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blackbird on my shoulder

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Zhao Yunlan had always believed himself to be somewhat of a deformed bird.

It was very likely that he was a complete idiot and the same way birds were born with very tiny brains, Yunlan was sure that he was too. He wasn’t very bright and neither did he have any employable smarts. He didn’t even have the clownish kind of stupidity that people could at least laugh at, he was just painful to watch. It was also very likely that Yunlan was a ruined human being. The same way a bird with deformed wings had failed its only genetic purpose to fly, Yunlan had failed his genetic purpose of being a good son, a lifelong friend and a good, contributing member of society.

The final nail in the coffin, Yunlan thought, was that he wasn’t destined to live very long. The same way a deformed bird would only last a couple of decades at most and burden everything around it while it lived, he would too. It was a deep gut feeling that he always thought was a form of premonition, the kind of instinct the world would give you out of pity so you could prepare yourself. And for as long as he could remember, Zhao Yunlan had always known that he would die early. At this point, he was just waiting. And if waiting didn't work, Yunlan would just go ahead to make it happen anyway.

So in the bowels of Bangkok, Thailand, Yunlan had once thought that his time had come. He’d been lying in the middle of the road with alcohol hiccuping in his chest, waiting and daring the universe to just come at him and be done with it. But it had seemingly come to nothing as he laid on the cold black tar, cheek pressed against the rough surface and shaky drunken sobs dissipating into the night. No one had approached him for the midnight hours he spent lying there like a washed up starfish.

Eventually, Yunlan began to sober up and moved to stand. He rolled over to place two sweaty palms against the road and shoved his whole weight onto them, making the rough tar sting a little under his hands. He coughed as he shoved his legs up to his chest and forced his feet to plant to the ground, unsteady. He curled up in the middle of the street for a moment, just like that. There were dried tears against his cheek he hadn’t even realised were flowing in the midst of his drunk moping, and Yunlan rubbed at them roughly. This was so fucking stupid. He was so fucking stupid right now. He sniffed and rose to stand up angrily.

And then a Thai taxi drove right into his side.

Yunlan still had the heel of his hand pressed against his cheek when suddenly, there was a wave of light blasting his vision. Bright and a piercing white, he only had time to blink once. His eyelids fluttered shut and in that millisecond, the light fell over his entire body like a tsunami. There was the vague start of a honk, blaring. Someone was yelling a muffled distance away. And before he could open his eyes fully, the grille of the car crashed into his side.

A rushing exhale of heat burned through his body and then there was something grabbing at the back of his clothes. Invisible hands pulled him back and then upwards, lifting his feet of the ground. Breath was sucked out of his lungs and he could barely wheeze at the impact. For a flying moment, Yunlan’s brain was still catching up as the empty suspension seized his body. And then he was smashed back down into the road. He landed on his back hard, spine colliding against the unyielding ground. Then came his legs to smack down on the tar and his head snapped back to collide with the car, sharp pain exploding under his eyeballs.

“Ah, fuck!” Yunlan choked out in a gasp and squeezed his eyes shut, pressing the heels of his palm into his eyes. “What the fuck!”

He tried to roll over to his side but instead, his body responded with scorching pain and he just ended up jerking up before falling back down. Yunlan sucked in as much air as he could, as fast as he could and felt his lungs inflate with piercing pain that shot up all the way to his throat. He gasped, breath rattling in his chest. “Hng, fuh… Ugh, fuck! Fucking — ”

And then there was a pair of arms dragging his upper body up. The hands hooked under his armpits and lifted him up, pulling him back with the heels of his feet dragging against the ground. Yunlan tried to crane his flopping neck to see who it is but his vision was sparking with red and whites, obscuring most of his sight. He made the mistake of feeling a rush of relief. Someone was here, he wasn’t alone. Like a needy piece of shit, Yunlan choked up at the thought. The arms dragged him to the side and he could feel his feet slip over a curve that must have been the edge of the concrete sidewalk. He was being pulled to safety. Yunlan tried to slur out a thank you, fumbling a hand back to grab at the hands gratefully, but the hands pulled away from his weak grasp.

And then the pair of arms dumped him down onto the sidewalk and disappeared. Yunlan heard the slapping sounds of feet sprinting away and it dawned on him what this was — abandonment. He almost laughed but his lungs screamed in protest. Yunlan stared after the vague retreating figure as it ran back to its car, opened the door, and watched as the figure settled back in. There was the starting roar of an engine and the Thai taxi rolled forwards slowly. And then it picked up speed and drove down the road, away. He watched as the back of the car drove down the length of the road, shrinking smaller and smaller into the distance.

And this was when he realised that it had been the driver this whole time, pulling Yunlan out of the way for convenience. They just wanted to drive and do their job but he had gotten in their way. And now the driver had just left Zhao Yunlan slumped on the sidewalk, limp and broken. There was so much pain all over his limbs and inside his chest, the vertebres in his spine throbbed heavily and every breath was a tightening trap around his chest.

You’re going to die. Someone said, and Yunlan realised it was himself. The thought almost made him laugh all over again, the sound coming out in a wheeze that trembled through his relaxed body. He was going to die and that’s okay, it was a long time coming. So he was going to die in the bowels of Bangkok, Thailand within the events of a nameless hit-and-run. Hah! It’s better than whatever he could cook up in his fucked up head anyway.

What about your dad?

“ — Fuck my dad.” Yunlan whispered against the concrete and drool began to collect around his slack lips. “Nobody cares, this isn’t… I’m…”

I care, someone said softly and it was like watching a movie in an empty theatre. Yunlan was young again and Shen Wei was there. It was like he was back in school and there was the smell of crisp air-conditioning. The cold air blew down from the ceiling with a nostalgic rumble and Shen Wei was sitting at the table opposite of him, bright eyes looking at him from behind thin lens. He was smiling, lips curved sweetly with a hint of white teeth. It was the way he would smile while leaning forwards with a secretive hand cupped over the side of his mouth, just in case the librarian caught them talking. The whole time Yunlan would doodle all over the other boy’s papers and Shen Wei would whisper softly under his breath with shining eyes. Yunlan...

Zhao Yunlan sobbed into the ground. Of all the things his shitty brain had to pull out, it was the one person that actually liked him a long, long time ago. His whole body throbbed at every wracking sob and Yunlan cried with shame into concrete. He cried until he finally fell unconscious against the sidewalk.

He woke up the next morning and found himself in the exact same spot, alive and body throbbing away like it was nobody’s business. Frustrated and humiliated, Yunlan peeled himself off the concrete and hobbled back to his hotel. Along the way, his brain would knock itself out from the pain a couple of times and his body would lurch forwards mid-step. But he would manage to force himself back into his body, bleary eyes snapping open just in time to catch himself. He must have been a fucking sight because when he returned to the hotel lobby, Yunlan could feel the stares. He fucking hated them all, and most of all he hated himself who was the one person around dumb enough to get into a drunken car accident.

Yunlan ended up crashing at the hotel for an additional week until his bruised and battered body got back to its feet. The moment he realised nothing was broken, he decided to call for a couple more drinks to mourn for a missed opportunity. And then maybe a handful more until he was ready to check out. Travelling back to the airport and getting onto the plane had been hell, but he did it anyway. Limping and gritting his teeth the whole way, he flew the fuck out of Thailand and off to some other country to continue his journey in country-hopping.

Because even if the world and everything on it hated him, Zhao Yunlan still loved it with what little he had. And that meant that he was dead set on walking nomadically all over the earth like his life depended on it. He always knew it was going to kill him so a little pain along the way was nothing. The world had everything to offer Yunlan, even though he had nothing. It let him run and run all across its surface endlessly, and every country he walked on let him walk back out of it as he wished. There was no anger, no guilt, no deep seated hate and disgust even though he would leave each one stained. Without fail, Yunlan would always be forgiven and every land he smeared himself over would welcome him back with loving, open arms.

Zhao Yunlan always knew perfectly well that he had nothing but travelling. His hands were empty and they would always be. The same way a deformed bird had the wrong wings and the wrong life, wrong everything, Yunlan was born wrong too. And he would die because of it, hands still empty because in his miserable life there would never be anything real for him to hold onto. There would be no warm hand for him to hold in his own, robbing him of the chance to bring sweet knuckles to his lips for him to kiss lightly, affectionately. There would be no soft hair for him to lace his fingers into and play with idly, robbing him of the chance to bury his nose in someone’s crown as they embraced. There would be no lips for him to trace lightly before they mouthed his name, robbing him of the chance to hear all the I love yous that he didn’t deserve.

And that was okay. It was better this way. This was the way it should be.

He killed the part of him that ached for any form of real attention a long time ago, and he’s learned to make do with temporary warmth and shallow words for a long time now. There was no one that wanted him and there was no one he would be shitty enough to pull into his life anyway.

Zhao Yunlan was the man who was going to die early and empty, and that was the written truth in his soul. It was just too bad that Shen Wei turned out to be the man who can change destiny with a smile and a soft whisper:

“Yunlan?” He would say with his wide and pretty eyes and Zhao Yunlan would lean into the sound of his worry. He would realize that he hadn't heard it in so long that he almost didn't recognise it. But Shen Wei would lean down and smile the same sweet way years after like he had been waiting for this moment the eternity that they've been apart. "It's good to see you again.”

Yunlan would feel his hope rear its ugly head and find himself there — a decade later and still weak for that shy smile.

“Yeah,” He would swallow and reply with choked honesty. "I never thought I'd see you again, Shen Wei.”