It was a sweltering August night. The air was humid and the dust kicked up by the wind only seemed to make the world hazy – like one giant mirage spanning from street to street. It was like taking the lid off a pot of boiling water and being blasted with the steam as it clung to your face and neck.
Just an hour ago, Wei had stepped off the airplane into the bustling terminal, tugging his bag along as he stepped out the doors to the gust of heat that was Taipei. The very smell of the city sent him crashing through nostalgia, memories rising of a place he had left years ago with not even a visit in between. It took a moment before the chattering around him turned to words, the harsh twang of Taiwanese filtering through with the thicker tones of Mandarin, gibberish seeping in and becoming coherent in his brain. Hailing a taxi, he glanced out at the lights passing by, the honking polluting the air and guttural curses ringing out now and then.
At least some things never changed no matter where you were.
He had to get out at the big street before his old neighborhood, the same narrow alleys and walled yards greeting him as he made his way through the maze. Left, right, then left again. Step over that same rusted pipe jutting out of the road and cross the street.
The smell of burning paper hung heavy in the air, cloying as he shouldered his bag, looking around. Yellow fires flickered and flared out of metal trashcans lining the street, sending smoke up to the dark sky like a funeral pyre.
He turned sharply over his shoulder, grey eyes trying to pierce the darkness as he looked around, idly rubbing his bare arm as a chill brushed him. As hard as he tried to look, there was no one around but the old women feeding sheets of brightly colored paper into the fires, each too busy bent over her task to pay attention to a young man padding through the streets.
Gritting his teeth, he kept on walking. Right, then another left. Cross another street and there sat a row of rickety little houses. He stopped in front of one, and the blue light from a bug zapper illuminated his face for a moment as he used the glow to check his watch.
12 am on the dot.
A sharp crackle made him jump as a mosquito drifted into the humming bars, the sound jostling him into looking again for his destination.
The house was exactly as he remembered it, a stooped, rickety old structure that hunched on the side of the street, the screened front door opening out so close that the cars whizzing by could practically take it off, if it weren’t for the vehicles parked in front and behind. It was dirty and broken, yet, at the same time, clean and wholesome – the light a warm orange streaming out from barred windows. Mosquitoes buzzed around him and as he knocked on the door, he could smell the acrid smoke from burning coils.
Wei felt a vague disorientation as he heard the shuffling from inside, a raspy voice calling out and chains scraping against the door as they were undone. The sudden light pouring through made him squint before he glanced down into watery eyes. The figure was stooped and old, like the house. White hair fell in wisps from a chignon and a cataract was clouding one eye. He could smell tobacco on her as he leaned in and hugged the frail, tiny body.
She was the same as he always remembered her; everything was the same, as if trapped in stasis. It was exactly as he had left it fourteen years ago. The ceiling fan was whirling away, like it had when he was a child and when his mother was a child—since the beginning of time or so it seemed. Still whirling like a sentinel over their family.
Despite the alien sensation, he was home. This thick, sweltering world of thick-tongued mumbles and smoky air felt more familiar to him than the glass-coated goliath that he called the city he lived in.
Lying down, eyes fixed on the slowly whirling fan, he let the heavy heat of the night seep into him. The bamboo mat beneath his back was cool compared to his skin and it was a half-hazy cloud that sank into his bones, the steady whirling fading bit by bit.
“Wei, how long are you going to sleep, you bastard? I haven’t seen you in forever.”
His eyes blinked open slowly, the sunlight streaming onto his face through the yellow stained window. He stared at the fan, then rolled over to his side.
“Wei, get up already!”
The window rattled. Frowning, he reached up and fumbled with the latch, flicking it open and peering outside. For a moment Wei just stared, then bit by bit the pieces clicked into place. That broad white grin with too many teeth peered from a tanned face, high cheekbones a keepsake from his countryside heritage. Dark eyes were framed by dark, messy hair, short and ruffled like a wild dog’s. Older, stronger, yet very much the same.
The broad grin returned and dark eyes slit slightly as the other man smiled.
“Glad to see you didn’t forget.”
Smiling back, Wei sat up and ran a hand through his sleep-mussed hair.
“Of course not. I’ll be there in just a minute.”
After wrestling himself into a pair of jeans, he had to scrounge to find a pair of sunglasses to push over his sensitive eyes. When he was little he had been teased for them; the light color that proved so rare were weak against the sun. It would hurt if he didn’t shield them against the bright rays of summer for too long.
Wei stepped out of the house with a holler to his grandmother and was immediately engulfed in warm, strong arms, the smell of earth and tobacco surrounding him.
“You should have told me sooner. How could you leave a ge’rmen hanging like that, bro?”
“I would have but…” but what? His brows furrowed slightly as he pondered that. Was there some reason he did not make the call? He must have just come in too late. “…but I thought you could wait.”
A scowl crossed that handsome face and the play punch soon followed. “Jia huo.” He could feel the smile tugging at him as already he settled into an age-old routine. It felt as if Los Angeles fell away from him and the dirt he treaded beneath his sandals was as familiar as anything he could remember. The buzzing of cicadas and traffic sounded identical to him and he felt the years lift off his shoulders.
“How’s America?” Dark eyes watched him in earnest, almond and rich in shade as the sun played shadows off high cheekbones. The question was repeated before he could pull himself from the stupor.
His laconic response was met with a barking laugh.
“You leave for fourteen years and you expect a single word response to be okay? You’ve got balls, bro.” Ah Shi’s warm hands were as strong as ever as he shoved him towards one of the gutters lining the streets, forcing him to step into the rank waters to catch his balance. There was a frozen moment of disbelief before old routines resettled themselves. Affectionate fury burst in his chest and all of the sudden it was as if he were fourteen years old again, lanky and full of the stupidity of youth as he chased that sun bronzed back up and down the dusty streets, yelling profanities in the harsh tongue he had locked away for so long.
“Ta ma de…you wanna die, fucker?” he swung his fist at Ah Shi’s laughing face though much to his disgust, the other man ducked back nimbly. It was infuriating and completely unfair to be mocked like that, Ah Shi tauntingly out of range. Wei finally gave up and huffed, then wrinkled his nose and gave an exaggerated gag at the pungent stench of the water that still clung to him like some horrid aftershave.
“God this smells awful.”
“Seriously bro, fourteen years and you’ve already gotten to be a spoiled American.” Almond eyes were mocking. “Call it your proper homecoming, bro.” Another affectionate punch hit his shoulder, his lips dragging down into a scowl.
“Stop that, I’ve already got a bruise from you.”
“You’re just weak.” Ah Shi reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled packet, tapping it until a slender white column popped out, holding it between chapped lips. Pausing, he turned the packet outwards. “Want one?”
Wei shook his head, wrinkling his nose slightly. “I’ll pass, I gave up sucking on those cancer sticks years ago. Bad for your health and all.”
“You’re such an American, bro.” A flame burst to life with a scrap of flint, burning the white tip. The acrid scent of smoke drifted up as Ah Shi took a deep pull from the cigarette and blew out.
“I’m not that bad, am I?” Wei frowned as he shifted his position to stand away from where his friend was puffing, not wanting to choke on the cloud wafting off the other man. He turned to look at him; the sunlight highlighted the smoke and gave an almost unearthly halo to Ah Shi’s shaggy head. Dark eyes slanted towards him, narrowing slightly as white teeth were bared again.
“What’s the matter? See a ghost or something, Wei?”
He shook his head, yanking himself from the stupor that he found himself in and flashing a small smile at his old friend.
“No, nothing’s wrong. Nothing’s wrong at all.”
August 26 was a day like any other. The heat was unbearable as wicker rocking chairs groaned on concrete floors, as fans disturbed the air. Exhaust hung heavy overhead, lending a cloying thickness to the day.
Wei sat in silence as he read the newspaper, squinting as he strained to make sense of the tiny characters printed across the pages, feeling terribly rusty and out of practice. The creaking of the rocking chair kept him company as his grandmother, with her ancient reading glasses, read her book beside him. Opera music (much akin to the sound of dying cats caterwauling to him) came shakily from an ancient radio.
Finally setting down the newspaper again, he decided whatever the news was today, it wasn’t worth the pain of him translating.
“Nai nai, would you like some tea?” he barely waited for her raspy reply before he got up, stretching to work the kinks out of his back from sitting on an uncomfortable couch for too long.
He thought about the other day, about meeting with Ah Shi again and horsing in the streets as they used to. A small smile found its way onto his face as he opened the fridge and rummaged for the winter melon tea sitting in there, pouring out two cups. It had felt like forever and a day since he had felt such a strong sense of familiarity, not even realizing how much he had missed his friend until he saw him again. Some things felt the same as ever; the other man was still as shaggy and brash as he had been when he had been a boy, his sloe eyes laughing. Yet other things were different. The new lankiness to Ah Shi’s body, the new strength and broadness to tanned shoulders were almost startling. Such thoughts made him contemplate time again. Fourteen years in retrospect seemed to span an eternity behind him.
Fourteen years and he still couldn’t remember why he had to leave.
As he strode back to the living room, the phone suddenly rang, incessant until he picked it up.
“Ta ma de…Ah Shi, is that you?”
“Yeah, bro. C’mon and hang with me. I’ve been dying to see you.” Wei could almost see the broad white grin. “Let’s go grab some drinks.”
“At noon? I thought alcohol was reserved for after dark.”
“It’ll get dark.”
Wei glanced at the dusty clock ticking on the wall over the fridge contemplatively.
“Awesome, meet me in front of the temple at the street opening.” with that the phone was hung up, leaving the dial tone droning in his ear. Wei picked up a cup of tea and set it down before his grandmother, leaning down to kiss the withered old cheek.
The old woman turned so her good eye was focused on him, then merely waved him off in response, picking up the tea and taking a slow sip from the old, chipped cup.
Upon stepping out the door, he saw a mangy dog staring at him from across the street. It didn’t cower, didn’t bark and didn’t run. It just stared at him with piercing eyes, a large silhouette, shaggy and filthy and silent. He was used to seeing dogs in the streets, all sorts of dogs ranging from favorite strays to wild ones that eventually the animal control services would take—but this one was special. He couldn’t even tell why but as its head followed him, marred and mangled with only those piercing eyes leaving a single impression, he felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck. It didn’t move from that spot as he shoved his hands in his jean pockets and turned the corner to cross the street, its piercing eyes still boring into his back.
The temple was an ancient structure painted in gaudily bright colors. Red was predominant, hazy tendrils of incense pouring from the mouths of the great bronze dragons and taoties that sat like silent guardians on all sides of the central building. It was busier than normal, mantras filling the dark spaces within the temple, swelling to spill out in a monotonous droning that could leave one disoriented if they listened long enough.
Wei glanced into the opened doors, for a moment captivated by the giant maw of a coiled, glaring dragon, the beast’s seemingly writhing body coiled around a giant pot of ashes, sticks of never ending incense burning dimly within. Again, there were the metal barrels of fire, set out to burn the brightly colored money for the dead. If he squinted, he could see the black ashes from the burnt paper drifting upwards, the fires distorting the air around them.
There was something different about the air in the temple, a low humming resonating on his skin, as the mantras seemed to increase in volume, becoming near deafening. Deep in the chamber of the building, he could see the firelight flickering off something golden and large. He narrowed his eyes, leaning forward to make out the details of the blur. Suddenly a priest stepped out and lit two barrels aflame, the bursting light dancing wildly off the placid face of a god.
Wei was transfixed by the tableau, the seemingly hundreds of arms jutting out of the androgynous body and the heads that formed a crown for its own.
“Hey.” A heavy hand landed on his shoulder, strong as steel. The voice whispering in his ear raised the hairs on the back of his neck as a flash of cold ran through him. Glancing down at the fingers on his shoulder, he recognized the calloused hands and a scowl began to form on his face. He turned his head over his shoulder, coming face to face with sloe eyes and a broad white grin.
“Tense there, bro.” Ah Shi glanced towards where Wei was staring, silent for a moment as he looked at the deity.
“A thousand arms to extend mercy. A thousand heads to see evil.”
Wei looked at him in confusion.
“You still call yourself Chinese, man?”
The grin was back. Tanned arms snaked around his neck and yanked him back until he was thrown off balance, staggering as he was dragged from where he was standing in the shadows of the temple. Immediately he could feel the sun burning into his skin, blinding him for a moment. His hands came up to grip at Ah Shi’s arm, the warm flesh not giving even an inch.
“Give, give. I give.” Wei smacked the other man’s arm, doing his best to ignore the barking laugh in his ear. When he was finally released, he straightened his clothes, making an exaggerated show of dusting himself off.
“So what’s your plan?”
Ah Shi just gave him that mischievous smile, grabbing his arm and jerking his thumb towards the busy street.
Wei trotted after his friend’s long strides, grunting a little as he was jostled like human cattle, crossing the street in a massive herd to the almost eerily childish music that came through the speakers at the lights. Trusting that firm grip on his arm to keep him from straying, he glanced around slightly, struck once again by the culture shock. Shimmering black hair, fake blondes and fake brunettes, but everyone seemed faceless to him; so similar in monotony.
He was just contemplating this when he lost feeling in his left arm, and his teeth began to chatter. He turned his head, swearing he could see his breath in the 97-degree summer day. A girl had brushed him, trudging slowly along with everyone else across the zebra-ed walk, though that wasn’t what caught his attention. What caught his attention were her uneven limping and the steady stream of blood that dripped down her arm, staining her white dress a deep, dark crimson. As she turned her head to look at him, he could see that half of her pretty face looked like ground hamburger meat, the white of her cheekbone poking through. Her shiny black hair was matted with blood and her skull had caved in on one side.
His lips parted to shout, to scream, to do something, but his lungs felt like they had been emptied by the cold, not even a whimper allowed to rise. It was a super-human effort that allowed him to rip his gaze from her. He bumped into Ah Shi as he tried to get away, finally feeling his breath returning when he was no longer touching her.
He glanced down and saw her small white hand gripping his arm. Her good eye widened, lips moving, and faint wisps of voice drifted on the wind as the lethargy seemed to fall from her. Wei could swear he heard his bones creaking as her grip tightened impossibly, the fear closing up his throat, his heart beat racing and—
“Wei, you all right, bro?”
Wei blinked, looking at Ah Shi, then back at his outstretched arm.
“Dude, you’d been staring at that spot for a while.” Ah Shi frowned at him. “You’re white, bro. Did something happen?”
Wei looked to that spot again, seeing nothing. Not even a drop of blood to tell him that what he saw was real. He flexed his hand, then slowly rubbed his arm. All that was left was a bone-deep ache, though there was no bruising to say anything had happened.
Hallucinations, right? Logical explanations for it. That was the only way he could make sense of it.
“No…I’m fine.” He rubbed his arm idly again, trying to will the pain away. “Nothing happened. Just need more sleep or something.”
Ah Shi looked at him for a long moment, then finally nodded and kept on moving, tugging him along.
By sundown, the incident was all but forgotten and Wei never thought that something as simple as karaoke could prove to be more than just entertaining. It might have been a little early for such activities, but beer was flowing and there were two pretty girls in the room, one singing a duet with Ah Shi, the other sitting beside Wei with her drooping head touching his shoulder. He squinted at the two figures, having had enough beer in him to find even the occasionally cracking notes that came from the speakers passable as music. He was struggling to focus against the spinning lights coming off the disco ball sitting on the low table his feet were currently resting on, now and then finding his vision doubling.
The small room was hot, just like the rest of the day, the couches comfortable and the small snacks he’d been munching on leaving tingling tastes on his tongue. He tried to follow along with the words jumping on the screen, over pictures of seagulls and Ferris wheels and other random imagery that had nothing to do with the song, but found his vision just blurring more.
The girl sitting by him raised her head from his shoulder and moved in, her breath puffing against his neck in what may or may not have been a chuckle. He couldn’t even remember her name, but she smelled good and her soft warmth was intoxicating as he shifted to nuzzle back, his lips teasing against perfumed skin.
As he reached up to cup her cheek, tilting her head to kiss, her hand gripped his arm gently. The sudden pain made him hiss and back away, desire cooled by the ache. He tugged up his sleeve to look at his arm, paling a bit at the hand shaped bruise branding his skin.
A small hand-shaped bruise.
A woman’s handprint.
“Mm…?” Ah Shi looked up from where he was wobbling on his feet in front of the tv.
“Man…hallucinations aren’t supposed to leave bruises, are they?” Wei’s voice grew just a little higher in panic. His eyes fixed on his arm where the marks were standing out in stark contrast.
“Ah Shi…man, Ah Shi.” Wei staggered to his feet, ignoring the startled protest of the girl he was necking with, his breathing growing heavier as the room grew colder. His teeth began chattering again while his eyes darted around the room, as he pressed himself against the door. His fingers curled into claws as he closed his eyes, praying that if he didn’t see it that it wouldn’t exist.
“Wei, bro, your lips are starting to turn blue. You okay, man?”
He could hear a slow creaking, could feel something touching his face. His eyes opened against his will and stared up. Black eyes looked straight down into his, her long hair forming a tangled curtain. She dangled over his head, swaying delicately as if she were a wind-chime in a tender breeze. Her bare feet brushed against his arms as he lifted them to shield himself, his skin going numb where she touched. Her lips parted silently, forming meaningless fragments of sounds. A pale hand reached down as if to grab him, black eyes coming to life as the creaking grew louder.
He bolted, throwing open the door and running out the hall in blind need. He could hear Ah Shi calling after him, but ignored it as he just ran, arms and legs pumping until his body burned with the need for air. Still he ran.
If he ran fast and far enough, maybe it would all go away.
The air grew cold again and Wei could only sob as his dying lungs struggled for air. His eyes showed white all around, darting left, then right.
They were looking at him. Noticing him when he saw them. Reaching for him.
A man missing half of his head sitting at a bus stop like it were any other day.
A woman with her limbs broken and disjointed from being splattered against the pavement, picking herself up and staggering with wobbly steps back into the building she had thrown herself off again.
A child running with a ball, a gash going across his neck from ear to ear like a macabre smile.
White, cold hands touched him, draining the heat from his body and he could feel himself shutting down. His teeth were chattering, his breath puffing in the air as his back pressed against the wall of the alley into which he had ducked. Slowly he sank down to the ground and pressed his face to his knees.
Two boys ran along the water’s edge, the smaller one lagging behind slightly.
“Hey, wait up!” He struggled, reaching out as the larger boy waited impatiently. The smaller boy scrabbled quickly; panting as he finally caught up and leaned over his knees.
“Is this it?”
“Yeah, isn’t it cool?”
Both boys gazed into the dark waters, beaming. Their grandfathers had told them not to go swimming in that lake during the month of August—that bad things happened and the two Guo sons had died last summer because of doing exactly what they were doing now.
However, what fourteen-year-old listened to their grandfather?
The two boys quickly stripped off their shirts and tossed them on the bank before they tore off for the water, laughing and whooping loudly as they splashed in. Despite the sweltering summer, the waters were cold—refreshing for the boys after a long and hot day covered with dust and sweat from playing outside.
“Hey is that a boat?”
The larger boy craned to see while treading water. A dark form floated in the center of the small lake, a white figure seated on it.
“I think so.”
They continued watching, eyes widening as the boat started gliding towards them, the white figure becoming clearer the closer the vessel came.
All of a sudden, the waters were freezing and the boys began to swim as fast as they could towards the shore.
“Hey bro, wake up.”
Wei’s brow furrowed, eyes slowly blinking as he stared up into the concerned face of his friend.
“You flipped, bro. You flipped and passed out.” Ah Shi’s hand was warm as it rested on his head. Warm and strong and familiar.
“I was passed out?”
“Yeah. Out cold. I had to carry you all the way back.”
Wei could feel equal parts embarrassment and gratitude, studying his friend’s face. Dark eyes weren’t laughing for once and the crease of worry marring Ah Shi’s features spoke volumes.
“Thanks…I owe you.” He closed his eyes again, his head hurting a little as jumbled information tried to make sense of itself. So many things didn’t come together. On a whim he glanced down at his arm and was relieved to see there were no marks there. Perhaps it was all just a bad dream then. “Seriously thanks.”
“Don’t worry; I’ll make sure I collect, bro.” Ah Shi’s voice was teasing again, his dark eyes lighting slightly. “But don’t go pulling that fainting damsel act again—you’re heavy. Next time you’re carrying me like a princess all the way back home.”
Wei scowled at that, feeling a strong flush of embarrassment at the jab and looked away briefly. “Yeah, don’t worry. I won’t do it again.” He thought about what it must have looked like and wondered again at what was real and what had been just a hallucination. He must have scared anyone that was watching with his antics. It must have been embarrassing for Ah Shi even to be standing next to him, let alone carry his unconscious self all the way back to his grandmother’s. He felt another pulse of gratitude and was struck by how much he had missed his friend over the fourteen years. They were ge’rmen, not related by blood but bound by a brotherhood that couldn’t be stronger.
He almost didn’t want to continue as his friend’s expression had returned to its usual state, dark eyes laughing. “Was there really nothing there? You sure you didn’t see anything?”
“No? You were freaking out at the air, man.”
“Oh. Just checking, I mean I could have sworn I wasn’t just seeing things.” His voice grew quieter, and he touched his arm in memory of the icy grip. He looked at it again just to be certain but aside from a tingle there was nothing. Wei covered his eyes with his arm, drawing in a shuddery breath as he just rested for a moment.
“You sure you’re all right?”
He heard the rustling of clothes as Ah Shi leaned over and all of a sudden, he could feel the warm weight of the other man resting against his chest, the shaggy head pressed to his own and sloe eyes boring into his.
“You scared me, bro.” his voice was soft and low, a mere whisper as a calloused hand reached out and brushed back some of Wei’s hair. He was solemn again, thin lips set in a small frown. “You finally came back…”
Wei watched his friend for a long, quiet moment—his grey eyes reflecting nothing though the jumbling mess in his stomach made him feel sick. He reached up to sink his fingers into thick dark hair and twined the rough strands around them, tugging lightly just to feel the resistance. Ah Shi’s skin was heated against his own and burned through the thin layer of their shirts. He smelled like tobacco though there was a sweet layer under it, something that Wei couldn’t quite place his finger on even as he tilted his head to bury his nose into the crook of Ah Shi’s neck.
The air was tense between them, their rough hands gripping tightly as if unsure what to do. His heart was pounding out a staccato beat like a drum in his chest, his mouth finally meeting with the other man’s, chapped lips brushing together. Ah Shi’s mouth was harsh and rough, nothing like the girl he had kissed earlier that night—but at the same time there was a type of primal satisfaction in adjusting to the differences as his hand slid down to cup the back of his friend’s neck, his other moving awkwardly to curve along a bony hip.
It took them a few tries before they weren’t cursing or hissing at each other in discomfort, ending up with Ah Shi half propped up over Wei. He tilted his head to deepen the mouth-on-mouth contact, hand dragging down but hesitating for a moment at the waistband of the other’s pants. The moment of hesitation passed and he dove forward with a burst of confidence, touching the other man firmly.
“Fuck!” Wei cursed softly and broke the kiss when his head fell back, exposing his throat as his hips bucked up to the bold hand cupping his groin. The twisting in his stomach grew more violent as his nails dug into the back of Ah Shi’s neck, his lips parting to groan something incoherent.
Ah Shi moved up for a moment and looked down at his friend, their eyes meeting again for a long moment. He reached down, brushing back Wei’s hair with his fingers before tugging his own shirt up over his head and dropping it somewhere carelessly. He reached down for Wei’s, ignoring the slight struggle before they managed to get it off in awkward, fumbling motions. He returned to kissing the other man, his hands framing Wei’s face and holding him in place as their mouths meshed. Shifting a little, he moved over the other man so their lower bodies pressed together, the responding pressure drawing a low, breathy moan from him.
Burning inside, Wei watched the other man through slit eyes, panting for breath as his hips rolled back, gradually finding a pace where the friction sent sweet shivers through his body. The kiss lightened slightly, the two of them just brushing lips for a moment while they tried to catch their breath. He felt the desire coiling thickly in him, and pushed against Ah Shi until they were both lying on their sides facing each other. They kissed again and again, each time growing more comfortable, before Wei gradually drifted down from his friend’s mouth to his jaw. Ah Shi kissed his bare shoulder as his own mouth found the strong column of the other man’s neck. The scent of sweat and tobacco there made him feel light-headed; the both of them were fumbling to get their pants off.
Twining their legs together, Ahi Shi rolled them over again and trailed his mouth down to his friend’s neck before meeting his eyes, as if in question. Without waiting for more, he turned Wei over, feeling just a bit of resistance before it melted under him, his mouth pressing heated kisses to the nape of Wei’s neck. His teeth scraped over the thin skin stretched over the vertebrae there, and he began slowly making his way down, feeling a thrill at the harsh panting that escaped from the body beneath his.
Wei clutched at the sheets, his stomach tense as he felt Ah Shi’s hands spreading him, then choked on a startled gasp as a warm, slick heat brushed over sensitive nerve endings. He writhed as it pushed further in and let out a sharp oath while he tried to adjust to the alien sensation. The discomfort began to pass as he felt himself being stretched, bit by bit.
When Ah Shi entered him, he had to bite back a cry. Heat flooded him as he gasped for breath, gripping the sheets and doing his best to endure the fevered thrusts, each one sending another wave of heat through him until he felt delirious. It was raw and harsh, like getting a pure shot of electricity jolted into his system. He felt as if Ah Shi was tearing him apart and putting him back together again as he drove deeper and deeper.
Ah Shi’s hand was the final straw, the calloused grip around his aching erection proving too much as he convulsed against the other man, spilling himself into that warm palm. He struggled for breath, shuddering as he felt his friend tense and bite into his shoulder. Wei laid in a stupor for a moment, his eyes feeling weighted down as if by lead. He could feel Ah Shi’s lips brush his shoulder lightly before pulling back, the cold sweeping in at his absence. Slowly he could feel his body begin to give its small complaints, though he almost didn’t care. The lethargy was overwhelming. He found it near-impossible to keep his eyes open as grey crept into his field of vision, the world seemingly expanding from Ah Shi’s dark eyes.
When he woke up again, he was clothed and half-dazed. His body held a phantom ache and the air still smelled of Ah Shi’s tobacco, though the man himself was nowhere to be seen and part of him wondered if this was just another hallucination.
Wei stretched slowly and covered up a jaw-cracking yawn, deciding that even if it had been a hallucination, it had been exactly what he had needed to soothe his battered nerves. Swinging his legs over the sit of the bed, he froze as the room slowly began to grow colder. The tendrils of ice cleared away his warm state of half-sleep and cut through the sweltering night air like a knife. It dragged him into full alert, his body trembling finely as he looked slowly around the room, his gaze focusing on a dark form standing next to his bed.
She was standing there, tiny and frail and hunched over as always, her cataract-clouded eye looking into his as wisps of white hair fell loose from her neat little chignon. Her mouth moved silently and she reached out a small hand to touch his cheek, the point of contact draining the heat from his body slowly. Unable to move or speak, Wei closed his eyes, waiting for something, anything—but all that happened was a small touch to his cheek, dry like every kiss she had ever given him since he was young.
The room was empty now.
Brow furrowing, he rose from his bed and stood at the center of his room, looking around in confusion. The cold had dissipated, as if his grandmother had taken it with her.
A movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention, and he looked out the window into the street.
His friend stood there, a broad white grin on his face and sloe eyes laughing.
“Ah Shi…I have something I want to talk about with y—” he was cut off as his friend turned and ran off, throwing him a look full of meaning.
Startled, Wei ran through the darkened living room to fumble with the locks at the door, cursing as he banged his knee on the ancient coffee table and nearly tripped on a stool.
As he bolted out into the street, looking wildly to where his friend had disappeared, he could hear nothing, no cars or dogs—not even the low droning of crickets in the night air.
He turned over his shoulder, eyes widening as he saw Ah Shi standing behind him, grinning at him.
“Ah Shi I need to talk to you.”
“Gotta catch me first, bro.” and with that he took off, long legs eating up ground.
Wei immediately followed, adrenaline pumping through him as a cold sensation grew in his gut. The streets were silent but for the pounding of his feet against the ground, echoing in the air with a tinny hollowness. Pavement gave way to gravel and gravel to dirt until finally he was hunched over panting on the sandy shores of a lake.
“Hey, wait up!” Ah Shi finally stopped, turning to stand knee deep in the water, waiting for him.
All of a sudden, realization struck him hard enough to send him physically reeling, collapsing onto his hands and knees in the sand.
“Ah Shi!” Wei screamed as he found something grab his leg. It yanked at him, hard, and dragged him deeper into the water. He struggled against it, kicking and shrieking in terror, too scared to even cry.
“Wei!” Ah Shi dove back into the water and grabbed the younger boy, yanking back hard. The thing in the water was hideous, white, slimy hands gripping tight enough around Wei’s leg to leave indentations; her hair was like black seaweed streaming in the water. Her eyes were black holes in what might have been a beautiful face at one point, but now was just a thing of horror. Ah Shi gritted his teeth to lock the scream or terror, grunting in effort as he pulled back as hard as he could.
She leaned in closer, her hands reaching out again and lips parting to form words, only a whisper of sound carrying her message.
I don’t want to die.
All the stories that his grandfather had told him flashed through his mind in that moment—his raspy voice speaking of water ghosts drowning unfortunate souls to take their place, the month of the dead that released hungry ghosts into the world of the living, the voices in the dark that called out your name to dim the fires of life when you turned to answer.
They were only supposed to be stories.
Wei’s head went under the water, his limbs flailing wildly with violent desperation.
There was a loud splash and suddenly the world was dark.
“You…you drowned. Ah Shi…you drowned, saving me.” Tears were welling up in his eyes and flowing uncontrollably down his face. His fingers dug into the sand and his entire world was spinning as he looked up into his friend’s black eyes. Wei’s chest tightened painfully, and his insides twisted so violently that he felt like he was sick.
“Ah Shi…Ah Shi…” he moaned the other man’s name repeatedly, his breath shuddery as his shoulders shook in grief.
“I didn’t drown saving you.”
Wei choked as the water closed over his nose and mouth, dragging him down deep into its depths.
Ah Shi fought against whatever was holding him down, whipping around and grasping an arm.
A small arm.
A warm one.
His eyes widened, as he looked into the face of his friend, unable to struggle in the paralysis of shock. As Wei’s lips moved silently, the waters around them became even colder.
I don’t want to die.
Wei gazed up into his friend’s face, finding it beautiful illuminated by the moonlight streaming through the water. The wild dog hair looked soft and feathery as it flowed about his head. A part of him was elated when he didn’t see anger or hatred on those beloved features.
Ah Shi…I have so many things I want to tell you. I’ve missed you.
I’ve missed you too, bro. After all, we’re ge’rmen, right?
Wei felt warmth flood his chest as he saw that broad white grin stretch across Ah Shi’s face. His friend’s lips were warm against his, tasting of tobacco and something sweet that he just couldn’t place.
The placid surface of the lake was shattered as Wei’s head came bursting through. He gasped loudly for breath, tiredly slogging his way to the bank and dragging himself onto the sands. He fell over and barely managed to roll on his back to stare up at the sky. The black of night had lightened, and a beautiful shade of pre-dawn blue was kissing the eastern horizon, a small token to ease the stars to sleep.
He slowly climbed to the feet, unsteadily swaying for a moment before he gathered his legs under him. The cold of the night was fading and the chills that wracked his body were gone now, replaced instead by a warm sense of content.
A broad white grin stretched across his face as he reached into his pocket, pulling out a wet, crumpled packet of cigarettes. He painstakingly tapped one out, lighting it as the sun burst over the tree line, illuminating his face in a golden glow. He took in a deep drag, the wreath of smoke around his head forming an unearthly halo.
“That’s right, bro, we’re ge’rmen.”