The first time Wei Ying tipped backwards out of an office chair—the kind that spun, with five-pronged starfish feet tipped in wheels—he hit his head on a bookcase and needed seven stitches to close the gash in his scalp. He was five.
If he looks hard enough, on the back of his head where his hair is thickest and darkest, he can still find the scar, faint and stiff as an old rubber band. Hair never relearned how to grow over the scar tissue. He can’t find it unless he’s looking, and he doesn’t, usually. Sometimes when he shampoos, he will, and he’ll lose himself in the hot water for ten minutes, running his fingers over the naked line of skin. Unable to ignore it with the same inexplicable, sticky urge to pick scabs before they’ve healed just see the raw pink skin beneath.
Most of that night is a blur, now: the rattling gasp that had come out of his own throat when his head glanced off the edge of the bookshelf, the thud of his little body, the dull throb of pain, the trickle of blood running in rivulets down his neck. A-jie’s quiet voice floated down the hallway like the candy-soft smell of niangao and jiuniang, calling “A-Ying? A-Ying, was that you?” until she found him and her voice jackknifed into a torn, horrified scream, “A-Ying!”
Yu Ayi had been disappointed. Not because of the mess, or even the trouble of taking him to the emergency room. “You could have saved us the trouble and just not woken up from it,” she’d sighed, with the same distaste one would peel gum or bits of crushed snail off the sole of her shoe. Her car had smelled like blackberry handsoap. Wei Ying hates blackberries.
He’d seen Jiang Shushu do it all the time without so much as wobbling. Most nights, he’d be up late on conference calls, long, long after Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli were supposed to be in bed. Sleep never came to Wei Ying like it did for Jiang Cheng, for as long as he’s remembered—in the beginning, he always worried this his parents would appear again in the night and he wouldn’t be there to greet them and hug them and say, “Finally, Baba, Mama, you’ve come back for me!”
The lamplight always streamed in soft, thick streaks through the crack between the floor and the door, goldening the hallway nearly to the kitchen. On some nights, the door would be ajar, Jiang Shushu bringing a cloud of his cigarette-smell in from the balcony, midway through a smoke when his boss needed him back on the phone. And Wei Ying wasn’t supposed to be awake, but he’d get up for water, for the bathroom, and see Jiang Shushu with his feet up on his desk, the corded phone pressed to his ear—plum purple from exhaustion—chair tipped back. Sometimes he’d be holding a ream of hospital-white paper filled with a march of numbers.
He finds it now, strangely, without even looking that hard, the scar and all its memories a little white sailboat against the black water. Rubs his thumb over it. His hair scritches as he does. The floor of the bathtub is halfway to damp and sticky with shower gel residue, seeping through the backs of his pants, and a long, coarse hair too thick to belong to A-jie—Jiang Cheng’s, probably—is plastered like a graffiti mark to the side of the tub. He puts his socked toe to it and it flutters onto the textured no-slip bathmat. A black strand of hair against aged, fleshy pink rubber.
The moment between the tip and the impact, though, that heady, breathless in-between that straddled the anatomic dead space where he knew there was no other way this could end—it’s the only part of the night he remembers with punishing clarity. It had only lasted for a split-second, less, even, but it stands out like a metal spike in the oily asphalt of that night.
Wei Ying doesn’t know how he got into this bathtub. He knows, but he doesn’t. The day had moved around him like cold, flavorless time-porridge, parting sluggishly where he went. Where there should have been the darting of thoughts, his head felt like a big black hole. He was scared to touch his own face for fear of his hand falling through: nothing there, nothing there but yawning black endlessness.
That’s what they get wrong, the pamphlets and posters. Always orange and teal panels, sometimes purple, almost garish and Halloween-y. It’s not that he’s ever thought about it, planned it like he plans out his schedule to make sure he doesn’t miss work, because no alarm seems to wake him up lately: I think I’ll die today. Once or twice as a student, he’d visited the health department on campus and left with a business card cheery and crisp as a spring leaf, jumping from his palm like a slice of grapefruit. Speak up if you’re feeling down, it told him. Did you know? After car accidents, the leading cause of death in adults aged 18 to 34 is—
No one sits down in their spinny chair and tips backwards out of it because they want to. Wei Ying didn’t and he still doesn’t. But once it does, you can’t stop. Your head is going to hit the bookcase, and it will bleed, and if you’re lucky someone will find you. (“If you want to die, then do it right. That’s what you wanted, didn’t you?” Blackberries, traffic smoke, head full of noise. “Ungrateful money-suck. A-Li, don’t let him bleed on the seats.”)
It isn’t. It’s a funny difference. He doesn’t want to die. It’s just that he doesn’t want to live.
The sun flares through the tempered glass windows and glints in flashes off the edges of the bathroom mirror, the medicine cabinet, settles in neat orange squares on the back of the door. Wei Ying watches it slide down the wood, turning it mahogany.
A door shuts quietly outside. “A-Ying, I’m going out now,” says Jiang Yanli, and the frosted glass paneling turns the outline of her into a soft, grainy smear of pastry icing on the other side of the door. She has a date with Jin Zixuan tonight. “I left sliced pork with garlic sauce in the fridge for you. A-Cheng said he was going to eat out with Xiao Sang tonight.”
“Thanks, A-jie,” he says. “You coming home tonight?”
“Kidding, I’m kidding!” His laughter rings in the tiny bathroom. “Make him order you the nice stuff, or I’ll be having words with him.”
“Okay, okay. Stopping, I promise.”
“Then I’ll leave n—”
“Aiya, I know,” she singsongs. Then, after a smart click of heels, the front door closes.
Wei Ying sits back again. Balanced on the rim of the tub are his dates for the evening, a motley row of bottles and containers, three of them, gathered in their own little support group—Ah, you’re here to help him sleep, too? He stares up at the pole holding the shower curtain in place, at the hangers that dangle from it. One of them is overbalanced to one side, the kind with twenty-four clips gathered on a circular frame, with the weight of what must be every single sock that Jiang Yanli owns.
And then he’s a black hole again. When he was five, woozily trying to remember how to walk after his stitches, he figured that dying was a loud, sad thing, that he’d be scared of it. Not sitting in a tub with his plastic tumbler in the cradle of his crossed legs, unboxing a fresh blister-pack of pills red and yellow. They blink up at him like miniature traffic lights: don’t! Don’t go! Stop! Stop! Stop!
(“Ma, don’t run a red—”
“If he dies in this car then it’s my problem, A-Li! How do you think it looks to drive a dead kid around? Huh?”)
His phone bleats at him.
jie said youre staying in do you want food
if you dont answer in five gonna take that as a no
Wei Ying pauses his aluminum blister-popping.
jie left pork slices!!
dont complain if youre hungry later.
were close to that place with that stinky tofu that you like
the one that i said smelled like socks
He follows this up with an animated sticker of a baby’s head crying at a cartoon dollop of poop.
probably i will just make some ramen if i get hungry
how is it that jie and i have shit to do tonight and you dont
your lan shuai ge busy or something?
Wei Ying’s thumbs pause.
It’s almost evening. Lan Zhan is probably already done with dinner and practicing piano—he owned one that he could connect his earphones to, so he could play in total silence and not disturb the neighbors. It was self-playing, too. One of the fancy Yamaha pianos, given to him from his brother who’d, like most oldest children, retired from piano for more lucrative, family-approved pursuits in business. Whenever Wei Ying visits, Lan Zhan would load his favorite song and let him watch the keys play themselves.
“It’s romantic,” said Wei Ying, once. “Like watching a ghost play their heartsong for me.”
Lan Zhan had smiled without even moving his mouth—that tiny, soft lip appearing beneath both his eyes, along his dark lower lashline—before he’d turned away.
His phone dims now, sleepy, and he touches his screen. Jiang Cheng’s message taps its foot in anticipation at him.
Oh, he hasn’t sent a sticker in too long—there. A cat with a snot bubble should do it. Jiang Cheng starts typing again, but Wei Ying simply sleeps his phone and puts it facedown on the rim of the tub. Goes back to emptying his prescription into his tumbler. Tonk. Tonk. The clatter of capsule skin to old plastic grounds him.
Then he’s out—three months worth of estazolam, three boxes of three blister packs each. Ninety should be enough. He holds the cup still between his thighs and unscrews the fresh bottle of baijiu, listening to the merry glug of liquor as it pours. The bottle is pretty, with a graceful swan’s neck and a label with gold foil on it. A dinner party centerpiece, one to be passed around and admired and recommended to tipsy, pink-cheeked friends, where there’s too much laughter in the kitchen, the TV is playing some bad, low-budget war drama that no one’s watching, “Stop cooking and come eat!” and the sound of a stove hood powering down after sucking away all the shrimp-smell and clam sauce stickiness: a wine for that kind of night.
Not this. Silent and overseen by a jury of socks.
He sloshes a bit of baijiu when he lifts his cup and stares down into his cocktail. The alcohol is so strong it smells as if its only legal use is to strip paint off an old car, and already the pills have begun to erode and bloom, color bleeding into the liquor. Trails of red and wasp-yellow crane for the surface. Tea for the end of things. It probably won’t taste as good.
It doesn’t. Wei Ying usually drinks huangjiu, mainly because he likes the sweet, but baijiu burns his throat as it goes down. The steeping of pills has warped the flavor, but they rush toward his mouth, tumble past his teeth, and he opens wider so they run down his throat. He drinks them in. It’s not so unlike hitting the bottom of a bag of green-onion chips and holding the crinkling plastic to his lips to shake the crumbs into his mouth. Dribbles of baijiu run down the corners of his mouth in rivulets, and he grimaces when his cup empties. The pills have stained the bottom, orange ooze dirty and pilled with floating bits of old toothpaste.
He sets his cup down and unscrews the bottle of antiemetic syrup that Jiang Cheng had bought for A-jie when she had a stomach bug. There’s more than half left. He takes a swig. It tastes like strawberry chalk and raw flour.
Above him, the tiny bathroom window is still propped open, and Wei Ying stares at the spidery network of dead mosquitos that had gotten stuck in the insect screens.
He doesn’t feel anything. In his belly, his stomach gurgles, a drooling, leachy creature with buzzing lightbulbs for eyes.
That’s just the thing, isn’t it? Wei Ying feels nothing. He doesn’t feel anything, and this emptiness should scare him. He knows he should be scared. He wants to be scared. He isn’t. Fear itself is never scary; fear is just a response. It means that your body wants you alive. It’s the absence of terror that scares him.
Well. Nothing’s happening, so he drinks another mouthful of the syrup that tastes like liquified sidewalk and grout, stands up, and starts washing his cup. There’s a round pink scrubby that A-jie keeps in the bathroom that she makes them use whenever they leave toothpaste residue in the sink. Wei Ying pours some handsoap into his cup and scrubs.
The water runs. His reflection stares back at him. Behind him, the washer and dryer gawk at him. One of them does, anyway—the washer door hangs open, slack-jawed, with the sweat of condensation beading its face. Wei Ying shivers, the alcohol buzzing low in his belly.
It’s cold. It’s almost summer, so it shouldn’t be, especially not in the muggy bathroom, but he shivers and shuts off the water. Does he leave the cup in the sink? Someone will have to clean it up later.
He nearly slips sitting back down on the edge of the bathtub. His feet fall in a slimy puddle left over from someone's shower this morning. Might have been his own, he can’t remember, but the sensation makes him colder. He leans down and peels his socks off, thin, veiny membranes coming away from his skin, but the world tilts and Wei Ying has to take the other sock off in the bathtub. His chest is hot and sour all at once, bright green phosphene splashes across his ribs.
The sock finally comes off. His hand is right by the shower knob, and he’s cold, he’s so fucking cold. Everything is cold. His hands shake. They’re shaking all the way up to his shoulders. In all the stories he’s heard, no one had ever told him that his fingertips would go before his vision did, because watching his own hand turn the hot water feels disconnected from his own body. Water spurts explosively from the lower nozzle, then the showerhead, as it always does, pipes clunking like ghosts in the walls.
Oh, Wei Ying’s head is heavy, like the sky had caved around it. When he presses his cheek to the rim of the tub, the porcelain is cold, too. The ceiling hangs so low. It’s drooped. He can reach up and touch it, but his stomach churns and he thinks he better not move, or everything will come back up.
His phone chimes. He’d left it on the rim of the tub.
He wonders who’s calling.
They’ll have to leave a voicemail.
The apartment is dark when Jiang Cheng gets home, which is a little disappointing. He’s so fucking good at SuperSmash when he’s on the edge of drunk. On a bad day, Wei Ying can beat him in a little less than ten minutes, and on a good day Jiang Cheng can hold out for twenty. There should be some kind of law stating that no one who uses a character as annoying as Pikachu should be allowed to win SuperSmash so easily, and yet.
It’s fine. He’s come second all his life, he’s gotten pretty good at it.
“I’m home,” Jiang Cheng announces to the foyer at large, switching the lights on and immediately almost tripping over a pair of Jiang Yanli’s strappy sandals. She never puts them back in the rack.
No answer. Wei Ying’s probably in one of his moods, one of the downswings. Jiang Cheng will have to check if he remembered to eat. He’d brought home some of that stinky tofu anyway, because it was unlike Wei Ying to reply so dully to a text about Lan Zhan, so he probably needed it. Nie Huaisang had wanted it too, so, in a way, it had simply been convenient for him to grab some.
The kitchen smells faintly of garlic and the sweet, ashy scent of a mosquito coil burnt down to its end, and the refrigerator unseals with a wet squelch that says summer is coming when Jiang Cheng opens it, looking for the leftover bottle of green tea he’d gotten from the hole-in-the-wall convenience store downstairs.
favorite thing about taking the subway home: pole bar flirting
tonight’s selection is someone with clam hands!
he was cute until That. why is it that they’re all always cute until i see their hands
you think being gay is hard? try telling people you vet them based on how pretty their hands are
Jiang Cheng tips his head back and drinks.
how’s that xiaozi?
he usually doesn’t turn down stinky tofu. hope he’s feeling okay?
A snotty, crying old man sticker.
i think hes in his room im gonna talk to him
tell him to keep his chin up!!!
his not-boyfriend has sexy hands!!! what’s there to be sad about!!!!!!!!!!!
He opens the fridge again, light casting a jaundiced glow over the sticky kitchen tiles, and just as Jiang Cheng moves to close it he sees the bowlful of garlic pork that Wei Ying had mentioned their sister left behind, under a wrinkled membrane of clingfilm. As he’d expected, untouched.
“Hey, Wei Ying, even if you’re not hungry, you should at least give A-jie some face,” he calls, pulling the meat and some leftover rice from the fridge. “You know how annoying this shit is to make, she spends ages chopping garlic! Also I got you horrible stinky tofu you like, Xiao Sang wanted to stop by the joint.” No answer. “Are you listening?”
The soft sound of the shower running filters down the dark hallway when Jiang Cheng pokes his head out of the kitchen. “Hey, Wei Ying,” he calls. “Why didn’t you eat?”
But only the quiet hush of water drones on. When someone showers, the soft pap-pap-pap of soapsuds and shampoo foam hitting the floor of the tub always punctuates the white noise of running water, and Jiang Cheng hears none. Wei Ying usually runs the bathroom fan when he showers, too, and he doesn’t hear it now.
“Wei Ying,” he calls. “Are you showering?” He flicks the hallway light on.
Water seeps through the crack at the bottom of the door, pooling onto the hardwood in the hallway. Jiang Cheng frowns. What—? “Hey, Wei Ying!” he shouts. “There’s water all over the hallway. What kind of shower are you taking? Hey, are you fucking listening to me? You’re flooding the hallway!”
When there’s still no answer, a ribbon of unease slips into Jiang Cheng’s throat.
“Wei Ying,” the water is soaking through his socks, “what the hell are you doing in there?”
He tries the knob. It’s locked. None of them ever lock the doors when they use the bathroom because it jams. Jiang Cheng jiggles it and the metallic sound of steel on brushed steel grinds its teeth. “Wei Ying!”
Cloudy tendrils and a slick, dark oil float along the surface of the water puddling around him. It doesn’t look like soapsuds, but he can’t figure out what it could possibly—
Jiang Cheng feels his body go cold.
“Open up!” he shouts into the crack between the door and its frame. “Wei Ying! Open the fuck up! What are you doing in there? If you don’t open up I’ll kick the door in!” The light isn’t even on, the frosted glass a dim swamp green, fogging up from the steam without the bathroom fan on. “Wei Ying!”
The kitchen is so far away. A dull buzz and a ringing roars in his ears. Jiang Cheng pulls his sleeve, fleece over knuckle, to cover his fist with shaking hands and, tucking his thumb hard over his knuckles, brings it into the glass. Pain explodes in light show from his knuckles and sprints in hard, barbed lines towards his shoulder. He barely registers it. “Wei Ying!” his mouth is shouting, but his brain is a blank, slippery armful of fear: What is he doing? What did he do? What has he done?
The glass finally cracks. A hairline fracture. Jiang Cheng swallows, knuckles stinging, and gathers more sleeve over his hand and connects his fist with it again—
—and it gives. His arm lurches through the hole, broken glass clawing at his sleeve, and Jiang Cheng nearly faceplants into the door. The air inside is sticky and metallic, and he casts out wildly looking for the knob on the other side. His fingers slip on the lock. Steam has gathered in sweaty droplets upon it. “Fuck, come on!” he shouts, when it refuses to turn.
Then it does, and he flicks on the light, and.
Jiang Cheng has seen a lot of horror movies, growing up. Such is the fate of he who calls himself family of someone like Wei Ying; before he turned eighteen, he’d already been traumatized within an inch of his life by all the Ju-on movies—the Japanese and the American versions—and half the Saw franchise, a bizarre short film about eating unborn fetuses, and some horrible ghost movie that Wei Ying could not stop laughing at but scared Jiang Cheng so shitless anyway that he couldn’t sleep for a week.
So: he thinks he’s seen it all.
There’s blood. There’s vomit and there’s something else, chalky white and pink, he doesn’t know what it is. The whole bathroom is wreathed in the heavy, nauseating scent of orange blossom shampoo over the sour of bile. Jiang Cheng thinks he’s screaming but he can’t hear himself, he slips trying to cross the bathroom and has to dig his fingers into the counter, there’s a cup in the sink, there’s soap in the sink, pill packets float past his ankles like little aluminum canoes, Wei Ying’s head rests on the side of the tub and water is spilling out from the lower edge of the rim, his phone is facedown and wet, keeps lighting up and gurgling as its chips and plates drown in the lukewarm water. The lockscreen is a picture of Wei Ying and that Lan Zhan, flickering like a dying sodium lamp.
He shuts the water off first. Almost yanks the knob out of the wall doing it, and in the light, bruises bloom in blue dimples on his knuckles. Some of them are bleeding. The sting of roughing against fleece dies at his wrist, his whole body is numb. The water around them heaves with the addition of another body, flooding over the rim with a warm splash as Jiang Cheng gathers Wei Ying in one arm to prop him upright. His mouth twists around words and these, he hears, “Wei Ying!” and “Oh my God, oh my fucking God,” and “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!”
Wei Ying’s hair floats in fine, spidery lines in the water, feathering softly where it breaks the surface. Now that the water is off, the bathroom is too silent. Empty glass thunks hollow against porcelain, like the pound of his heartbeat against his sternum. Jiang Cheng tries to think of something, anything, hell, something he’s seen from a movie, even—he prises Wei Ying’s jaw open and there’s no evidence of what he’s swallowed or how much of it is still in his body, everything smells like sick and alcohol and strawberry. He’s seen people stick their fingers down someone’s throat to make them vomit again. He’s too scared to do it. What if he forces something back down? Are you even supposed to do that? He doesn’t fucking know. “Wei Ying!” He shakes him by the face. His head only lolls.
He needs help. He wants his sister. They’re alone. He’s holding his brother but soon he’ll just be a body. He wants someone to tell him what to do. Wei Ying is usually the one who tells him how to talk, how to act, how to feel when Jiang Cheng doesn’t know which path to take. He has told Jiang Cheng to stop crying and then he has wiped his blotchy face. Jiang Cheng pretended to hate it. The idea of losing that all is unfathomable.
The water has dampened his phone in his pocket. His heart is a kick drum. Jiang Cheng shakes so hard that he can barely hold his phone up to his face to unlock it, and when he does he can’t even remember what number it was for an ambulance. 119. 110. No, 120, and his voice doesn’t sound like his own when it comes out of his mouth, exploding like he’d been holding a lit firework in his teeth.
“One-two-zero, what’s your emergency?”
Wake up, I don’t know how to exist in a world where I only have a sister.
“My brother’s tried to kill himself!”
Lan Huan is awake with a cup of tea when Lan Zhan leaves his room past ten. The lights are off but the TV is on, volume turned down low on a Scottish documentary about old castles. The glow from the screen turns his brother’s face into a blue ghost in the night. The shadows turn his face into a light show of sharp angles.
“You’re still awake,” he says, at Lan Zhan’s movement towards the kitchen. “There’s chrysanthemum tea if you need.”
“Is there something keeping you up?”
Not exactly. Lan Zhan had gotten into bed early because he had classes to teach in the morning on weekends, but he’d tossed restlessly for an hour without knowing why. Wei Ying hasn’t replied to his texts when he checked—he usually does, though it often takes him longer to, curled up tight in bed like a newborn fawn hidden in grass, nose tucked into his blanket like a prey animal. Lan Zhan had seen him fall asleep like that once on his couch, when he’d been playing Ludovico Einaudi, Nuvole Bianche. Wei Ying hadn’t moved when Lan Zhan stopped, and then hadn’t moved when he draped his blanket over him.
“Can’t sleep,” Lan Zhan says. His brother has left the kettle on the stovetop, the brushed steel glinting like a capsized ship in the dark. “I’m fine, but I have class in the morning.”
“Will it help to talk? Is Wei Ying still awake?”
“Most likely.” The teacup is warm in Lan Zhan’s palm, and the soft scent of chrysanthemum hovers over his lips as he drinks.
“He can’t talk right now?” Lan Huan guesses.
“Hmm.” Lan Huan gestures to their Yamaha. “I can play, then, if it’ll help.”
“No need, Ge.”
“Are you sure?”
“I am. I’ll—”
Lan Zhan’s phone lights up. He hadn’t planned on bringing out into the kitchen with himself, but he’d checked the time right before rising and hadn’t put it down. A smile has already begun when he realizes that it’s not a text notification—it’s a call. No one calls him except for his brother, or his uncle, and Wei Ying doesn’t usually call first.
It’s Jiang Yanli.
Lan Zhan stares. He doesn’t have a contact photo set for her, the frosted film of an incoming call blurring his lockscreen. It’s a picture of Wei Ying, hands outstretched with a black butterfly in his palms. With its wings spread, it had winking sunspots dipped in lipstick on its tails. They’d been at a botanical garden. For a few months, they’d rarely finished teaching at the same hour because of their students’ piano exams, since Lan Zhan taught at an advanced level and Wei Ying worked with teenagers upon whom he spent time and energy and love. He’d said, “Teenagers are just people who need someone to believe in them.”
They’d met up outside the conservatory and Wei Ying had been a bright streak of gold in the sunset, and without thinking, Lan Zhan had invited him out for dinner. His chest had been a big, rainy, glowing thing that evening, like he’d swallowed a whole month’s worth of spring.
He answers, “Hello?”
At first there’s silence, and Lan Zhan is certain she must have called him on accident. Perhaps wiggled her phone where it had been sleeping in her pocket.
Then: “Lan Zhan?”
Her voice is every kind of wrong.
“Jiang Yanli?” he says, croaky, mouth forgetting how to form words. “Is everything okay?”
More silence. In his periphery, his brother sits up on the couch, and Lan Zhan turns his back so he faces the granite countertops. Blood is humming in his throat like he’s swallowed a hummingbird. Then, through the static, she whimpers.
“Li-jie,” he says, the name that she insisted he call her whenever she saw him. “What’s wrong?”
The hum turns to sweat. The sweat chills. Lan Zhan feels his knees sway like high-rises when earthquakes shake the land, all his hinges loosening, the curtains shivering like a child hiding and smothering their giggles behind them. All at once, his insides are metallic, a whole moving boxful of silvery and crockery shattering.
Lan Zhan would not describe himself as someone with an active imagination, but his thoughts explode nuclear and dusty on the insides of his skull.
Words lose their meaning somewhere between his belly and his mouth.
“Did something happen to him?”
“Is he dead?”
The couch whistles when his brother stands up behind him, and the creak of the floorboards is already a noise that belongs to a different reality. Lan Zhan is in freefall.
“No. I don’t know,” Jiang Yanli says, and this is what breaks her: the uncertainty. She sobs and her words melt together, in that horrible way they do when someone is crying but they’re still holding themselves up against the flood. The hot, sour smell of tears pressing down on the throat. Lan Zhan can’t understand her anymore, like trying to pick out separate petals in the slush of springtime rain, plum blossoms blending into a dark pink puree on the curbs and in the storm drains. “I don’t know. Lan Zhan, I don’t know. He’s not—he’s hanging on, but. I don’t—we don’t know if he’ll wake up. We don’t know how bad it is yet. They won’t tell me or A-Cheng anything, but it’s been an hour since I got here.”
Not dead. Somehow, it doesn’t sound like it’s supposed to mean alive. He’s not dead, says Jiang Yanli, as if that’s all there is left to say.
Weirdly, Lan Zhan hopes she’ll say it was an accident. A sick sort of comfort comes with accidents, because it’s part of being alive, part of being in a world full of moving pieces. Sometimes things bump into each other. When she doesn’t answer him right away, he knows. He just knows.
“A-Cheng found him,” she says, which isn’t an answer. “He found him in the bathroom. When he got back from dinner...he waited for us to leave. There were pills.”
Saying he tried to kill himself is too ugly, because the words and he might have succeeded dangle like a stillborn behind it, gooey and limp and unsaid.
“I’m too afraid to imagine if A-Cheng had gone home later.” Jiang Yanli breathes again, the noise tickling the shell of Lan Zhan’s ear. “The doctors are still trying to—to stabilize him.”
Lan Zhan’s head is rubble, shrapnel, bundles of open wire. The dust hasn’t settled. All of him is acid and high voltage. “Where are you now?”
“Shanghai Changzheng Hospital, in Huangpu,” she says. “But, Lan Zhan, it’s late—I just thought you should know. A-Cheng told me that he asked about you before it happened, that A-Ying sounded wrong when he answered, so I thought I would—” She takes a deep, evening breath, voice still watery, but steady, at least. “Lan Zhan. Come visit him?”
She sniffles, and suddenly, Lan Zhan feels like he’s on the phone with someone much younger than he is. A teenager. A child. A child who had walked in on the paint-spatter of head blood, skull blood, dark and sticky as forgotten blackberries left in pockets and puddling in an oblong across hardwood.
“I’ll be on my way.”
He hangs up and he’s untethered. The TV is on mute now, but still on, light strobing the kitchen red. Lan Huan is behind him, a steadying hand on his arm, like he knows Lan Zhan might wilt if he isn’t holding onto him.
“What’s wrong?” he asks.
“He’s in the hospital.”
“Let’s go,” says Lan Huan, without another word. He doesn’t even ask who; Lan Zhan doesn’t know what he looks like, but he’s glad that his face is doing the talking. “Which one?”
“Changzheng,” Lan Zhan says, and his vision swims. His brother has leapt into motion, opening the coat closet by the entrance and shrugging on a cardigan over his pajamas. “Ge.” Some faint, frayed part of him is thankful that his brother is moving so quickly, because Lan Zhan feels like all his bones have been replaced with mismatched wooden jigsaw pieces.
“I’m calling a Didi. Let’s go wait downstairs.”
“Let’s go, A-Zhan. You’ll feel better when you see him.”
The entire car ride to Changzheng—on the other side of the Huangpu River—is unbearable. Lan Zhan can’t breathe and at the same time feels so full of air that he could vomit. He’d read somewhere, once, that if too much air got inside your veins, it’d travel its way around your body, wiggle into your brain, and kill you. He imagines it with a grotesque sort of detail, body rocking with the traffic, cars sprinting down the highway on both sides with angry cat-eyes for tail lights, leering at them.
His phone lights up every time his arm is jostled, the lockscreen of Wei Ying and his butterfly blinking slowly in and out of existence. Here, gone. Here, gone. Here. Gone.
Lan Zhan unlocks his phone, thumbing over his WeChat app. Wei Ying is pinned at the top, along with his brother, and all his other group chats cascade in a chattery mess beneath them both. Notifications off. Neat unread buttons with messages numbering into the dozens glare up at him.
His last conversation with Wei Ying had been from this morning:
i got a double yolked egg today!!!
And a chicken sticker, doing a happy little dance.
you’ll be lucky today
you’re up so early?
you sent me a message at almost 4 AM...
ive got level 8 babies testing today
i want to stop by the conservatory and make sure theyre feeling okay
some of them arent ready but their parents have paid me to train them for level 8, you know how it goes lan zhan
if you don’t have class until evening today, we can get dinner if you want
last week you said there was a new restaurant on nanjing road that you wanted to try
but if you’re tired, it can wait
a little bit
i only have one class in the morning if you want me to bring food.
And then Wei Ying hadn’t replied again. Later that evening, just before dinner:
i’m sure your double egg yolk was with your students all the way today
get some sleep tonight!
if you want to hear me play nuvole bianche, call me whenever
i can play whatever else you like, too
Get some sleep tonight. Lan Zhan looks at his own message and the nausea steamrolls through him again. In the almost-summer, the air has turned yellow and humid, like a breath after dinner, so he forces himself to breathe in deep. Gulps down mouthfuls of the sickly, orange-scented air conditioning air, the smoky aftertaste of cigarettes lingering on the back of his tongue. He smelled it as soon as he fell into the Didi, the driver turning to them and asking if he was Lan Huan. It clings to the upholstery.
“Slower, A-Zhan. You’ll make your head spin.”
Good. If his head spins, at least it’s some semblance of motion or sensation. Lan Zhan can’t feel anything, like his body isn’t flying down the expressway, pushing one-twenty on the dash. He closes his eyes and lets the world around him be tactile.
He sent one text to Jiang Yanli: please let me know if anything changes.
Please let him know if he’s going to be too late.
Lan Zhan has not liked the hospital since he was six and had to watch his mother die in one, as all the machines around her, like a million cicadas, fell quiet at once.
Back then he couldn’t even see over the receptionist’s desk in the department of oncology—his father, and then his uncle, had to hold him up over the counter so he could get his visitor’s sticker. Once, one of the nicer ones had put it on his hand and told him to stay strong for his mama. He didn’t cry that day.
The receptionist at this hour is not bound to be particularly nice. Her hair is wiry with grey, and she peers over her bifocals and a beaky nose as Lan Zhan approaches with his brother.
Lan Zhan nods mutely.
“Name and relationship to patient?”
“Lan Zhan. I’m Wei Ying’s friend.”
She squints at her monitor, a fine layer of dust collecting on the top rim, as she looks him up in the directory. “Non-family visitation hours are closed. But I see,” she leans in, chain of her glasses swinging and catching the weak fluorescence, “that you’re an emergency contact. Write your name and sign here. You?” she barks at his brother.
“I’ll wait here,” says Lan Huan, ever pleasant.
He goes through the motions of medical bureaucracy—showing his ID, signing, getting his visitor’s pass printed. He pastes it to the soft front of his cardigan, suddenly aware of how underdressed he is. Like he’s brother, he’s just wearing a knit over his pajamas, hair down without even a pin to hold it back.
“I’ll be right here.” Lan Huan sits down and makes a show of looking comfortable in a slotted metal chair. “No rush, A-Zhan. Call me if anything changes.”
The intensive care unit is always crowded. Wei Ying is in room 17-B, three floors up, and Lan Zhan passes by rooms with six beds and drawn curtains, the quiet, hissing noise of oxygen like sleeping dragons down the hall. Room 17-B is almost at the end of the corridor, and his heart starts thumping wild and steely in his chest at the sight of it. He’s nauseous all over again. Get some sleep.
The door for 17-B is shut, with a narrow slice of window facing the aisle separating four beds, two on each side of the room. It’s smaller, and when he peers in he sees Jiang Cheng, who has his hands on his sister’s shoulders where she’s seated by a bed near the other end of the room. The curtain is drawn; Lan Zhan can only see the table at the end of the bed. There’s a paper cup knocked on its side.
Then Jiang Cheng catches sight of him in the window and shuffles woodenly towards the door.
“How is he?” Lan Zhan asks as soon as it’s open.
“Doctors said the first hour is most crucial. They pumped him and took his blood, now they’re analyzing how much got into his bloodstream.” Jiang Cheng had never been particularly nice to Lan Zhan, but he’s trembling so hard that Lan Zhan feels a bizarre urge to put a steadying hand on his shoulder. Jiang Yanli had said that Jiang Cheng was the one to find him. “But he’s better than he was before.”
Lan Zhan’s throat could be all needles. He swallows. “Can I see him?”
Jiang Cheng opens the door wider. “I should warn you, he doesn’t look...like he usually does.”
Such an ugly pause.
There are two other patients in this room, the bed beside Wei Ying’s empty. Jiang Yanli stands up when he comes in, and she’s dressed like she’d come to the hospital directly from a fancy dinner party. Her hair is still curled, but her lipstick has faded around her lips and two faint tire-streak tear tracks have stained her cheeks. She offers him a quiet smile.
“Zhanzhan,” she says, that pet name rolling off her tongue more easily than it does with anyone else in his own family. “Thanks for coming.” Then she leans over the bed, and before Lan Zhan rounds the curtain he can hear her soft voice: “A-Ying, look who came to visit. You should greet him, don’t you think?”
When his mother went, she’d been so pale and thin that every time Lan Zhan visited, he thought his hands would go right through her body. Even at the end she insisted on lifting him and Lan Huan into her bed, holding her two boys close and listening to them chatter about what they were learning in school, who won the art contest, who won piano regionals, if they’d visited anywhere fun. She would make them promise to bring her when she got better. His brother would always be the one who said Of course, mama! as Lan Zhan drew pictures on her palms and wrists with water-based markers. He thought they made her look more solid, like she wouldn’t simply vaporize into thin air like steamed milk, skin tight like the filmy surface of boiled cream.
Jiang Cheng pulls the curtain back slightly, just so Lan Zhan can fit himself against the side of the bed opposite Jiang Yanli, and then draws it again. The metal rings scrape overhead, shoonk.
A ventilator is taped to his face, tube tunnelling deep into his throat, blue medical adhesive stark against his skin. He’s so pale. Paler than Lan Zhan has ever seen him, almost blue. Wei Ying is always a little paler coming off the heels of winter, but all color comes in shocks off of him—the tape, the tubes, his hair a black storm pulled back in a messy ponytail away from his face. Red hairtie, the metal clasp catching the light, a bent nail hammered into his skull. Tubes sprout out of him like weeds. If Lan Zhan tried to hug him, he’d get an armful of plastic and metal.
“He’s doing better now than he was before. A-Cheng said he was turning grey, and then blue, before I got here,” Jiang Yanli says, sitting down again. Both of his arms have drips feeding into him, but she runs the back of her index finger back and forth against a free patch on Wei Ying’s wrist.
Jiang Cheng sits down heavily on one of the couches at the end of the room. The springs creak. The cushion beside him sags, with the remembered weight and pain left behind by other visitors to the ICU.
Lan Zhan stands rooted to the spot, unmoving.
“You can touch him,” Jiang Yanli prompts. “As long as you don’t jostle any tubes. The doctors said some touch is good.”
He’s been staring at Wei Ying’s hands, mostly, because it was easier to look at them without breaking. More anonymous. They could be anyone’s hands, and even that would still be a lie, because Lan Zhan would know Wei Ying’s hands in the dark with his eyes closed. He’s watched them blur at a piano, type at a phone, rest upon Lan Zhan’s chest, over his heart, loose in sleep.
Wei Ying’s eyelashes are still. When he’s asleep, his eyelashes always quiver, big sweeping dreams keeping his eyes busy. His lips are chapped and grey. The aforementioned blue. From here, Lan Zhan can see the network of electrodes snaking down the front of Wei Ying’s loose hospital gown, splayed in a web of frogs’ feet over his chest. It rises and falls so faintly that Lan Zhan has to fight down the urge to rest his palm over Wei Ying’s body just to feel it move.
“It’s moving,” Jiang Yanli murmurs. She’s noticed. “I had to—to see, too.”
Lan Zhan lifts his hand and settles it so gently at the crown of Wei Ying’s head that he can just barely feel the soft give of his hair. His mouth aches to lean forward and kiss him on the forehead, but he thinks it wouldn’t be appropriate in front of Jiang Yanli.
Wei Ying lies as still as ever, without any indication that he even knows there are people touching him, and Lan Zhan wants to cry.
The question comes up shredded and bloody when Lan Zhan opens his mouth, “How did it happen?”
Jiang Yanli glances in Jiang Cheng’s direction without looking all the way. He’s shuttered, staring at nothing with his weight unbalanced on the moldy couch. “A-Cheng found him in the bathroom when he got home,” she says. “You know A-Ying has prescription sleep aids, because he has so much trouble sleeping. He always has, since we were little kids.”
Lan Zhan nods mutely.
“He took three months’ worth with baijiu, and then took antiemetic syrup to force it down,” she whispers, words cracking in her mouth. “His body threw up some. Not enough. We’re just lucky A-Cheng got home early enough and moved fast.” Tears have pooled in her eyes again, but she stays steady, sniffling once as they run down her face again. She’s curled her fingers around a band of wrist without needles, running her thumb back and forth against his skin. “Jiejie is sorry. Jiejie is so, so sorry, A-Ying, I didn’t know. Jiejie is sorry. Jiejie is sorry.”
“You have to see if your level eights passed,” Lan Zhan says, because it’s the only thing he can say without joining Jiang Yanli and weeping. “Your level eights love you.” You still wanted to go to that restaurant at Nanjing Road. We were going to go to the botanical garden again. I’m so sorry. You had double-egg yolks, it had to count for something. I wish I could have been there to catch you. Wake up, please, I’ll play Nuvole Bianche for you again. I’ll play anything you want me to play. I’ll play for you forever if you wake up. Your level eights love you. Please don’t leave me. I love you. Please don’t leave me. “You have to be here to take everyone out for dinner, even if they didn’t pass.”
Jiang Yanli sniffles, swiping at her cheeks with her hands. She stands and the leather of her purse squeaks. “I’m sorry, Zhanzhan, I should’ve gotten you water—I’ll go—”
“No matter, Li-jie. I need to give my brother a call, I’ll go. Would you or Jiang Cheng like anything?”
“I’m fine,” she sniffles again, pasting on a smile, then nodding like she’s happy with how steady she can sound. “A-Cheng?”
Jiang Cheng shakes his head mutely.
Lan Zhan casts another glance over Wei Ying, then lets his hand fall. The hallway is dim for the evening, and the hospital, who never sleeps, could be breathing. He waits until he’s out of the corridor to call his brother.
“He’s not well, Ge.”
Lan Zhan swallows, eyes hot. “Suicide attempt.”
The kettle-hiss of static. Then, “A-Zhan, I’m so sorry. Is he okay now, at least?”
I don’t know, rings Jiang Yanli’s voice in his temples.
“He’s still here.”
“Are you okay? Are you going to stay for longer?”
“I want to.”
“That’s fine. Shall I take your classes tomorrow? If Shushu asks, I’ll tell him what happened. He won’t say anything. Are Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng here?”
“Let me know if they need anything. I’ll go home and come back in the morning with some things for you, if you want.” Silence that neither of them have learned how to fill. “Do you plan to stay until he wakes up, A-Zhan?”
“If he doesn’t?”
Lan Zhan shuts his eyes. “I cannot afford to think like that, Ge.”
“Of course, you’re right. I’m sorry. Will you be okay by yourself?”
“I’ll be fine. Go home. If you need to find my lesson plans, call me.”
“I will. Hang in there, A-Zhan, it’ll be okay.”
And they hang up. The vending machines in Changzheng are outfitted with enough AI that his brother would joke that he doesn’t trust them. He can’t see where they keep their brains. The cooling mechanism hums to life, shaking the tile beneath his feet, a line of thumping steel hearts frosting the lobby glacial blue.
There’s water on the top shelf, a line of overpriced Nongfu Springs, and he swipes open his WeChat Pay code. A gentle chime, and then his payment processes.
The middle row is all snacks and crackers, a shiny plastic rainbow of grease laid out at eye level for children. Closest to Lan Zhan are two rows of Want Want snacks, the miniature honey bun variety, and senbei crackers. Wei Ying eats them like they’re his meal replacements. Green tea and Want Want honey buns. When Lan Zhan caught him with nothing else for lunch one day—multiple days—he started bringing extra food. Then started packing an extra lunch.
“Lan Zhan, you don’t have to! You really don’t. Aiya, you went to the trouble again?”
“For someone who doesn’t cook meat regularly, you’re really quite good at it,” Wei Ying always talked with his mouth full, no time to chew and swallow, “Zhanzhan, you’ll have to give me the recipe for this. Where’d you learn to make pork slices in garlic?”
“You plan on making it?” Lan Zhan asked, and Wei Ying laughed.
“No, I’ll just ask Jie to make it!” he said, and his laughter sung like a bell.
Lan Zhan presses the buttons in the pinpad for the honey buns. And the crackers. There’s a miniature box of salted duck egg biscuits, he gets those, too.
And here, where there is no one to watch or listen or care, Lan Zhan feels tears run down his face. The machine chimes in receipt again, but it sounds like she’s trying to console him, and when he bends down this time to retrieve the snacks from the chute his body gives and he sinks to the floor. It is not a picture of dignity. He crosses his legs on the dusty linoleum and sits there and cries. Around his face, his hair hangs in dark velveteen curtains, and he leans forward until he can feel his forehead press to the cool Plexiglass of the vending machine. The cooling hum vibrates against him, making his teeth chatter in place.
The hospital vending machine bears witness to more honest fear and grief than some funerals do.
He’s quiet, mostly. He’s quiet but he sobs, takes drowning, gulping breaths with a lapful of bottled water and crackling snack bags.
Hurt throbs behind his face like molten metal, sterling silver and steel red hot as more tears spill down his face. Between his apartment and the hospital, the breathless trip in between, Lan Zhan hadn’t been able to cry. It had congealed in one cold, solid block that he could feel pressing on the backs of his eyes, but now the tears spill out all at once, and he cries like he hasn’t in years. At what? He doesn’t know. One thing, everything: that Wei Ying was hurting enough that he didn’t feel like there was another way out, that he might wake up and be a different person, that he might not wake up at all, that Lan Zhan didn’t know. He knew about the pain; he has it, too. They talk to each other about their pain. He didn’t know how close to the edge Wei Ying had been. How could he not have known?
How do you love a person and not see the ravine behind them?
Thankfully, no one comes by. He sits until his tears dry into a sour thrumming in his sinuses, and then he peels himself off the ground with his snacks and water and returns to room 17-B. Part of him sinks when he sees that nothing has changed, stupidly hoping that all of this is a vivid, waking nightmare, but Jiang Yanli is still seated in her chair beside Wei Ying’s bed. Jiang Cheng is still curled up on the couch, bending all his long limbs in on himself like a dead spider.
“You didn’t have to, Zhanzhan,” Jiang Yanli says reproachfully when he hands her a water and sets down the snack bags. “Is your brother still here?”
“I told him to go.”
“We can bring you back with us when we leave,” Jiang Yanli says. “Zixuan drove me here. There’s space for another.”
Jin Zixuan had dropped off Jiang Yanli. Oh, God. No wonder she’s dressed so nicely—she’d been on a date. She’d come right to the hospital, freesia perfume a sharp, rogue edge in the stale antiseptic.
“I’ll stay with him for a while, if that’s okay.”
“Are you sure? You have students to teach, don’t you?”
“We just had a round of exams, so not as many as usual.” Lan Zhan pulls up another chair, plastic rattling across the tile. “My brother will take them on, at least, for tomorrow.”
“At the conservatory?”
“No, not those. External students training to enter the conservatory.”
“Oh, you teach a wide range, then,” she says, and passes a bottle of water to her brother. He takes it gently, but leaves it beside him on the couch. It rolls into the crevice between the two cushions.
“I’ll stay a little longer, then A-Cheng and I will go home for a bit. We’ve told our parents, they’re going to come up by train tomorrow. We’re going to meet them and come back.”
Lan Zhan is of the opinion that it is not a good idea to let Yu Ziyuan visit Wei Ying the way he is now, but he nods. His elbows rest on the siderails of the hospital bed, and both his hands are curled around a free square of Wei Ying’s right arm; he has a particularly thick, imposing tube taped to his hand on this side. Lan Zhan wants to gather him, his little city of tubes and subway tracks, into his arms. Wonders foolishly if Wei Ying would wake up faster and more whole that way.
The seconds pass in static. The minutes, then the hours, slip by in silence. To be so close to Wei Ying for so long and not hear his voice for any of it is unfamiliar and scary—even when he’s not talking, music leaves him in firework bursts. In the middle of something, anything, a melody for a composition will fall into his head and he’ll hum it until he can reach paper. He’ll play it when he can reach a piano. Lan Zhan will murmur, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard that one,” and Wei Ying will chuckle and say, “I thought of it just now.”
His voice flattened in the soundproofing of a conservatory practice room when Lan Zhan asked, once.
“What’s it called?” Lan Zhan asked.
And Wei Ying said, “I don’t know. The thing it was inspired by, I guess.”
“‘Watching my best friend pick at a hangnail,’” he said, and Lan Zhan rolled his eyes and sucked on the raw, stinging strip of skin just below his fingernail. “What! You don’t like your hangnail song?”
I do, I love it because you wrote it for me, Lan Zhan didn’t say, and now hates himself for it.
Lan Zhan has his gaze trained on Wei Ying so long that he only notices Jiang Yanli starting to fall asleep when Jiang Cheng appears behind her, his hands on her shoulders jolting her out of her doze.
“Jie, let’s go home. Zixuan’s on his way.” He looks to Lan Zhan, like he’d just remembered he was there. “He can bring you back. Are you sure you want to stay?”
“I’ll stay and let you know right away if anything changes.”
Jiang Yanli’s eyes are shiny and scared as she stands, still clutching gently at Wei Ying’s arm. “Jiejie will come back soon, okay?” she says. “Don’t go anywhere. Jiang Cheng and I will come back soon. Be nice to Lan Zhan. It’s very late for him.”
“Let’s go wait for Zixuan downstairs, Jie.”
“Okay. Okay. We need to clean the house before Baba and Mama come tomorrow. How bad is it, Jiang Cheng?”
Lan Zhan closes his eyes and doesn’t listen. Around him, the machines click on, these cold metal bodies keeping Wei Ying warm.
“Xiansheng. Excuse me, Xiansheng.”
Lan Zhan wakes up and, for a few dizzy seconds, has no recollection of what had happened, where he is, why he’s waking with a tight cramp like a coiled spring in his neck. A sting flares sharply up the line of his spine when he sits up, and a grey shadow falls into his eyes to block out the light from the window. It’s light out. He’d overslept.
Then his vision focuses, the beeping filters back into his brain, and he remembers where he is. His heart starts beating in his throat when he looks down at Wei Ying, who hasn’t budged a muscle since Lan Zhan had fallen asleep last night. He runs his hand across his face, feeling sleep-smeared and unpresentable. A mark of corrugated tube plastic has been stamped into his cheekbone in red welts.
“Xiansheng, we have to run some tests on the patient. Are you his family?” The nurse has a kind face, older, with a tight perm and big, owlish glasses.
“I—no, I’m not. He’s my friend.”
“Then I’m sorry, we’ll have to ask you to leave.”
Lan Zhan stands up, swaying. He curls his fingers around the bed rail to steady himself. The nurse has busied herself reading Wei Ying’s machine, taking down notes onto her clipboard. Tiny numbers march in an unfeeling army across these screens and Lan Zhan’s skin flashes hot the way it does when he’s gone too long without sleep, prickly sweat starting at the back of his neck, and that’s what he blames it on—the sleep deprivation—when he leans down by Wei Ying’s face, sweeps a stray lock of hair from his forehead and presses his lips to his skin.
The nurse says nothing. She’s not even looking.
“I’ll come back later,” Lan Zhan murmurs. Wei Ying is still pale, but at least in a humanlike way this morning. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, or a trick of the light. “I promise I’ll be back later. Your sister, your family,” he says, because somehow, Jiang Yanli stands out from the rest of them, “they’ll come visit you soon.”
“Xiansheng, your phone,” the nurse calls after him as he gets up to leave. She picks it up from where it’s cocooned itself into Wei Ying’s blankets. It lights up when she lifts it, and the picture of Wei Ying blinks back into existence. The battery is so low that it’s a single hair of a pixel in the powerbank icon. “Don’t lose it.”
“Thank you,” he says. Behind her, Jiang Cheng’s water bottle is still wedged between the couch cushions.
Lan Zhan goes downstairs, out of the lobby without seeing anything, and calls a Didi. The driver offers him a cigarette, “because you look like you need one, young man.”
He declines. Halfway home, his phone runs out of battery. When he lifts it he gets no picture of Wei Ying at all.
Lan Zhan met Wei Ying when they were eighteen, and suddenly, music meant something.
Not that it didn’t before, but it had always meant—discipline. Pride. Perseverance. Mark of good morals, mark of a good student, mark of a filial son, and then a filial nephew. It had meant Hanon scales for warmups and Czerny measures for technique, and when his eyes crossed from the Sonatinas his treat was to work on something “worth showing,” as in, something that would get him into a good music school. If he was going to do it, then he better be the best, or else what did you waste my time and money for?
So he got into the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. He didn’t even know if he was proud of it, of himself, because it was still only enough. “Because you aren’t the material to get into the Beijing Conservatory, like Lang Lang, but I guess I didn’t expect you to be,” said his uncle, and Lan Zhan had put his head down and said nothing.
And then Wei Ying had walked into his life. Or rather, Lan Zhan had walked into his. He’d been looking for a practice room, only to pick one already occupied by Wei Ying, bent over a wrinkled book of sheet music with a frown wide enough to split his face. The sound of the door opening made him look up, gold bobby pin flashing where it held his hair out of his eyes.
“Oh,” said Lan Zhan, balking. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.”
“No worries! I’m almost done for today, anyway, I’m getting sick of looking at this. You want the piano, right?”
Lan Zhan nodded. He felt, very suddenly, aware of every cell in his body, like they’d all woken up at once. His insides squirmed in a good way, if there was one.
“Your name is Lan Zhan, right?” Wei Ying asked. “I’ve seen you in my classes. I’m Wei Ying! Usually I just practice on the uprights, but everyone always rants and raves about the baby grands so I thought I’d be a little selfish today and hog one.”
Lan Zhan shifted his music books from one arm to the other. He needed to do something with his hands. “What were you practicing?”
“Want me to play for you?”
He stepped closer, letting his eyes fall to the keys so he wouldn’t have to keep looking at Wei Ying. His cheeks felt hot and stupid, and he nodded again. “Sure.”
So Wei Ying had put his hands to the keys, made a grand show of readying himself—
—and played ten seconds of Chopsticks, completely seriously, even using his damper pedal.
Lan Zhan stared when he finished. Wei Ying laughed at the expression on his face, packing up his music books into his backpack. “Don’t look at me like that, Lan Zhan, wow. I wouldn’t keep you here for six minutes because I like the sound of my own playing. Practice hard! Study well, ascend every day,” and he waved as he glided, cheerful as a sailboat, out the door.
And so: that day, Lan Zhan began to consider that music was a funny thing, a fun thing, a silly secret to be kept and shared between two people.
His apartment is hollow and echoey when he returns, like the inside of himself. Where his lesson plans are usually stacked beside the piano is vacant—he’s glad, at least, that his brother had brought the right material. On the counter is a note from Lan Huan: A-Zhan, I know you probably have no appetite, but try to eat something before going back to the hospital, it says. He’d written it on Lan Zhan’s post-it notes, blue with little white clouds drifting across the paper. Wei Ying had bought them for him from some hole-in-the-wall that sold everything and anything—batteries, cigarettes, Hi-Chews, ice cream, cramped and un-airconditioned.
Maybe this is what it’s like to lose someone, or have to confront a reality where you might lose them. You see them in everything.
Lan Zhan checks under the mosquito netting. Lan Huan had left him rice and soy-braised kao fu, and even through his dry red haze of sleep deprivation he feels his stomach rumble.
For a total of ten seconds, the hot spray of the shower makes him feel better, and Jiang Yanli’s voice turns the stream of water into needles: A-Cheng found him in the bathroom when he got home. Gooseflesh erupts down Lan Zhan’s arms as he pictures it. You know A-Ying has prescription sleep aids, because he has so much trouble sleeping. He always has, since we were little kids. Jiang Cheng is not someone who inspires much sympathy, least of all from Lan Zhan, but the thought of walking into a bathroom and seeing—seeing—
He stares at the dark drain towards which all the water rushes.
After he gets out of the shower, wet hair feathering as it dries, he considers getting some shuteye on the couch before going back to the hospital, but he can’t. Lan Zhan looks at his phone and—there’s still nothing, a piece of cold, silent metal, and his heart squirms like a sick kitten in his chest. Jiang Yanli should be back in the hospital now, probably with her parents in tow. Lan Zhan trusts that Jiang Fengmian will be worried, maybe even scared, but he knows Yu Ziyuan.
Lan Zhan stands at the counter, floor moving like water under his feet, and eats his food cold. Goes through the motions of changing into something presentable to go out in, something powder blue that feels good on his skin, and dries his hair before pinning it back in a loose half-up ponytail at the back of his head.
He’s back out of the door just past noon.
On the way to the subway station, Lan Zhan passes by an old woman selling wares out of the back of her pulley cart—sparkling beaded animals, bagua bracelets like caramel in the noon sun. A basket full of magnolia mounted on little pins, so aromatic that a cloud of sweet pungence hangs around her, and when she watches Lan Zhan pause her aged, leathery face splits in a smile.
“Young man, would you like something?”
“Popo, how much for the magnolia pins?”
“I’ll have one.”
“One is enough, thank you.”
She holds up her little scanner with shaking hands, frowning when his payment doesn’t read, and a child no older than ten scampers out of the convenience store outside which she sits and rights the screen for her again. He’s wearing a holey t-shirt and mismatched white and red plastic slippers with abominations of Mickey and Minnie mouse on the straps. “Here, gege,” he says, holding up the scanner again, and Lan Zhan finds it in himself to smile as his payment goes through. “Go slowly!”
He doesn’t go slowly, but it feels like he does—like he’s running in a dream, paddling through a thick river of hot soup, and drowning. When he steps onto the subway he doesn’t remember to even check that it’s the right one before it starts moving, sandwiched between a girl whose roots have grown back into her platinum-bleached hair and a harried businessman shouting into his cell phone. His voice kicks at Lan Zhan’s back, thunk, thunk, child’s feet against the dizzy airplane seat of his skull. Like his head is disconnected from his body, floating somewhere.
Wei Ying had thrust one of these on him, once. The petals had been bruised and sweaty, as if he’d been running with them crunched in his fist like a pair of scissors. “Lan Zhan,” he said, when he’d caught him just outside the exam hall. “Here! For luck!”
“For my exam?”
“For your exam. For everything. Keep it in your pocket. I know you’re perfect at everything you do, but who knows when you’ll need a little bit of luck, right?” Wei Ying had curled his fingers around it and pushed Lan Zhan’s hand to his chest. “It’s from me. That’s how you know it’s lucky.”
The magnolias sit in Lan Zhan’s palm, smooth slices of green-stemmed soap, and he curls his fingers around them again.
The hospital is significantly less beautiful in the daytime, a slab of glass and stone imposing against the white-noise pollution of the city. People filter in and out of the entrance—families, children, older people helped only by their equally old relatives, and Lan Zhan pauses to hold out his hand and lead them down the stairway to the street. One old man grasps his wrist.
“Young man, thank you,” he says, mottled skin dark against Lan Zhan’s arm. “Young people won’t even help us now.”
“Mm. No trouble.”
He’s let in by a chipper young woman this time, who seems to have trouble taking in his face all at once when she looks up. In other circumstances, Lan Zhan would have to confront the mortifying ordeal of being perceived as Handsome, but he’s running on several hours of cramped sleep and cold food, so he simply waits in silence as she processes his pass. She nods at his magnolia pin. “Visiting your girlfriend?” she asks.
And out of Lan Zhan’s mouth comes, “Yes.”
“I hope she’s okay,” she says, like it’s supposed to be a question.
“Mm,” says Lan Zhan, already untangling himself from her gaze, and heading for the third floor.
This time, he does not have the privilege of Jiang Yanli’s fond, fearful tears, or Jiang Cheng’s shaken silence. Now that it’s daytime, the doors of several wards are open, visitors trotting in and out like bees, nurses hurrying back and forth in blue scrubs. Lan Zhan dodges a tearful child being carried away by their grandparents, faces drawn, and he forces himself not to look into the room that they came out of.
Lan Zhan can hear Yu Ziyuan before he sees her.
“If he wants to die, that’s his choice. Why do we have to waste the time and money keeping him alive if that’s not even what he wants?”
“Ma!” Jiang Cheng. “That’s enough.”
Lan Zhan slows to a stop outside of room 17-B, the nausea that he’d willed away in the shower building inside him again.
“Am I wrong?” A scoff out of Yu Ziyuan’s mouth, no matter how quiet, is always pinching—not the affectionate kind, either, fingers nipping a cheek. Always hard, like she was trying to twist off a piece of flesh. “A-Li, stop crying for him. It’s not your job to. Stop crying, you look so ugly.”
“If I don’t cry for him, who will?” Jiang Yanli says, voice smeared around her tears. “I don’t see you doing it!”
“Jiejie,” says Jiang Cheng, pleading. “Stop talking.”
“Let her talk,” says Yu Ziyuan. “I, for one, did not raise a daughter to cry for someone so selfish.”
The hallway turns red around the fringes of Lan Zhan’s periphery, and he steps into the doorway. Jiang Yanli sees him and stands up immediately, and Jiang Cheng—if Lan Zhan can believe it—looks relieved. He immediately hooks his arm in his sister’s, and puts the other around Yu Ziyuan’s shoulders. “Let’s go,” he says, clipped. “Lan Zhan said he would visit.”
“I want to talk about the cost of this stay,” Yu Ziyuan says, even as he corrals her towards the door. “I won’t be paying for it.”
I don’t need you to. I will if I have to. It doesn’t matter if that makes your stomach turn, Lan Zhan thinks viciously, but he arranges his face into one of respectful calm as they pass him. Jiang Yanli reaches for his arm, says, “Zhanzhan,” in a weak voice, and it’s all she can manage before Jiang Cheng leads her away.
Jiang Fengmian brings up the rear, and he fixes Lan Zhan with a solemn gaze, nodding once before clasping a large, cigarette-smokey hand on his shoulder and squeezing. “Sorry to trouble you,” he says.
“Not a trouble,” says Lan Zhan.
Wei Ying is unchanged. Someone has smoothed his hair down, probably Jiang Yanli, but still he is a network of tubes, still a ventilator buzzes deep in his mouth. Lan Zhan sits down in the chair that Jiang Yanli had just vacated, the cushion uncomfortably warm under him. He’s sitting in a spot that he probably doesn’t belong in.
Across the aisle, one of the patient’s curtains has been drawn back. A woman with her head wrapped in bandages. She doesn’t have any visitors.
Lan Zhan reaches into his pocket for the flowers and sees that Jiang Yanli had texted him a few minutes ago, the text banner stretching over the screen just to cover the bottom of Wei Ying’s face.
i’m sorry for earlier zhanzhan. would it be better or worse if i said i knew this would happen?
i wanted to update you but didn’t get a chance. doctors have said he has stable progress. we should consider ourselves lucky.
A thin bruise runs along the veins of Lan Zhan’s magnolias, and he places them on the foldout table at the end of Wei Ying’s bed. The snack bags are still there. Most of them, anyway; the salted egg crackers are gone.
thank you li-jie
hope you are okay
and your brother. please get some rest if you can!
i understand. you look very tired too zhanzhan, we’ll come back tonight, and you can get some sleep! your brother told us that you stayed the night here. you’ve suffered
for wei ying it’s not suffering.
you should talk to him! doctors said he might be able to hear us and come around more quickly...i hope he didn’t hear any of that just now :(
He puts his phone down. If Lan Zhan had a choice, he would find a piano to play for Wei Ying. It’s easier for him to sit down and play Nuvole Bianche and see Wei Ying’s smile appear on his face even when he was feeling quiet or mean or empty. Some days, it wouldn’t reach a smile, but he’d turn his head to the sound of the music—never entirely looking at Lan Zhan, but he knew Wei Ying was listening. The next best thing is his phone, but there are so many tubes and so much tape crisscrossing Wei Ying’s face that Lan Zhan won’t try to put anything in his ears.
So he sits there, finding an empty strip of skin on Wei Ying’s arm to stroke, and opens his mouth. Closes it. Opens it again.
“Once you told me,” he says, throat cottony, “that magnolias on a pin would be lucky because they were from you. For my exam, for anything. It was seven years ago. I was testing for a practical exam, and you ran from the subway station just to give it to me. Remember?”
Clicking and beeping.
“I hadn’t thought about it for a while. I don’t think I told you. I kept those magnolias. I forgot about them, first—left them in my pocket and found them withering, my sweater smelling of luck. I saw them outside my apartment today and I brought some, because.” His insides tug hot and sharp as he thinks about it. “I still need you here.” Not because of luck. Because of love. I should’ve told you that earlier. I should’ve told you years ago. I don’t know if it would’ve changed anything. Please let it be enough.
Wei Ying doesn’t look like he’s sleeping. Just a waxy thing being kept alive, like the cloudy puddle of candle-melt after its flame has been put out, hardening in the cold.
Lan Zhan hadn’t meant to fall asleep again, and he doesn’t, not at all the way. He props his head on his fist, elbow notched against the raised frame of Wei Ying’s mattress, and strange images flash in and out behind his eyes like the lockscreen of his phone, blinking every time it darkens.
Yu Ziyuan’s poison. His brother, coming home with his back turned to Lan Zhan, and turning around and having his uncle’s face instead. Wei Ying, Wei Ying, always Wei Ying, bright and leaping from the backs of his eyelids like he doesn’t belong in the phosphene dark. He doesn’t. In some instances he’s lying upside-down on his own bed, head hanging off the end of his mattress and blood rushing to his face with a bag of chips. Other times, he’s playing the piano, something soft and gentle turning discordant and monstrous. Sometimes he’s just talking, and Lan Zhan can’t hear him at all, his mouth opening and closing without words.
He jolts awake when his elbow slips, and Lan Zhan rights himself in his seat. The sun has moved into the window, a prickly square of light inching across his shoe and baking his foot. He shifts, and—
Wei Ying’s eyes are open.
Lan Zhan’s heart shoots into his throat, splatters against the roof of his mouth. He rises from his seat.
“Wei Ying?” He leans over him in bed. “Wei Ying, can you hear me?”
Wei Ying follows Lan Zhan’s movements just ever so slightly, eyelids rippling as if they hadn’t planned on being open again. He stares up into Lan Zhan’s face, unmoving save for his slitted eyes, and Lan Zhan runs his hand down Wei Ying’s arm until he can fit it into the clammy curve of Wei Ying’s palm. He squeezes two of his fingers gently. “I’m going to get a doctor.”
Wei Ying doesn’t squeeze back. He just stares, as if Lan Zhan isn’t even there.