Ling Xiao slams the door shut, looks up at his mother’s shocked face, and thinks that this is it: he’s going to be punished at last. Through the door he can still hear the clattering echoes of the walnuts hitting the ground like violent crashes of rain, never-ending; can hear the girl scrambling to save them. His whole body shakes from what he’s done, and from what’s finally coming next.
But when he explains what happened, his mother only says, “Good.” Her eyes are narrowed and her voice is cold, but it’s the first time she has praised him ever since—ever since. He lets the pride wash down the lump of guilt in his throat he can’t quite swallow. Good.
After lunch, when Ling Xiao goes back outside, there’s no sign of what he did. All the walnuts have been picked clean from the floor. Or—almost all. He spots one hidden by the foot of the stairwell, tucked into shadow.
He glances around. The afternoon is drowsy; everyone is cooped up inside trying to escape the relentless summer heat. Behind shut doors and thin walls, all the rooms are quiet, alive only in the faint whirring of fans. Heartbeat thundering so loud in his chest he is sure the entire apartment block must hear him, Ling Xiao stoops down and snatches up the overlooked walnut. He holds his breath, waiting, the walnut a secret in his fist. Minutes pass. Nobody stirs.
Such a small thing, enclosed in his palm. He trembles just holding it. At home, where they used to live, his mother owned a sturdy pair of pliers to crack open the most stubborn of nuts. He sat on her lap as she taught him how to use it, how to apply the perfect amount of pressure to split open the seam of the shell without breaking what lay inside. Here you go, she said to him, her graceful fingers coaxing out the walnut from its shell: it’s whole. She would feed it to him after, and it was that delicate effort he tried to pass onto Yunyun waiting eagerly beside him as he struggled with the pliers, clunky and large in his hands. That hard-earned satisfaction of getting to the treasure locked tightly inside; that joy of getting to give it away.
Since they moved, though, Ling Xiao hasn’t seen that tool once. It must have been thrown out or left behind like everything else. He remembers the way his father preferred to do it: with his hands. Sitting on the couch after getting home late from his shift, absentmindedly making short work of the shells cradled in his calloused palm. Ling Xiao tries it now, but the walnut remains stonelike in his fist, unyielding, and when he loosens his grip the inside of his hand is all red and sore. Nothing like the decisiveness of his father’s hands.
Something like anger rises up in him then, surging in a familiar wave, but he knows by now the feeling is only shame. He flings the walnut onto the ground, and when it rolls uselessly away, he raises his foot and stomps down on it, overcome with the need to defeat this awful, immovable thing.
He feels rather than hears the walnut crack beneath the sole of his shoe. He freezes, as though it were the first tremor of an earthquake, but the world does not stir. Carefully, stealthily, he bends down to examine his work.
The shell has broken, but so has the heart inside. The walnut lies in splintered pieces on the ground. A great fear seizes him then, at the thought of the door opening behind him, of his mother emerging to find the mess he has made. Quickly Ling Xiao scoops the remains of the walnut into his palm, bits of nut and shell alike, and scurries down the stairs to the garbage bins inside.
But as he’s about to toss out the crushed walnut, he hesitates. Slowly, with the dread and the thrill of knowing he is doing something unforgivable, he picks through the fragments of shell, pulls out a sliver of walnut, and places it into his mouth.
It tastes just how he remembers. An earthiness that he insisted to Yunyun she would get used to; it was just bitter at first, that was all. But if you could endure past that, you would see it was worth the trouble. He eats another piece, then another. Slowly the bitterness does fade, but into saltiness instead, which is how he realizes he’s crying. He eats every last piece of the walnut until all that’s left is the shell, and he does not choke once, though it would only be fair.
Ling Xiao dusts the crumbs of walnut shell off his palms into the garbage bin. When he goes back inside, he wishes somebody would catch him—his father asking where he’s been, his mother noticing his red eyes and puffy cheeks. But his father is gone to work and his mother’s bedroom door is closed, and when he washes his hands in the sink there is no evidence left of what he’s done. Nothing but the pit sunk deep and heavy into his stomach, as though a shell swallowed whole, becoming just another part of him to carry.
After her mother rolls the window back up, after the taxi driver has taken them around the corner, after the three figures behind them have turned and left together without once looking back, Qin Meiyang watches the smile slowly fade from her mother’s face. The strains of it settling back into familiar lines and wrinkles. Her fist clenching in her lap, grip white-knuckled on her knee.
Meiyang says nothing. She swallows. Past the annoyance and the disappointment sticking in her throat, she can taste a strange, settling relief. Here she is again: the mother she recognizes as her own.
Maybe her mother had Li Jianjian fooled, or maybe Li Jianjian is just easy to fool; Ling Xiao, too, if only because he needed to believe it so badly. But Meiyang had seen the way her mother steeled herself before they arrived; the pained grit of her teeth as she thanked them graciously for their help. She doesn’t blame her mother for that—the opposite, in fact. For her mother to go on pretending is the kindest thing she can grant them, at this point, and Meiyang is the only one allowed to know how much it costs her. She’s family, after all.
For the longest time Meiyang didn’t understand, either. Held the same weight of resentment against her brother: that he was supposed to be hers. Even as the years passed, growing up, and she started to see how her mother had twisted everything, the feeling only deepened. We’re supposed to be on the same side, Meiyang always thought, watching her brother silently clean up their mother’s messes. So why won’t you let me in? She knew full well the extent of their mother’s jealousy and rage, but she’d die before she ever showed it—that embarrassing, shameless need. She wasn’t a child anymore. She hid it all under a mask of unfeeling indifference, and hoped it did the trick well enough that her brother wouldn’t hate her.
To tell the truth, it had taken coming here to accept it fully. It had taken seeing how her brother had stood with He Ziqiu and Li Jianjian, the three of them all in a line, like that was the natural order of things, and Meiyang and her mother were the interlopers. In that moment Meiyang realized, as though the simplicity and the obviousness of a puzzle finally falling into place: her brother had already chosen those on his side long ago, and she belonged on the opposite. Ling Xiao has a sister, a brother, two people to call father; Meiyang has none. She has only her mother.
And she almost lost her.
Staring at her mother’s bitter expression, Meiyang again feels the mirror-same anger and despair, running in her blood. As her mother gazes through the window at the long-gone shadow of her son, no doubt thinking how could you leave me behind, Meiyang stares at her and wonders the same. In her mother’s suicide note, she never even addressed Meiyang by name. Only mentioned her in passing to her brother, like something to be inherited, passed along in the family. First a bargaining chip, then an unwanted burden—that was all she amounted to in the end. Her mother had made it plain and clear.
I lost my daughter, her mother had written in her letter. Meiyang wants to shake her by the shoulders and scream. What are you talking about, Ma? I’m right here. Can’t you see? All along, you had me. You have me. You only have me, now, and I only have you. And no matter the hurt and resentment of what her mother’s done, what she’s tried to do, Meiyang still feels selfishly glad to not be alone in this world.
It’s just the two of them, now. They have such a long way ahead of them. To the airport, back home to Singapore, and through all the years beyond. Meiyang still has so much growing up to do. She won’t have her brother, neither his steady shield to hide behind nor his discerning judgment to keep her on track. She won’t have He Ziqiu’s blunt guidance or Li Jianjian’s lenient forgiveness or all the troublesome weight of their care. How easy it is to be better, when you have the luxury of others to expect it of you!
Meiyang tries to think of what they would do, any of them, if they were in her position now. She digs into her bag and pulls out something that, funnily enough, Li Jianjian had given her.
“Ma,” she says.
She can feel her mother pull reluctantly away from the past, turning to look at her. “Hmm?”
Meiyang holds out the candy. “Want one?”
Her mother frowns. “You shouldn’t eat those. They’re not good for you.”
“Whatever.” Meiyang hides her smirk. She hadn’t expected her mother to accept the gesture—it’s a childish offering, one that invites reprimand rather than gratitude. But that’s the point, just as childish in itself: the grab for attention. Look at me. Care for me.
Her mother’s frown deepens. “Where did you get that, anyway? Since when did you start eating candy?”
Meiyang rips open the plastic wrapper. “I just wanted to try it,” she says with the casual offhandedness she knows will only annoy her mother more, popping the candy into her mouth. It’s sweet to the point of sour, but she doesn’t show it. Only smiles wide and bright at her mother.
Her mother huffs in displeasure. That’s okay, Meiyang thinks, as long as I’m the one you’re displeased with. That’s how it’s supposed to be, right? What else is a daughter for, if not to fail her mother’s exacting demands in the most contrary ways possible, as only she can?
Sucking on the candy in her mouth, Meiyang reaches out for her mother’s hand—still clinging mercilessly onto her knee—and covers it with her own. Hold onto me instead, she wills, she wishes.
But her mother does not let go. That’s okay, too. Meiyang will just have to keep holding onto the both of them, just as tight, just like this.
In the years to follow He Ziqiu will insist to his family that it wasn’t hard, none of it, studying and working and living on his own, and he’ll have to insist this endlessly, because they’ll never stop believing otherwise. It’ll be his own fault for making it seem like it was something to hide, but only because he knew they would waste their time with their needless pity. This can’t be helped sometimes, he’ll learn—the futile, self-fulfilling prophecy of family.
But anyway, it’s true. Once he cuts ties with Zhao Huaguang, his life frees itself of all sorts of annoying obligations: meeting an endless parade of extended relatives and in-laws, maintaining his lifestyle to a standard other than his own, answering to a man who calls himself his father and expects him to do the same. Independence is a refreshing change of pace. So what if it comes with its own cost? Everything does. What matters is that the choice is his own.
The early morning shift at a trendy student café: his choice. The evening shift at a high-end steak restaurant: his choice. The classes he takes in between: his choice. The dingy flat he shares with three other people around his age: his choice, though not one of his better ones. One of his flatmates teaches him English slang in exchange for Chinese profanity; one of them, he’s pretty sure, stole his coat when he moved out; one of them is always awake to sample whatever new dessert he’s whipped up at two AM when he needs a taste tester. “Thanks, mate,” he says, scarfing it down, leaving Ziqiu to lament his uselessness: is it the right amount of sweet? Does it melt in the mouth, or sort of just crumble? Is it good, or good enough?
Going back home—that’s the hard part. At first he thinks: once I graduate. Then: once I’ve saved enough. But enough is a finish line that keeps getting further away every time he blinks. A trap. In the meantime he consoles the visions of his family in his head, or maybe just himself, with promises. Ba, look how much I can give you. Li Jianjian, look what I can make you. Ling Xiao, look at what I’ve made myself into, to prove that it was worth it, that I didn’t leave our family for nothing, that I’ll repay it all back in kind.
But no matter how hard he works, how much time passes, the debts only seem to accumulate, stacked against him. And what he builds only seems more and more childish in turn. A dessert chef? his father says, squinting at him through the video call, his well-meaning bemusement a hard pill to swallow. When did he start wearing glasses, anyway? And where’s Li Jianjian, waving at him from behind their father, a fall of long hair outside the camera frame? She’s always occupied with another sculpture, half-finished in her studio; their father, busy running the noodle restaurant. Why is it so hard to believe that Ziqiu can make something of his own, too? Why is it so hard for him to do?
Eventually it strikes him: is this how his mother had justified it to herself? Just a little longer. Just a little more to pay back what I owe. Just a little more to show, to make up for the fact of having left. Up until she forgot what the excuses were for in the first place.
This realization is what does it, in the end. Enough is only enough. He gives his jobs notice, packs up all the nothing he has, and makes good on his plans. He buys a one-way airplane ticket and arrives in the dead of night, having lost eight hours, or rather, repaid the ones he gained in his pocket when he left all those years ago. The apartment isn’t ready to be handed over to him yet, Zhuang Bei tells him groggily on the phone, but he can come crash at his place for the night. Ziqiu declines. He’s too awake to sleep, anyway. He hails a taxi and gives the address he knows by heart.
The noodle restaurant is closed, of course. He peers through the glass anyway. It looks good—much more spacious than before, well-furnished and cared for. He lugs his suitcase all the way up the winding hill, past the stores boarded up for the night and the old kiddie playground and the park benches, but it’s the sight of the stairs leading up to their old apartment block that stops him in his tracks. For a moment he’s overcome so fully by a vision that he can’t even move: Li Jianjian, all of five years old, dragging his luggage out the door and letting it tumble down the stairs. He stares at it, this height he hauled himself back up over and over again as a child, bearing the weight of everything he owned in determination. This height he can so easily clear now as an adult. All he has to do is climb the steps, and come home.
He laughs. Nothing hears him but the night.
His first meal back in China is in a 24-hour McDonald’s. It was the first thing he found that was still open, but he also thinks of it as closure, in a way: the difference between him and his mother is that he kept his promise. Or he will, soon. Until he does, he hasn’t earned better. When he looks his father in the eye, hands over all the gifts he’s prepared, shows him what he will make of himself—only then will he sit down with him at dinner. With Li Jianjian, and Ling Ba, and Ling Xiao, whenever he makes it back to them, too. Ziqiu will pour the cups of wine, serve the bowls of soup, and take his place at the table. Only then will he eat as well as everyone else.
He’s off work in time for dinner, which is a rarity that puts him in a good mood up until he’s standing in front of Li Haichao’s apartment door. From behind it, Ling Heping can hear the shouts and laughter of children, the bustle of what from the outside sounds like any normal family. He hesitates with his hand poised to knock, caught off guard by a sudden anxiety. The uncertainty of whether or not to interrupt.
Then from inside he hears Li Jianjian shout “GET YOUR HANDS OFF THAT, IT’S MINE!” and he knocks on the door with renewed haste. He’s expecting Ling Xiao with a wronged expression on his face, looking to his father to back him up in some childish argument, but what opens the door and blinks at him is an unfamiliar boy Heping is sure he’s never seen before. Pretty sure, anyway. New kids seem to be cropping up out of nowhere, all the time, these days.
The kid stares up at him with wide eyes, but he looks more disappointed than afraid or wary. Like he’d been hoping for somebody else.
“Hey, there,” Heping says with what he hopes is a friendly smile, squatting down to look at him on eye level before the kid can do something like burst into tears. “What’s your name?”
“Mama told me not to give my name to strangers,” the boy says.
“Stupid! That’s not a stranger!” yells Li Jianjian from the other side of the living room. She’s standing on the couch in front of the television set—some cartoon is playing, flash of bright colours and loud music—with a rubber toy sword clutched in her hands and a blanket tied across her shoulders like a cape. “That’s Ling Ba!”
“Who’s Ling Ba?” the boy asks.
“You can’t call him Ling Ba!” Jianjian bellows, red in the face.
Heping looks around the room in alarm for some form of rescue, but what he finds is another kid standing stock still opposite the couch, wielding an identical rubber sword, a plastic lion mask over his face, staring right back at him.
He takes off the mask.
“Ba,” Ling Xiao says, eyes round in surprise. “You’re home early?”
What hits Heping in a strike to the chest, hard enough to lose his breath, is not Ling Xiao’s disbelief that his father is really here, that he has come to expect his absence more than his presence. That stings, too, but it’s an old, familiar discomfort, one Heping has learned to live with. This is a different pain, a fresh wound he never even saw coming, had no way of preparing himself for: that he would look upon a child playing loud and carefree with his friends, and be unable to recognize him for his own son.
“Yes, I’m home,” Heping says, too late, he knows—Ling Xiao is too observant of a child, has already noticed him falter, and the unguarded astonishment on his face is already knitting back up into careful blankness, gauging for his father’s reaction, unsure of what he’s done wrong. Heping snaps out of it. Steps across the threshold, takes off his shoes, and comes decisively inside.
“Of course I’m here,” Heping says, crossing the room and ruffling his son’s hair. “You think I’m gonna miss out on your Li Ba’s cooking?”
A flicker in Ling Xiao’s eyes. He nods up at him.
“Is that so? Then you could get in here and help,” comes Li Haichao’s voice from the kitchen, drifting out amid clouds of steam. Both Ling Xiao and Jianjian turn to stare at Heping with identical looks of skepticism on their faces, as though seeing straight through the dubiousness of this request, and the new boy looks at them both and immediately adopts the same expression. A fast learner, that one.
“You kids—behave,” Heping says, for lack of anything better, and ducks into the kitchen to escape.
Haichao doesn’t look up when Heping enters. “Watch the pot, will you,” he tosses over his shoulder as he pulls dough into noodles. There are in fact two pots on the stove, and Heping isn’t sure which one needs his attention, but he doesn’t mention it.
“You don’t have to do that,” he says instead, voice low under the shrill of the television set and the noise of the kids starting back up again.
“Get me out of there like I’m going to say something wrong or mess something up. I’m not like her.”
Haichao’s hands still. Heping regrets the sharpness in his tone—he hadn’t intended it. He scratches at the back of his neck in the ensuing silence.
“I never said you were,” Haichao says, still not turning around.
“I’ve never thought that.”
“I know—I didn’t mean—look, just forget it.” Heping stares at the pots on the stove.
After an awkward moment Haichao resumes his work.
“The boy’s name is He Ziqiu,” he says. “He’s the son of the woman I was seeing.”
Heping latches onto the subject change like the lifeline he knows it is. “Oh, the one you were set up with? What’s her name again—”
“He’ll be staying with me for a while.” A pause. “With us.”
Heping raises an eyebrow. “Okay,” he says. The pots bubble on the stove. Nothing else seems to be forthcoming, so he asks, “What happened to her—”
“She’s gone away for a while.” Haichao’s tone is brisk. “She’s in a spot of trouble, that’s all. She’ll come back when it’s cleared up.”
Heping is glad Haichao’s back is turned, so he isn’t able to see the doubtful expression on his face. “Oh. Well, I hope she’s all right.”
The fistful of noodles stretched thin in Haichao’s grip snap in half.
“I hope so, too,” Haichao says, voice tense.
Heping starts composing an excuse to duck out of here—I gotta go to the bathroom, I came straight from work, look, I haven’t even washed my hands yet—when Haichao turns around to face him. His palms are powdered white with flour. He looks tired.
“You’re not her,” he says. “You’re you. Only you can take responsibility for that.”
Heping swallows. “I’m trying.”
“I know you are,” Haichao says. “It’s good that you’re home for dinner. Ling Xiao will be really happy.”
Heping remembers the look on his son’s face, and smiles. “He is.”
Haichao opens his mouth to say something else, but Heping’s saved by the hiss of boiling water overflowing their pots. They both swear at the same time.
“I told you to watch the pot—”
“The pot, which pot, there’s two of them—”
“Don’t touch that with your bare hands, it’s hot—just get out of here!”
Dinner is a lively affair with five people. Through the slurping of noodles and the constant chatter, Heping learns that Jianjian drew an entire jungle kingdom of animals today, that one of the nice neighbourhood aunties gave Ling Xiao a new manhua to read, that He Ziqiu is a very strange kid determined to insist that he doesn’t want any meat and Li Jianjian can have all of his.
“Too bad,” Haichao says, chopsticking a cut of beef into his bowl. “Growing kids all have to eat meat whether you like it or not!”
Heping smiles down at Ziqiu. “It’s okay. You’re just looking out for your meimei, aren’t you?” He reaches out to give him a pat on the head. “Good boy.”
“Who’s his meimei!” Li Jianjian shouts.
On the other side of the table, Heping spots Ling Xiao whip his head around to stare at him. He doesn’t say anything—he never does, anymore—but Heping can practically see the jealousy burning in his eyes.
Heping laughs. “Of course you’re also a good boy,” he tells him, and he pats his son on the head, too. He half-expects Ling Xiao to shy away, screwing up his face in annoyance to put on a cool, mature pretense, but he stays still and takes the headpat like it’s a serious duty. Of course he does. He’s still only a child—after everything, he’s still his child.
“What about me?” Jianjian asks, looking expectant.
Haichao makes a face at her. “Oh, you think you’re a good kid, do you? Who was it who was biting my arm this morning? Whoever heard of a good kid biting their own father?”
“Now, now,” Heping says, “there’s plenty of goodness to go around.” He makes a show of reaching all the way across the table to give Jianjian her obligatory pat on the head. Jianjian smirks at her father. Haichao rolls his eyes.
“You’re all good kids,” Heping says, and he looks at them, these children before him, and finds all he can do is helplessly repeat: “You’re all good kids.”
The others return to their food, but Ling Xiao is looking back at him, an unreadable expression in his eyes. Is it happiness, like Haichao promised? Shouldn’t Heping be able to recognize such a thing? How he wishes Ling Xiao would just say it—whatever he’s thinking, whatever he wants to ask. To speak up and voice a demand as childish as What about me? —that would be Heping’s greatest joy to receive, as a father.
Ling Xiao didn’t say a word to him the day his mother left them. Heping ordered dinner that evening, takeout containers for the two of them, no more and no less. They sat across from each other at the table and neither of them looked at the empty space between them. Ling Xiao’s eyes were dry and red, his entire face puffy. But he ate every last bite in his bowl, doggedly shoveling rice into his mouth, grip tight around his chopsticks as though it came at great cost. My son, Heping thought, what are you thinking, but he couldn’t say it. His throat dried up in his cowardice. He could only do what he does now: pick the most tender piece of meat in his bowl and give it to Ling Xiao.
“Here,” Heping says, and Ling Xiao still doesn’t say anything, but he looks up at him and does something almost better: he smiles.
The evening reminds him of how dinners used to be—with Chen Ting, with Ling Xiao, with Yunyun perched on her high chair. His gut tightens at the memory, preparing him for familiar pain. What a loving family they used to be, same as anyone else, their home alive with laughter and noise. How lucky they were, back then, before their dinners turned into cold silences and screaming matches and the unbearable dread of waiting for the cracks to break beneath their weight.
And how lucky they are now.
After they’re done goofing around and their laughter peters back out into the same awkward silence, Li Jianjian nibbles at her piece of yam and tries to remember what it was they used to talk about, back when they were kids. Those were the days! She could go on for hours about the most meaningless topics—a bug on a leaf, a cloud in the sky, the flavour of strawberry versus watermelon candy. Then again, even the most mundane things seemed interesting and full of life back then, when their whole world only went as far as their neighbourhood, and it belonged only to the three of them.
It’s not that she doesn’t have the energy to do the same now. It’s that she’s no longer sure of why on earth her brothers had let her chatter without end, back then. They definitely wouldn’t stand for it nowadays. What’s the point, anyway? Everything she could bring up now feels entrenched in the larger context of her life, tangled in a web of rambling threads. She can’t think of a single topic where the payoff would be worth the time spent telling the whole story, any anecdote that wouldn’t end in the unsatisfying conclusion of Anyway, you had to be there.
Something knocks against the top of her head. Jianjian jerks back, startled. Ling Xiao lowers his hand from where he’d reached across Ziqiu, a look of amusement in his eyes.
“What are you thinking so hard about?”
Jianjian blurts the first thing that comes to mind. “Yam!”
Ling Xiao and Ziqiu stare at her.
“This yam tastes really good,” Jianjian says, and takes another big bite.
“Now you’re just rubbing it in,” Ziqiu grumbles.
At least it’s nice out here. The night is warm, forgiving. If she closes her eyes she can pretend she isn’t sitting with her long-ago separated older brothers-but-not-really-brothers on a bench outside the hospital where one of them is staying because he crashed his motorcycle and could have gotten himself killed after unknowingly taking the other’s sleep medication, which he needs for his severe insomnia after a lifetime of traumatic stresses caused by his own mother. Nope. Everything’s fine. She’s simply enjoying a peaceful evening, the hint of a breeze in the air.
She opens her eyes. Ling Xiao and Ziqiu are still staring at her.
“What?” Jianjian says. “Do I have something on my face, or what?”
Ziqiu looks away. “Yeah, it’s called a great big mouth,” he mutters.
Ling Xiao doesn’t. He keeps looking openly back at her, his gaze steady, and it doesn’t make Jianjian uncomfortable, not really, but it does make her realize that maybe the staring has less to do with her face and whatever may or may not be on it, and more to do with Ling Xiao himself, all that he hasn’t been able to do in the past ten years, all he’s missed, all he wants—
“Ge,” Jianjian says, and Ling Xiao blinks. She sighs. “Ge, it’s okay. I know you feel bad for being gone so long. But it’s fine, really. Don’t I look fine?”
She puts on her most winning smile. Ling Xiao’s stare takes on a distinctly more deer-in-headlights look.
“I was fine,” she repeats. “I mean, honestly. If you think about it—” she starts counting on her fingers “—I had Ba, and Ling Ba, and Yueliang and Tang Can. I got to study and practice and work on what I wanted. I learned how to take care of myself, to be responsible for myself, to be an adult. To be honest—” she laughs “—hasn’t my life been too carefree? If anything, I think it’s you two who endured the most these past few years.”
Ziqiu stiffens beside her. “What are you talking about? What on earth have I had to endure?”
Jianjian shrugs. “Yeah, you got to live lavishly overseas as a second-generation rich kid, but it couldn’t have been easy dealing with your real father all the time. You said yourself—the language was difficult, the food was strange, right? And you were all alone, while I got to live at home and eat Ba’s cooking every day.”
Ziqiu doesn’t meet her gaze. “It’s what I chose,” he says, a deep frown on his face. Jianjian rolls her eyes.
“And you,” she says, turning to Ling Xiao. “Maybe you had your mother and Xiaochengzi, but you were the one in the caretaker position, instead of being taken care of, right? That’s a lot to burden yourself with, especially while studying and working so hard. Not everyone can just become a dentist, you know! And—”
She stops short at the haunted expression on Ling Xiao’s face. Gone is the intent gaze with which he’d watched her earlier. Instead, it’s as though she’s been transported ten years into the past to the worst night of her life, and she’s looking at her da-ge’s face, gaunt with sleeplessness, and standing hunched beside him her xiao-ge is the exact same shadow of guilt, the bruise of his eye matching the knuckles of her da-ge’s clenched fist, and neither of them will look back at her because they already know what they won’t admit; because they’re both going to leave her.
She blinks. The illusion of overlap is gone, the years returning to themselves. Her da-ge and xiao-ge have already left her. Her da-ge and xiao-ge have come back to her.
“And?” Ling Xiao says quietly.
Jianjian puts on a bright smile. “And you should feel very proud of yourself for having done so much,” she says, reaching over to give him a pat on the shoulder.
Something in Ling Xiao’s mouth tightens. He doesn’t respond, but he doesn’t shy away from her touch, either. It’s strange—as a kid, she never thought Ling Xiao was difficult to read, though the other kids complained that he never said anything, that he was weird. Go away! she would always shout at them. What’s so weird about my da-ge? You’re weird! But now she can’t get a read on him at all.
It’s not the only thing that’s different, despite her momentary lapse just now. They both seem to take up more space, somehow. It’s not just that they’re taller or broader, but that there used to be a time when Jianjian practically lived out of her brothers’ pockets, slung around their shoulders and clinging to their arms and elbowing them for attention, and now the three of them are sitting neatly apart on this bench with what feels like entire oceans between them.
It’s been so long since she thought about the past. She prefers to live in the present instead of dwelling on times gone by. But now that Ling Xiao and Ziqiu have returned, it’s like they’ve brought everything back with them, all they’ve held onto against time, against reason. Wasn’t it heavy? she wants to ask. Maybe that’s why they’re so insistent on sharing the weight with her. Remember when, they keep saying. Remember when...? As though hoping she’ll lift her end of the load they’ve dragged all this way.
Remember when... And then, in a sudden moment, Jianjian does. She remembers a day that resurfaces like bubbles blown through a straw: a mixed jumble of images and feelings, and underlying everything, strongest of all, is a deep, grave sense of injustice. He’s not your Ba! she shouted at He Ziqiu, her voice childish and grating. He’s mine! Then later that afternoon some neighbourhood kid pointed at him and said he’s not really your brother, his Ma left him here because she didn’t want him anymore, and Jianjian punched him in the face until he fell down, then kept punching him until Ling Xiao hauled her and Ziqiu off and told them to run. So they did.
When they finally made it back home, Ziqiu was looking very hopeful about the whole thing, but also like he might cry, which was so annoying.
Shut up! Jianjian said to him.
I didn’t say anything! he protested.
Whatever! Jianjian said back. Her hand clenched into a fist at her side. Everything was so unfair—that she had to share her Ba with some boy she didn’t even know, that it wasn’t even his fault because his Ma had left him here, that his forehead was bleeding now because some stupid kid had decided to be mean about it. Why should his forehead have to bleed? Why should someone be mean to him for something his Ma did? Why weren’t there enough Bas in the world to go around, for everyone who needed one as badly as she needed hers?
It was too much to bear. Jianjian had to make a stand against it all. She took a deep breath, stamped her foot, pointed at He Ziqiu and said: Fine! You’re mine, too, you get it?
Ziqiu stuck out his chin. It quavered slightly. Yeah! I get it!
Yeah, yeah, Ling Xiao said long-sufferingly. Ziqiu, we have to bandage up your forehead before your Ba sees and we all get in trouble.
You’re mine, too, Jianjian said out of nowhere, still riding the current of great insurmountable feeling. Your Ma gave you to me. So you’re all mine! Get it?
Ling Xiao stared back at her. For a moment she thought he was going to get mad at her for bringing up his Ma, like he always did. But he simply said, I know.
Good! Jianjian said, and then their Ba walked in and saw Ziqiu’s forehead bleeding and they all got into trouble.
It’s all over in a flash. For a moment she was Li Jianjian, five years old, protector and guardian and little sister of lost children. Now she’s once again Li Jianjian, twenty-five years old, and all along she couldn’t protect or guard her older brothers from anything.
She bites her lip. The piece of yam in her hands is going cold. Remember when, she could turn to the others and say. Her turn to bear the weight. But the words shy away from her tongue. She can’t help it. For some reason, it seems like they would hurt.
“Li Jianjian,” Ling Xiao says.
Jianjian freezes. “What?”
“I’m happy to hear you’ve been well, all these years.” From anyone else, it would sound sarcastic. But Ling Xiao, she knows, never says anything he doesn’t mean. His smile is gentle. Sincere. “It’s a relief to hear you say it. Thank you.”
“What are you talking about?” Jianjian laughs. “Thank me? For what?”
Ling Xiao doesn’t say anything for a long while. Maybe it’s just the darkness of the hour, but his eyes seem focused, bright. As though searching for a falling star in the sky, like when they were young. But he’s only looking at her. And as Jianjian stares back at him, waiting for whatever he has to say, she finds herself holding her breath.
“He’s falling asleep,” says Ling Xiao.
“Huh?” Jianjian blinks.
Ling Xiao nods his head at Ziqiu between them. His head is tilted back on the bench, his eyelids drooping.
“Crap!” Jianjian scrambles to get to her feet. Her face feels hot for some reason. “We’ve got to get him back to his hospital bed—he might have caught a fever. Ge, you should carry him.” She mimes a piggybacking gesture.
Snapping alert to attention all of a sudden, Ziqiu blanches. “No way! I don’t need you to do that!” He swats at Ling Xiao’s arms. “Get off me!”
“Who wanted to carry you?” Ling Xiao snorts. “I’m trying to help you up so we can walk back. Or did you want to sleep out here tonight?”
Ignoring Jianjian’s snickers, Ziqiu grudgingly holds his arms out. Together, Jianjian and Ling Xiao help him to his feet, and he slings an arm around both of their shoulders as they start to hobble back like some kind of three-legged creature.
“When did you get so heavy, xiao-ge,” Jianjian says with a grunt.
Ziqiu swoops down with his mouth and takes a vindictive bite of what’s left of the yam in her hand.
“Hey!” Jianjian gasps. “Ge, did you see that? I’m trying to help him out of the goodness of my heart, and this is how he repays me? You little—” She tries to kick him.
“Please don’t kick him,” Ling Xiao says, sounding muffled on Ziqiu’s other side. “He’s injured.”
“Yeah,” Ziqiu says, sticking his tongue out at her. “I’m injured.”
“You can’t make me.”
Jianjian shoves the rest of her yam into his mouth.
In the end they come home for dinner. What do you want to eat, he had asked He Mei, and she had looked back at him, a sheepish expression crinkling her nose as she confessed: anything made by you. Ling Heping disappears upstairs for a change of clothes—“But why, Ling Ba, you look so handsome in your suit!” Jianjian says with a cheeky grin—and Ziqiu emerges from his childhood bedroom in an old T-shirt, but everyone else stays dressed up. Vanity, Li Haichao would scoff at himself, but it isn’t that, not really. Can you blame an old man for wanting a moment to last?
“You’re going to regret it when you stain that white dress,” Ziqiu warns Jianjian, tossing an apron at her as she unloads ingredients from the fridge.
“Hey, I’m not a clumsy kid anymore,” Jianjian says. Ziqiu raises a skeptical eyebrow. She smacks his shoulder.
It’s cramped in here; this kitchen is really a space meant for one, not He Mei at his elbow wrapping dumplings with careful hands or Jianjian and Ziqiu bickering over the stove or Ling Xiao chopping vegetables by his side or Heping poking his head in to ask if they need him to pick up anything from the store. But Haichao doesn’t complain.
As he watches Ling Xiao, neck bent over the cutting board in painstaking concentration, he remembers—that boy used to be hopeless with a kitchen knife. But now his movements are practiced, precise. It isn’t something Haichao or Heping taught him. So he had to learn it himself, then.
Ling Xiao looks up, as though having sensed his gaze. Haichao smiles at him, pats him reassuringly on the shoulder, and gets back to work.
Arranging the dishes is a delicate balancing act. Plates and bowls clink against one another; chopsticks clatter to the ground. “We’re going to need a new table,” Heping says.
“Nonsense!” Haichao scoffs. “This little table has lasted us all these years. We’ll make it fit.”
After all, this is the one thing Haichao has never questioned, has never been more certain of: that there’s enough space in this home for every single one of them who needs it. That there always will be.
It’s foolish of him, to uncover pot lids pouring forth waves of steam and ladle bowls of soup threatening to overflow and narrowly avoid spilling his shot glass with every wayward sweep of his chopsticks while sitting here in his finest suit, but he’s tired of treating the precious things in his life so carefully, as though they might be fragile enough to break. Holding what he loves at arm’s length to preserve them, as all the while they grow stiff and gather dust. Today, of all days, Haichao wants to stake his claim and show pride for what he’s built. Every new crease of his sleeve, every hard-earned wrinkle only serves to make it his own. Besides, He Mei is being just as foolish, too, biting delicately into soup-filled dumplings while sitting straight-backed in her elegant silk dress. Both of them committing to what they’ve started together.
And also, he may have drunk a fair bit of wine.
“Ba,” says Li Jianjian. She stands up with a scrape of her chair, knocking into Ziqiu on one side and unsteadying Ling Xiao’s precariously balanced bowl on the other; he reaches out to settle it. “Ma. I want to make a toast to the two of you. Congratulations on your marriage—at last!” She laughs, eyes shining. “I’m really so happy for you, that you found your way back to each other, that we’re finally family. Ba, sorry for being so annoying about it when you two started dating again. But also, aren’t you glad I was so annoying about it? And Ma—” she plows straight through Haichao’s splutters “—I’m sorry I was such a brat to you when I was a kid! I promise I’m not like that anymore!”
“Is this a toast, or an apology speech?” Ziqiu says.
Jianjian ignores him. “Thank you for looking past it, and for coming back to us, and most of all—for giving Ba his happiness!”
He Mei looks at her, and then at Ziqiu, and then at Haichao. Her cheeks are flushed pink. Her face is radiant.
“It’s my happiness, too,” she says, and her laugh is the most beautiful sound Haichao has ever heard.
To Haichao’s surprise, and a brief undercurrent of concern, Ziqiu declares his intention to make a toast, too. But he only stares at his shot glass for a moment before saying: “Look, I’ll cut to the chase. I never would have imagined... but that’s okay. I guess I never really had much of an imagination.” He laughs, shakes his head. “It’s just that, sometimes, something feels too good to be true. You know? But it is true. So I’m glad. And I’m happy that you’re happy, too.” He raises his glass. “That’s all.”
“So much for cutting to the chase,” Jianjian says. Ling Xiao doesn’t laugh, but he makes a suspicious throat-clearing noise. Ziqiu doesn’t even notice, because he’s watching Haichao and He Mei with a stupid, nervous grin on his face. It makes him look so young. My son, Haichao thinks, and grins back at him just as stupid, his heart fit to burst, and they drink.
After dinner, Jianjian and Ziqiu get caught up telling He Mei some funny story from when they were teens, something Haichao did; he doubts the integrity of the facts, considering he can barely even remember the incident, but He Mei is laughing, so he supposes he’ll let them have it. In the kitchen, the tap starts running. Ling Xiao has quietly undertaken the work of washing the dishes. Haichao gets up from the table to join him.
“Ba,” Ling Xiao says, looking faintly surprised. “You don’t have to worry about it. I’ll take care of the dishes. You should go join the others.”
Haichao rolls up the cuffs of his fancy sleeves. “It’ll be done faster with the two of us.”
He steamrolls over Ling Xiao’s protests—look, Ling Xiao might be younger, stronger, and more energetic, but Haichao is a seasoned professional, a father, and this is his domain. They pass a few minutes in companionable silence, listening to the raucous conversation leaking in from the other room, as though light falling through the crack of the door.
“Ling Xiao,” Haichao says after a while, as they’re finishing up.
Ling Xiao looks up at him. “What is it, Ba?”
This must be what Ziqiu is feeling, his tongue-tied astonishment as he watches the marriage of his mother and his father, this laughing hand of fate. It seems like something out of the most childish dream, except for the fact it’s come true. Haichao, too, is looking into the grown face of the child he raised, his gaze steady under his furrowed brow. This stubborn, tight-lipped kid Jianjian followed around every minute of every day, pestering him to pay attention to her. Well, it looks like he did exactly that. The wealth of fortune that Haichao received all those years ago has multiplied into a plain, wordless happiness. Ling Xiao, you were just a boy when I took you in. Remember how long it took to get you to come in through the door? Now look at you.
“Look at you,” Haichao says, and he would reach out to touch Ling Xiao’s shoulder, brush his long hair out of his eyes the way he used to when they were both younger, but his hands are still dripping wet from the dishwater. He has to settle for saying it again: “Look at you.”
No matter, because Ling Xiao seems to know what he means by the wonder in his voice. He smiles back at him and shuts off the tap, nodding his head in the direction of the kitchen doorway.
Haichao follows his gaze. Over on the couch, Jianjian is in the middle of recounting another tall tale, her face screwed up in some unflattering impression; Haichao has a sneaking suspicion of who, based on the insufferable look of mirth on Heping’s face. Ziqiu is sitting next to He Mei, and they both keep darting glances at one another so often that they end up just meeting gazes and smiling at each other. Right at that moment, Jianjian looks up and catches Haichao and Ling Xiao watching from the kitchen. She brightens, motioning for them to join them.
“Ba! Ge! Come on!” she calls. “I’m just getting to the good part!”
“Look at that,” Ling Xiao says to Haichao. Voice hushed in amazement as though sharing a secret. His smile is so fond, Haichao will let him believe that he’s being discreet; that nobody can see what’s written plain for all to see on his face. Just another piece of joy Haichao has been handed. He keeps it to himself, and does exactly that. He looks.
Life after Yunyun takes on an unbearably cutting quality. It is as though the world has been sharpened; every sound grates her ears, every sight a knifelike point. Everything is a reminder, and every memory stabs. Meanwhile, Chen Ting herself feels faded and weak, a soft thing left to rot and fall to pieces, and as she moves through this world she can feel more and more of her flake and peel away, until all that’s left is raw and tender to the touch.
She wakes to the the shuffling, guilty noises of Ling Heping getting ready for work in the morning: the running water of the shower, his spit into the sink, the flush of the toilet. She can sense him hovering at the doorway of their bedroom, waffling over whether he should speak to her before he leaves. His hesitation is useless to her. She leaves him to suffer it, going back to sleep.
When she wakes again the day is late. Sunlight through the windows: a pinpoint prick. The settled silence of the apartment: a full-body shudder. The sight of her son eating at the table when she emerges from her room: a flinching wound.
Ling Xiao stares at her, wide-eyed. He made instant noodles for himself again.
“Mama,” he says.
He may as well have driven a blade through her chest. She stares blankly back at him. For a moment she considers it: sitting down next to him and playing mother. But she’s too exhausted to cook. Maybe she can share his instant noodles. They can just eat from the same bowl until they’re both left hungry. Son, this is what it means to be a family. Do you understand?
She goes back inside her room before she can do worse.
Just finish the job, Chen Ting wishes of this world sometimes. Just kill me. I can’t bear this pain, not anymore. It hurts. But she is cursed, she knows. The punishment for her failures as a mother: a living child she can’t look at, out of grief for the other. This is the cost she has to live with. This is the cost itself: to live.
She hadn’t considered she could just leave her curse behind, until she does.
Far away from her failed attempt at family, Chen Ting awaits retribution. She listens to her mother rattle on about impurities in the spirit, weighing her down; she obediently drinks the bitter medicines she brews for her. She rises in the morning, gets dressed in her clothes, walks outside and lets the sunlight pierce her skin. But something is different: either the world is no longer so sharp as it was before, or she is no longer so soft to be cut. She can’t figure out which it could be. Both options seem impossible, unfair, as though something has yet again been taken away from her against her will. She lies awake at night and wonders why she has not yet died, now that she has walked away from her curse. Isn’t it so easy, after all? One could just have a clumsy accident, a careless mistake; one could just swallow a walnut whole. Life has always been much more difficult, so why is it the one thing she hasn’t failed? Surely she has suffered enough. Surely any minute now she will open her eyes to see Yunyun’s face before her, arms open in a welcoming embrace. Mama, what took you so long? I missed you. Her dreams of her daughter are so real that when she wakes curled up in her bed her eyes are blurred with tears, her hands clutching the skin and bone of what feels like a beloved elbow, wrist, ankle. But she is only ever just holding onto herself.
And then, just like this, the days fold into weeks and months and years, and somehow Chen Ting has still held onto herself. Somehow she has not let go.
After her new daughter is born, Chen Ting never again dreams of the body lying stiff and doll-like on the floor, mouth gaping open in a choking cry. It’s as though she can feel herself being purified, remade anew. All of her old self has already been cut away, shed like dead skin, and what remains is untouched by pain and loss. She holds her bawling baby in her arms and feels peace.
She has received a second chance, and with it, a second life. She has passed through the heart of all suffering and survived, and she will survive yet. Looking down at her daughter’s wrinkled face, she sees a new slate that is perfect in its blankness. This time, Chen Ting knows, she will be good. She will do everything right. She is certain of it. She will never make the same mistakes again.
But that night, she has another dream. She wakes in a cold sweat, breath heaving in gasps. She stares into the darkness of the night, into the face she dreamed: her firstborn child and son, his face stone, tears streaming silently down his cheeks as he watches her leave him behind. His mouth open in the shape of a mourning wail: Mama. Mama.
Her baby is safely asleep; her husband, snoring unaware. Please, Chen Ting thinks, or prays: all I want is to be free. But her own liar’s heart pounds fast, implacable. She lies awake until morning. And all through the night the remembered face of her son hangs over her head like its own moon, casting her in the shadow of her shame.
The summer skies are windy, weather forecasts warning of a storm. His sister’s flight is delayed one hour, then another. Ling Xiao doesn’t mind waiting. He finds a window in the airport to sit by and watch the night fall. He gets a call from his father, a couple of texts from Ziqiu confirming weekend plans to go home. He’s in the middle of responding when a new notification rolls in—a video message from Li Jianjian, hard at work in the studio.
“Lo and behold!” comes her voice, the camera zooming in on her latest sculpture: a sturdy, intricately-branched tree crowned with flowers in every stage of growth from bud to blossom. “My baby is finally finished!” The camera zooms in and out a couple more times for dramatic effect, then flips around to capture Jianjian’s face as she throws up a triumphant peace sign. “Can’t wait to show you what it looks like in person!”
Ling Xiao rewatches it, then sends a voice message in reply: “Can’t wait to see it. It’s beautiful.”
Ling Xiao looks up. Qin Meiyang is standing before him, a travel pillow snug around her neck, her hair shorter than he’s ever seen it. All of eighteen years old; a full-fledged adult, though you’d never guess it from the disgusted wrinkle of her nose.
He smiles. “I like your haircut.”
The wrinkle of her nose doesn’t budge, but her frown softens by a few degrees. “Whatever. I’m starved. Can we go get something to eat?”
He takes her to a hot pot restaurant and lets her order more than they can possibly eat, platters of fish balls and lamb cuts and sliced tofu spread out between them like they’re eating a whole family’s worth. For all the years they spent living with each other, they’ve rarely had occasion to eat out together, with only the two of them. Their meals were mostly had at home so that Ling Xiao could cook for their mother, and despite being brother and sister their lives rarely had reason to intersect; he was busy with university and work, she with school and friends. Once in a while he might treat her to a meal, but most of their breakfasts and dinners were shared at their overlarge table with too much space for the three of them. Even now, their mother’s absence seems to be taking up room, a blatant empty spot between them.
Meiyang is the one to bring it up, near the end of their meal. “I don’t think Ma’s ready to come back,” she says casually as she drenches a fatty piece of beef in her sauce bowl. “She let me come back and visit this time, but would always pretend like she didn’t hear whenever I asked if she wanted to join me.”
Ling Xiao pauses. “She still hasn’t told you,” he realizes.
Meiyang’s chopsticks still. “Told me what?”
He hesitates. Her eyes narrow.
“Told me what?”
Ling Xiao looks out the window. At some point, it had started to rain; he had missed the moment. It was pouring just like this, he remembers suddenly, the day he first met Meiyang.
“Before you were born,” Ling Xiao says, “I had another little sister.”
“Also before you were born, she passed away.”
It’s strange. His first sister, his lost sister, is a secret he keeps lodged in his throat. He thought it would have been difficult, almost impossible to pry her out of him. But when he opens his mouth she goes freely. Or maybe he’s the one who lets her go.
Across the table, Meiyang is holding herself very still. But Ling Xiao knows, under that silent expression, her mind must be racing furiously. He reaches out and places a gentle hand on her forehead, as though to quiet it. She looks up at him.
“This is around the time of year when it happened,” Ling Xiao says.
“Oh,” Meiyang says. “So that’s probably why she didn’t want to come back right now.”
“That’s why a lot of things,” she says.
“I shouldn’t...” Ling Xiao hesitates again. “She should have been the one to tell you. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Why not?” Meiyang straightens up, just slightly enough so that Ling Xiao’s hand falls from her forehead. “It was your sister.”
“She would have wanted to be the one to tell you,” Ling Xiao rephrases.
“Well, she didn’t.” Meiyang puts down her chopsticks. She looks angry, which is how Ling Xiao knows she’s dangerously close to crying. “How did I never know anything about it? I’ve never heard a single thing. Never seen a single photograph. How can that be?”
“Ma destroyed everything.”
Meiyang’s face twists. “How could she do that?”
“She lost her daughter,” Ling Xiao says carefully. “Her family.”
Meiyang’s hand clenches into a fist on the table. “Wasn’t she yours, too?”
Ling Xiao closes his eyes briefly. When he opens them again, Meiyang is watching him closely.
“She would have been mine, too,” Meiyang says softly. Her eyes are shiny. “My jiejie.”
They’re silent for another while. A flash of lightning floods Meiyang’s face in white. Ling Xiao does not flinch.
“Her name was Yunyun,” Ling Xiao says, his voice steady. And then, “Ma didn’t manage to destroy all of it. I kept a photo.”
Meiyang’s eyes widen. “You still have it?”
“It’s been through a lot.” His mother’s tearing hands; Li Jianjian’s patchwork tape job. Years of dust collected in the drawer of his desk in his childhood bedroom, because he had the good foresight to leave it behind when he moved to Singapore. “But I do. I’ll get it for you sometime.”
“Okay.” Meiyang sniffs, then picks up her chopsticks again. “Thanks, ge,” she says, before stuffing her slice of beef into her mouth.
“It’s at my dad’s apartment. I can drop by tomorrow.”
“No, I mean, for telling me.”
“Ah.” He points his chopsticks at her. “Don’t talk with your mouth full.”
She rolls his eyes. “So lame. Ah, ge, I’m seriously too full. Why’d you let me order so much?”
“To teach you a lesson.”
She glares at him. He smiles back at her.
Outside, the rain shows no signs of letting up. Ling Xiao drives Meiyang back to her hotel through the onslaught. “You’re sure you wouldn’t rather stay with us?” he asks.
Meiyang makes a face. “Like I want to see you and Li Jianjian being gross all day. I’ll pass, thanks.”
“She’ll be delighted to see you again. Ziqiu, too.”
“It’s fine. I’m stopping by his café tomorrow anyway.”
“Oh.” Ling Xiao pauses. “Have you told him?”
“It’ll be a pleasant surprise,” Meiyang says confidently. Ling Xiao gets a flash of déjà vu of Ziqiu saying those exact same words to him, once upon a time, and has to stifle a laugh. “What? What’s so funny?”
It’s late by the time he gets back to the apartment. A muted silence settles heavy over his shoulders after Meiyang leaves, in the car and the parking garage and up the elevator. As the lights of the numbered floors blink past overhead, he thumbs his keyring, restless for a reason he can’t name. A lightness in his limbs, as though a great weight has left him. Still, he can tell he’ll have trouble sleeping tonight. He knows the feeling well in his bones, by now.
The elevator doors open to Li Jianjian’s beaming face.
“Ge,” she says.
Ling Xiao raises an eyebrow. “Were you standing here waiting for me?”
Jianjian ignores the question. “I’m hungry. Let’s go eat.”
Ling Xiao laughs. “I just came from dinner with Chengzi, remember?”
She tugs at his arm. “So let’s get dessert. Something sweet. Come on.”
The doors are closing. Time to make a choice. He pulls her safely inside.
They’re standing very close, in the elevator. Close enough to glimpse every flicker of motion. The brush of her hair behind her ear. The flutter of her eyelashes. The tug at the corner of her mouth when she catches him looking.
“How was dinner?” Jianjian asks.
“Good,” Ling Xiao says. “Chengzi’s grown up a lot.”
“I hope not!” Jianjian says in mock horror. “Her brattiness was kind of refreshing, you know? I’m going to miss making fun of her in good conscience!”
“I don’t think you have to worry on that front,” Ling Xiao says.
The elevator dings. They’re at the lobby. Outside, sheaves of rain pour down from the heavens, clattering against the pavement. The sight of the storm brings them up short.
“Did you bring an umbrella?” Ling Xiao asks, though he can see the answer for himself.
Jianjian scratches at her head sheepishly. “Oops.”
“Li Jianjian,” Ling Xiao sighs.
“What? Look, the store is just a block from here, we’ll be fine. It’s warm out. We just have to be really fast.” She pokes him in the chest. “And really brave.”
“You’re going to catch a cold.”
She grins. “Are you going to take care of me if I do?”
The grin falters, then recovers itself. “Then what’s the problem?”
Ling Xiao sighs again. “You,” he tells her. “You’re a really big problem.”
Jianjian pats his shoulder consolingly, leading him to the glass doors of the lobby. “You’ll feel much better once you have some ice cream. Or cake. Which one do you think we should get?”
“Whatever you want,” Ling Xiao says, and then they’re outside, and the rain is thunderous, and they’re at its mercy.
“Ready?” she asks him. Her eyes alight.
He takes her hand, and they run.