can stop The Neverland Tour.

Today, her father has finally agreed to take his mobile with him into the woods. She goes off by herself to wait for his call in an empty pagoda overlooking a swath of reeds and lily pads. Turtle babies bask in a line on a nearby log.

“Do you remember hiking when you were little?” he says, hoarse and a little out of breath. Frida bought him headphones with a microphone so he can use a hiking stick.

“We only went when it was dark and snowing,” Siv says. “I hated you for the cold.”

“I can’t control the weather.”

“Then what good are you?”

Siv now knows his response to more treatment has been mixed. Her mother bought her a ticket home leaving from Hong Kong a day after their last show. Frida told Siv their father shouted at her and their mother in the doctor’s office: Don’t get in Siv’s way.

“You were such a dour child. Your mother thought you’d become a politician.”

“There’s still time.”

“Not the good kind who end up on our money. The bad kind.”

“So one day I’ll be rotting in The Hague?”

“Oh, not that bad. Bad enough for exile in Russia.”

“I had a stopover in Moscow when I flew home.”

“Convenient! I’ll rob a bank and meet you there.”

Siv can hear the woods around him. His breath is more labored.

“I may have,” he says, “convinced your sister to visit you in Beijing.”

Siv is silent.

“You have to be good to her. She respects you.”

He stops crunching through the leaves, coughs. Siv hears him sit down.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were sick again?” Siv says.

Across the lake, a hundred meters away, Wei’Zi is calling for and waving at Siv at the head of the pack. Both bands and the girlfriends and several friends arrived from Beijing, they also start waving and hooting. “Mei’lao’wai’nü!” Wei’Zi says, cupping his hands around his mouth. Pretty foreigner girl. “Won’t you kiss and marry me?”

“You never saw my mother on the machines,” her father says.

Siv quotes the one complete sentence she can’t forget from when she was fifteen, when her father came to visit her in the hospital after they pumped as much of the rubbing alcohol as they could from her stomach. “‘We have time to make things right,’” she says.

“You get older,” he says. “Time becomes relative.”

“You also said I was our family’s strongest soul.”

“It’s funny what we can and can’t remember saying.”

Before they hang up, he lets on that her mother and Frida have been following him the whole time, far enough behind that they couldn’t hear their conversation. “They’re extra worried I might get lost,” he says, chuckling. “Like I haven’t been here before.”

Wei’Zi keeps shouting from across the lake, trying every swear and sex-related English word he knows. “You are motherfucking best sexy-ass drummer!” he says.

“Never come home,” her father says. “Live your life.”






Four more cities into the tour, after three weeks, Siv hasn’t unpacked her suitcase in another terrible hostel. She’s alone again struggling with the room’s one window which finally opens onto the stench of a massive open-air trash pit ten flights down. She doesn’t know how to tell her bandmates they suck. At their last show in a tiny jazz club, she saw a single person nodding along to their last song. Everyone stayed outside until they were done. Siv’s due to meet up with both bands at an early dinner when Frida calls hours before she normally does. She’s crying and barely manages to tell Siv that their father keeps falling asleep. He wakes up, then falls asleep. “He keeps saying to not tell you,” she says. “The doctor’s coming.”

Nico will finish the tour without them. Siv and Adam and Wei’Zi and a few of Wei’Zi’s friends from Beijing must switch trains in the middle of the night then talk a sleeping station manager into letting them board the next fast train which isn’t scheduled to make a stop in the small county seat they’ve ended up in. Siv and Adam sit by the bags in the middle of the empty station and wait. A few farmers walk back and forth eyeing them.

“Wei’Zi asked me to pay for his girlfriend’s abortion,” Adam says.

Siv pictures herself entering the dim bedroom where her father is set up. She opens her mouth and can only produce guitar feedback.

Adam touches her thigh. “Are you okay?” he says.

She can’t speak.

Inside the new train, every fluorescent light is on as they make their way to their seats stepping over passengers dozing in the aisles. The train returns to a tremendous speed and the lights remain on. “Stay awake with me,” Siv says, staring at Adam.

Adam says yes. He takes her to a booth in the dining car and pours beer into two thin plastic cups. He drinks, says it might make her feel better. “It’s cold,” he says. Nico’s mother was schizophrenic. Wei’Zi’s father beat him so badly he ran away for a month, sleeping and bathing in a public park. Adam’s parents used him in court proceedings.

“We’ll in Beijing soon.” Adam drinks the second cup. “Wei’Zi was saying this is the end of us,” he says looking at the table. “When you get back… This’ll make us stronger.”

“Shut up,” Siv says.

“You didn’t know this would happen,” Adam says.

“I hope this train crashes and we die.”

Adam restlessly laughs.

“I wish I had a good face and an ugly body, and not the other way around,” she says. “Like you.”

Adam avoids her glare. He says he’ll accompany her to the airport the next day.

“I hope my plane crashes,” she says.

Back in her Beijing apartment, Siv doesn’t sleep. Her Aeroflot ticket leaving in the early afternoon with a five-hour layover in Moscow drained her bank account. Siv’s roommate returns before noon, gives her cab fare. She ignores texts from Nico, Adam, the screamo guitarist, several male expats she met at the various venues on their abortive tour, from China Mobile about her account running out of money. The latest email from Frida says their father is up and talking about how much he loves his daughters and how proud he is of their feisty spirits. Don’t call, the email ends. He’s asleep again. Siv can’t remember the last thing he said to her.






Siv wakes on the plane to a lengthy announcement in Russian. She slides open her window and doesn’t see a planet. They must be over Siberia? The monologue concludes with a quick and brusque bit of English: “Please wait.” A stewardess finds her and explains there’s an issue with their designated runaway. They’re circling the airport.

If the plane makes it, Siv wants to know what she can say to her future self: He didn’t want me to see him like that. And I’m glad I didn’t. I’ll remember him as he wanted me to remember him. I grew up as he wanted me to grow up. Or I wish I had seen him. A photo isn’t a memory. A phone call isn’t a hug. But he wanted me to live my life, so I lived my life. Or it was my choice, not his choice. If he asked me, I wouldn’t have gone home. Or I would’ve.

The TVs above each seat descend and flicker to life.

There’s time yet, Siv thinks. This isn’t an ending. This isn’t final. There’s plenty of time to pick a perfect line to scrawl on a cake for a wake or recovery party. He’ll help choose. He’ll know exactly how he wants to be remembered.

Over the PA system, a sullen and sappy string arrangement is joined by a deep male voice dramatically crooning. On the TVs, an orchestra is being conducted on the Red Square at night with a ball bouncing along Russian and English lyrics for “Moscow Nights.” Everyone in the cabin, including the three stewardesses and two stewards Siv can see, sing along with the sable-haired singer on a raised platform, arms outstretched as he sings, as if he’s trying to inhale the world with every break for breath. The lyrics describe moonlight, a brook, downcast eyes, a lovely head bent so low, love, dawn. Siv’s wrenching nausea is evolving into an airy ache.

The song concludes with applause in the video and on the plane.

“Again,” someone says in English and the song is played again, and again, and again.

R.S. Powers’ stories have appeared in Wigleaf, Grist, Sou’wester, Juked, JMWW, X-R-A-Y, and others. They teach at the University of Delaware.