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When we were small

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Lan Qiren knew he wasn’t going to be a good parent from the very beginning. He hadn’t been a good uncle; he was too stiff around A-Huan, afraid to hold him, nervously giving him back as soon as he could. The presents he gave were too utilitarian or inappropriately aged. He valued him- and then them- in the abstract, but he was always relieved when the visit or holiday or whatever was over and he could go home to the quiet and solitude of his apartment. His tidy, minimalist apartment, his fine china cups, his collection of first editions, his delicate, finicky orchids.

And then the call came and he had no time or space for grief. There were two small boys being shepherded into his apartment by a woman with a platinum perm and stud earrings shaped like cat faces.

“Uncle,’ A-Huan had said and bowed. The woman’s face flickered from false smile to pinched disapproval and back. A-Zhan, who had always been an unusually quiet child, didn’t even look up, only held his older brother’s hand in what must have been a punishing grip.

 

There’s no time or space for grief or anything. He takes the children to buy black suits, he leaves them behind in the apartment, twelve-year-old A-Huan assuring him he’s old enough to be left alone with his brother, to go to their house and oversee it being packed up, the furniture sold, the personal effects of his brother and his wife put in storage.

There’s no room for decisions or education. Only him sitting at his table with two children, eating in silence, only hearing A-Huan whispering to his brother in the middle of the night, only the three of them all tangled up together with grief and confusion and pain.

And the certainty that he isn’t… that he won’t be a good parent.

Time slips past. Lan Qiren buys a new apartment, big enough for the children to have their own rooms, buys them beds and bookshelves and desks.

There isn’t enough space for all of his orchids and he sells the ones he can’t keep, sighs to himself as he watches them being taken away. It’s stupid to cry over orchids, stupid to miss the quiet Saturday afternoons spent checking their soil and misting their leaves, repositioning the lights and the filters over the lights.

 

Children are supposed to be plastic, supposed to bounce back from the hardest things. Lan Qiren has never felt that way about himself, has always known he walks around with too many wounds that should have healed long ago and he’s afraid that A-Zhan’s too much like him. A-Huan comes home from school with perfect grades and happy stories about projects and classmates and something funny Joel Thomas said during lunch.

But A-Zhan has to be talked into going to school every day. He has to be talked into wearing his school uniform, has to be talked into putting on his backpack, has to be talked into getting into Lan Qiren’s car. And A-Huan has to do it all because every time Lan Qiren tries he gets it wrong.

It’s wrong to put so much on the shoulders of a twelve-year-old, Lan Qiren knows, but he doesn’t know what else to do.

A-Huan bounces back like rubber but A-Zhan flattens like clay, squishes on the floor he’s been dropped onto, splatters against it. A month passes and then another and then another and teachers call concerned and doctors suggest things Lan Qiren can’t bear to think about and he still cries himself to sleep, still asks when his parents are coming to get him, when he speaks at all.

And Lan Qiren tries to be honest and Lan Qiren tries to be patient and Lan Qiren tries to be kind, but he’s not a good parent.

 

The girl comes late at night. Not a girl, maybe; she’s in her late twenties or her early thirties, but she has sparkly nail polish on her fingers, sparkly clips in her hair. She has a perm too, a thick mass of black hair, and when he tries to speak to her in Mandarin she shakes her head and says, in a Midwest accent "sorry; I only speak English."

She’s carrying a child in her arms, about A-Zhan’s age, dressed in a battered puffy red coat over a pair of worn dinosaur pajamas, a duffel bag slung on her shoulder.

It’s nine o’clock at night, and even though the child had their face pressed into the girl’s neck, Lan Qiren doesn’t think he has ever seen either of them before.

“Have you come to the right place?” he asks.

“You’re Mr. Lan?” she asks, pronouncing it the American way.

He nods and steps aside so she can carry the child into the apartment.

“I’m a babysitter. I was hired a few days ago to take care of him at the hotel…” she looks around and then deposits the sleeping child on the couch without asking, placing the duffel bag beside it. “They were only supposed to be gone a day. I’m sorry, but I have to go… I’m already late.”

“Wait,” Lan Qiren says. “Who are they? Who is he?”

“Oh,” the girl says. “I thought you would know. Well, you were their emergency contact. The agency always requires a local one for just this kind of situation. He’s a good kid. I’m sorry…”

“Who are they?” Lan Qiren asks again.

“Oh,” the girl says again. She rubs her face as if she’s exhausted. “Yeah- I’ve got the…” she unzips the duffel bag and slides a folder from it. “Here’s all the information I have,” she says, giving it to him.

He opens the folder, sees a form someone has filled out in untidy roman letters, the names written out in the English manner:

Name: Ying Wei

Parents: Cangse Li, Charlie Wei

For a moment he thinks maybe this is another prank Li Cangse is playing on him, somehow an extension of the time she’d stolen and replaced all the keys on his keyring, the time she’d somehow managed to dye his scraggly teenage beard blue. But he hasn’t seen her for twenty years and this is a child. Li Cangse is a lot, but she wouldn’t play a prank with a child.

“I’m sorry,” the girl says. “I have to go.” And before he can do anything to stop her she’s gone.

Well, he’s had children suddenly brought to his door by women with perms before. In more trying circumstances too. The death of his brother is nothing more than a low ache in his gut now.

He bends over the small child, slips his ragged sneakers off, removes the puffy coat from his arms, and tucks a couch cushion under his cheek. He hopes he doesn’t wet himself in his sleep the way A-Zhan still sometimes does; it would be a lot more difficult to clean the couch than it was the bed with the waterproof mattress cover.

The child makes a small noise and Lan Qiren tucks a blanket around him, then takes himself to bed.

 

When morning comes and he has gotten up and washed and dressed, A-Zhan is already in the living room. He often gets up early, usually occupies himself with reading (or pretending to read, Lan Qiren honestly isn’t entirely sure which). But instead of sitting on the couch in his weirdly proper manner, he’s kneeling in front of the couch staring at the sleeping boy.

“Uncle,” he whispers and Lan Qiren starts. A-Zhan hasn’t spoken, as far as Lan Qiren knows, in weeks. “Who is this?”

“His name is Wei Ying,” Lan Qiren says.

“Oh,” A-Zhan says, looking back at the sleeping boy. “I like his pajamas.”

“Do you want dinosaur pajamas?” Lan Qiren asks, surprised. A-Zhan rarely expresses any preferences.

“Where are his parents?” A-Zhan asks.

“I don’t know,” Lan Qiren says.

“Oh,” A-Zhan says, again. “It’s okay to be sad,” he tells the sleeping boy. He stands up and runs to his room, then reappears with his favorite stuffed animal, the bunny he carries with him everywhere, and carefully tucks it under the sleeping boy’s arm.

 

When it seems like it’s probably not too early, Lan Qiren calls his lawyer and explains the situation and the lawyer tells him she’ll see what she can do.

A-Huan comes in, rubbing sleep from his eyes, and stops and stares at the sleeping boy.

“He’s my friend,” A-Zhan says. He’s still sitting next to the couch, but now he’s reading one of his books out loud to the sleeping boy. Lan Qiren is pretty sure at this point that he isn’t actually reading because he seems to be making up the words from what he can remember and the pictures.

It’s only when the boy- A-Ying- reaches out a hand to point to something in the book that Lan Qiren realizes he’s awake.“Do you know where they went?” Lan Qiren asks.

A-Ying shakes his head.

“I was friends with your mother in school,” Lan Qiren says. This is a bit of a stretch, but it seems like he should say something.

A-Zhan finishes reading the book while A-Huan makes breakfast because A-Zhan will only eat food his brother has made, and then they all sit around the table, A-Ying still in his dinosaur pajamas, his hair sticking up all over the place, clambering up into the chair A-Zhan shows him to.

“Who are you?” A-Ying asks Lan Qiren and A-Huan.

“This is Uncle and Brother,” A-Zhan says. A-Huan is staring at him. This is more words than Lan Qiren has probably heard A-Zhan speak in their whole time living together.

“Oh,” the boy says, smiling at them shyly. “I’m A-Ying. Do you know… do you know where Julie is?”

Julie is the babysitter, Lan Qiren assumes. “She brought you here last night,” he says. “She said she had to go somewhere.”

A-Ying nods like he expected this.

“My parents are still gone,” he says.

“No talking while eating,” A-Zhan scolds them, and Lan Qiren stares at him, surprised, wondering where he’s picked this rule up from. They don’t usually speak during meals, but Lan Qiren hadn’t thought much of it. They hadn’t spoken much in general.

Wei Ying pokes at the porridge. “Do you have cereal?” he asks.

“I’m sorry, we don’t,” Lan Qiren says.

“Do you want me to put sugar on it?” A-Huan asks. “Or honey?”

Wei Ying nods and Lan Qiren says nothing as he watches A-Huan spoon a disturbing amount of sugar into the porridge until the boy seems satisfied.

“I want sugar too,” A-Zhan decides and they all stare at him. (Except Wei Ying who is now shoveling his mostly-sugar porridge into his mouth).

A-Zhan has insisted on eating exactly the same food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner since he arrived at Lan Qiren’s house.

“Okay,” A-Huan says and puts a very small spoon of sugar into his porridge.

A-Zhan looks at Wei Ying’s bowl and pouts.

“Why don’t you try it before you decide if you want more,” A-Huan encourages, and A-Zhan nods and watches carefully as his brother stirs the porridge and then tastes it delicately.

Then he looks at Wei Ying and says ‘We both have sugar’ and Wei Ying grins back and Lan Qiren finds himself exchanging a confused look with a twelve-year-old.

 

“A-Ying is coming to school with me,” A-Zhan decides after breakfast.

“A-Ying can’t go to school with you,” Lan Qiren tries, gently. “He’s not enrolled. Only children who are enrolled can go to school.”

“We can enroll him,” A-Zhan insists, in the way that children have of just rolling with words whose meanings they don’t know.

Lan Qiren opens his mouth to argue but remembers that sometimes in his own childhood children had brought friends with them to school, so he calls the school office and asks if A-Zhan can bring a friend with him.

It takes some doing (and the confession that Lan Qiren doesn’t know where A-Ying’s parents are and that it’s possible that they’re missing or dead and that he just wants to keep things as normal as possible) but finally, they agree and A-Zhan lends A-Ying his spare school shirt and A-Huan finds an old backpack for him and packs him a lunch, and A-Zhan is excited to go to school for the first time since his parents died.

 

It takes three weeks. The lawyer hires a private detective, who discovers that Wei Chengze used to be employed by the Jiang Corporation. Three weeks in which A-Zhan smiles three times and tries four new foods and does a dozen things he refused to do before A-Ying showed up at their doorstep. At night A-Ying sleeps in A-Zhan’s bed, and they curl around each other like kittens and during the day A-Zhan watches everything A-Ying does with big eyes.

A-Ying is full of energy and doesn’t seem overly bothered by not knowing where his parents are. Lan Qiren wonders how many times they’ve left him like this with strangers or near-strangers.

It takes three weeks for the investigators to find the bodies of A-Ying’s parents where they’d fallen together over the edge of a cliff, for Jiang Fengmian to appear, a copy of Wei Chengze’s will in hand.

Lan Qiren remembers Jiang Fengmian from school too, one of those kids who always went along with what the popular kids wanted. But he’s probably a better parent than Lan Qiren is.

He should say here, he wants to protest, when Jiang Fengmian tells him, jovially, that he’s come to take Wei Ying off his hands. He and A-Zhan care about each other so much, he wants to say. He is a bundle of energy and light.

But Jiang Fengmian is probably a better parent than Lan Qiren is, and he has the law on his side.

 

They pack up Wei Ying’s things. A-Huan tries to make it a game, picking clothes out of the laundry and asking if they’re A-Zhan’s or A-Ying’s. A-Ying laughs and says ridiculous things like ‘they’re Bunny’s!’ and ‘they’re Uncle’s!’ but A-Zhan pouts and grabs A-Ying’s duffel bag and runs into the bathroom and locks the door and refuses to come out.

A-Huan is trying to cajole him out of the bathroom while Lan Qiren tries to calm down A-Ying, who is clutching onto the stuffed rabbit and crying so hard all his words are garbled when Jiang Fengmian and his wife Yu Ziyuan knocks on the door, their two small children in tow.

“My, my, my,” Jiang Fengmain says with a chuckle as Lan Qiren lets them into the house as if the two broken-hearted toddlers are just silly children.

The Jiang’s youngest child, a boy about the same age as A-Ying and A-Zhan, walks up to A-Ying and squats down, starting at where he’s rolling on the floor.

“Why sad?” he asks the Jiang’s older child, a quiet girl around A-Huan’s age.

“A-Ying just lost his parents,” the girl says, taking her brother’s hands.

A-Ying sits up and sniffs and rubs his nose. “No,” he says.

“No?” the girl repeats, confused.

“I’m sad because I’m leaving,” the boy says.

“Oh,” the girl says, sitting down beside him and frowning. “Don’t you want to come and stay with me and A-Cheng? We have lots of toys and we got a bunk bed so you can sleep in A-Cheng’s room. It will be really fun!”

“Yanli, don’t sit on the floor,” Yu Ziyuan says. Lan Qiren suddenly remembers he’s never liked her. She’s always been too harsh and unyielding. He remembers there used to be rumors of her making a game out of making other girls cry.

Her daughter obediently stands up and smooths down her skirt.

“Is he ready to go?” Yu Ziyuan asks as if she’s asking about a take-out order.

“Ah, there’s a problem,” Lan Qiren admits. “My nephew has locked himself in the bathroom with Wei Ying’s things.”

Yu Ziyuan sniffs and stands. “Well that won’t be a problem,” she says. “He can just wear A-Cheng’s things until I have time to take him shopping.”

“Oh,” Lan Qiren says. “I can ship his things to you.”

“No need,” Yu Ziyuan says. “We can afford to buy him clothing. Come on, Fengmian.”

A-Ying is still sitting doubtfully on the floor, looking up at them.

“I’m not going!” he declares, clutching the bunny even tighter, but he’s too small to be a match for adults. Jiang Fengmian just scoops him up into his arms and holds him tightly as he struggles. “No!” A-Ying cries. “No! A-Zhan!”

In the hallway, there’s a loud bump as A-Zhan tries to push the bathroom door open and it slams into A-Huan. He scrambles through the narrow opening anyway, runs into the living room, and, without thinking, Lan Qiren catches him.

“A-Ying!” A-Zhan shouts, struggling against Lan Qiren’s grip.

“A-Zhan!” A-Ying shouts back, but they’re both too small to fight.

Lan Qiren sinks to his knees with his sobbing nephew in his arms until he cries himself to sleep.

 

It’s like they’ve all moved back in time to right after the accident, except Lan Qiren feels hopeless and guilty, though he doesn’t know what he could have done.

(Anything, his heart tells him. Literally anything. He hadn’t tried at all.)

A week in, a week of A-Huan trying all his tricks to get A-Zhan out of bed, to dress, to eat, to go to school, a week of strain and worry and A-Zhan just sitting on the couch staring at nothing crying silently, Lan Qiren gives in and calls Jiang Fengmian.

“How is A-Ying doing?” he asks his old classmate.

“He’s doing fine,” Jiang Fengmian replies. “It’s an adjustment. But you know kids; they bounce back like rubber.” Jiang Fengmian is just as he remembers him; someone who never gave anyone the consideration they deserved.

“I’m worried about A-Zhan,” Lan Qiren says. “He’s really upset about A-Ying leaving. I thought maybe we could arrange to meet up. Maybe if he knows he can see A-Ying from time to time he won’t be so upset. He did lose his parents so recently.”

Jiang Fengmian is silent for a long moment, then he says “A-Ying is just beginning to settle in. I don’t want to disrupt that. I think if they saw each other they would just go back to square one.”

Like he’s talking about addiction, not love. Lan Qiren grits his teeth, but what can he do? Jiang Fengmian is Wei Ying’s guardian now.

Jiang Fengmian says the same thing about every one of Lan Qiren’s suggestions; phone calls, letters, and Lan Qiren hangs up seething, frustrated.

He turns to see A-Zhan’s curious eyes on him. “I’m sorry,” he tells the child because he doesn’t know how to lie. “A-Ying is doing fine, but we can’t go see him.”

And for the first time, A-Zhan comes up to him and wraps his arms around him. Lan Qiren finds himself grateful for even this small blessing.

 

Autumn comes and then winter. A-Huan suddenly grows two inches and they go clothes shopping and come home with clothes that make Lan Huan look like a teenager and a white puffy jacket that makes A-Zhan look like a round marshmallow.

A-Zhan has begun obsessively cleaning his room, getting up too early and vacuuming his floor over and over again, folding and refolding his clothes because the edges aren’t straight enough.

Lan Qiren takes them both to a family counselor and A-Zhan refuses to talk, just sits in the room and stares down at his small hands.

A-Zhan only eats foods he remembers Wei Ying liking. He eats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chicken nuggets, hot oil noodles, porridge with too much sugar. It’s a relief because at least he’s eating.

And then, one evening there’s a phone call.

A-Huan gets it because most of the phone calls are for him.

“Hello,” A-Huan says, and then holds out the phone. Lan Qiren pulls himself up (he’s getting so old!) but A-Huan shakes his head. “A-Zhan,” he says, “it’s A-Ying!”

And Lan Qiren sees hope and happiness light A-Zhan’s face for the first time in months and relief floods him.

Later, A-Huan tells him that A-Ying convinced Jiang Yanli to find their phone number for him and to lend her his phone. Lan Qiren knows he shouldn’t be letting a five-year-old call his house without his guardians knowing, but he can’t bring himself to do anything about it. A-Zhan talks. Not a lot, but then he never spoke a lot, not even to A-Ying. He makes little noises to let A-Ying know he’s listening, gives one-word answers, giggles.

Then finally, he says, “okay,” and holds the phone out to A-Huan. “Jiang Yanli wants to talk to you,” he says, and Lan Qiren listens with amazement as a pair of tweens make arrangements for their little brothers to call each other on a regular basis without A-Ying’s guardians finding out.

Before he hangs up, A-Huan tells Jiang Yanli their address and his school e-mail address just in case they can’t call, and he writes down Jiang Yanli’s information as well. He hands the little scrap of paper to A-Zhan and says “you won’t lose him again.”

Lan Qiren never knew children could break your heart.

 

They call as often as Jiang Yanli can manage. Lan Qiren wonders about this, about the kind of family that has taught such a young child- she’s eleven or twelve he thinks- to keep such a secret. If A-Ying says anything about it no one will pay him any mind- he’s only six, the right age to have imaginary conversations with imaginary friends- but how is Yanli hiding the phone logs, the amount of time A-Ying spends on the phone?

Or do their parents just pay so little attention to them?

A-Ying’s calls make the world of difference to A-Zhan. He begins speaking to his therapist enough for her to diagnose him with autism, to send him to special support instructors. With time he loosens up a little, starts letting Lan Qiren take over some of the things A-Huan had been in charge of, tries new foods, lets his schedule deviate a little now and then.

Lan Qiren has nightmares that the Jiangs will find out and they’ll lose A-Ying again.

 

Instead, about a year after A-Ying spent those few weeks with them, Jiang Fengmian calls. “I guess you were right,” he tells Lan Qiren, in his jolly voice. “A-Ying is always talking about A-Zhan and keeps begging to be able to see him. He asked for it for his birthday. How could I say no?”

So they make plans to meet halfway between their respective cities, in an indoor children’s museum.

The moment the boys catch sight of each other they’re running towards each other, grabbing onto each other like they’ll never let go.

Jiang Fengmian smiles at Lan Qiren. “Well, old man,” he says, “guess we’re going to be in-laws.”

They’re six! Lan Qiren does not say, and I’m not an old man. He’s only a year older than Jiang Fengmian for all that Jiang Fengmian dresses like he’s still in his twenties.

Instead, he turns and greets Yanli, who is already speaking quietly to A-Huan.

“Thought it would be better not to bring A-Cheng,” Fengmian says a little while later, as they watch the boys run from exhibit to exhibit, A-Ying dragging A-Zhan along behind him. “He gets jealous when A-Ying talks too much about A-Zhan.” He chuckles. Lan Qiren hates him a little.

Instead, when Fengmian goes to the bathroom he gives Yanli a prepaid credit card he’d won in one of those stupid work raffles. “You keep this safe, for if A-Ying ever needs anything,” he tells her and she takes it and nods, too serious, too responsible for her age. “You call me,” he says. “If he- if you- ever need help.” This isn’t something he should do, he knows, giving money to other people’s children, asking them to keep secrets, but leaving A-Ying entirely to Fengmian and his wife seems worse.

“Yes, Uncle,” she says, smiling up at him.

When Qiren can see that Fengmian is beginning to get bored, he suggests that A-Ying come and stay with them a weekend every month. “I’ll pick him up,” Qiren adds, quickly. “It won’t be a burden on you at all.”

“I’m surprised you’d want such a wild kid to stay with you,” Fengmian says, with a chuckle. “He’s always getting into mischief.”

“A-Zhan and A-Huan got very attached to him when he stayed with us,” Qiren says, leaving out the fact that he’s gotten attached as well. “A-Zhan has trouble making friends; A-Ying is good for him.”

Fengmian nods. “I’ll have to check with Ziyuan,” he says. “But I’m sure she’ll be happy to be rid of him a few days a month.”

Qiren represses the urge to punch him.

 

When it’s time to go the boys start crying again, latching onto each other tightly, even with the promise that they’ll see each other in less than a month, their older siblings doing their best to pry them apart, like oyster shuckers trying to open a shell.

Finally, they get them separated and drag them to their separate cars, A-Zhan limp in Qiren’s arms like if he thinks he plays dead for long enough he’ll get to stay with A-Ying

 

Lan Qiren buys bunk beds for A-Zhan’s room, talks to A-Zhan about what they’re going to do while A-Ying is there and A-Zhan recites all of A-Ying’s favorite things; swimming, playing cars, coloring, eating ice cream, playing in the park, going ice skating.

“It’s going to be November,” A-Huan says, patiently. “Too cold for swimming and ice cream and the park but not cold enough for ice skating.”

“November is stupid,” A-Zhan complains, and A-Huan laughs.

 

A-Ying is waiting on the Jiang’s steps when they get there, Yanli sitting beside him and holding his hand, which is good because he tries to run to the car before Lan Qiren even gets it parked.

Then A-Zhan and A-Ying are plastered together and Yanli is smiling her sweet smile and saying ‘I’ll tell mom and dad you’re here,” and disappearing into the house.

Lan Qiren would rather not, but it would be a little rude to take their child away without speaking to them so he helps A-Ying put his backpack in the trunk.

 

Fengmian comes out of the house and to the car to shake Lan Qiren’s hand and tell A-Ying to have a good weekend, but Ziyuan stands on the top step and stares down at them, her arms folded across her chest, like butter won’t melt in her mouth.

Her children slip past her with wary glances and Yanli hugs A-Ying goodbye while A-Cheng scowls and pouts and then they’re all getting into the car, A-Ying and A-Zhan sitting next to each other in the backseat, whispering in each other’s ears and Lan Qiren turning on an audiobook to keep him company during the long ride.

 

A-Ying is loud and boisterous until he sees A-Zhan wince, and then he quiets his voice and his movements. He talks A-Zhan into doing a dozen new things each day he’s there; wearing different clothes, trying new foods, practicing a dance routine he saw on a children’s show, singing silly songs he makes up on the fly.

Every month Lan Qiren gets off of work early on Friday, picks A-Zhan up at his school, drives the four hours to pick A-Ying up and then drives him home. Every month A-Zhan smiles and giggles and whispers with A-Ying, sleeps curled up around him like twins afraid of leaving the womb. On Sundays, they drive back, as late as the two boys and conspire to make it, and A-Ying stands on the front steps of the Jiang’s house and watches them drive away.

 

In the summer Qiren arranges to have A-Ying come and stay for a month while the Jiangs are on an extended trip to China.

Lan Qiren enrolls A-Ying in the summer music program he’d been planning on sending A-Zhan to. Music is one of A-Zhan’s special interests, and Lan Qiren has to watch him carefully and limit the amount of time he’s allowed to play his guqin and guitar, out of concern he might damage his fingertips.

A-Ying has never played an instrument before and he’s excited on the first day to pick one out of the traditional Chinese instruments available, finally settling on the dizi.

A week into the program Lan Qiren discovers that A-Zhan refused to be separated from A-Ying and insisted on being in the beginner’s classes so he could sit next to him.

 

Lan Qiren comes into the living room from his study one Saturday and sees A-Ying and A-Zhan have found a box of A-Zhan’s mother’s old things and are dressed in her clothes; her cocktail dresses, her long, flowing scarves, her jewelry, her makeup.

“You’re so pretty,” A-Ying tells A-Zhan, brushing his hair back from his face.

“You’re so pretty,” A-Zhan whispers back, his eyes wide and trained on A-Ying’s face.

Lan Qiren hates Fengmian but maybe he wasn’t wrong.

“You’re both pretty,” he says and A-Ying laughs. “But these are A-Huan and A-Zhan’s mother’s things. It would be better to keep them safe until you’re older.”

A-Zhan looks sad and guilty, the way he always looks when he thinks he’s broken a rule. A-Ying sticks his bottom lip out.

“If you want to wear dresses, I will buy you some,” Lan Qiren tells them. “But you have to take these off and put them back into the box nicely.”

So they go to the store and each of the boys picks out a sparkly princess dress to wear, pink for A-Ying, blue for A-Zhan, and matching costume jewelry. They run around the yard later, chasing fireflies, and A-Huan takes pictures of them and sends them to Yanli.

 

When the month is over and Lan Qiren helps A-Ying pack his bag, he gently suggests A-Ying leave the dress and the costume jewelry behind. He doesn’t know how Fengmian and Ziyuan would react to it and all he can think about is how mean Ziyuan used to be.

 

A-Ying becomes obsessed with historical Chinese dramas and tries to get A-Zhan to teach him to speak better Mandarin, though he often gives up halfway through a sentence and switches to English. They practice pretend sword-fighting in the backyard, with foam swords A-Huan finds for them. They decide to grow their hair out and A-Huan gets A-Zhan a bunch of cute hair clips when it starts getting in his eyes.

(Sometimes when A-Zhan is having a really bad day, or finds himself in the middle of a melt-down, Lan Qiren gets A-Ying on the phone. Sometimes A-Ying calls him up and neither of them says anything, just stay on the line listening to each other breathe.)

A-Huan goes to college in the city that A-Ying lives in and A-Ying brags that all of his school friends are jealous of his handsome gege who comes and takes him to dinner. A-Zhan stomps off to his room and refuses to come out until A-Ying sits against the door for an hour singing to him.

Yanli goes to college and sometimes Lan Qiren overhears A-Ying talking about how hard it is now, without her there to diffuse the tension in the house. When he drops him off on Sunday evenings, Lan Qiren always tells him that he is always welcome in their house, and A-Ying says ‘yes, Uncle’ and smiles.

 

When they are thirteen, A-Ying has a growth spurt and is suddenly half a foot taller than A-Zhan, all his baby fat suddenly given way to lanky limbs he wobbles on like a newborn colt, and A-Zhan mopes for the entire summer it takes him to catch up.

 

When they are fourteen, Lan Qiren catches them kissing, A-Zhan perched in A-Ying’s lap. A-Ying supposedly stays in A-Huan’s room now, but Lan Qiren knows that he often, if not always, sneaks into A-Zhan’s room in the middle of the night.

He sits them down and looks at them sternly until A-Ying starts to twitch and then says “I don’t know what kind of sex education you received in school, but just in case it wasn’t comprehensive, I think there are some things you need to know,” and then proceeds to talk about all the things he learned the night before, staying awake and googling about what teenagers need to know about sex; he talks about sexuality, consent, making sure they’re ready, and safe sex.

“And, because I don’t know if you would survive me telling you this,” he adds, “you need to promise me you will read this material about anal sex before attempting it.”

He holds out the material he printed from the internet.

A-Zhan and A-Ying are both bright red by this point.

“Ah,” A-Ying says. “Uncle, we were just playing around. We’re not… we’re not…”

But then A-Zhan catches his eye and they spend a moment staring at each other, engaged in their mysterious non-verbal communication, until A-Ying finally turns an even deeper shade of red and accepts the material.

“I think you two are too young to have sex,” Lan Qiren says, “but I want you to be educated and safe if you’re going to do it. I trust the two of you to make good decisions about this, and to make choices that are not going to harm you.”

Maybe he should try to stop them, make A-Ying go back to his room when he catches him sneaking in the hallway, stop A-Ying from coming over, but he can't help but feel like it would do more harm then good. 

“Thank you, Uncle,” A-Ying says. “I promise when we’re ready we’ll read it. Can we be excused now?”

And when Lan Qiren agrees the boys grab each other’s hands and run out of the room.

Sometimes Lan Qiren really wishes he wasn’t allergic to alcohol.

 

When they are sixteen, A-Zhan wakes him in the middle of the night, tears dripping down his face and he speeds most of the way between the cities, the roads empty and the night black. They find A-Ying sitting at a bus stop, shivering in his old winter coat, his backpack by his feet and A-Zhan wraps his arms around him and refuses to let go long enough for them to get into the car.

Lan Qiren drives them back, glancing up in the rearview mirror to see his boys curled around each other like two halves of the same whole.

 

In the morning, while A-Zhan is showering, A-Ying approaches him with a bright, fake smile, and says ‘Uncle, I won’t be in your hair too long. I’m looking for a job…’ and Lan Qiren can’t stop himself from snapping at him. “A-Ying! You will not be getting a job.”

A-Ying stares at him, down at him now that he’s so tall. “Uncle?” he asks.

“What have I always told you, A-Ying?” Lan Qiren asks.

“Um… no running in the house?” A-Ying says. “Don’t talk with your mouth full? Clean up after yourself? No loud music after nine p.m.? Do your homework before you go play?”

Lan Qiren sighs. “You will always be welcome here,” he says. “Always. Unconditionally.”

“Don’t you even want to know why they kicked me out?” A-Ying asks.

Lan Qiren considers this for a moment. “Have you broken any laws?” he asks, finally.

A-Ying shakes his head.

“Then I cannot imagine that whatever their excuse was it merited their actions. You are a child in their care; they have a responsibility to provide for you.” And to love you, he does not add. “If they refuse to do that, I am happy to do so in their place. You are always welcome here.”

“I don’t want to be a bother,” A-Ying begins. Lan Qiren has never wanted to strangle Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan so much, and that’s saying a lot.

“You are our family, A-Ying,” Lan Qiren says. “You are never a bother.”

A-Ying laughs, even though his eyes are shining. “That can’t be true,” he says.

“Well, no,” Lan Qiren agrees. “You are sometimes a bother. But you are always welcome. You’ll always belong here.”

And he leans forward and wraps his arms around the gangly boy, and then calls A-Zhan’s school to get A-Ying registered there.

 

It takes a whole week for Fengmian to come pounding on Lan Qiren’s door.

“Qiren,” he says. “How are you doing? Listen, I don’t want to bother you, but is Wei Ying here? Ziyuan said he ran off, and I can’t think of anywhere else…”

“He’s here,” Lan Qiren says stonily, his arms in front of his chest. “He told me he was kicked out.”

“Ah, well,” Fengmian says, scratching his head. “You know what a temper Ziyuan has…”

“In the middle of the night,” Lan Qiren says. “In the middle of the winter.”

“Hey, I wasn’t even there!” Fengmian protest. “I was on a business trip!”

“He’s not going home with you,” Lan Qiren says. “He’s not going to live in the house with someone who would do that.”

“Hey, old man,” Fengmian says. “I have legal custody…”

“Do you really think it’s in his best interest for him to live with her?” Lan Qiren asks. “Are you really okay with that? No one in this house would ever hurt him. We love him and we will keep him safe.”

“You know he and your nephew are fucking, right?!” Fengmian demands. “How can you claim to keep him safe while you let them do that?!”

“You really think two boys having sex is more dangerous than kicking a child out of a house in the middle of the night in the middle of the winter?” Lan Qiren asks.

“It’s your fault!” Fengmian shouts at him. “I always knew there was something wrong with you! What, did you teach them to become little faggots?! Did they learn this from you?!”

Lan Qiren slams the door in his face, turns to see the boys, white-faced, standing behind him, holding tightly onto each other’s hands.

Outside Fengmian was screaming about how he was going to call the police.

“Uncle,” A-Ying says, “I should go home with him. It’s just going to be trouble for you. If he does what he’s threatening, calls the police and starts rumors about you…”

“No,” A-Zhan says, tightening his grip until A-Ying winces and carefully pulls away.

“No,” Lan Qiren agrees. “I’m not going to let you go back to a house to live with them.”

“But he’s right!” A-Ying exclaims. “He's my guardian!”

“That doesn’t mean he can force you to live somewhere you don’t want to,” Lan Qiren says. “You’re a child, not a slave. I will call my lawyer. If he decides to pursue a legal route, she will be able to advise us.”

“I’m too much trouble,” A-Ying says.

“No,” A-Zhan says.

“No,” Lan Qiren echoes him. “You are a good child and you have brought happiness and joy to this house and we care deeply about you. You would not be too much trouble if you were a hundred times more troublesome.”

A-Ying makes a sound and Lan Qiren is still trying to figure out what it means when A-Zhan wraps his arms around him and strokes his hair, making shushing noises in his ears.

“Let’s have pizza for dinner,” Lan Qiren says.

“Uncle!” A-Ying cries, his voice garbled by tears. “It’s a school night! You never allow pizzas on school nights!”

“New rule,” Lan Qiren says. “Whenever someone says something homophobic to you, you get to have pizza.”

“Ah, Uncle,” A-Ying says, laughing a little. “People say homophobic things to me every day. I don’t think you want to buy that much pizza.”

“Just today then,” Lan Qiren says, reminding himself to follow up with that later. Does he need to make a few calls to the school? Do they need to switch schools? That horrible hippie school up the road is probably a lot less homophobic.

Lan Qiren hates hippies but he hates homophobes a lot more.

A-Ying does his best to smile. “Just today,” he agrees.

 

When A-Zhan goes to his guqin lesson the next day, having been talked out of skipping it by Lan Qiren, Lan Qiren takes A-Ying to the small storage closet and roots around until he finds the duffel bag A-Ying had been forced to leave behind when he went to live with Jiangs.

“What is it?” A-Ying asks when Lan Qiren hands it to him.

Lan Qiren tells him. “It’s stuff your parents bought for you,” he says. “I thought you probably wouldn’t have very much.”

A-Ying looks down at the bag in his hands, then drops it so he can wipe his eyes with the back of a hand.

“Uncle Jiang saved some stuff for me when he dealt with my parents’ stuff,” A-Ying tells him. “But A-Cheng told me Aunt Yu threw away most of my stuff when she kicked me out and he saved what he could but it wasn’t much.”

He throws his arms around Lan Qiren. “I can’t believe you kept it for this long,” he says.

Lan Qiren pats his back awkwardly.

 

Jiang Fengmian drops the threats after Lan Qiren and his lawyers have a long talk, but he forbids his children from talking to A-Ying. Yanli does anyway, not surprisingly, though she admits to A-Ying that A-Cheng feels like A-Ying betrayed him.

“It’s okay,” A-Ying says when A-Zhan protests on his behalf. “It can’t be easy being the only kid left in the house.”

Yanli came to visit from university, bringing the box of stuff A-Cheng had rescued for A-Ying. “He tried to get the things that were most important to you,” she says. “I’m sorry there’s not more.”

A-Ying wraps his arms around her and clings to her when she has to leave. “I’ll always be your sister,” she tells him, hugging him back. “No matter what. And A-Cheng will come around, I promise.”

 

A-Cheng does come around by the time it’s A-Ying’s birthday and he lies to his parents and says he’s going to a Halloween party and instead makes the four-hour drive just so he can see A-Ying for a few hours before he has to leave so he can make curfew.

A-Ying pretends not to cry when he shows up with a scowl and an enormous cake, and A-Zhan does his best to get along with him even though A-Cheng demonstrates his love for A-Ying by insulting him and play-fighting with him and A-Zhan finds this offensive and appalling.

And Lan Qiren may never forgive himself for allowing Jiang Fengmian to take A-Ying away in the first place, but he's glad A-Ying has siblings that love him, no matter how bad they are at showing it.

 

Too soon, the boys are graduating, impossibly tall and handsome in their graduation robes, A-Ying grinning so wide he looks like his face might split open and A-Zhan faintingly smiling.

And then the house is empty. The boys move away for college and Lan Qiren is left with the few tea-cups that survived A-Ying, a few family portraits hanging on the wall, some ancient children’s drawings still attached to the refrigerator, and once a week phone calls.

He’d thought, when he’d tried to prepare himself for the day he dropped the boys off at college, that he might rebuild his orchid collection, or maybe start going to flea markets again, looking for rare old books.

And he buys an orchid or two, spends a few Saturdays among the musky smell and dust of flea markets, but it’s boring when compared to family dinners with the boys, A-Zhan wrinkling his nose at the amount of chili oil A-Ying poured on everything, A-Zhan trying to trick A-Ying into eating vegetables. It’s boring when he thinks about them running through the house, A-Ying laughing and A-Zhan scolding him, when he remembers them as children, playing for hours with empty boxes and legos, dancing in their princess dresses at twilight.

He thinks of them when he hears children playing as he walks past the playgrounds, taking care not to stop and watch them for too long because he doesn’t want anyone to think he’s a creep, when he sees the food A-Ying always used to try to convince him to buy in the grocery store, when he sees a flyer for an organization that provides support for LGBT+ youth.

“Hi,” he says, when a cheery young voice answers the number, “I was wondering if you had any need for volunteers?”

 

Later, much later, he’ll hold A-Yuan in his arms and will not succeed in keeping himself from crying.

“I only hope we can be good parents to him,” A-Ying will say, brushing the tips of his fingers over the cheeks of the drowsy toddler. “I hope we can be as good as you were, uncle.”

 

Later he’ll step forward and speak awkwardly into a microphone, looking up at his beautiful boys, A-Zhan and A-Ying in their wedding suits, A-Huan smiling just as proudly from the family table.

“The best things that ever happened to me,” he’ll say, “were brought to my doorstep in the middle of the night by women with perms.”