selcouth —unfamiliar, rare, strange, and yet wonderful
hiraeth —a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home with maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past
There’s a time, when he returns, when he realizes he doesn’t know where home is.
Objectively, of course, he knows where he lives. He knows that there’s an apartment with his father in it and his bed and clothes and things are there, but that’s different. It never quite was a home, but it really isn’t anymore, because it’s just… it’s so small. He’s spent weeks with the stars as his ceiling, even more looking at the same four walls of his room in the Wang compound, so an apartment with beat-up furniture and storage closet that was never used for storing things isn’t that much different from any other apartment he could be in.
He tries going to Su Wan’s first. Part of him wants to because he missed Su Wan, but it’s mostly because he didn’t know for weeks if his best friend was dead or alive, so when he wakes up in the middle of the night with a short, sharp gasp, all he has to do is listen, and he can hear Su Wan breathing next to him in the bed. Also, Su Wan will cuddle him whether Li Cu wants him to or not, so that’s nice.
It doesn’t last, though, because every morning he has to go downstairs and say hi to Su Wan’s parents, and Su Wan’s parents tolerate him, but they don’t really like him, and they really don’t like him now, after he filled their garage with packages and dragged Su Wan off into the desert. Also, sometimes he doesn’t want to be cuddled because that’s like arms pinning him to the ground and it takes all his willpower not to punch a sleeping Su Wan in the face, but to instead lie stiff as a board until morning.
So he packs up his stuff and moves to Hao-ge’s, which is different, but not exactly better. Hao-ge is dealing with his own grief, his own loss, and Li Cu feels in the way of all that fury and rage. He knows, logically, that Hao-ge doesn’t blame him anymore, but he can still see Hao-ge’s face, streaked with tears, his fist pulled back, his voice strangled with anger and pain. Li Cu’s leg throbs.
He stays for three days, just to be polite. He watches their shop while Hao-ge goes out of town to visit some relatives, to figure out what they’re going to do with his grandmother’s things. He knows Hao-ge is probably going to sell the store. It’s not just because he doesn’t want to run it; he honestly can’t, financially. Hao-ge’s not ready to let it go, quite yet, so when he gets back, Li Cu lets him have the space back, to trace over and memorize the corners of his home before he has to leave, makes a mental note to bring Su Wan over to help him pack, to keep him distracted. He didn’t sleep well at Hao-ge’s anyway, especially when he was gone. It was too quiet then.
He can’t couch surf, after that. All the rest of his friends are dead.
He uses some of the stupid money that Wu Xie paid him at the very beginning—and it’s really not even enough, Wu Xie should be putting him through college—to rent a hotel room for a couple nights. That’s nice at first. He has his own space, a big shower, cable tv. But he doesn’t know it, his body can’t relax in an unfamiliar room with big, wide windows and only one lock. He spends two sleepless nights lying on his back, on his side, on his stomach, pacing the carpet. He gives up after night two, when everything’s hazy and dull in the back of his head, and checks out.
He spends the afternoon wandering around the city, toeing past the restaurants and coffee shops and arcades that he used to hang out in, the soccer fields and schools and parks he passed every day. There’s the manhole cover that broke and the city’s never gotten around to fix it, so there are perpetual orange cones around it in a cult-like circle—no, no, don’t think about cults, cones can’t have cults, it’s just a circle, Li Cu, come on—and there’s the statue of a dog near the center of the park near his house and he likes dogs, even more when they’re—not attacking him, they didn’t attack him, the dust of Wu Xie’s grandfather is ground into your bloodstream—and there’s the library that he and Shen Qiong used to go to for story time when they were really young—and now she’s young forever, a bullet in her brain between her eyes she died angry with you she died alone she died at the hands of her family—and eventually he’s on the soccer field and he’s lying flat on his back in the grass but there’s too much light and he can’t see the stars.
He can’t see the stars.
He can’t fall asleep if he can’t see the stars. If he can’t see the stars maybe he’s underground again, maybe—
“Kid, you can’t sleep there.”
He lifts his head, wearily. It aches, heavy on his neck. It got dark at some point, except not right now, because there’s a police officer shining his flashlight into his eyes, and he squints into it.
“Come on,” the officer says, “Go home.”
Li Cu laughs and flops back onto the grass. The police officer mutters something that sounds like a swear word under his breath and comes through the gate, marching over to Li Cu and hauling him, albeit gently, off of the turf.
“You been drinking?” the officer asks. Li Cu shakes his head. “Can’t smell any on you.” The man scoffs. “Jeez, kid, no offense, but you look terrible.”
Li Cu just blinks at him. He’s really tired, actually.
The officer sighs. “Come on, I’ll drive you home. You got an ID?”
Li Cu remembers that his ID is in his wallet which is in the pocket of his backpack and he knows it’s there because he had to use it to pay for the hotel. He hands the entire thing to the officer, who sorts through it, glancing at Li Cu every so often in concern, and clicking his tongue contentedly when he finds what he’s looking for.
“Alright,” he says, “Let’s get you home.”
Li Cu’s glad this officer knows where his home is, because Li Cu has no idea.
Never mind. Li Cu is pretty sure this isn’t his house.
The police officer rings the doorbell, and unfamiliar chime. A loud, deep voice inside says, “Yeah, yeah, I’m coming!” and then the door is flying open, and a large man with wild hair is staring down at them.
Li Cu frowns because he has no idea who this guy is.
The guy seems to know him, though, because he rolls his eyes, turns back into the house and shouts, “TIANZHEN!”
Li Cu winces, cause his head kind of hurts now, and that was not helpful.
The man turns back to look at them. “What did he do?”
“Uh,” the officer says, because he’s shorter than Li Cu, actually, so he must be feeling very intimidated by this large man, “He was sleeping on the soccer field at the high school.”
The door man snorts. “Of course he was.” He folds his arms, leaning against the doorframe, looks Li Cu over. “Yeah, you look like a mess, Ya Li.”
“Wha?” Li Cu says, because that’s weird, that this strange giant man with large arms is calling him Ya Li.
“That’s what Xiao Wan called you, right?” the man asks. “Su Wan? Your best friend?”
Li Cu gapes. “How do you know Su Wan?” He backs up a step. “Is someone stalking me again?”
The police officer looks very alarmed at that. “Again?”
“He’s joking,” the Person-Who-Calls-Him-Ya-Li says, “No one’s stalking him. His friends came to me for help a while back, but he wasn’t with them.”
The police officer does not seem convinced, but at that moment, a familiar face appears in the doorway behind the Person-Who-Calls-Him-Ya-Li.
“Wu Xie?” Li Cu asks.
Wu Xie looks just as surprised as Li Cu is. “What did he do?”
“Nothing,” the officer says, “He was trying to sleep on the soccer field. Which is actually illegal. So I brought him home.” He frowns. “This is his home, right?”
“I don’t know,” Li Cu says.
“Yes,” Wu Xie says quickly. “Yes, you brought him to the right place. Sorry, he’s been a little out of it lately. Stress at school, you know. Not sleeping very well.”
“How’d you know that?” Li Cu asks in surprise, because as far as he can remember, he hasn’t seen Wu Xie since before the Wang compound. There’s a fuzzy memory of an apology, of being carried, but after he’d been thrown out the window, he woke up on a train.
He glares at the windows to the side of the house. He does not trust them.
Wu Xie gathers him by the shoulders and pulls him through the doorway. “Thank you, officer. I’ll make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”
“Okay…” the police officer says. “Um. Get some rest, kid.”
“Mmm hmm,” Li Cu mumbles, even though he knows that probably won’t happen, and Wu Xie shuts the door.
“What’s the matter with you?” he asks. “You’re supposed to be at home.”
“I dunno where it is,” Li Cu says. He yawns, widely. How long has it been since he slept? He has no idea.
“You don’t know where your house is?” Wu Xie says slowly, like he’s trying to figure something out. He’ll be able to do it. Wu Xie has a Big Brain.
“My house is where my house is,” Li Cu says vaguely. “I dunno where’s home.”
Wu Xie goes silent for a moment. “I see.”
Li Cu blinks himself into less of a stupor, figures out where his hands went (they were on the end of his arms). “I’ll go back there, I guess. Sorry.”
“No, no, wait,” Wu Xie says, which is funny, because Li Cu hasn’t moved. “It’s late. You’re… really tired. We have a couch.”
“Good for you,” Li Cu congratulates him.
Wu Xie closes his eyes for a second, gritting his teeth. “The couch is for you.”
“You’re giving me a couch?”
“Oh my god,” Wu Xie says.
The Person-Who-Calls-Him-Ya-Li laughs. “You sure chose a good one, Tianzhen.”
“Shut up, Pangzi,” Wu Xie mutters, because apparently he is this Tianzhen person.
“Make him take a nap for an hour,” Pangzi says, wandering off down the hall. “Then dinner’ll be ready.”
“We had dinner,” Wu Xie calls after him.
Pangzi stops, looks at Wu Xie pointedly. “Nope. Dinner. So the kid can join us.”
“Oh,” Wu Xie says. “Oh, right. Yeah. Dinner.”
Li Cu might puzzle through this if he were more awake, but he’s really not. “What?”
Wu Xie sighs at him. Li Cu should really stop making him do that. “Alright,” he says, “Come with me.”
Li Cu dutifully follows Wu Xie down the hallway, because he’s followed Wu Xie into worse places.
They come out into a wide-open room, full of books and random vases and boxes of papers and bits and bobs. Sure enough, there’s a couch there, and Wu Xie steers Li Cu over to it, pushing against his shoulders gently to make him sit. The couch is pretty soft, a well-worn type of feel to it, like someone has sat here every day for years and years and filled it full of memories.
“I’m not going to ask if you need to be hom—back at your place, because I really doubt it,” Wu Xie tells him. His voice is coming from below Li Cu’s ears. Li Cu looks down to see Wu Xie pulling off one of his boots, and Li Cu flops over his knees to pull off the other one, but his fingers get tangled in the laces, so he gives up and lets Wu Xie do it.
Wu Xie sighs at him. He takes Li Cu’s backpack and puts it next to the coffee table, where Li Cu can see it. He appreciates that. It’s good to know where things are. If you know where your things are, you can’t lose them. If you know where snakes are, they can’t bite you. If you know where Wu Xie is, you don’t have to miss him.
“Lie down,” Wu Xie says softly, and the couch really is comfortable, so Li Cu tentatively pulls his legs up and sets his head down and gazes at the lamp next to an armchair.
Wu Xie drags the throw blanket from the back of the couch and settles it around Li Cu’s body, which might be a little overkill, because Li Cu isn’t going to be here that long, he’s just going to rest for a moment, and then he’ll leave. Then he’ll get out of Wu Xie’s way. He’ll go back. Just a few minutes.
Wu Xie straightens up, grunting a little bit, and Li Cu almost says, don’t go, but he bites his tongue. He can’t ask that much of Wu Xie. Wu Xie’s already giving him a couch.
But then, Wu Xie doesn’t leave. He goes over to the armchair, picks up the notebook lying tent-style over its arm, flips through it. Someone’s glasses are on the end table, and that someone turns out to be Wu Xie, because they go on his nose as he takes in whatever the journal says, chewing the inside of his cheek absently and tapping a pattern out on his knee.
Li Cu blinks, slowly. Wu Xie is warm and marvelous, he thinks. He’s fading into a soft glow, backlit by a warm light that reminds Li Cu of something, something good, something he thought he lost, but maybe not. Maybe not.
He falls asleep and dreams he’s home.