Shang Qinghua was a subdued man. Not in the traditional sense, where he was quiet and soft-spoken, or even-tempered and careful. He was subdued in the depths of him, where the essence of a person was. He was subdued the way a person was in the morning, when the sun was just rising, and they would sit at their kitchen table as the sun turned the gray sky blue. He was subdued in the way the night sounded when snow was on the ground and the earth was quiet.
He found solace in the trees and in the wind, in the way it was quiet but not silent. He was one with the rain, when it pelted against the window and the thunder rumbled in the distance. He felt alive there, when he felt hung between life and when life stopped. He did not think that the companion of life was death. The companion of life was the precipice in which life hung, just shy of the sound of laughter and voices and cars honking on the street. That was life, and it was wonderful, and it was bursting. But Shang Qinghua was not there. He was in the fading sound of cars in the distance, and the heaving sigh someone took when they finally stopped weeping. Shang Qinghua was a house when its family wasn’t home.
His work showed his heart. He wrote, sometimes, when he had the time. And that was the true manifestation of him. But it was hard to make a living that way, and while he was able to garner some cash on the side from it when he was lucky, he found a job that at least allowed him some solace, and it paid relatively well. He cleaned houses—houses for the wealthy, who were never around much, or when they were, they were too small to fill all of the space. Sometimes he cleaned houses that were rarely ever lived in at all. Those houses were the ones he preferred, for there was no farce about what the house’s purpose was. It was a holding place, a palm to rest in when the time came to settle back into a comfortable sofa.
Shang Qinghua’s most recent assignment was a house just like that. It was in the country, several miles from the nearest town, but well known as if it was in the center of a city. It was old and large and empty. The most recent owners had passed away, after they’d lived away from it for many long years. Shang Qinghua knew it would take a lot of work, and he was grateful that the new owners seemed to understand this and had contracted him early enough for him to finish before they moved in. They wanted to be there in the Winter, and it was already well into Autumn now.
He was looking forward to the quiet it would bring. To be in the woods, on an expansive property where it’d be just him, picking up the pieces of another person’s well-lived life sounded like a dream. It’d be peaceful and tranquil and Shang Qinghua would get to sing when he wanted, and hum when he wanted, and speak to himself out loud about the kinds of things he’d like to write about when he got to sit down and rest. He was ready for it.
When he accepted the job, he had known that it was short-notice and that he’d need to start almost right away. The house was a few hours away from where he lived, so he packed a few bags, with everything he needed for the next month and a half, and then was off to the estate. He’d been told it was large and that’s what he had prepared for. He was alright with that. It seemed quite romantic really. If anything, the only thing that he regretted about it all was that he had to enjoy it alone. He thought that there must be someone out in the world who would appreciate it in the way he did. Since he had not met them yet, he settled with the knowledge that he’d be able to write it very vividly, and they could at least enjoy the descriptions, the memories he made and turned into stories.
“I have the soul of a rose; the dew of budding flowers”
Delmira Agustini, ‘The Poet and the Illusion’
Shang Qinghua did not have a car, so he had taken a taxi up the long, winding driveway through the woods. Eventually, the trees had turned more purposeful, as if planted in a line. There was a small wooden marker that had the initials of the original owners, signifying the start to the estate. The walk from the driveway to the gate was long, for the house was deep in the woods, but the distance from the house to the main gate wasn’t too large. It was enough to make it obvious how extravagant the rest of the property would be, but it wasn’t tiring in its length.
He did not immediately go inside. He walked around the front of the house and looked at the pillars that lined the large front porch. He walked along the cobblestone and found that he very much liked the sound of it beneath his shoes. He moved towards the front door and placed his key in the keyhole before he pushed the door open.
Breathing in once, he immediately coughed. His head ached, so he pinched his nose and stepped inside. The house was incredibly dusty. He thought there might have been a broken window somewhere as well, given the way it smelled not only as if the doors had been sealed for a century, but also how it smelled a bit damp. He looked around and set his bags on the floor anyway.
There were so many windows. It was beautiful, and he imagined it’d be even more beautiful clean and when the sun was shining. It was quite dark though, from the gray clouds and overcast sky. It was also nearing dusk after the travel time it took to get there.
Shang Qinghua walked the first floor of the house, more and more impressed with every room he entered. Though the longer he spent in the house, the more he was convinced that a window was open somewhere, for he kept feeling a draft, and he kept hearing the sound of wind. He searched the windows whenever he entered a room, but knew that it might take time, considering the sheer amount of windows the house had.
The first floor was mainly made up of the foyer, which housed the large staircase. The kitchen and dining room were tucked back to the right of the staircase, and to the left of it was a sitting room. On the immediate right when entering the house, there was a small library. Whoever had lived there before had seemed to be using it as an office.
Those who had owned it before left a significant amount of furniture, but desks and tables were empty, and Shang Qinghua assumed there had been a mild estate sale. It made sense though, for the new owners, a young, affluent couple, were going to want to fill the house with their own things, and with their own life, and Shang Qinghua was glad to help purge it so they could make it their own.
He made his way up the stairs next. There were two sides when you reached the top, and it wrapped around the house. Each room was bright and lightly colored. Shang Qinghua had almost expected it to be darker, but each room seemed lighter than the last. They did not look lived in, however, and Shang Qinghua found that he hoped the couple wouldn’t be there alone. It seemed almost a pity to have so much space and so little to fill it.
Shang Qinghua eventually found a room that looked like the perfect place for him to stay in. Something about it seemed like it was suited just for him. It was in the corner of the house, and out one of the windows, he could see the small lake that the property had on the side.
He cleaned that room first. He brought his things up to it and began to shake down the fabrics with the most dust. He stripped the bed and put his own sheets on it. When he was finished wiping down the furniture, and was able to have it smelling fresh and clean, he felt much better about staying inside. He felt much better about the entire house.
It was dark by the time he was finished, and he felt quite tired. And his head had never really stopped aching since he’d first caught a whiff of the musty air. He settled into his sheets and pulled his laptop out and rested it on his legs. He browsed the internet for a while, and watched some TV before he thought maybe he’d like to write something. But when he settled in a document to write, nothing came to him. In fact, he was quite anxious to get to the house again, in the daytime, when he could really explore and he could really start finding things to be inspired about.
When he slept, he dreamed. He dreamed of the house, and he dreamed of the people who might have lived there. He dreamed of being one of those people, and he dreamed of a man with long dark hair, and a pale but chiseled face. Shang Qinghua found himself following that man, walking through the rooms of the house after him, out of the doors and onto the grassy property, and all the way out to the lake. Just as he’d reached him, he woke.
For years I could not accept
The place I was in.
I felt I should be somewhere else
Czeslaw Milosz, "New and Collected Poems”
Shang Qinghua thought of that man over and over, throughout the entire day. As he explored and as he cleaned, and as he tidied. He thought of him and his cold expression. He thought of how all the others he’d dreamed of had seemed happy and had company, but this man had been alone. He seemed lonely, too. Not just alone. Shang Qinghua had never considered himself lonely until he saw that man. He was a bit of a reflection of himself, Shang Qinghua realized. Maybe he’d really been dreaming of himself, and being in this place had drudged up a well-quashed feeling.
He tried to think of it no more.
The cleaning would take a long time. It would take the exact amount of time Shang Qinghua had until the owners arrived. No matter what Shang Qinghua did, it felt like it was just as messy as he’d left it. He’d pick up a stray towel and find it back where he’d left it as soon as he set it down. He’d swipe the dust away off of a shelf, and when he turned back, it was like he’d disrupted the dust in the air and it decided to settle back down.
After a while, it almost started to feel like a prank. Like someone was following in his shadow and moving what he placed, undoing everything he’d done. Shang Qinghua couldn’t stop thinking of that man. He ached for him.
Shang Qinghua couldn’t help but mutter to himself when he realized it.
“Ridiculous,” he said to himself. “You’re just getting caught up in the fact that you’re here all alone And while it’s somewhat nice, it is a little bit scary and a little bit lonely, so you’re just—just thinking of—romantic? Is that the word?—just thinking of romantic fantasies. You’ll get used to it.”
He did not get used to it. And with every passing moment, and as the sun started to dip in the sky again, Shang Qinghua found himself feeling a bit desperate. He was going to have to make it a habit to start calling his friends or his family back home if he was going to stay sane. He never was one to socialize too much, but that had not meant he was ready to be desolate.
When he settled back into his bed for the night, he watched happy shows, where people were content and they laughed and things turned out alright in the end of every episode. And even if things were bittersweet, he knew it’d be ok at the end of all things. Shang Qinghua liked to watch things like that, just like he liked to watch it for the people in his life, too.
Something about this place made him want it for himself. It was an unfamiliar feeling. He’d never really thought about it too hard before. He supposed being completely alone, with little distraction, would perhaps prompt a person to think of their loneness, of their individuality in the world. It just so happened that his loneness back in the city had never seemed as desolate as it did now, in a similarly desolate place.
Shang Qinghua dreamed of the man again. Before, he’d dreamed of him amongst others, but this time, it was just him. And he was beautiful—more beautiful than anyone Shang Qinghua had ever seen. He beckoned him. He did so without words and without gesture, but somehow Shang Qinghua knew that he was saying follow me and Shang Qinghua wanted to follow.
The house seemed to stay messy as the days passed. It was beginning to get frustrating. Shang Qinghua made such little progress that he was starting to lose hope in the projected finish date for the estate. He also had to work on some of the landscaping as well, and he wondered if he’d have to reach out to the new owners and let them know that the actual landscapers they were hiring might have to come a bit early.
Shang Qinghua cleaned and the dust resettled, and it was like all he could really do was tidy. It was better than nothing he supposed, and he found that maybe that was the sort of thing that came with time, and that soon the dust would sense the new life in the house and have to make room for him.
As the days dragged on, he began to see shadows out of the corner of his eye, all in an increasingly familiar shape. When Shang Qinghua stared down at an old keepsake from the previous owners, it felt like someone was looking at it over his shoulder. It was both terrifying and comforting. He thought maybe it’d be more comforting if he knew who it was.
Eventually, Shang Qinghua thought that there was nothing to lose by saying something. If he was truly alone, no one would hear his silly assumptions. If he was not alone, then he’d be right.
As he reached out to tidy the books in the library, Shang Qinghua felt like someone was standing behind him, watching him rearrange the titles. Shang Qinghua swallowed and opened his mouth.
“I know you’re there.”
He heard nothing.
“What’s your name?” He asked, voice softer.
It was quiet behind him.
“My name is Shang Qinghua,” he said. “I’d very much like to know yours.”
It was silent for a few moments longer. “Mobei Jun.”
Shang Qinghua jumped and whirled around.
The man was standing there—the one from his dreams. He was tall, just as tall as he was in Shang Qinghua’s dreams. He wore dark clothes and it was hard to decipher what exactly it was he was wearing.
Shang Qinghua’s mouth parted in surprise. “Mobei Jun,” he repeated.
Mobei Jun tilted his head slightly. “Yes.”
“I could… feel you. Around me.”
Mobei Jun’s jaw twitched.
“Who are you?”
“The son of the original owner.”
Shang Qinghua blinked a few times. He felt a headache coming on again. He pressed a hand to his forehead. “Oh… Um…” He paused. “You’ve been following me around.”
Mobei Jun glanced towards the bookshelf. “Yes.”
Shang Qinghua felt sad for some reason.
Mobei Jun looked back at him and also said nothing.
Shang Qinghua’s heart pounded in his chest. “Since you’re a—ghost, I guess—I’m not going to feel weird saying this.” He swallowed. “I’ve been dreaming of you.”
Mobei Jun looked somewhat surprised. “Have you?”
Shang Qinghua nodded. “Yes. So… I feel like I know you a bit already.”
Mobei Jun moved a bit closer and his nearness made Shang Qinghua’s heart stutter. The ache for him he had felt before increased tenfold.
“Feel free to… follow me. While I clean.” Shang Qinghua had to tilt his head back to look up at him.
“I already have been.”
Shang Qinghua’s lips twitched. “Have you been trying to scare me away?”
“Only at first,” Mobei Jun said.
Shang Qinghua looked up at him, and noted his muted, pale pallor. He looked real though, like he could reach out and touch him. He did not, but he found that he wanted to, to see if his hand would connect with something solid. He wanted Mobei Jun to follow him around and keep him company. He leaned in closer and Mobei Jun looked almost afraid. Shang Qinghua found that to be the most charming thing he’d ever seen—a ghost, frightened by a person.
Mobei Jun took a small step back. “You are not afraid of me.”
Shang Qinghua shook his head. He took a tiny step forward, smaller than the step that Mobei Jun had taken away. “I am… delighted by you.”
Mobei Jun’s eyebrows twitched inward. He did not seem to know what to say.
“When was the last time you spoke to someone?”
“I do not know,” Mobei Jun said. “People do not stay here.”
“Because of you?”
“Because of me.”
Shang Qinghua began to feel breathless. “Oh, you’re the reason I would stay.”
Mobei Jun’s brows twitched again, heavier, more confused.
Shang Qinghua was so close that even a twitch would have his chest brushing against Mobei Jun’s. He looked up at him and took in every inch of him. He looked just as he did in the dreams, but they hadn’t done Mobei Jun justice. He was a sight to behold with his pale skin and dark eyes and long sweeping hair. He looked ethereal; regal and cold and lonesome. He wondered what he looked like to Mobei Jun.
“I haven’t spoken even to those who have been here.”
Shang Qinghua’s lips parted as he thought of words to say in response. Were there any, for being the first person to speak to someone in what could be hundreds of years?
“It does not take much effort to turn people away.” Mobei Jun was looking at his face, a bit dazed now, like it was catching up to him that he was speaking to someone.
“If you would like me gone,” Shang Qinghua began in a whisper, “it’ll take much more than what you’ve been trying so far.”
“I do not want you to go.”
Shang Qinghua forgot that he would have to, in a few weeks. He wasn’t thinking about that. He was thinking about the man in front of him, with the dark gaze and the grim line of his mouth. Shang Qinghua wanted to press his finger there, watch it move pliantly under his hands.
“I’ve never wanted anyone to stay before,” Mobei Jun continued.
“I’ve never wanted to stay in one place so bad,” Shang Qinghua countered.
Mobei Jun’s face twitched again, but it was quick and fleeting, so Shang Qinghua did not have the time to decipher it.
“You’ve been following me?” Shang Qinghua verified. “As I’ve cleaned?”
Mobei Jun nodded.
Shang Qinghua smiled, feeling breathless. “Will you stay visible for me?”
Mobei Jun’s gaze wandered, scanning the length of him. “You want that?”
Shang Qinghua nodded. He leaned forward. “Yes.”
Mobei Jun’s expression cracked for a moment, but it passed quickly. “Alright.”
Shang Qinghua was delighted. He was relieved. He was many things.
“I see boats moving on the sea.
Their sails, like wings of what I see,
Bring me a vague inner desire to be
Who I was without knowing what it was.
So all recalls my home self, and, because
It recalls that, what I am aches in me.”
Mobei Jun wasn’t always visible. Shang Qinghua knew when he was there, but there were times that he’d not show himself. Shang Qinghua understood. It must have been odd to be seen, after so long. In fact, he felt that somehow, he understood that feeling very well. Maybe not to the same degree as Mobei Jun, but he had a clue. He wanted to look at Mobei Jun as much as he wanted to be seen by him.
Shang Qinghua moved outside a few days after he’d seen Mobei Jun for the first time. It still felt like he wasn’t able to clean, and it was starting to frustrate him. Moving onto the landscape for a change in scenery would be better. There was no dust outside. And being outside felt more like someone was accompanying him rather than haunting him.
When he was outside, he kept it to weeding and sweeping away the leaves. He spoke sometimes, things that Mobei Jun didn’t have to reply to. But occasionally he’d try to say something that might initiate a conversation. Mobei Jun often didn’t respond, but something about the way the air shifted made Shang Qinghua think that he was leaning closer, or thinking of a response, as if responding in his head.
“What did this place look like before?” Shang Qinghua asked. “Before you died.”
“As it does now,” he said, surprising Shang Qinghua with the sound of his voice. “Just fresher—more color.”
Shang Qinghua turned to where he’d heard his voice. Mobei Jun was standing behind him. It was easier to see him in the sunlight, somehow. Also more difficult, in an odd way. In the house, it was dark and dim. Out in the sun, he seemed more transparent. “Truthfully, I feel that this is too much work for one person.”
Mobei Jun nodded and glanced around. “It took many to upkeep it after it was built.”
Shang Qinghua found that he’d like to abandon all duty and just speak to this person. “I suppose that’s why I’m being paid so prettily.”
Mobei Jun tilted his head somewhat.
Shang Qinghua felt something in his chest squeeze. His head ached again, though there was no must outside. However, he had just swept away a large pile of wet leaves, and the smell of earth was wafting up, somehow like death and life together. “What?” He asked, when he noted Mobei Jun’s confused face.
“I get paid to clean houses,” Shang Qinghua said. He looked down at the pile of leaves. “That’s my job.”
“Others are coming, then,” he concluded.
Shang Qinghua nodded and looked up at him. “Yes… Is that bad?” He paused. “Why have you been scaring people away?”
“I do not want them here,” he said simply. “This is my home.”
Shang Qinghua’s heart spasmed a bit. He felt sad. “Yes. It is.”
Mobei Jun looked at his face carefully.
“And me?” Shang Qinghua asked weakly. “Will you scare me away?”
Mobei Jun’s brow furrowed. “I do not know. Maybe. Not for now. For now it’s alright.”
Shang Qinghua smiled. His fingers twitched with the urge to reach out and see if he could touch him—could feel him. It was an odd urge, intense and fast, as though he’d known Mobei Jun a long time. “Now’s alright?” He repeated, for he didn’t know what else to say.
Mobei Jun nodded. “Yes.”
Shang Qinghua tipped forward again. Mobei Jun disappeared.
Shang Qinghua learned that sometimes his openness to Mobei Jun’s existence and his presence overwhelmed him. He’d often disappear after he’d speak to Shang Qinghua and wouldn’t show himself again for hours. He still lingered, and he followed Shang Qinghua everywhere, but he wouldn’t engage. Shang Qinghua knew that it was because he hadn’t done this for so long, and he hadn’t encountered someone who wasn’t afraid of him for a long while. Many lifetimes, in fact.
Despite the fact that Shang Qinghua had finally met him, and had spent time with him over the past several days, Shang Qinghua still dreamt of him. Every night when he shut his eyes, and he knew that Mobei Jun was near, in the room with him, he saw Mobei Jun’s face. When he drifted to sleep, he saw Mobei Jun’s face. When he dreamed, it was Mobei Jun’s face. He dreamed of being nearer, being closer. He dreamed of Mobei Jun’s face contorting into something pained and desperate, and he dreamed of his own desperate response. He dreamed of many things. All were of him.
When he woke after being in the house for two weeks, the sky was gray. It was a dark gray, so dark that he thought perhaps he’d woken in the early dredges of dawn. But when he checked the clock on the wall, it said it was already nine. Shang Qinghua blinked at the wall for a few moments as he tried to rouse. He looked towards the window, at the overcast sky, and noticed the sound of rain gently pelting against the window.
“It will storm,” a voice said.
Shang Qinghua looked over to the other side of the room. Mobei Jun was standing on the other end of the room. Something seized in Shang Qinghua’s chest. He felt like the last time he saw him, something bad had happened. But then he remembered his dream. It was a dream that depicted Mobei Jun’s death. It left Shang Qinghua feeling cold, like the leaves he’d swept away days prior. “It will?” He asked.
Mobei Jun nodded. He moved closer. “Not yet. But soon. The sky is dark.”
“That’s alright. I’d wager this house as withstood many storms.”
“It has. But I am already dead. You must be careful. Stay inside.”
Shang Qinghua smiled a little and turned onto his side to look at him better. He propped his head up on his arm and gazed at him. “I’ll be careful,” he said reassuringly. Thunder rumbled in the distance. “It’s just a storm.”
Mobei Jun took another step forward, seemingly stopping himself before he took more. “Qinghua,” he said, “this place is a curse. You must be careful.”
Shang Qinghua could only really focus on the sound of his name coming from Mobei Jun’s lips. “How could it be a curse?” Shang Qinghua asked, beckoning Mobei Jun closer with his tone.
Mobei Jun followed, and stepped closer. He was only a few feet from the bed now. The thunder rumbled again, a bit louder, as if it were coming closer.
“How could it be a curse when it brought me you?”
Mobei Jun’s face contorted. He flickered, as if wanting to leave and forcing himself to stay. He knelt beside the bed. “You cannot die here.”
Shang Qinghua frowned and shifted as he looked closer at him.
“Those who die here become trapped. They cannot leave.”
Shang Qinghua glanced around. “Are there others?”
“No one,” Mobei Jun said.
Shang Qinghua’s shoulders drooped. Mobei Jun really had been alone. He reached out slightly on the bed, fingers grabbing onto the blanket.
Mobei Jun looked down at his hand, pained, as though he wanted to grab it. He looked back up at him. “Please don’t look at me like that. I do not wish to see you unhappy.”
Shang Qinghua shifted closer to him again. Mobei Jun did not disappear this time. Shang Qinghua’s hand inched closer to him on the bed. “Maybe I can take today off,” he whispered. “I can’t do anything outside, and I’ve tidied just about as much as I can inside of the house. I just need to mop and and sweep and dust… That way you can… make sure I’m safe.”
Mobei Jun’s eyes flickered as he looked at every part of Shang Qinghua’s face. He nodded, as if he really did want that.
“Why do you fear a storm?” Shang Qinghua asked lowly, after it’d been quiet for several long moments. “Many have stayed here before and nothing has hurt them.”
"They are not as important as you,” Mobei Jun said, as if it was nothing more than a mere fact. “So you must be more careful.”
Shang Qinghua felt like his body hurt. “Oh, Mobei,” he said softly.
Mobei Jun’s face twitched, as though trying not to react.
“It’s only been a short time, but you are precious to me,” he murmured.
Mobei Jun shut his eyes. He rested his head on the bed and hid his face. Shang Qinghua could only see his hair, as it cascaded over his face and fell down his back like a waterfall. “Don’t say that to me.”
Shang Qinghua’s own face scrunched up. “Why not?” He whispered. “When it’s true?”
“Because you are precious. And you must treat yourself as such.”
Shang Qinghua rolled onto his back, if only to stop himself from collapsing into Mobei Jun’s arms. He was very afraid of falling through him, of finding out that he’d never be able to touch him, to feel the skin of his cheek beneath his palm. Shang Qinghua stared at the embellished ceiling and wanted. He wanted so acutely that it hurt.
When Shang Qinghua looked back, Mobei Jun was gone. And Shang Qinghua could tell that he’d left the room. He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. How was he meant to go home, after this? Could he? He’d have to come back, he’d have to see Mobei Jun again. He couldn’t bear it.
Shang Qinghua had ached for this and he had not known it. If Shang Qinghua was the morning sun, and dew on the grass, Mobei Jun was the sunset, the fireflies in the twilight. How could the sun rise every morning if it did not set the night before? Shang Qinghua needed it—needed him. He hadn’t known it until now, for how could one know what they did not know? But he knew now, and he could not forget it. He would never forget it. And he would ache for it, until the moment he did die.
Once the storm overtook the house, Shang Qinghua decided to get up. It was overhead now, and the windows rattled gently when the thunder rumbled the foundations. It boomed one moment and caressed the next, overwhelming in its intensity and overwhelming in its gentleness.
Shang Qinghua wandered the house, looking for Mobei Jun. He could not find him. It left him feeling a bit lost and a bit desperate. He hadn’t been alone for a single moment in days, and he’d gotten painfully used to it. To have it ripped away, to be completely alone, made him ache something terrible.
Eventually Shang Qinghua realized he was outside. That made him feel worse—to know he’d rather be outside, in the storm he was so frightened of, instead of inside with Shang Qinghua.
Shang Qinghua felt bereft, and his heart pounded, and his head was aching again, harder than ever before, and he moved to the front door. He opened it, and the rain was pouring onto the stone porch, floods of it cascading down from the roof. He swallowed and stepped onto the porch.
“Mobei,” he said weakly. He wasn’t sure how his hearing worked—if he’d hear Shang Qinghua the way a person would. “Mobei, please come back. If you don’t, I’ll go looking for you.” He stopped, when his throat weakened. He swallowed. “I’ll go looking for you in the storm.”
Mobei Jun appeared in a rush, right in front of Shang Qinghua, looking truly like a ghost for the first time since Shang Qinghua met him. Shang Qinghua looked up at him, relieved. “Go back inside,” Mobei Jun hissed. His hands twitched, like he was refraining himself from dragging Shang Qinghua himself.
“Only if you come with me,” Shang Qinghua said. It was hard to hear himself over the wind and rain. “If you stay out here, I’m staying out here.”
Mobei Jun’s face looked both furious and sad. Lightning struck nearby, and it lit up his face wondrously. Shang Qinghua once again felt pulled in, and he stepped closer. “Qinghua,” he said, choked.
Shang Qinghua swallowed. “Yes?”
“Go back inside.” His voice was strained.
“Come with me,” Shang Qinghua pleaded. “Stay with me. I can’t bear to be alone.”
Mobei Jun shut his eyes.
“I’ll follow you out,” Shang Qinghua said. “And I won’t stop, and you’ll have to keep me here yourself, and then you’ll stay with me.”
Mobei Jun looked pained again.
“Please,” Shang Qinghua whispered. “Please, please.”
Mobei Jun walked around him and went into the house. Shang Qinghua followed him with his gaze. He took a few steps in and then turned around to look at Shang Qinghua. “Come inside, Qinghua.”
Shang Qinghua practically stumbled after him. He slammed the door shut behind him and looked up at Mobei Jun. “Thank you.”
Mobei Jun turned away from him.
“Do you not want to be here with me?” Shang Qinghua asked. The words hurt, coming out.
Mobei Jun was quiet for a moment. He still did not look at him. “It’s the only thing that I want.”
Shang Qinghua felt his throat tighten. “Then be with me.”
“It’s the only thing I’ve wanted in a long time,” he went on, as if Shang Qinghua hadn’t spoken.
“Then be here with me,” Shang Qinghua breathed. He walked up to him and stood closer than he ever had. He could see every fiber of Mobei Jun’s sweater. His hair was black as night on his chest, almost blue, and his face was warm in the dim lighting of the house. It seemed to grow even darker, and the storm grew louder, both outside of the house and inside of the house.
Mobei Jun looked down at him, and tilted his head, so he was tipping closer, too. “I feel like I’ve been waiting for you for so long.”
Shang Qinghua succumbed to the tears. They filled his eyes. “I’ve been waiting for you, too. I’m sorry you waited so much longer.”
“I had to,” he said. “I had to wait. I was born too early.”
“Or I was born too late.”
Mobei Jun’s lips twitched. “I had to wait for you.”
“I’d wait for you just as long,” Shang Qinghua said quickly, as if he was running out of time to say it. “I’d wait even longer.”
“I do not want you to get hurt.” Mobei Jun took a breath. “I do not want you to die.” He seemed as though he wanted to say more, but thought better of it.
Shang Qinghua did not say that if he died here, he could be with Mobei Jun forever. He thought that Mobei Jun would not appreciate that. “Tell me about the house,” he said instead. “Show me where you grew up and what you did, and tell me about its secrets. Tell me about everything.”
Mobei Jun swallowed and looked at him a moment longer before looking away. His gaze moved to the staircase. “It’s the same as it was when I was young,” he said. “I have…not let people change it.”
Shang Qinghua smiled as he looked at the house. “Yeah?”
“Is the furniture the same?”
“Most of it,” Mobei Jun murmured.
He led him through the house, speaking only when necessary. He spoke of what was the same and what was different. He pointed out divots in the wall from the moments he’d moved a chair too hard to frighten someone and it dented the wall. Shang Qinghua was delighted. And he was even more delighted that Mobei Jun had never once tried to frighten him like that, even in the beginning.
Mobei Jun showed him where he stayed as a child, and the room he’d moved to when he was a teenager. He showed him the kitchens, and the small cabinets where children would hide when he’d scare them, too. He took him to a spot in the house, in the room Shang Qinghua was staying in, and stood by the window.
“This is where I stayed when my uncle moved in,” he said. His voice was dark. “I didn’t want to move here at first, but I liked it after a while. It’s a bit smaller, but it has two windows. I liked that. I liked the window seat.” He looked towards the other window, where there was a space to sit and overlook the property.
“It’s beautiful,” Shang Qinghua agreed. “I’d like it, too. I do, in fact. It’s why I chose this room.” He paused. “Maybe it wasn’t the only reason I chose this room.”
Mobei Jun looked at him, and his face contorted for a moment before he relaxed again. He looked towards the piano. “I also liked it for the piano. I always wanted to play it, and was never allowed.”
Shang Qinghua moved over to it. He sat down on the bench and ran his hands over the keys. They were dusty, just like everything else in the house, and he pressed a single note. It rang out, somewhat out of tune, but still beautiful.
Mobei Jun hovered next to him. “I taught myself a few pieces. I managed to get ahold of a few piano books and taught myself how to read and play what I liked.”
Shang Qinghua looked up at him, feeling awed. “You’re wonderful.”
Mobei Jun’s lips twitched, but he looked a little sad.
“Play for me.” It sounded like a beg.
Mobei Jun sat next to him, close, but carefully not touching. He pressed a few notes, and again, it rang out of tune, but it was lovely and Shang Qinghua recognized it at once as Clair De Lune. Shang Qinghua watched his fingers and felt like he’d never be able to leave. Maybe this place was a curse. But he wanted to be cursed.
Shang Qinghua leaned a bit towards him, but the thunder cracked loud, and the dim lighting from the lamp went out, and the room was bathed in darkness. He looked up at Mobei Jun, who had stopped playing. Shang Qinghua leaned closer. “Mobei,” he whispered.
“Do you see why you must be careful?” Mobei Jun asked, heavy laden.
Shang Qinghua shook his head slowly. “No. I see why I have to take every risk I must to be with you.”
Mobei Jun sucked in a breath and looked at him. “I can’t bear to see you hurt. This place—” He glanced around. “—it’s not good. You have to be careful.”
“What’s so dangerous?” Shang Qinghua whispered, leaning in closer. “Tell me what’s dangerous.”
“Me,” he breathed. “I’m dangerous.”
“How so?” Shang Qinghua asked. He pushed himself up to level their faces. “Will you hurt me?”
“No, never,” he said sharply. “I—”
“How are you dangerous?” Shang Qinghua said through barely moving lips. He tipped closer, until their clothes were about to touch. Their faces were growing closer as well. “Or is it that this is dangerous? You and me. Is it dangerous for me to want you? Is it dangerous for you to want me?”
“Yes,” he said, sounding as though he hadn’t taken a full breath in minutes.
“Dangerous because it'll hurt? Will it hurt to have me, Mobei?”
“No,” Mobei Jun said. “It would hurt not to have you. And I am afraid of what I will do if I start to want you so much I don’t let you go.”
Shang Qinghua felt light headed. He was going to fall into him. His lips parted as he leaned in. “Let’s find out,” he breathed. “Let’s find out what you’ll do. Let’s find out what I’ll do.”
Mobei Jun’s hands were still on the keys. He pulled away.
Shang Qinghua practically fell onto the bench with the swiftness. It hurt. It made him feel like he’d been stabbed in the chest. He looked up at Mobei Jun, who was standing a few feet away, staring down at him as if he’d just been tortured.
Shang Qinghua swallowed and righted himself. “You tell me I should be afraid of you, but it seems more like it’s you who is afraid of me.”
Mobei Jun shook his head. “Thats not it.”
Shang Qinghua stood up, legs shaky. He went over to him again, for he was not afraid. In fact, he’d never felt more safe, more comfortable. “Then let me.”
“Let you what?” He asked, voice hoarse.
Mobei Jun’s eyes closed. He shook his head, not like he was saying no, but that he couldn’t fathom what Shang Qinghua was saying. “What if you can’t?”
“Then there really is nothing to be afraid of, is there?” That wasn’t true. Shang Qinghua was terrified of not being able to touch him. “Let me try. Please.”
Mobei Jun opened his eyes and looked down at him. In the new darkness, his face was even paler, his eyes even darker. He did not move away.
Shang Qinghua moved closer. He reached up a hand and let it hover between them. He would not touch his skin first. For if he tried and couldn’t, that would be a greater blow to his heart. So he reached towards Mobei Jun’s chest, where his warm, wool sweater lay, and rested his hand against his chest.
Mobei Jun was solid beneath him. Shang Qinghua let out a puff of breath, but it was drowned out by the shaky exhale Mobei Jun made.
“Can you feel it?” Shang Qinghua asked in a whisper, staring at his hand on Mobei Jun’s chest. “Can you feel me?”
“Yes,” he said, sounding devastated. “Yes, I can feel you.”
Shang Qinghua looked up at him and took in his pained face. “You haven’t touched anyone in so long.”
Mobei Jun shook his head. “Not since—”
Shang Qinghua’s mouth parted, if only to get more oxygen to his brain. He felt faint. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d touched anyone either. He dragged his hand up and across Mobei Jun’s collar. He trailed his hand up his throat and then held Mobei Jun’s face. Mobei Jun’s eyes shut and he tilted into it.
“Qinghua,” he breathed.
“Mobei,” Shang Qinghua whispered back. “Mobei, look at me.”
Mobei Jun opened his eyes again.
Shang Qinghua brushed his thumb along his cheek. “Don’t let me go.”
“It was autumn, the springtime of death. Rain spattered the rotting leaves, and a wild wind wailed. Death was singing in the shower. Death was happy to be alive.”
Tom Robbins, ‘Still Life with Woodpecker’
Mobei Jun did not touch Shang Qinghua back for hours. Shang Qinghua had let go of him after a few minutes and didn’t touch him again, afraid that Mobei Jun would be overwhelmed and disappear again. So they’d stayed an arm’s length away, while Shang Qinghua carefully wandered the house, navigating through the dark as the thunder continued to rumble.
He was followed closely, Mobei Jun hovering like he’d catch him if he fell. Despite this, he still said nothing, and Shang Qinghua was content to let him linger the way in which felt best to him.
Shang Qinghua was looking for the source of the draft he’d noticed before. Now that he wasn’t cleaning and it was a bit easier to follow it with the weather, he chose to look for it then. Mobei Jun was close behind his every step, and it made Shang Qinghua feel comfortable and warm. He felt safe with Mobei Jun nearby. He hadn’t known that the feeling of safety had been lacking in his life until he met Mobei Jun—until he found that Mobei Jun’s skin was cold and smooth beneath his hands.
As he prowled the house, following the feeling of wind and letting his hands hover before each window he saw, he eventually came to the kitchen, where he felt the cool air intensify.
“I think the draft is coming from here,” Shang Qinghua said. He looked around. “It must be. I don’t know where else it could be coming from.”
Mobei Jun just looked at him.
“Can you feel it? What do things feel like?”
Mobei Jun looked intently at Shang Qinghua’s face. “I can feel things. I can detect changes in temperature. But nothing hurts. Nothing is too cold or too hot.”
“I’m glad you can at least feel it,” Shang Qinghua said. He looked away for a moment as he considered. “Can you… feel me? Did you, when I touched you?”
“Yes,” he said, voice weakening to a whisper. “I did not know.”
“Didn’t know what?” Shang Qinghua asked, lowering his own voice. He stepped towards him again.
“That I could touch people.”
“Oh, my darling,” Shang Qinghua breathed. His hands reached out again, but he let them stop in midair. He curled his fingers in towards his palm and pulled them back. “Sorry,” he said. “I don’t want to overwhelm you.”
Mobei Jun just shook his head. He didn’t say anything else.
Shang Qinghua turned back towards the kitchen and continued his search. He kept feeling it by the window, but the window itself wasn’t the problem. He realized he felt it towards his legs. He crouched down and opened the cabinets. It was warm and dry inside. He frowned for a moment, then looked down at the floorboards.
“Mobei,” he said. “Is there a cellar down here?”
When Mobei Jun didn’t respond, Shang Qinghua looked up at him. His face was carefully blank. “No.”
Shang Qinghua’s eyebrows pulled together. “You just lied to me.”
Mobei Jun’s expression cracked somewhat.
“There’s a cellar down here, isn’t there?”
Mobei Jun’s jaw clenched.
“Mobei,” he said softly. “I’ll be careful. I promise.” He dug his fingers into the wider gaps in the floor and found a light divot. He pulled it up.
The cold, damp air wafted up like a punch in the face. Shang Qinghua pushed the door back and then stood up to look down. It was pitch black and cold.
“Don’t go down there,” Mobei Jun said darkly.
“It’s just a cellar, Mobei, it’s alright,” Shang Qinghua soothed calmly. “I won’t get hurt.”
“I know. Don’t go down there.”
Shang Qinghua glanced up at him. “I’m terribly curious.”
Mobei Jun’s face twisted. “Don’t.”
Shang Qinghua looked at the steps. He took a step down. “Protect me, then,” he whispered. He took another step.
Mobei Jun was behind him in a moment. “Don’t go down there,” he said through gritted teeth.
Shang Qinghua shook his head. “Stay close to me.”
“Qinghua,” he said again, sounding so terrified and desperate that Shang Qinghua did pause and turn back to him. “Please,” he said, sounding somewhat unlike himself. “Please, come back up. Don’t go down there, please.”
“Okay,” Shang Qinghua murmured, curiosity doused by a strong urge to take care of him. He turned and came up the stairs. He shut the door with his foot. He looked up at Mobei Jun, who was staring at him, chest moving quicker than it normally did. “Tell me what’s wrong,” he said softly. “Why shouldn’t I go down there?”
“There are things I do not want you to see. Things I don’t want to see, and I can’t let you go down alone. So you just… shouldn’t go.”
Shang Qinghua did not want him to go away. He nodded. “Alright, Mobei. If that’s what you want.”
His shoulders relaxed. “It’s what I want.”
Shang Qinghua smiled weakly, though he felt quite upset about the whole situation. Something was wrong. “Well, I don’t want you to be upset with me. I don’t think I could bear it.”
Mobei Jun stepped towards him, and it made Shang Qinghua feel like his bones were on fire. “It hasn’t been long,” he began lowly, “but I don’t think I could ever be truly upset with you.”
Shang Qinghua was starting to feel like he’d crumble into a million pieces if Mobei Jun kept running away from him—if every time they neared, he had to step away for triple the amount of time they were close. But he’d also wait. He’d wait until Mobei Jun was aching for him the way Shang Qinghua ached for Mobei Jun.
"What are you thinking of?” Mobei Jun said softly.
“Of how I’d wait for you,” Shang Qinghua said honestly. He watched with a gratified pleasure when Mobei Jun seemed as though struck when he heard it. “I was thinking of how I want to be close to you, and that I’ll wait as long as it takes for you to want to be close to me. You waited for me, so I will wait for you.”
“Do you think that I do not want that?” He asked lowly. He turned closer. He seemed to float. “Do you think that I do not already want you more than anything I’ve ever desired?”
Shang Qinghua felt his breath catch in his chest.
“You overwhelm me,” he breathed. “It is as though I’ve been in a cave, deprived of sun and wind, and you are the earth and all of its stars.”
Shang Qinghua could not form words. Mobei Jun stepped closer to him and slowly raised a hand. Shang Qinghua tilted his head up to look at him, breath shallow and shaky.
When Mobei Jun pressed his hand to Shang Qinghua’s face, it felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room. Shang Qinghua let out the breath he’d been holding, and did not take in a new one. His lips parted and his hand moved up on its own accord to wrap around Mobei Jun’s wrist.
Mobei Jun brushed his thumb on Shang Qinghua’s cheek, as Shang Qinghua had done to him. “I do not want to wait any longer. I’ve waited long enough.”
Shang Qinghua stepped towards him and put his hand on Mobei Jun’s other arm. He moved forwards until their chests were pressed together. “Take anything you want from me—I will freely give it.”
Mobei Jun lifted his other hand and held the other side of Shang Qinghua’s face. He cradled him in his palms and began to look dazed when Shang Qinghua pressed their bodies tightly together in response. Mobei Jun lowered his head until their noses were a scant inch away. He breathed out, shaky and untethered. Shang Qinghua tilted his head up and breathed in.
The brush of Mobei Jun’s nose against his should have been innocuous, but pleasant. Instead it felt like the tide sucking Shang Qinghua into the depths. “Mobei,” he whispered.
Mobei Jun pushed his forehead against Shang Qinghua’s and shut his eyes. He nudged into him and breathed in and out deeply, as though he’d just ran. “Forgive me,” he said.
Shang Qinghua shut his eyes, too, turning up into him until his lips brushed against Mobei Jun’s cheek. “For what? What could there be to forgive you for?”
“Forgive me if I can’t let you go. Forgive me if I make you stay.”
Shang Qinghua felt light headed. He swayed into him, and Mobei Jun held him steady.
“You make me feel warm,” Mobei Jun said.
Shang Qinghua pressed as close as he could go. A gentle sound escaped him. Shang Qinghua knew that he would have to go someday. Even if he knew that he’d come back. He knew this, but in this particular moment, none of that came to him. The only sound, sight, smell, feeling, taste in the entire world was Mobei Jun. And how could Shang Qinghua leave what he would be enveloped in for the rest of his life?
“your soul stained my shoulders.
my whole life smells like you.
will take time.
undoing you from my blood.”
Nayyirah Waheed, “the work”
Mobei Jun remained near after that. Even if he wasn’t touching Shang Qinghua, he was beside him, close enough that if Shang Qinghua moved unexpectedly, he’d be touching him. Shang Qinghua treasured the nearness. He let it sink into his bones like rot, as if the marrow inside of him was melting him from the inside out and making itself pliant for Mobei Jun to take and to hold and to consume.
The days passed much like the firsts. Shang Qinghua tidied and cleaned, and the dust wouldn’t go away. No matter how much Shang Qinghua swept it away, new dust found itself there again. It was irritating, but Shang Qinghua knew that when the owners came and tried it for themselves, they’d see. He also knew that it would be clear he’d done his best, for everything else was spotless. The windows were clear, the floors were swept, the furniture looked warm and inviting, the house looked brighter and ready to be lived in, and even the outside looked as welcoming as it could without professional landscaping done.
They had a few days until the couple was due to come. It hung on Shang Qinghua’s shoulders heavily. He’d been so at peace, being alone in this place with Mobei Jun. He’d felt more alive than he ever felt. He did not feel as though any part of him had changed or awoken, but that he’d found a place where everything was fit to match him, a place where he fit like a puzzle piece.
With the time they had left, they did nothing but spend it together, whether they spoke, they walked, they touched, they held, all of it was with the other. Shang Qinghua did not want to part from him, for the rest of his life. His upcoming departure was a painful wound in his chest, pulsing with hurt every time he moved, every time Mobei Jun looked at him.
As they laid together, in the lingering sun, Shang Qinghua could not think of how to begin the conversation. He’d known it was coming, but they hadn’t discussed when, or how they would move forward. Shang Qinghua found himself worried that if he left, Mobei Jun would realize that maybe this wouldn’t work. But he did not like to dwell on those things.
Shang Qinghua danced his fingers across Mobei Jun’s chest with a light pressure, cheek pressed up against his shoulder. Mobei Jun’s arm was wrapped around him, his own fingers pressing lightly along Shang Qinghua’s side. He’d occasionally turn his head and press his lips to Shang Qinghua’s forehead or his hair, and just breathe.
It began to weigh so heavily on Shang Qinghua that he opened his mouth and let it pour out without thought, for thinking had done him no good thus far.
“Mobei, will you wait for me again?”
Mobei Jun stilled.
Shang Qinghua lifted his head and pushed himself up onto one elbow. “Will you?” He asked, feeling hot flush in his chest when Mobei Jun didn’t answer.
Mobei Jun looked at him. His brows were furrowed but his eyes were open and stormy. “What do you mean?”
Shang Qinghua frowned, too. “I’m leaving soon. In a few days.”
Shang Qinghua blinked a few times, feeling a different kind of horror rise. Mobei Jun hadn’t known? “Mobei… Yes. I’m leaving when the couple comes… The ones who bought the house.”
Mobei Jun pulled away from him and stood. He backed up a few feet away and looked down at him, looking as though he’d seen a horrific accident.
Shang Qinghua pushed himself up onto his knees and looked up at him. “Mobei, what—”
“You’re leaving,” he repeated.
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about—I thought you knew!”
“How could I know that?” He snapped.
“I told you that this was a job! I was hired to do this, I—”
“I thought you would be staying. That you would continue to work.”
Shang Qinghua’s lips parted. He felt a wash of guilt flood down his neck. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I thought you knew.”
Mobei Jun’s face turned angry. “I told you that I wouldn’t let you go.”
Shang Qinghua’s hands clenched into the grass. “I don’t want you to.”
“I will make them leave,” he said through his teeth. “They will be gone before nightfall—if they even make it across my threshold. You are mine.”
Shang Qinghua’s breath quickened. He reached up to him. “Mobei. Come here.”
Mobei Jun took a few steadying breaths, and then knelt in front of him. Shang Qinghua immediately grabbed his face and pressed their foreheads together. “Mobei, my love, I will come back. Nothing could keep me from you.”
Mobei Jun grabbed his face as well and held him firmly in his grasp. He looked down at him, a burning gaze, and pressed his thumbs to Shang Qinghua’s lips. He looked at Shang Qinghua’s mouth. He swiped his thumb along Shang Qinghua’s bottom lip. “I was never a good man. In life or death.”
Shang Qinghua’s eyes shut as he tipped into him. He closed his lips around Mobei Jun’s thumb for a brief moment and swiped his tongue against the pad of his finger before opening up again. “Then it’s good I never asked for one.”
Mobei Jun brought himself close, until Shang Qinghua could feel the dusting of his lips against his own. Shang Qinghua gasped lightly, the feeling both foreign and so achingly familiar. Shang Qinghua did not know how it could be familiar, but it was as though he’d done this a million times before.
He kissed Mobei Jun’s lips lightly, and Mobei Jun kissed his back. They kissed until Shang Qinghua’s lips went numb, and his fingers were stiff from the grip he had in Mobei Jun’s hair. They kissed until he was gasping for breath, until his head was hazy and light.
When Mobei Jun pulled away, his hands were gentler. His expression had evened out and softened, and his eyes were shut. The sun casted a shadow from his eyelashes onto his cheeks and Shang Qinghua was overwhelmed with the realness of him, with the way he was solid and beautiful, and everything Shang Qinghua had never known he wanted or needed.
Shang Qinghua unclenched his fingers as he watched his face. Mobei Jun wasn’t opening his eyes, like he was basking in it, and Shang Qinghua indulged him. He ran his fingers down the side of his neck, and pressed into his collarbone. He drifted back up and pressed to the column of his throat.
A figure caught Shang Qinghua’s eye.
In the distance, where the gravel road led to the long, winding drive way, someone was standing at the gate. Shang Qinghua felt his blood run cold.
Mobei Jun sensed the change in atmosphere. His eyes opened, and he turned to follow Shang Qinghua’s gaze. He stiffened and held onto Shang Qinghua tighter. “Don’t leave,” he said fiercely.
Shang Qinghua looked at him. “I might have to, Mobei,” he murmured. “Just for a bit. A few days. I can’t stay here, I’ll get in trouble and then I really wouldn’t be able to come back.”
Mobei Jun looked furious.
“It’s alright,” he soothed, brushing his hand down the side of Mobei Jun’s face. “It’s alright, my love.” He kissed Mobei Jun’s cheek and let his lips linger for a moment. “You need to go. At least so they can’t see you. I’ll speak to them.”
“I’m staying with you,” he said darkly.
“Good,” Shang Qinghua said. “I want you to. Just don’t let them see you, alright?”
Mobei Jun reluctantly nodded. He disappeared.
Shang Qinghua’s hands fell on empty air. He knew Mobei Jun was there, but it still hurt to see him go. Shang Qinghua swallowed and stood up. His legs were a bit shaky. His headache was coming back. It always seemed to pester him when he was reminded of the outside world.
He made his way back over to the house, but the couple had gotten to the door before he had. He followed in after them, immediately calling out in a friendly voice. “Hello! I didn’t expect you so soon.”
They didn’t seem to hear him. They were gazing up at the staircase in awe.
“It looks… like it’s been cleaned,” the man said.
Shang Qinghua paused, feeling confusion well up in him.
“Yeah,” his wife said. “Dusty, but clean. Like it hasn’t been touched in centuries. But also somehow like it’s been taken care of.”
Shang Qinghua laughed a little awkwardly, stepping closer. “Ahh, sorry about the dust. I’ve tried hundreds of times to dust this place, and it always seems to… come… back…” He trailed off when he noticed them still completely ignoring him. He stood in silence as he watched them. “Can they not hear me?” He muttered to himself and Mobei Jun.
They continued to walk through the house, making similar comments about the state of the house and how surprising it was that it was looking as neat and clean as it did. Except for the dust. The dust remained.
Shang Qinghua tried to call out for them a few more times, and even stood in front of them, but they did not acknowledge him. He began to feel nervous, a sick feeling entering his stomach. Mobei Jun appeared behind them, looking at Shang Qinghua with a frown.
As Shang Qinghua stood right in front of them, the woman spoke softly, hard to hear. “Honestly, I think I’d like to just… leave for a bit. I want to go back to the hotel. The house is beautiful, but… I can’t get the image of Shang Qinghua out of my head.”
Shang Qinghua’s mouth parted. “What?” He asked. They did not answer him.
“I wish you hadn’t looked,” her husband said, coming up beside her and pulling her into an embrace. “I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get it out of my head either. I didn’t want you to have to see that.”
Shang Qinghua’s mouth was dry.
“He was so much worse than the driver,” she whispered. Tears were hanging off of her bottom lashes.
Shang Qinghua looked desperately at Mobei Jun, who was staring at him right back, face blank, but horrified. Shang Qinghua felt the sick feeling in his stomach plummet to his feet, as if anchoring him to the floor.
“Mobei,” he began softly, since it appeared the couple could not hear them. “What was in the cellar?”
Mobei Jun's face contorted.
“Mobei, tell me what was in the cellar.”
It felt like the air around them grew cold.
“I’m down there.”
Shang Qinghua’s lips parted. He noticed, for the first time, that he did not feel cold. Not once, the entire time he’d been in this chilly place. “You—You’re down there?”
Mobei Jun nodded. The couple walked out of the house, still murmuring to each other.
“Mobei,” he said, choked. He felt a bit hysterical, like a mixture between nausea and a panic attack. “Mobei, why are you down there?”
“That is where my body was brought after I was killed.”
Shang Qinghua’s words died in his throat. His tears spilled over. His jaw ached in his attempts to keep his chin from quivering. “You were killed?”
“My uncle drowned me in the lake,” Mobei Jun said. His voice was black. “He took my body back to the cellar. He took apart my limbs. Someone came, and he answered the door. He left the pieces of my body there and never returned for it. I do not know what happened to him. I watched him dismember me, from only a few feet away.”
Shang Qinghua thought he was going to throw up. “And if someone else were to die here… What would happen to them?”
Mobei Jun’s expression finally cracked. “I don't know,” he whispered.
Swallowing, Shang Qinghua walked through the room and towards the front door. He left the house without another word, and Mobei Jun followed him. He walked through the large metal gates. He walked until he reached the edge of the property. There were police cars and an ambulance surrounding a taxi that had crashed into a tree. The couple passed by them all and went to their own car.
The driver was pinned at the steering wheel, face slackened and decaying. The windshield was broken and there was no one else in the car.
With heaving breaths, Shang Qinghua walked past the car and off the road. The police did not notice him.
Mobei Jun was behind him, he could tell. But he was not looking.
Just past the wooden marker with Mobei Jun’s family name, Shang Qinghua lay in the dead leaves, lying on his side with his body twisted and mangled in an odd way. Blood was pooled and dried beneath him, staining the leaves. His face was covered in blood, and bones were sticking out of odd places. His face was gaunt, a terribly pale and horrific pallor, one of death.
“Qinghua,” Mobei Jun whispered from beside him.
Shang Qinghua felt like he was going to rattle apart. He felt cold for the first time, but it did not numb his fingers or his toes. It felt more like a lack of warmth. He breathed, but it did not provide relief to his lungs, and somehow it was a relief in itself to not have to breathe. His head no longer ached. He felt full, he felt like the greatest decision of his life, the greatest burden, was taken from his shoulders.
“Qinghua,” Mobei Jun said again, anguished. He walked past Shang Qinghua and moved towards his body. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Shang Qinghua felt tears well up in his eyes. He felt like he was going to collapse. “Mobei,” he said. “Mobei, Mobei, Mobei, Mobei.”
Mobei Jun turned to him, face crumpled and full of a terrible guilt. He walked to him and gathered him in his arms so tight that it would have hurt, if Shang Qinghua was alive. “It’s my fault. It’s my fault, I’m sorry.”
Shang Qinghua looked up at him and gripped the back of his sweater. “Mobei.” He swallowed. “I think I knew. I think I knew, and I didn’t want to know it. I didn’t want you to want me because I was your only option.”
Mobei Jun pressed his face into Shang Qinghua’s. “Qinghua, it’s my fault. If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t be dead, you wouldn’t be stuck here.”
“I need you to be honest with me,” Shang Qinghua demanded in a whisper. “I need you to be honest about how you feel, seeing me dead. Seeing me here now in front of you.”
Mobei Jun looked down at him. His eyes were wet. He didn’t seem to want to answer, but his mouth opened when Shang Qinghua yanked lightly on his sweater. “I am relieved.”
Shang Qinghua shut his eyes. He leaned into him.
“And I am selfish.”
Shang Qinghua nodded.
“I am so relieved,” he breathed again. “And I am sorry if you are not relieved, too.”
Shang Qinghua shook his head, tears spilling over. “I’m relieved,” he breathed, grabbing onto his neck and kissing him. “I’m relieved.”
When he pulled away, he saw that Mobei Jun's cheeks were wet. He swiped at them, hands lingering and soft.
“Please do not weep. I am not dead.”
Mobei Jun nudged into him again, eyes still closed.
“Now I’ll never leave,” Shang Qinghua said. And he did feel relief. He felt a shock so deep it rocked him to his core, but he also felt peace, like the sound of police cars fading in the distance, like the deep breath a person took after they’ve cried, and like a house whose family was not home. “I’ll never leave.”
“Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.”
Mary Elizabeth Frye