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all that's left of two hearts on fire

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Someone moves into the old house on the corner.

This is how it always starts: someone moves in. The angry one watches and plans. After a few weeks, perhaps some of their books go missing, or the pepper grinder will be moved in the night. Cereal boxes will be opened, one or two dry pieces scattered on the counter. The new occupant will probably assume they’ve been sleepwalking. The angry one lets them think that, for a while. It’s more fun this way.

The quiet one puts back what’s been moved or hidden whenever he notices. This frustrates the angry one, but it does mean the quiet one has to pay attention to him. And sometimes it backfires exquisitely, like the time the quiet one found two hanks of yarn in the freezer and put them back in the yarn cupboard. Only the yarn had been put in the freezer by one of the occupants herself, and it had started a fight with her husband that lasted for days. The angry one had laughed and laughed and laughed.

He tries to draw it out as long as he can, but he does get bored, so he always escalates eventually. Thrown furniture and scrawled messages; terrifying dreams and whispers in the night. Against these, the quiet one can only do so much: it costs him a lot of effort to restrain the angry one by force. The quiet one mostly chooses to save his energy, unless the angry one puts one of the people in actual danger — or, for some reason, if he tries to mess with the lights.

He doesn’t know why the quiet one cares about lights. He doesn’t know why the quiet one cares about anything. It doesn’t matter anyway. However hard the quiet one tries, it always ends the same way: screams and sobs and someone running out the door, never to come back.

 

Someone new moves in, tall and fair, with long dark hair and a smile that itches something in the angry one’s mind. I’m going to try something new with this one, he says to the quiet one, who never answers him. I’m going to be a helpful ghost. I’m going to make him feel so at home here.

The angry one pretends the quiet one has been listening, has asked him why. Because it will be so funny when I turn on him! Won’t it be funny? Won’t it?

He wishes he could call the quiet one’s name, command his attention, but he’s forgotten it. He’s forgotten his own.

 

Xiao Xingchen had lucked out this time. A nice little house — a whole house, more affordable than most of the apartments he’d been looking at! — with a pretty back garden, and a guest room for when he had friends come to visit. He didn’t currently have friends who might want to come visit, but that might change any day, and he’d have a place all ready when they did.

The owner had offered him favorable terms if he’d sign an 18-month lease instead of just a year, and he happily accepted. Xiao Xingchen knew a good deal when he saw one, and he didn’t like moving around. The first twenty years of his life had been spent in the exact same place, and he’d spent the next six traveling. He was tired of traveling now. He was ready to settle down, and this little house on the corner was perfect. Something about it felt welcoming right away. He was going to stay for a long, long time.

 

“Oh dear, now where are my keys?” says the moony new occupant, looking around the room helplessly. The angry one is ready for this. The man is always losing his keys. When he makes another ineffectual circle, there they are, sitting on the little table by the door. He smiles and picks them up, seeming not at all troubled by the fact that the keys were absolutely not there a minute earlier. The angry one can’t tell if his memory is just this bad or if he’s prepared to accept the spontaneous appearance of his belongings as soon as he starts looking for them.

The angry one congratulates himself for this new strategy of being helpful at the start. It would have been impossible to terrorize the moony man using his old methods; the angry one is fairly sure he wouldn’t even blink if he walked in one morning and the entire living room was rearranged. He moves around the house, serene, accepting whatever happens as if it’s perfectly natural, even when the angry one does something as blatant as shell eggs behind his back. The moony man will just be puttering around, getting his lunch ready, and when he turns around to find his boiled eggs neatly peeled, he just smiles and puts them into their compartment of his lunchbox.

The moony man has a lunchbox. He packs his lunch every day and goes off to whatever his job is — the angry one doesn’t care, he isn’t interested in anything about the moony man except how to get under his skin.

It’s proving unexpectedly difficult.

 

Xiao Xingchen’s chair was pulled out politely for him as he sat down to eat breakfast. “Thank you,” he said to the empty air. He hadn’t been entirely certain that there was something else here, doing things — you never did know, did you? — but this seemed conclusive. He waited curiously to see if there would be any response.

There was a sort of thickening in the air, not quite a hissing sound, or perhaps a hissing sound just outside of human hearing range. Could a hiss have that kind of frequency? He wasn’t sure. Anyway, he waited politely. After a minute, it resolved into something almost like words: You’re welcome. It was a rasping, hoarse, echoing kind of sound, not really pleasant at all, but one couldn’t expect things that weren’t human to speak in ordinary human voices. Whatever was here with him had been nothing but kind, so far; who was he to hold its voice against it?

“I’m sorry for not greeting you earlier,” he said. “I wasn’t entirely certain there was anybody else here. If there is anything I can do for you, please let me know, by, er... whatever means you find easiest.”

His mug of tea was jostled violently, so that a large splash spilled out on the table. Slowly, lines were drawn out on it, shaping letters: B L E — then the line jiggled, was scrambled, then the rest of the spilled tea smeared quickly over the whole thing.

“Oh dear,” he said. “This must be difficult for you. Would it help if I obtained —” he wasn’t sure what to suggest. I Ching, ouija board, rune stones? Simple chalk? He didn’t know what might be ignorant and offensive. He thought he’d better do some research first. “Don’t worry,” he said reassuringly. “We have plenty of time to work out a way of communicating.”

There was no further sound or movement, so he supposed the other being must be satisfied.

 

The quiet one is laughing at him. The quiet one prefers not to look at him or talk to him or react to him in any way, so the angry one takes even this as a small victory. It doesn’t mean he isn’t angry, though.

My plan is working perfectly, he says loudly to the quiet one. Look how pleased he is. Think how distressed he will be when I turn on him.

The quiet one doesn’t say anything else, but it’s enough of a victory that he laughed.

They have lived here together as long as the angry one can remember. He’s been angry with the quiet one as long as he can remember. He thinks he was angry even before the quiet one started trying to foil all his plans and hauntings, but he can’t be sure. He doesn’t know why. Memory is difficult.

The moony man speaks to them all the time now. Well, speaks to him. If the quiet one will be stubborn in refusing to interact, then the angry one will take all the moony man’s attention to himself. It’s to him, he decides, that the moony man says “Good morning” upon waking up each day. It’s to him that the moony man says “I will be back later this evening” when he leaves the house. Of course it’s to him that the moony man says “Thank you” when the angry one finds his glasses for him (the moony man is nearly blind without them, it seems) or shells his eggs.

The angry one thinks often about when he’ll turn on the moony man, and how. He has plenty of ideas, but he’s not going to go with any of them until the time is just right. It’s too much fun savoring the anticipation. Besides, the longer he waits, the worse it will be when the moony man’s friendly household ghost turns vengeful and cruel. It will be funny to see the look on his face, the angry one thinks — although he does not actually imagine that part very often. How he’ll turn and what he’ll do, he thinks about in detail, spinning ideas for long days. He tends to stop right before he gets to the moony man’s reaction, to what happens next. He tells himself this is because he doesn’t want to ruin that part by too much anticipation.

Neither of them can be present all the time, and the angry one has taken to spending most of his energy on being there and being active when the moony man is home. So it’s to his surprise that he fades into the bathroom one afternoon to find the moony man in active conversation with the quiet man. The moony man says something, steams up the mirror with his breath, the quiet one writes his answer. There’s only space for a word or two. It’s more than the quiet one has said to the angry one in — a long time. Not forever, he thinks, but a long time. The angry one watches, furious.

“Are you happy here?”

NO.

“Is there anything I can help you with?”

DOUBTFUL.

“You will tell me if you think of anything, I hope?”

YES.

Three words. More than the quiet one has given him in — a long time, he thinks. The angry one tears the shower curtain off its rungs.

“Oh dear,” says the moony man. “I’m so sorry if I’ve distressed you.” His breath is shaky and there’s only a little space for the quiet one to write.

2

“Two? I’m afraid I don’t understand.” The moony man breathes a longer strip of fog this time, and the angry one scribbles jagged lines all over it before the quiet one can write anything.

“Oh dear,” says the moony man again. “Perhaps we should try again another day.”

The angry one smashes a few more things in the bathroom, knocking over lotion bottles so hard they fall and split, thumping loudly against the tiled wall, while the moony man stands in the middle of the room, looking upset. Not frightened; just upset.

“Do, please forgive me if I said something wrong,” he says. “Or perhaps it’s simply difficult for you to control yourself so long.”

The angry one stops in sheer frustration as the moony man makes a little bow and leaves the bathroom. It’s no use trying to terrify someone like that, so he turns on the quiet one instead.

How dare you speak to him pretending to be me? How dare you? You act like you’re above all this and then you go and have a — a chat behind my back? I’ll kill you. I’ll —

Regrettably, there are few threats he can make good on, since they’re both already dead. This, too, is infuriating. He leaves, pretending this was his intention all along.

He’s never been sure whether the quiet one can’t speak or simply chooses not to. He’s been there, in the house, as long as the angry one has. The angry one hates him more than anyone living or dead.

Since the quiet one has started having conversations with the moony man, of course the angry one has to do it too.

 

Xiao Xingchen was relieved that his fellow resident didn’t appear to need any kind of special apparatus for communicating. He had asked around at several bookstores and occult-friendly shops, but hadn’t received a satisfactory answer to the question of what method of communication spirits found most pleasant or comfortable. Some of them looked alarmed, others he suspected of making up an answer on the spot in order to sell him something. Much simpler to just let his companion write to him directly.

He did feel he should do something special, so he bought some of the water paper made for practicing calligraphy. He placed a tumbler of water beside it on his table.

“Hello,” he said, “I wondered if you might be able to use this to speak with me. Nicer than mirror fog, although I’m happy to keep using that if you prefer it.”

Slowly a drop of water rose from the tumbler and was smeared across the paper. GOOD.

“This is good?”

YES.

“Excellent! Well, goodness. Where to begin? My name is Xiao Xingchen. I hope you don’t mind that I’m living here too, now. Is there anything you would like to tell me about yourself?”

There was a hesitation, and then the water spelled out, NICE.

Xiao Xingchen laughed. “Well, of course, you’ve been very kind. I can’t tell you what a comfort it is not to lose my glasses any more. But you said you were unhappy; I do hope we can find a way to help you.”

HAPPY.

“You are happy? Perhaps it was just an unhappy day, then, I certainly have those —” he stopped as the spirit continued writing.

WITH YOU.

“Oh! Oh my, well, that’s kind of you to say. Were you... I can imagine it must have been lonely, here with nobody to talk to.”

A large slosh of water spilled onto the paper, too much for it to quickly dry. Xiao Xingchen got a towel and mopped it up, then waited for another message, but nothing else came.

“Well,” he said at last, “I’ll just leave this paper in the living room, and if you’ve got anything to say, just get my attention and we’ll talk.”

 

Ghosts do not cry, so the angry one is not crying. He is not sad at all, of course he isn’t. He’s just a different kind of angry, a kind with extra spikes. Some of them are pointing at him.

He’d only meant to impersonate the quiet one, so that Xiao Xingchen could continue to believe it was a single, friendly ghost in his house. He doesn’t know why he lost control after that one thing Xiao Xingchen said. He can’t manage himself precisely enough to keep writing, so instead he goes off to shout at the quiet one.

Look what you’ve done! he yells. He knows the quiet one can hear him, even if he isn’t responding. Look how much easier you’re making it for me to torment him! You thought you were so clever, talking to him behind my back, but I’ve won again. I can say anything now and he’ll believe me. You’ve just made it so much worse for him, so much worse.

The quiet one, of course, says nothing. It’s infuriating.

You don’t fool me! I know you like him. You like him more than any of the others. You can sit there in silence all you want but I know you’ll hate it, when I break him. You’ll hate it. You’ll hate seeing him cry and scream. You’ll hate it when he runs away, and you’re stuck here with just me again.

He’s getting so worked up about it that it’s hard to stay together enough to talk. Something about that image, about Xiao Xingchen crying and running away, it makes it hard to stay together. Probably because it’s so exciting.

 

He would make faster progress with his plan if he wasn’t trying to pretend he and the quiet one were the same ghost. When the quiet one starts a conversation with Xiao Xingchen, he has to sit back and watch instead of fighting for control of the writing board. He only interferes when he thinks the quiet one is about to give them away.

When it’s his turn to write, he tries not to sound too different from the quiet one. Xiao Xingchen is chatty, though, and he learns all about his job and his students and his childhood on some kind of weirdo commune.

He slips up now and again. When Xiao Xingchen comes home upset from a fight with a colleague, he finds his rage rising and scrawls, KICK HIM OUT THE WINDOW. Xiao Xingchen just laughs, though, and thanks him.

“I knew coming home and talking about it would make me feel better,” Xiao Xingchen says, smiling again. “I won’t kick him out the window, but it’s nice to have your support.”

The angry one goes around preening all day. He made Xiao Xingchen smile. He made Xiao Xingchen smile, him, not the quiet one, not even himself pretending to be the quiet one. He tells the quiet one about it over and over again, to make sure he knows.

In the end, the quiet one outsmarts him again.

 

Xiao Xingchen saw a message written in the mirror fog, already there as soon as the bathroom steams up.

2 OF US.

“There are two of you?” he repeated. Two knocks sounded against the wall, the signal they’d agreed on for a simple ‘yes.’ Then one knock, ‘no.’ Then a string of loud and irregular knocks.

Xiao Xingchen smiled. He had grown up caring for plenty of younger children, and he knew a badly-executed lie when he heard one. “There are two of you, and one of you doesn’t want me to know it. Is that right?”

The next two knocks sounded deeper, ringing against the ceiling instead of the wall. The rapping against the wall became more frantic, then stopped suddenly.

“Have I been talking with both of you?” he tried asking. There was a short silence, and then two knocks sounded on the ceiling, and two knocks again on the wall.

“Well, I’m very sorry for making assumptions. I’m afraid this is all new to me. Hm. I’d like to have a way to tell you apart... neither of you can give me a name?” He had asked for his ghost’s name very early in their acquaintance, of course, but had received no answer.

This time, however, writing appeared in the mirror.

SONG LAN.

“Song Lan,” he repeated. “What a nice name. I’m very pleased to know you. I feel rather as if we are getting to know one another again from the beginning. That’s all right, we have plenty of time. And the other one?”

There was a long pause. Perhaps the other ghost did not know their name, and it was that one that Xiao Xingchen had been speaking with when he asked before. But then, slowly, almost reluctantly, another set of characters appeared.

XUE YANG.

“Xue Yang!” he said, delighted. “How lovely. It’s so nice to have names for both of you. This is becoming quite a cozy house, isn’t it?”

 

The angry one has never been so angry before — not in his death and he suspects not in his life. As soon as Xiao Xingchen has left for the day, he storms and rages, shrieking at the quiet one with all his might.

YOU KNEW MY NAME??? YOU KNEW MY NAME???? ALL this time you have known my name and you didn’t TELL ME??

It’s hard to stay articulate. The cruelty of it feels unfathomable. He’s been without a name for so long, and all this time the ghost beside him had it.

I HATE YOU, he shouts. I’VE NEVER IN LIFE OR DEATH HATED ANYONE AS MUCH AS I HATE YOU. He can’t be sure this is true, but it feels correct. I’LL NEVER, EVER FORGIVE YOU FOR THIS.

The quiet one, of course, does not answer. He begins to feel desperate. What can I possibly have done to make you hate me so much? You knew my name and you didn’t give it to me. How could you? How could you? How could you?

The quiet one disappears, but he isn’t done. The quiet one — Song Lan, he thinks, and that name is familiar too, not the way his own had been as soon as he saw it, but familiar — Song Lan goes downstairs, and Xue Yang follows him, because he’s not done yelling.

Song Lan is hovering by the writing pad which is always left out in the living room. On it he’s scrawled one word.

SORRY.

 

Now that he knew who they were, Xiao Xingchen wondered how he could ever have confused his two ghosts for the same person. One of them was talkative, funny, and quick to insult anyone who’s given him a bad day. The other wrote in few words, but was always thoughtful and gentle. He even began to feel a difference in their presences: the one energizing, the other calming. He liked them both a great deal.

He wondered very much what their stories were, but didn’t know how to ask delicately. If one was a ghost, the story was likely to be a painful one. Instead he asked about their present existence. He learned what kind of music each of them liked, and played their favorite songs whenever he could. He asked their opinions on decorating the house, and hung a few pieces of art chosen especially for each of them.

He learned that they did not sleep, but did fade out of awareness for periods of time. He learned that it took concentrated effort to touch and move things, and that practice made a difference.

He could tell that the relationship between them was strained, which seemed a great pity. Xue Yang heaped insults on Song Lan whenever he was mentioned, whether he was present or not. Song Lan would not speak about Xue Yang at all.

One evening, while chatting with Song Lan, he asked about touch. “Do you miss it? I find — I miss particular things, like when my auntie used to brush my hair. It’s been a long time since there was anyone to brush my hair. I’ve been told I should get a cat, but I think a cat might be frightened of you — cats can sense ghosts, can’t they? At any rate I should want to test it out before bringing a poor creature here. And of course I don’t know if either of you likes cats. And anyway, a cat couldn’t brush my hair.”

He often rambled this way when speaking to Song Lan. He had asked a few times if it was annoying, and received the answer, PLEASANT. So he kept it up. It was nice to feel listened to.

A minute later he felt very gentle pressure on his scalp. “Oh!” he said, startled, and it stopped at once. “No, please go on.” After a minute it resumed: a light, rhythmic pulling. Xiao Xingchen closed his eyes and sank into it; he always used to fall nearly asleep, when his auntie brushed his hair.

“Thank you.”

 

Xue Yang has occasionally escalated his hauntings to the point of laying cold fingers on someone’s neck; it has never occurred to him to try touching someone in a way that makes them feel good. He’s a ghost; everything he does is terrifying. That’s just how it is.

When he sees Song Lan stroking Xiao Xingchen’s hair, it takes all his effort not to fly into an uncontrolled rage. He feels it; if he let loose he could smash every piece of glass in this house without even trying. But that would just mean Song Lan wins. Instead he flies into the yard, uproots a large patch of weeds — and maybe some intentional flowers too, who can even tell the difference — and then practices and practices, trying to relearn the shape of a hand. It’s tiring, frustrating work, but it’s all worth it for the moment, days later, when Xiao Xingchen is watching a movie and Xue Yang can sit beside him and slip a hand into his.

He realizes, at some point, that he hasn’t daydreamed about terrorizing Xiao Xingchen in a while. It’s still an option, of course, he’s very clear about that. He could change his mind and drive him away any time he wants. It’s just — no one has called him by name in a very long time. He doesn’t even need to announce himself any more: as soon as he manifests in a room, Xiao Xingchen says something like, “Hello, Xue Yang, how was your day?”

Xiao Xingchen plays his favorite songs and holds his hand and laughs when he says something funny. Xue Yang is still a terrifying ghost and if he feels like it he can chase Xiao Xingchen away any time. He just doesn’t feel like it right now. That’s all.

 

Ghosts really made wonderful roommates: they were helpful with exactly the sorts of things he needed, like finding his glasses, and were never untidy or loud. As friends, Xiao Xingchen couldn’t speak for most ghosts, but his were perfectly lovely. They were always delightful to talk with, and they were becoming very affectionate. He’d always heard of ghost hands as cold, but theirs never were; they were the same temperature as the room, almost like the air had condensed itself and become solid. It was very soothing, and so nice to feel the soft pressure of a hand, or a gentle weight leaning against him as he sat on the sofa.

Xiao Xingchen never spent much time wishing for things he did not have, but now that he had affection and tenderness for the first time since he’d left home, he rather thought he’d been missing it.

He did worry, sometimes, that his ghosts ought to be — moving on, or whatever it was that ghosts were meant to do. He told them each that he loved their company, but would understand if they needed to go somewhere else. To this, Xue Yang only laughed — Xiao Xingchen could half-hear it when he laughed, a rippling in the air — and Song Lan went into one of his pensive pauses, at last writing, I NEED TO STAY.

Xiao Xingchen was thankful. He would never prevent them, but he would miss them terribly if they left.

Things went on very pleasantly for a number of weeks, until the lightbulb in the stairwell burned out. It was in an awkward place, right at the turning, the ceiling at that point so high he would need a tall stepladder to reach it. There was barely enough room for such a ladder to rest, and Xiao Xingchen clucked at it as he looked up at the dead bulb.

“This is going to be a terrible nuisance to replace. What can the architects have been thinking?”

There was a chill in the air, very distinct. He’d never felt such a thing before.

“Goodness! Is everything alright?”

On the notepad a few shaky squiggles appeared, and nothing else. This happened occasionally when Xue Yang was too agitated or too tired to control their movement.

“Xue Yang? It’s alright, take a rest. We can talk about it later.”

This time the words appeared clearly: WASN’T ME.

Xiao Xingchen took a meditative breath and focused on the feelings in the room. Xue Yang’s presence was strong and felt like his ordinary self, while Song Lan he could only sense in jagged bursts. Something must have upset him very much. Was it that Xiao Xingchen had complained about something about the house? Had Song Lan been one of the architects?

“I’m very sorry,” Xiao Xingchen said. “It’s not such a great problem, after all. I love this house, and I’m sure the architects were doing their best. I’ll just change the bulb.”

He went to fetch the stepladder. The sense of cold agitation had not diminished, but they could work it out later.

As he began setting up the stepladder, trying to find the angle where it could rest securely on the narrow turning of the stairs, there was a loud, irregular thumping on the walls. Xiao Xingchen released the ladder, and immediately it went flying down the stairs, crashing loudly against the walls and falling with a rickety thump at the bottom.

Xiao Xingchen stared down from the turning. “Goodness,” he said again.

 

At first Xue Yang finds it all very amusing. Who knew you would be the one to lose your grip and scare him? he says to a quivering, barely-contained Song Lan. Then, as Xiao Xingchen continues to stare down at the ladder, looking a little pale, Xue Yang gets angry on his behalf.

What is wrong with you? He could have gotten hurt! Live people are fragile, the stupidest things can hurt them.

This does not calm Song Lan down at all, and at last Xue Yang gives up and works on comforting Xiao Xingchen. He strokes his arm soothingly, takes him to the chair, and pets his hair until the alarm eases from his face. On the paper he writes, I’M SORRY. I DON’T KNOW WHY HE’S BEING LIKE THIS.

“We’ll figure it out,” says Xiao Xingchen.

 

The truth is, Xue Yang is uncomfortable about the stairs too. Song Lan’s loud agitation stops him from noticing at first, but now every time Xiao Xingchen goes up or down the stairs he feels it, an unhappy tug at the center of his being. The stairwell is dark without that light; it really is a terrible design. Xiao Xingchen, being nearly blind without his glasses, is fairly deft at navigating in the dark, but all the same it makes Xue Yang wildly unhappy to see him on the stairs.

Then one day Xiao Xingchen trips going up the stairs. He trips, and catches himself with his hands, and his gasp of pain has Xue Yang shrieking in rage, he can’t contain it, he can’t —

Xue Yang trips on the stairs and that is it, that is the absolute last thing he can take. “You said you were going to fix that light a week ago! For fuck’s sake!”

Song Lan is staring down from the top of the stairs, and it’s his unimpressed look that sticks in his mind. Like he doesn’t care that Xue Yang got hurt.

He used to care.

Xue Yang is a howling wind, shaking the frame of the house. He’s no substance, only rage, but somehow Song Lan finds something to grab onto and push him away from Xiao Xingchen. He fights against it and the fight gives him focus, contains him in smaller shape as he resists Song Lan’s push. But Song Lan is stronger. He’s always been stronger. Xue Yang used to like that.

It’s not about the lightbulb: they’ve been fighting for weeks. That was just the last thing he could take, and he packs a bag, screaming the whole time. “I don’t need you, I’ve never needed you! God I can’t wait to be out of your sight.” It’s a lie: a lie he needs in order to breathe.

He fights and fights and Song Lan holds him, unmoving. He knows it’s because of Xiao Xingchen; he’s keeping Xue Yang from hurting Xiao Xingchen. For a moment, in a flash of rage, he wants to break free and do it just because it would upset Song Lan. Song Lan who never talks, who was never upset, even when Xue Yang left him. He remembers now: looking back once, Song Lan standing on the doorstep, his face as still as stone.

Xue Yang starts laughing. Oh wow oh wow, Song Lan, you were so glad to be rid of me, what did you say when I came back to haunt you? Is that why I did it? That must be why. Song Lan, it’s so funny, you got rid of me in life and you’re stuck with me forever in death.

Song Lan’s grip slackens. Xue Yang isn’t trying to break free anymore, he’s just laughing. It’s funny. It’s very funny.

 

The ghosts were clearly very upset. Xiao Xingchen made himself some tea and sat in the living room, waiting until they could settle enough to come and tell him what was the matter. He would have put on music, but he couldn’t think of a thing that they both liked, so he hummed instead, an old folk song that they used to sing as a lullaby on his commune. He was not very good at carrying a tune, but he hummed until the tension in the air settled, like the ease after a rainstorm.

A word appeared on the paper beside him. SORRY. Song Lan’s handwriting — he could tell them apart easily now.

“I should think so,” he said mildly. “This won’t do, you know. We really can’t have ladders thrown down the stairs and windstorms all over the house. You’re both very distressed about those stairs. Don’t you think you’d better tell me about it? Perhaps I can help.”

GO TO SLEEP.

“I understand it’s been a long day, but I really think we ought to —” he stopped himself as the writing continued.

GO TO SLEEP, AND I WILL TELL YOU.

“Oh. While I sleep, you mean?”

YES.

“Ah! Well, that should be interesting.”

 

Xue Yang wants to run away, he wants to. He ran away once before, when he was alive. Now he can’t go anywhere: he can be nowhere, or here. No other choices.

He doesn’t have to watch what Song Lan sends Xiao Xingchen in his sleep, not technically. But he can’t stand to be left out of something, not something the two people he lives with will know. So he doesn’t really have a choice about that either.

He wishes he did because it starts out much too sweet. Song Lan and himself, alive, carrying boxes, teasing. He’s grinning widely and teasing Song Lan nonstop, and Song Lan loves it. He’s feeling this from inside Song Lan now, and he always suspected Song Lan liked the teasing but he didn’t know: how warm it made him feel, how known.

Song Lan cooks him dinner. He nags Song Lan to sleep more. They say love mostly with their hands like this, with their bickering, comforting and easy, the way they both let the other one fuss at them to take better care of themselves than they would alone.

They have terrible fights sometimes. They have fantastic sex — always, but especially after the fights.

Song Lan doesn’t dwell on the erosion, but Xue Yang remembers so much now that he’s seeing it: the way the bickering turned sharp-edged again, as sharp as it had been at the beginning, so much worse now because now they knew exactly how to hurt each other. He wants to beg Song Lan not to show that, not to let Xiao Xingchen see how ugly they both became. He can’t say anything, but Song Lan must feel the same. He skips right to the stairs, to Xue Yang tripping, to the last fight.

Then he’s watching himself leave, but he can feel it now, feel the thing Song Lan wasn’t showing on his face: devastation underneath the anger. Horrible regret, the overwhelming thought: I’ve ruined it.

A knock at the door, uniformed officers. Terrible news. A body on a table, a body to identify. Xue Yang stares at his own dead face with his own horror pulsing behind Song Lan’s thudding disbelief, and he suddenly remembers it all. But there isn’t time to go there, because they’re back at the house, at the kitchen table, with a glass that Song Lan empties over and over to try to shut down the grief and regret that’s screaming in his head.

Song Lan gets up, lurching, a stupid, stubborn thought in his head: he still never fixed the lightbulb.

Xue Yang gets it suddenly and he doesn’t want to see any more. Fortunately it’s quick, and vague: Song Lan half-stumbling up the stairs, stepladder in hand. The stairwell rocking like a boat as he moves; Song Lan stubbornly, determinedly climbing the ladder anyway. The room tipping for real, tilting horribly, stairs rising like an ocean wave. A crash.

Xiao Xingchen is shaking in his sleep and they’re both comforting him, stroking his arms, his cheeks, his hair. A tear runs down his cheek; Xue Yang wipes it off and thinks fleetingly, oddly, about what he could write with it.

You idiot, he says to Song Lan. What the hell were you doing, trying to fix that bulb while you were drunk? He’s angry but it’s an old angry, a shadow of the anger he’d have felt when he was alive.

Song Lan doesn’t answer, only holds out a piece of the memory he’d skipped past quickly before. He’s come back to the house, after identifying the body. He’s looking at the door, bracing himself to open it. He can barely move for the heaviness of the knowledge: Xue Yang isn’t there, and never will be again.

Joke’s on you, says Xue Yang, trying. It doesn’t help, of course. It doesn’t even help him. He tries something else.

I was coming back.

Song Lan’s surprise ripples across him — surprise and disbelief. Xue Yang sighs, and decides to give it to both of them. He wants Xiao Xingchen to have it too. Just a flash: himself pulling into a motel, looking up at the rows of blue doors in dingy beige walls. Realizing he wants none of this, he’s ruined for this kind of life, and he doesn’t actually have much pride. Thinking, if I’m not there, Song Lan will stay up half the night and be miserable tomorrow. Turning his bike around to go home.

He stops it there; everyone knows how crashes go. Xiao Xingchen is crying again in his sleep. All the tears neither of them can cry any more.

Anyway. Now you know. He can feel it, the stillness of Song Lan, the disbelief. Not knowing if it makes the story sadder or less sad, that he was coming back.

It doesn’t really matter, he says, disgruntled. We’re here now.

They turn back to comforting Xiao Xingchen; they could touch each other, if they tried, but it feels strange and fragile and Xue Yang doesn’t know what still exists between them, now that they’re dead. It’s easier to touch Xiao Xingchen, to pet his hair and kiss his forehead. To settle beside him in the dark, making a weight on either side that says, It’s sad, yeah, it’s plenty sad, but hey. We’re here.

 

Xiao Xingchen woke in the morning with his two ghosts beside him and a sad, dream-heavy feeling. “Oh, my dears,” he said. There wasn’t much else he could say, so he didn’t.

They had a quiet morning, both of them hovering close to him. They were overeager to help him with breakfast, as if apologizing for something.

Around lunchtime he said, “Suppose I hire someone to change that lightbulb? They’ll think it’s silly, but if it makes you feel better...”

Song Lan rapped twice on the table.

It seemed to have settled things between them. The tension that crackled in the air whenever they were both present was replaced by a gentler push and pull, a little teasing. They settled without any difficulty on either side of him when he put a movie on. It was nice. He liked them both so much.

He liked them both so much that he worried.

“My dears,” he said a few days later, “I’m terribly fond of you, but I don’t want to be selfish. If there’s somewhere... else you should be going on to, you mustn’t let me keep you here.”

 

We could, Xue Yang thinks. They could go now: he feels it, like a door that wasn’t there before, ready to be opened. But...

Song Lan holds out one image: Xiao Xingchen, alone in the house, his little resigned sigh.

Yeah, says Xue Yang. Plus, he’d lose his glasses all the time.

Song Lan laughs. Xue Yang remembers now, how proud he always was when he made Song Lan laugh.

It’s Song Lan who answers Xiao Xingchen.

SOMETIME. NOT YET.

Xiao Xingchen smiles a little. “Well,” he says, “if you’re sure.”

Xue Yang takes his hand.

 

 


 

 

“First stop on the Old City ghost tour! Everyone still with me? Okay.” Chengmei waits for a few stragglers to catch up, winks at the hot couple standing near the front of the crowd, and launches into his spiel.

“A lot of the tour guides will skip this one because it’s kind of out of the way, but you’re stuck with me and it’s my favorite.” He grins, charmingly, knowing that at least half of the tour will decide they like the house on principle because of his grin. At least one of the members of the hot couple is definitely among them, smiling back in a way that makes his stomach swoop a little. That’s fine; he’s a professional.

Jury’s still out on the other hottie, but he looks like he might like the house for its own sake. He keeps looking at it, thoughtfully.

“It speaks to you, right?” Chengmei says to hottie #2. “There’s something about it.” He’s dropped his tone, sounding confidential and a little private, but fully aware that the other tour guests will listen all the more closely because he’s being quiet.

Hottie #2 signs something, and hottie #1 translates. “He says it doesn’t feel scary. It feels welcoming.”

Everyone Chengmei works with says he’s crazy when he says the same thing. He’s definitely, definitely going to do his level best to take these two home after the tour.

“The last person who lived here must have felt the same way,” he says, louder for the rest of the group. “This house was notorious for years: nobody stayed for more than five or six months.” He tells a few of the stories: nighttime terrors, furniture flying around. He’s good at this part of the job, he really sells the terror. It’s fun. By the end of the tour if he hasn’t made at least three guests shiver involuntarily he considers it an off day.

“But then the last guy moved in and the hauntings just stopped. Nobody knows why. Nobody knows much about him either, but he was kind of a weirdo. Some say he was a priest and did an exorcism as soon as he moved in. Others say he was something paranormal himself, and knew how to make the ghost do his bidding. Imagine having an otherworldly servant at your beck and call.”

He paused, waiting for the inevitable. A woman in the crowd obliged. “What do you think?”

“Me?” He waited; grinned. “I think maybe the ghost just liked him.” He watches the tension in the crowd break, sees a few people smile. Can’t resist winking, again, at the couple in the front. “Anyway, he bought the house cheap, and lived here the rest of his life. And there’s never been a hint of a haunting since.”

The crowd’s interest disperses at this point, as it always does: they’re here to hear about haunted houses, not unhaunted houses. Except that the hot couple stays turned toward the house, while everyone else has started looking at their maps and brochures to see what’s next.

“Who lives there now?” Hottie #1 asks.

“Well — no one, actually. The last owner gave it to the school he taught at, for student housing, with a couple of very weird stipulations. It’s empty in the summers.”

“I wonder what it’s like inside.”

It’s a very ordinary house. Cute, in the old style, nice stone front. Nothing special about it. Chengmei’s never been able to explain why he’s so fascinated by it. It’s working out well for him now though, because he’s never let a few rules get in the way when he’s fascinated by something.

Dropping his voice so low the others actually won’t hear him, he says, “I actually know how to get in the back. Nobody will be there now. After the tour, if you want, I could show you around...?”

Hotties #1 and #2 exchange a glance. Hottie #2 signs something. Chengmei is going to need to learn sign language pronto.

He catches himself: that was a weird thought. He’s angling for a hookup, not some kind of long-term thing. Although...

Hottie #1 has kind eyes, a sweet smile, a little mischief in his look. Hottie #2 looks — reliable. Steady. Chengmei wants to lean over and fall in his direction, just to see if he’d catch him.

He’s pretty sure he would. And when hottie #1 translates, “He says we’ll see,” Chengmei is pretty sure the look in his eyes means yes.