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gone and stayed

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This one time, Zhao Xinci misses the intimacy of a shared mind. He does not want to say this out loud. He doesn’t want to put it into words.

He does anyway. “Zhang Shi,” making it very clear who he is talking to, and that they are alone, the last customers at the little noodle shop where the deaf old proprietor is yawning over her abacus. “It’s almost the Reunion Festival. I want to sweep my son’s grave.”

Zhang Shi knows him too well to make any show of compassion. Nor does he begin on a speech about the logistical difficulties or the need for a secure cover identity. He spoons up the last of his broth, sucking a stray noodle from the point of the lotus spoon while he thinks.

“It's good to hear you think of him at this time,” he says finally. Zhao Xinci clenches his teeth and waits for the pointless anger to subside; he's not here for another bitter argument about fathers and sons, guilt and prerogatives. Zhang Shi is watching him, his eyes ancient. “I don't know where to take you. But I know someone who does.”


“Don’t you think it’s a little late for that?” Guo Changcheng says.

“We’ve had this discussion,” Zhao Xinci tells him. “I’m aware of your views.”

“He was alive then,” Guo Changcheng flares. “You could—you still—"

He is right, but it doesn’t change anything. “Xiao Guo. You aren’t under orders here. If you don’t want to do this, don’t do it.”

“I didn’t say I—!” As so often, Guo Changcheng remembers his shyness in the middle of a sentence, his voice cracking. He swallows and looks away.

Chu Shuzhi says suddenly “Changcheng,” and waits until Guo Changcheng meets his eyes. “He’s got the right. They both do.”

Zhao Xinci stares at him. “You’ve changed your tune.”

Chu Shuzhi looks away, his eyes softening momentarily as they pass over Guo Changcheng, then growing distant, reminding Zhao Xinci that he, too, is older than they ever think about. “Some things,” he says, “you don’t ever understand until after you lose someone.”


The little park is tucked away in a corner of the city that Zhao Xinci now knows to be the unofficial Dixingren quarter. Like many things here, it is short on amenities, badly tended and unkempt, its glory of wisteria more an accident than any design.

The memorial is in a quiet corner, not visible from the street. There is no gravestone, nothing like the one he chose so carefully for Shen Xi; only a suan jiang plant, the calyces glowing vermilion in the slanting sunlight. Someone else has been here; set carefully on the soil, there is a bouquet of lollipops, and a shot-glass of baijiu in a little basket along with a porcelain cup of tea.

Guo Changcheng disappears as soon as he has guided them there, leaving Zhao Xinci and Zhang Shi alone.

There’s nothing to say aloud. It’s too late. Zhao Xinci sets down the little package of sweets—not lollipops but the ginger candies he used to bring home occasionally when Yunlan was very small—and stands still. He is still more used to Zhang Shi’s presence than his absence, and it could be—before, if he only doesn’t look at him, doesn’t see the face he is wearing. They stand there together, remembering, watching the breeze stir the lantern-blossoms.