The first time I found you snacking in the closet on durian chips and mooncakes three years expired, you told me that we all have our secrets. You dropped a handful of red and gold candy in my hands—barely big enough to hold it all—that you had stolen from some hotel’s Lunar New Year display two years back. After my sweet-tooth had been satiated by time-hardened strawberry cubes, you told me to go back to the living room before Auntie found out you had been breaking your diet rules. I reluctantly obeyed, but only to maintain my status in the pecking order of grandchildren so I could inherit the shiny gold bangle (which later turned out to be nickel painted gold) I saw you wear on Uncle’s fourth wedding to his second wife. Because gold, you told me, is only for those who deserve the weapon of wealth.
The second time you forgot to close the closet doors, you were furiously rustling the wrappers of a box of seaweed crackers. Lured by the scent of MSG—which Ma told you not to put in my macaroni soup (you always did anyway)—I sat down next to the dresser. You didn’t ask me to leave this time—only to stay quiet. You handed me a packet of seaweed crackers with a small boy printed onto its plastic wrapper who looked no older than three. The last time the pastor’s daughter had given me these crackers, Ma came no less than 30 seconds later to take them away. Half the cracker still moist, spit cascading off rounded corners, Ma’s hands: talons stealing prey between my lips. That time we were lucky; Ma: out buying sweet yams for your birthday the next day, us: licking our fingers clean of seaweed and salt.
The third time I found you, you were snacking on a peach, which explains why the box of a dozen peaches on the counter had decreased to eleven. “Go tell her it’s the dog.” You smiled at me, peach juice sliding between your lips. The last time I’d seen peaches was when Ba’s friend had brought two dozen for the church children while the parents were at Easter mass. Before I could grab one, Ma tugged my braids and signaled me to come into the hallway. In the hall was a boy four years older whose dress shirt was so free of wrinkles it could’ve been a baby’s belly skin painted light blue. He smiled at Ma, leaving her with a nod of reassurance. Once Ma left for Easter mass, he took me by the sleeve of my sweater and dragged me to the staircase, my feet tumbling underneath me like bike tires whose rubber had popped off their rims. He asked me whether a boy had taken my virgin lips yet, to which I responded by slapping him hard enough that his cheeks turned the shade of the red chili peppers we grew in the garden. Kicked him again for good measure until his body was one with the vinyl floors: collapsed in pale beige.
Once I returned, the peaches were gone.
We talked about him later. I told you about the way his atrocious middle part fell, and you said it’s good I slapped the shit out of him. We talked about relationships and first kisses, and you told me it wasn’t worth giving it to some man who didn’t deserve it, so you gave yours to a girl. Her name was Xue Meiling; she dyed her clothes red in ox blood and scared away all the merchant’s sons. Her hair was 20 centimeters shorter than all the village girls, and she spent her days sowing seeds instead of sweaters. She’d sneak you out to the stream behind the terraced rice paddies, and you’d talk about all the things men would never understand. You’d go past the winding foot roads to the caves, and watch the swiftlets circle you while she harvested their nests from the limestone walls. After, she’d help you climb the fig trees where the emerald doves nested to contemplate Daoist philosophies while the silhouettes of swallows eclipsed the sun. And she was that way until her Ba married her off to some farmer’s son 40 miles away; you never talked again.
We later learned the boy in the hall was the pastor’s grandson from out of state and likely the reason why that was the last time we went to church. That next week, Ma became the talk of the town. The other church parents gossiped in grocery store aisles while I did my weekly choi sum runs for you. For some reason, choi sum was your favorite vegetable, even though each leaf was about as bland as the Bible verses they forced us to recite at Sunday school.
Later that month, Ma and Auntie gathered for a meeting around the living room table with a man I hadn’t seen before. He wore a plastic pipe around his neck with a metallic circle on one end and headphone-looking pieces on the other. I’d only seen that thing when we had taken you to the hospital that one time Ma’s herbal concoction had failed to cure your cold—three weeks later, it had turned into pneumonia. Ma hadn’t cared to tell us that. I found out from the doctor’s note Ma dropped on her way out of the pharmacy. Neither of us knew the word, so I spent half an hour flipping through the Chinese-English dictionary that was thicker than my torso to find the translation for you. You vaguely remembered the word from the one time you had taken your son to the doctor’s back in China, who, despite taking all your savings from three years of harvest, failed to fix his lungs. He died two days later.
I seated myself around the curve of the wall where neither Ma nor Auntie could see me. You had sent me upstairs to spy when you heard footsteps that didn’t sound like Ma’s, Ba’s, or Auntie’s. I listened, jotting notes in a flimsy book of Hilroy pages we’d bought at Walmart for ten cents during the back-to-school sale when they had excess stock. The graphite broke halfway through the meeting, which didn’t matter since the page had already been stained a cloudy gray with water. When I heard the peeling of sweaty thighs off the saran-wrapped couch, I ran back down to the basement.
Downstairs, you asked me why I was crying. I didn’t know how to explain the name of the diseases Mr. Smith had taught us about in science class the year before, so I drew you a skull and coffin and pointed at you. For someone who had just found out they were about to die, you sat there relatively unsurprised. Over the past month, your pain had gotten noticeably worse in your abdomen—but you never complained. You then told me that last week, while I was at school, Auntie took you to a machine that beeped and flashed red on the hospital’s top floor. You didn’t really know what was going on but eventually figured it out once you saw that the patients on this floor had lost their hair and time.
Ma didn’t talk about it for the next few weeks. We left it unspoken. I asked you why Ma hadn’t asked you to be there when the man came. You told me that back in the homeland, you don’t tell old people that they are sick or try to cure them—you let them live in peace. I asked whether Ma would make you leave in peace, to which you nodded and let me drain my eyes into your pajamas.
When I found you in the closet for the last time, you were snacking on the egg rolls the doctors said you couldn’t have.
“Shhh. They don’t need to know.” You signaled me to sit next to you and tucked my overgrown bangs behind my ears. “What’s even the point of eating healthy anymore?”
A couple weeks before you left, you took me to the mountains north of our favorite park. A hundred meters past the woods, a lake wrapped by ice so thin that even a child born of spring could break it. You insisted we take the yard chairs out to the lake even though they were too heavy for us to carry, so we dragged them, exposing leaves half-frozen, ground roots scraping off the paint on the metal legs and peppering the snow with army-green specks. We tried to open them, but they refused—hinges jammed by the branches they had collected from the forest floor.
“It’s okay, don’t bother,” you murmured, breath falling to the ground in white puffs. We cleared the lake’s edge of its blanket of snow, the air thick with earth and thawing soil.
“If you have anything you want to ask me, ask now.” You laid down the neon quilt on plastic bags to prevent the melted snow from ruining it.
“Did you ever date her? Meiling?”
“Yes, ended badly.”
“Do you regret it?”
You traced your fingertips on the ice, breaking the surface into a mosaic of blackwater and white tiles. We lay there, arms sprawled, exposing tender flesh to the sky, staring at lake birds gliding above the surface, saying nothing.
Ange Yeung (they/them) is an Asian Canadian writer living in the Pacific Northwest. They are also a staff writer and a prose and poetry reader at Flat Ink and a prose editor at Surging Tide. You can find their other work at angeyeung.carrd.co.