Like Faded Joy
by Ashley Bao
We were born during a lightning storm, thunder cracking a whip through the hospital walls. Lei came first, not even crying when her head popped out. She pulled me by the ankle, and I tumbled and bawled as I left the comfort of the womb.
Our mother cursed in Mandarin when the nurse brought in the paperwork for the birth certificates. We were one month early, and she hadn’t picked out names yet. Our grandmother, our wai po, piped up from her stool next to the bed.
“Xiao Lei, Xiao Yu. Little Thunder, Little Rain. The thunderstorm brought them here tonight,” wai po said, leaving no room for argument.
Our mother wrote the names in crisp English letters.
We started our instruments when we were four. Our mother gave me a violin and Lei a baby grand piano. So we didn’t distract each other, she would send me to the basement to practice while she observed Lei’s finger placements, lightly rapping her knuckles when she got it wrong.
My great aunt, my yi po, was a concert violinist in China. She’d died at fifty eight in a plane crash, and now liked to hide under the loose floorboards in the stairwell. I would walk to the basement staircase, dragging the child-sized metal music stand my mother specially bought for me onto the plateau two steps up the way to the first floor. My yi po spoke with a thick Shanghai accent, and I spent most of my time asking her to repeat herself. But she was still my violin teacher.
My yi po had long, curly black hair, always pinned to her head with jade-encrusted hair sticks. When she frowned, her crows feet would point downwards, and when she laughed, her wrinkles would all scrunch up into oblivion, and she would look so much like mama.
“No, no, you need to feel the music,” she said, flicking her arms so palms faced open in a grand gesture. “D sharp.”
“Eh?” I asked, stopping the scale.
“D sharp. You played D.”
She was frowning, and I played it right the next time.
There was something special about sharing your life with someone from birth. Neither Mom nor wai po could tell Lei and me apart until we were five. Whenever they put us in color-coded outfits, we switched midday. In elementary school, instead of listening to the teachers, we would talk to each other in our secret language. We would giggle and snort and Mrs. Wilson always had to separate us during reading time.
In first grade, a group of boys came up to us and Esther Ko. They asked if we were triplets. Before we could answer, they started chanting “ching-chong-chang” and running circles around us. Esther and I were about to cry, but then Lei punched one of the boys. She broke his nose and got sent to the principal’s office.
That night I asked her why she did it.
“Weren’t you mad?” she asked me.
“I guess. But not mad enough to punch him.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Well good thing I’m always gonna be there,” she said.
We spent the summer before 9th grade singing along with Taylor Swift and stuffing ourselves with green tea mochi. We spent the 90 degree days hopping white picket fences, certain no one was looking out their windows at two in the afternoon. We spent the nights following online nail tutorials, making do with the four nail polish colors Mom reluctantly bought us.
I stopped talking to our ancestral ghosts, ignoring yi po and wai po, in favor of stealing white wine from Mom’s locked drawers. Whenever I saw da yi, my aunt, standing in her wedding dress still streaked with motor oil and tire tracks, I would pretend I didn’t hear her wailing. I followed Lei, let her pianist hands lead me through the last summer, before she went to Oberlin alone.
We rode our bikes to Alapocas Park one night. We told Mom we would be home by ten, but there were sleeping bags stuffed in Lei’s quarter silk tote bag. The afternoon was humid, grass gnats flying into our faces as we flew down the streets. Whenever I outpaced Lei, I would slow down to let her lead again. I never wanted to lose sight of her.
We arrived at the park entrance right before sunset. I could still hear da yi in my mind, but I focused everything on Lei, on my sister. She would be gone at the end of the week, shipped off to Ohio like a sock thrown into the drawer without a matching pair. My hands still trembled a little at the thought of the audition, at the memory of Mom yelling so loud. She sold my violin the next day, spending half of the money on daily SAT prep classes. If I was going to fail at violin, I was going to succeed at something else.
Lei took out a chequered picnic blanket from her bike basket. She popped a red grape into her mouth before setting up the sticks to our makeshift tent. She was trying to figure out how to get the poles to stay in the ground when I felt the familiar whisper of the wind. It spoke to me in accented English.
“Please, save me. Follow the trail through the woods, take the right fork, find my ring. Please,” it begged. “Release me from this hell.”
And like a toy soldier, my feet marched up to the trailhead, signs pointing out the two mile trek it takes until you get to the first fork. I walked into the pine forest, following the lithe voice as it guided me to its wedding ring, hidden underneath a foot of decayed leaves and mushroom dirt. The pine needles smelled like musty lace-woven dreams. They poked me along the beaten trail.
I didn’t notice the sun dipping beneath the horizon. I didn’t notice the light seeping away, the dark creeping into the air. All I heard was the ghost’s pleas. My ancestor’s pleas.
The first time I heard the ghosts was just before we turned four. We were stacking alphabet blocks when our great-grandfather floated down from the chandelier he usually rested on and sat on the living room couch. He beckoned me towards him. He asked to hold my hand. I just shrugged, placed my hand in his. His was leathery and strong. He squeezed my hand, then dissolved into sparks of faded joy, like golden tapestry tassels.
Lei doesn’t remember this, but she asked me what I was doing in our secret language. I told her it was a ghost and she didn’t believe me. She thought I had just sat on the couch, rubbed my hand against the suede. She didn’t see anything. But then we made a game out of it, forgetting the alphabet blocks entirely.
“Yu! Yu! What the hell are you doing?”
Lei’s voice cut me out of my trance. I turned to her. She had leaves and needles stuck in her hair, mud smeared across her bare ankles. Her eyes, eyes identical to mine, were scared.
She grabbed me by the shoulders.
“Were you following those ghosts again?” she asked.
I was a terrible liar, so I said nothing.
“This was supposed to be our night. No pretend ghosts, no supernatural premonitions, no nothing. I’m literally about to leave for a school two hundred miles away and you can’t even spend a night with me without going koo-koo? I’m telling Mom when we get back. You should get another psych evaluation.”
She turned away from me.
“I didn’t want to. It just- can we just forget about this?” I asked, calling out to her.“Can we still sleep under the stars?”
She kept walking.
“I’m sorry. You were completely right. I shouldn’t have gone off into fantasy land tonight. I wasn’t trying to. I wanted this to be a perfect send-off-”
“Well you fucked it up. Like usual.”
I plucked the D-string on my violin. I ran my fingertips over the rosin block compulsively. There were two other prospective students ahead of me. The soundproof office where a professor of fine arts would decide our futures loomed in front of us all.
The boy, Jacob Li, walked in, breathing in and out while biting his lip. I remembered him from third grade, when my grandmother taught us in Chinese school. He was a year younger than me, practically a baby with still chubby fingers. But he bowed his scales with the precision of a concertmaster. His mother sat across from us in the hallway, a bag clutched between two manicured hands.
I listen to Jacob play his piece. He forgot the first accidental in the second measure, but otherwise it sounded fine. Mom would have said that he didn’t play with enough motion or finesse. Jacob’s mother seemed inclined to agree as she pursed her lips for a moment.
The girl next to me picked at her scabs. They lined her arms like polka dots. Her stringy blonde hair was pulled up into a tight ponytail, exposing her acne and anxiety. Her violin wasn’t a Stradivarius, but an intermediate Stentor. I’d had one when I was small before my mom bought me a professional model.
Jacob walked out of the room with an unreadable face. His mother asked him how he did. He just shrugged, put his violin back into the case. He looked at me for a moment. I gave him a small smile. I didn’t say that if he gets in, he’s stealing a spot from me and vice versa. We both knew that.
The girl filled her lungs with fresh air before walking into the office. Her hand was trembling.
She played the audition piece perfectly, the only issue being that the tone of her student violin was awful. Who knew what they wanted, but maybe a girl like her was the perfect fit.
I walked into the room.
I came out trying to hide the sniffling. When Lei and our mother took a look at me, they knew. My mother didn’t pretend to hide her disappointment.
I slept the entire way home, head on Lei’s shoulder. In our secret language, I told her what happened.
Lei got in. I didn’t. No surprises there. She was leaving mid-August, off to Ohio for an entire school year. I was staying home.
The night the letters came, she told me she didn’t want to go. Didn’t want to leave me.
The longest we had ever spent apart before was two days. It was a sleepover, and I got sick an hour in. My yi po nursed me back to health with her apparition hands. Mom had had to work that night.
“Why don’t you try to go back to the spirit world?” I had asked yi po.
I remembered my great-grandfather’s look of total relief as I released him with a single touch as a four year old.
“Some dreams you have to let go. I love it here, love you and my sister and Xiao Lei and your mother,” she responded.
I, as a fifth grader, had thought that was the saddest thing I’d ever heard. My mother was always one to push for dreams, mainly by citing examples of others. She’d have Lei and I watch videos of people younger and more talented than us playing their instruments at a master class or concert.
At Oberlin, Lei could be the one leading the master class, her pianist fingers pointing out each tiny mistake. I had dreamed of being there with her, playing a duet together. But my violin was gone while Lei’s baby grand still sat in the parlor.
I thought a lot about wai po that summer, too. She was in the hospital, held together by life support and my mother’s hope. She was still conscious for a few minutes each day, but her body was shutting down one organ at a time. The doctors gave her three months at the most. I found the letter buried underneath the junk mail on the kitchen table. I told Lei, and we cried together. I hadn’t felt that close to her in almost two years.
And like a flash of lightning, August 17th came and Lei was on a train to Ohio. I was alone in the house, left to deal with the world by myself for the first time in my life.
I told Lei about the ghosts again when we were nine. A cousin far removed from us had appeared to me, drifted into our bedroom with blood streaked down her legs. She had died in childbirth. She begged me to find her son.
“He came to America. I know it, I can feel it. He had a child. Please, I want to see my baby,” she had cried.
Her tears evaporated the moment they fell from her face, but there was a never ending torrent of them.
It was the middle of the night. Lei was asleep in her bed across the room from me. So I whispered as quietly as I could to my cousin.
“How can I find him?” I asked.
She didn’t answer, just continued wailing. I wasn’t going to be able to fall asleep with her like this. I had school the next day as well.
“Yi po,” I whispered. “What do I do?”
Yi po appeared to me in a floral nightgown and an annoyed expression. Then she saw the woman crying on the floor, calling out for a son she never knew.
Yi po took my hands roughly. It felt like my hands were being dipped in a bucket of ice water. I tried to get away but her grip was too firm. I thought my fingers were going to fall off from the cold, and then the world changed.
I wasn’t in my bedroom, but was instead on a city street surrounded by skyscrapers and masses of people. The ground was wet with old rain. I felt it seeping through my barefoot feet and into my body. I felt the beating heart of the city, the thrum that laid a red string path to a man on the fourth floor of a new apartment building. He was rocking his daughter in a pretty pink nursery.
And next to me, the cousin was whole, no longer a wisp fluttering between the living and the dead. Her skin was no longer this pale, sickly tent draped across a too-skinny body. She was the color of almonds, with wrinkles on her face and old age spots on her hands. Her body filled out, she shrunk a couple of inches. The blood on her legs disappeared.
She walked over to her son, put her hands on his face. She whispered something I couldn’t hear. She became ashes falling to the ground like golden confetti.
And I couldn’t breathe.
I opened my eyes to see Lei shaking my shoulders. My feet were perched on the bedroom window sill, left hand wrapped around one of the oak tree’s branches.
I let go of the tree, and Lei pulled me back into the bedroom.
“What were you doing?” she whisper-shouted. She didn’t want to wake up mom or wai po.
“I can see ghosts.”
“Eh?” She gave me a confused look.
“A long lost cousin came into the bedroom. She just wanted to see her son, and then yi po arrived and she took my hands and I wasn’t here anymore. I was in the city and she saw her son and she was finally happy.”
Lei looked scared for me.
“What are you talking about, Yu? If ghosts were real, then I would be able to see them too.”
I looked around the room, searching for yi po’s familiar face. She was lingering in the corner, shaking her head so vigorously that the beads on her hair sticks were clacking into each other.
I bit my lip. I always told Lei everything. Just the day before, I had told her about how I had a crush on Cody. She said she thought he was cute too, but since I said it first, she would stop thinking he was cute.
But I had told Lei about the ghosts. She just didn’t believe me even though Lei always believed me.
I looked at yi po again. She wasn’t there anymore.
Sometimes I suspected Mom and wai po knew about yi po. When yi po sat in the fireplace, picking at her fingernails, I would see wai po staring at the woodpile with intense scrutiny. Every time yi po’s hairsticks clicked, wai po’s head would turn ever so slightly to where yi po was manifesting.
Mom never wondered how I got so good at violin without a teacher. She was the one who told me to go to the basement to practice violin while she instructed Lei. When I learned how to make scrambled eggs at eight without asking her where the step stool was, she didn’t question it.
When we were eleven, Lei told me, in hushed tones underneath her bedsheets, that she overheard Mom talking to herself. She was speaking in Shanghaiese, a language Lei and I only knew a couple phrases in. She wasn’t on the phone. She was just speaking to the wall. Lei had asked her what she was doing, and she told Lei to leave or else she was going to practice piano for three hours straight the next day.
“It kinda reminded me of you,” Lei said. “Like when you get all zoned out and start talking to yourself.”
“I do not zone out.”
“Yes, you do. And it’s kinda creepy.”
I rolled my eyes.
“We need to go to bed,” I said before flopping onto my mattress.
I couldn’t fall asleep until I heard Lei’s footsteps on our bedroom carpet and the rustling of her blankets and the soft, even breaths of her sleep.
Lei came back home for wai po’s funeral. She had two extra ear piercings, a strip of pink in her hair, and she hugged me so tight I couldn’t breathe. Yi po followed us as I lugged Lei’s suitcase up the stairs and into our room. I didn’t tell yi po about the woman at Alapocas Park, but it seemed like she knew anyways. I would sometimes catch her looking at me funny, like she was trying to figure out who I was.
“So many kids are stuck up. You wouldn’t believe it, Yu. But the classes are amazing. The teachers, they just, you get to dissect everything that makes music so, so great.”
I thought back to my violin. I hoped whoever bought it was happy with it. I hoped my memories, those years spent rubbing rosin on the horsehair and bowing arpeggios, could somehow live on. I hoped the music it made from now on would have a little bit of me in it.
“Do you have friends there?” I asked.
“Yeah. Lily and Alex and Jacob Li. You remember him? He plays violin.”
“I remember him. Wai po taught us all in Chinese school.”
“I totally forgot about that, you’re right. Man. Time flies.”
There was a comfort to falling asleep with someone. The room was somehow warmer; the air wrapped around me like a blanket. I listened to Lei’s breaths, even and slow. But there was a restless undercurrent in the air. I could taste the ghosts, could feel the pull. If I didn’t help them, they were stuck here forever.
I hopped out of the window, looked out into the darkness. Then I heard Lei behind me.
“Where’re you going?” she asked.
“You wouldn’t want to know.”
“Is it about the ghosts?”
I shrugged. Which Lei knew meant “yes”. This was about the ghosts.
“When will you just grow up, Yu? You can’t just run around barefoot on the dirt chasing imaginary apparitions. We’re not five anymore.”
“When will you stop trying to be my mother? You left for boarding school; you’re not my keeper anymore. I can’t make you believe that I see ghosts, but haven’t you ever wondered how I got so good at violin? Who taught me? Because it wasn’t Mom. It wasn’t wai po. It was yi po.”
“The concert violinist? She died before we were born.”
“She was still my teacher. And Mom and wai po knew it.”
“Don’t talk about wai po.”
Lei had never had the chance to say goodbye to her. Mom didn’t want to bother her studies, so the weekend wai po died, I was at the hospital and Lei was playing a concert in Ohio.
“I don’t even know who you are anymore,” Lei said. She was crying. Lei never cried. I was always the crier.
“Shut up. Go to your stupid ghosts.”
She climbed back through the window. She hooked her feet onto the beige siding and shimmied herself back into our room, just as easily as when we’d been kids. We started sneaking out of our room when we were eleven. There was some sleepover maybe, some birthday party we weren’t allowed to go to. I was terrified to climb the six feet down to grass. Lei called me a baby and jumped it. She sprained her ankle, but stood up defiantly and waved at me to follow her. I slowly lowered myself down, gripping onto the panelled exterior as tightly as I could.
When we came back, the dawn light was seeping through. The sky was turning navy blue, and I could make out the polka dots on Lei’s skirt. We were too short to get back through the window. I remember panicking, pulling nervously at my almost-gone bangs.
“I’m gonna lift you, okay? Then you can crawl back and pull me up,” Lei told me, hunching over so I could crawl onto her back.
“You can do it, Yu.”
So I stepped onto her back and heaved myself into our bedroom. Lei barely needed my help, but I still took her hand, tugging the final third of her body through the window.
We both tumbled backwards onto the floor. We were breathless, panting, smiling, exhilarated. I wasn’t terrified then. Not with her sitting next to me, eyes as wide as mine with happiness.
I heard Lei lock the window.
I was in the backyard alone. I heard wailing. I saw the ghost. I released them.
After that, except on the evenings I had SAT class, I sneaked out of the house through the window every night. I would leave the empty bedroom behind and sit in the garden wai po used to tend. There were squashes of all sizes still climbing the unkempt trellises, the leaves entwined with flowering weeds. Before, wai po would be out there, crouched with a hat and a plastic bag full of pulled up dandelions. Mom would be out on the deck, haphazardly spreading new seeds across the dirt beds, humming old songs to herself. Mom didn’t like to go out to the garden anymore. She said there were too many mosquitoes now, but there were always mosquitoes.
I picked a cucumber from the vine and put it in my pocket. Lei and I used to gather vegetables for wai po when her hip was too sore to walk out and do it herself. We were supposed to wait until the gourds grew to their full size, but sometimes we would pick a baby zucchini or cucumber. We would eat in the garden, alternating bites, savoring the crunch. The moment we returned to the house, Mom would take one look at our sweat streaked skin and order us upstairs to shower. Lei always let me use the bathroom first.
Standing in the garden, I saw the soft outline of a ghost in the distance, next to a tree. It sashayed its way closer and closer. This ghost wasn’t part of my family. Not some long lost cousin. This was a stranger. But it cried like they all did.
Goosebumps rose upon my skin as the September air suddenly dropped two degrees. The ghost was now right in front of me.
His skin hung from his face, bound to his bones but dripping fat at the same time. His skin was dusted with ash. Every time he tried to talk, he would cough up sulfur and smoke. He radiated heat, and I took a step back, almost tripping on a broken trellis.
“What do you-”
He shook his head. He pointed to his melted off ear, and took my hand. It was like touching an open fire.
And I was there in a burning wood cabin. I saw the man the ghost used to be. He just sat there, alone in a rocking chair.
But I felt myself drawn to the leather couch next to this stranger. I sat down. I started to hum the lullabies my mother would hum when Lei and I were still small and wai po was still healthy. This ghost, when he burned, he just sat there. He accepted his fate. A part of me wondered why. Me knowing wouldn’t release him, though.
I kept humming, and the stranger opened his eyes. He rocked back and forth before standing up. He looked at me with tears in his eyes. They evaporated off his cheeks as the fire roared all around us.
When I opened my eyes, there was gold dust littering the cucumber vines. That was the thing with ghosts; they always disappeared.
I started skipping the SAT practice classes. My mother holed herself up in her office and threw herself into work after the funeral. She couldn’t bother to pay attention to me; I kept my grades up in school to make sure she never got a call about failing academics. I might’ve become a minor truant, but I wasn’t about to become a stupid one.
I released at least two ghosts a week. There were always more.
Lei went back to Ohio. She took all her stuffed animals back. Her bed was unbearably empty. I thought about texting her. I would click on her contact picture and stare at the blinking cursor as I realized anything I said would be wrong.
Mom caught me opening the back door at 11pm on a school night four weeks after wai po’s funeral. Lei was gone, and insomnia crept into my bed every night.
I had tried to talk to yi po, but she started to only speak in Shanghaiese. Her shoulders started to sag, as if there was always a weight on them. She knew wai po had died. Wai po hadn’t stayed on the earth; she was wherever the afterlife was.
There was no chance of me understanding yi po, so I just spoke in Mandarin, hoping she’d listen. She always faded away though, levitating up into the ceiling whenever she couldn’t sustain the energy to respond.
I shivered as a cold autumn breeze blew through the door.
Mom stood before me in a silk bathrobe, plum blossoms swirling around her figure. Her curly black hair was tied in a loose bun behind her head, reading glasses sliding off her nose. I thought about how we all looked alike: Mom, Lei, and me. We all had the same shrinking violet rhythm to our breaths. Maybe that was why the ghosts liked me, liked it when I was just there to comfort them.
“What are you doing, Xiao Yu?” she asked. I’d already cracked open the screen door, and she walked over, firmly shutting it. “Where were you planning to go?”
“Nowhere,” I said. I was a terrible liar.
She sighed. “Are you going to do this again?”
I stayed silent. No point in lying again.
But there was something comforting about finally speaking to a human. One that I wasn’t arguing with, not really. Mom was a steel pillar; you couldn’t argue with her because ultimately, human flesh will melt before metal does.
I didn’t realize I was crying until I felt my mother’s arms wrap around me. She smelled like cherry blossom body wash.
“I know you miss your sister. I know this has been hard for you, Xiao Yu,” she said as she kissed my head. I wanted to curl up into her affection, bathe in it.
“I can see ghosts,” I blubbered. The words were as heavy as the tears that rolled down my cheeks. “I see yi po every night. She says she stays because she loves you.”
“I love her too. I used to see them when I was little. I would go explore abandoned buildings, releasing them one by one. I was a little girl in a city outside Shanghai, and that was the only way I could change the world,” my mother said. “We all grew out of it though. I’ve never seen them again since having you and Lei. Since meeting your father, even.”
I knew the story of my father and my mother. They met in university, got married too quickly, and when my mother was accepted into a graduate program in the U.S., she left with wai po, and he stayed. She didn’t know she was pregnant then.
Lei and I used to wonder about him. But the more time passes, the more you realize that the most important people in your life are those who are within arms’ reach.
“Lei hates me,” I said. “She thinks I’m just pretending for attention.”
“Silly child,” my mother replied in Shanghaiese. I knew that phrase by heart. “You two are just learning what it’s like to be different people. When she comes back home, I will talk to her.”
“No, don’t,” I said, wiping my eyes. “I’ll do it.”
My mother told me to go to bed.
I fell asleep the moment my head hit the pillow.
Yi po woke me up early one Sunday morning. She was dressed in all black, hair let loose down her shoulders. I almost didn’t recognize her without her hair pins.
She sat next to me on my blankets, her wrinkles flickering on her face. I could see glimmers of who she was fifty years ago. She brushed my bed-hair with her fingers. They were cold as ice, but I didn’t recoil.
She spoke in Mandarin for the first time in months.
“I think I’m ready to go now.”
I blinked. I wanted to ask if that was a joke but yi po did not joke. She pressed her lips together, folded her hands into her lap.
I thought about all the days I spent in the stairwell, holding violins that grew alongside me. I thought about the woman who taught me each and every fingering, who held my shoulders back so my posture wasn’t hunched, who tapped her foot to the orchestral rhythms and closed her eyes whenever a good song came on the radio. She always swayed and drifted then, as if she was transported to a different world.
I thought about the way she had looked at wai po. How she always wanted to reach towards her, but she knew it was futile. She would come down from the attic to watch as wai po struggled to weed the garden more and more as each year passed. She would sometimes find herself in the wind, brushing stray silver hairs out of wai po’s slightly clouded eyes.
I looked at yi po.
“What do I need to do?” I asked.
I surprised her with that question, I could tell. She expected me to refuse. She thought this decision was selfish, to want to leave this world where her niece and grand-nieces still lived. But wai po had moved on, and maybe she should’ve done it long ago too.
“Give me your hand,” yi po said.
I did as she told, and I was in a city outside of Shanghai. I heard the hum of developing industries, felt the jasmine-scented breeze. I saw my mother when she was young, maybe five or six. She had pigtails and wore a red smock with cloth shoes. I saw yi po talking with wai po. Yi po held her violin case tightly. It was a hushed argument, all implications so my mother wouldn’t understand.
“You’re throwing your life away, sister,” wai po said. “It’s a fool’s errand to try to leave when you have nothing to begin with.”
“You were never much of a dreamer, sister,” yi po replied. “Perhaps Ting should learn an instrument before she grows up.”
Ting was my mother’s name before she changed it to Tina.
The scene faded, and I was with yi po on a plane. This was the yi po I grew up with. She had wrinkles on her face, tight lips, but she clutched a photo of wai po and my mother. Her plane ticket was on her lap. She was coming from Australia. Her violin was underneath the seat in front of her.
Smoke started to fill the plane. There must’ve been other people on the flight, but there was only yi po and me here. I had tears in my eyes as I sat next to yi po.
She looked at me, and she knew exactly who I was. We sat together as the plane fell down thousands of feet. Fire billowed from our feet to the ceiling.
“Wai po always loved you. She knew you were there, somehow. And Mom and Lei, too,” I said. “And me.”
Yi po smiled before dissipating into the golden fairy dust I knew so well.
“Hey,” I say.
Lei wears a jean jacket over a floral maxi dress. She has bangs now and rounded glasses. She wears lipstick.
“Hey,” she says. She doesn’t look at me.
It’s winter break. Lei stayed in Ohio for Thanksgiving. She needed to play some concert. But she couldn’t come up with an excuse that lasted an entire two weeks so in December she came home.
“Want help with your suitcase?” I ask.
“No, I’m fine,” she replies.
She almost drops the suitcase as she goes up the stairs to our room. I catch it before it rolls down the entire length of the staircase.
We both exhale in relief.
“Thanks,” she says.
Once Lei is done unpacking, and about to leave the bedroom, I cough. She turns around.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “For always ditching you for ghost-hunting.”
“Yeah, it’s fine,” Lei replies. “I’m over it.”
“But I can see ghosts. Mom could, too. I just wanted to tell you that.”
Lei bites her lip. She takes in a breath, and all I hear is the sound of our twin hearts beating in tandem.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Why did you always say I was lying then?” I immediately regret the words, but there is nothing quite like the feeling of being called a liar by your other half.
“I don’t know, okay? I was jealous that… Mom always liked you more. So did wai po. All of you had a connection I didn’t. And you and I are not the same, but life was easier if we pretended we were. Because you were special, and I wasn’t.I’m sorry I called you a liar. I know you would never lie to me. But it was hard, hearing how you were so good at violin without even a teacher. You were the prodigy, and I was ten thousand hours of instruction.”
“But Yi po taught me violin,” I say. “I wasn’t a prodigy by any means. And I thought Mom liked you more. You didn’t bomb your audition.”
Lei’s shoulders relax. She lets her arms fall to her sides.
“So we’re both idiots,” she says.
One heartbeat, two heartbeats, three.
“Wanna go hike tomorrow?” Lei asks. “Or bike a trail in Alapocas Park? It’ll be freezing but we can wear our winter coats. Two idiots together?”
“Together?” I say. “Definitely.”
About the Author
Ashley Bao is a high school sophomore and a Chinese-Canadian-American writer. She spends her time dreaming, mostly about cats. Her poetry has been published/is forthcoming in Strange Horizons and Liminality, and her short fiction has appeared in Blue Marble Review.
About the Narrator
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.