Title: Gray Fine Line
Summary: I wanted to believe.
Note: To an absent friend
I was expecting the usual Tuesday night; TV, weekends' leftover dinner, shower, bed. Not in that particular order but the same idea nevertheless.
Unusual and eccentric I might be, presumably, I still have my routine; a normalcy that documents the passing of time. I fingered my key as I was going up. Sighing heavily, I couldn't help but think, if this part of my life was easy, predictable, then why was I complaining?
The elevator reached my floor and it dinged. I stepped off, passing Patrick's door on my right. Someone must have been waiting for me as his door opened just as I passed it.
"Nian qing ren, nian qing ren. Qing ni jiu jiu wo?" Bony fingers circled around my arm. I turned and saw a woman, old and frail. Her skin was barely hanging on her, age-speckled, and there were these lines on it, like deltas in the Ganges. A familiar whiff wafted my way.
"Ma'am? I don't--"
"Qing ni jiu jiu wo. Ni lai, geng wo lai," she pulled me into the apartment. Somehow my resistance drained, something inside me relented.
Patrick's apartment was a mirror image of mine. It had more things though; I could smell antiquities in here.
She led me to the living room, leaving me alone. She went into one of the rooms, her footsteps too faint for my ears. To say that I was surprised was an understatement.
"Uh Ma'am? Excuse me, I'm not sure--"
"Mulder right?" I swiftly turned. I felt a cold draft on my back and it prickled me. I found its source from the opened window, the wind billowing the curtains, donning a lover's goodbye.
"Yeah?" I found the voice. He was sitting on the couch, beside the window.
"Patrick?" He smiled, his face came into the light from the street.
"Hey Mulder, thanks for stopping by." Now it was my turn to smile.
"I'm not sure about that. Your, your--"
"Mother. She's my mother," Patrick turned his head to the rooms. "That obvious right?" I shrugged. I didn't know, I didn't have a chance to stare and compare.
"Patrick, is she okay? I'm not sure what's going on." A whiff of incense flared up my nose. Something burned.
Patrick stood up, crossing to the window. He spent a few thoughts there and walked towards the room where his mother was. I stayed my eyes ahead, puzzled when he didn't take another step. He stopped, placing his hand on the wall.
"It's my brother. I think he's in trouble."
"What kind of trouble?" I tore my eyes from his wall, tearing my eyes away from the hung scroll. It was a brush painting of white and melancholia, with two figures in them, in ancient Chinese dressing. Both were male, and one was crouching on the ground. His hands reached heavenwards, pinning for the one above. They looked ... *off*.
I saw his hand clench. Facing me, he came next to me, closer.
"She doesn't have much time. Please. Help her."
"To do what? What about you? You're her son."
"Yes," he stepped to the side, "but I have to take care of *her* too." He motioned me to the other room, through the parted door, through the bedroom nightlight.
I saw a woman, a younger one this time. Her black hair was lacking its luster and her head was turned to one side. She was so still.
"She's not well. I can't just leave her." I took a step nearer, but Patrick stopped me. He looked at me and simply shook his head.
Patrick's eyes had that listlessness that settled in when a man had nearly given up. I knew those eyes; I nearly had them once.
"She should be in a hospital--wait, my partner is a--"
"She *was* in a hospital, Mulder. Just help me,"--those eyes again--"help my mother."
"I don't know how." I checked myself for my phone. I just needed something to do.
"She does. Listen to her."
"I don't even--"
"Ma!" I turned around. The old woman was now ready. She had her hair tied in a bun, the silvery streaks covering black ones. Her hand clamped on her bag tightly. She then pressed the clamped hand over her overcoat and grabbed my hand with the other.
"Wo de er zhi," she pulled my hand and I bend down, "ta bing dao heng xing ku." Her hand shivered.
"Ma'am, I don't understand--Patrick--"
"Wo zhi dao, wo de er zhi," she stopped abruptly. She looked passed my head to the couch behind me. I followed her cue and stirred too.
Patrick was behind me, looking at us. There was something familiar about his face, and it was just not the eyes. It was the whole face, a mournfulness that he shared with the old woman.
"Patrick?" I whispered.
"Help us," he said. I felt my hand being tugged and I doubled back. The old woman palmed my face, her eyes already lined with tears.
"Wo mei you ren, qing bang bang wo. Hao?" I nodded: okay, yes Ma'am.
She let go of me, urging me to follow. We walked a few steps before she halted once again and turned around. I mirrored her turn.
Patrick held up his hand. Did he even see me?
"Ma, bao zhong."
The old woman had a sense of direction. She led me down, preceded me to my car and knocked the hood when I hesitated to look back up to the opened window. She did not have the fragility that I often associate with people her age. She might have looked and sounded like her age, but her manner did not reflect it. I admired her instantly.
She knocked again, the window this time.
"Wo men yao kuai dian." I held out my hand, nodding and unlocking the car at the same time. She got in, strapping herself and glanced around. Noticing how I was still struggling with my seatbelt, she reached for my keys and inserted the key in the ignition.
"Gan kuai, gan kuai."
"Okay, okay," the words rushed unheard. I started the car and left the driveway. I drove aimlessly around the area. Circling the blocks, looking for something that I didn't have a clue of seemed to be the right idea at the time. No one else was giving suggestions.
The old woman fidgeted beside me, her hands rubbing against themselves furiously back and forth. She darted from one side to the other, while I just kept driving.
"Ma'am? Ma'am? I need your help here. I have no idea where you want me to go."
"Bu shi, bu shi..." she mumbled, over and over again.
"Wo de er zhi, wo de er zhi--"
"Your son, your son right?" I pointed her to me, motioning my height and she nodded. "Patrick?" She shook her head.
"Bu shi, bu shi..." the mantra started again. Okay, not Patrick. Patrick's brother then--of course!
"Your *er zhi*?"
"Hao, wo de er zhi. Ta bing dao heng xing ku." Damn. It was that phrase again. She looked away to the window. I could not just drive like this. I needed to know more.
"Wo de er zhi, ta lai kan wo, ta gao shu wo..." I don't know, I don't understand!
Suddenly, she flashed out her hand and brought it to my forehead. She laid the back of her fingers against it, touching gently.
"Ni zhi dao mah? Ni zhi dao?" Her son's--what? Having a fever?
"Your son is sick, fever? Sick right?" She retrieved her hand, her eyes shining. I continued, tapping the wheel.
"Hao! Gan kuai, gan kuai!" I knew what *that* means now; hurry, hurry damnit. But which one?
"Hao," I muttered, "hao."
She worried the bleached jade beads around her right wrist. Her mouth moved to some prayer, whispers that were alien to me. Sometimes her eyes were close, sometimes she had them on me. I felt the urgency too. I too was a mother's son.
I took the nearest route to the nearest hospital (and hoped that it was the right one), violating nearly five counts of road regulations along the way. Once the hospital was in sight, she unclipped her seatbelt. Her hand slid to my arm, grasping it.
I stopped the car at the ER, telling her that I would be back for her. I hoped she understood me to some level. She patted my arm and touched my hair.
"Hao, nian qing ren. Hao." She stepped out of the car and disappeared through the sliding doors.
I parked the car at the parking lot and raced back to the ER. Dozens of faces flashed before me, but none belonged to the old woman. I began to worry when I didn't see her calf-length camel overcoat. I started to panic when I didn't smell the jasmine from her.
"Sir? Can I help you? You're blocking our means of communication here" I wove my way around the nurse, sidestepping her, "Sir?"
"Sorry," I let out a breath. I looked around; I was smacked in the middle of their hallway.
"I'm looking for a lady, an old Chinese woman. White streaks, sad eyes? I let her out a while ago. Did you see her?'
"Are you family, Mister, Mister?" She quirked a tired eyebrow to me and flipped her file open. Sure, I looked family all right.
"I'm not. It's just--wait!" A door slid open and I saw her. The bun hung low above her nape. "Excuse me." I eased pass her, stepping through the room.
"Hey--" I heard the nurse cry. She was right at my heels, bumping me when I stopped.
A symphony of medical devices greeted my eyes. They were silent, perhaps used once, and all surrounding the sole bed in the room. On it slept its occupant, whom from the silence, would never ever wake up.
The old woman was by his side, not weeping, but running her hand over his hair, setting it down. She swept it up, to the side, until it was perfect. She brought her hand to his, linking them. Turning to me, she took a step back, revealing him.
"Wo de er zhi." I looked. I had the chance to stare. True, it was obvious. I had seen, and now I looked. They were mother and son.
The son was Patrick.
I felt as though someone had stepped over my grave. Or in this case, someone else's.
"Patrick?" The old woman shook her head.
"Bu shi. Ai Phin." I bowed my head and backed out of the room, exchanging one shock for another. I worked a few paces outside the room, walking from one room to the next and back again.
It couldn't be...
"Sir? You all right?" It was the same nurse. She must have liked me enough to hang around.
"What happened in there?" I pointed to the room.
"Who are you?" And she was smart too. I showed her my badge and rattled off my license for authority. She seemed impressed and distanced me to the next room.
"He was in a head-on collision. He and a woman were brought in an hour ago. It was a hit and run. They still had to catch the bastard who did it."
"Yeah, that one," she nudged her chin to the door. I turned. I had seen her before.
That lackluster hair. That same turn of the head.
It was all like a bad dream. And why does it always happen to me?
"What are their names?" She ruffled her papers.
"Patrick Yeo and the women is Julie Schrapler. Do you know them?"
I stared at her blankly. "I know Patrick." I mused a thought, scrunching one side of my face with my hand.
"Does he have a brother? Any siblings?" I walked back to Patrick's room, watching him and the old woman from outside.
"I don't know whether I can help you there but wait," she held out the paper to me, "he *had* one, a twin brother. He died exactly six months ago."
I closed my eyes. "Name?"
She closed her file, joining me at my side.
"He's a strong one you know, holding out till she came. How did she know he was here?"
I wanted to know too.
I spent the next few hours doing ... nothing. I was not even sure if the old woman (whom I know now as Mrs. Yeo) knew I was there. It was only after the arrival of her nephew and niece that I was convinced she would be taken care of. Even then, strangely, I was reluctant to let her go.
I gave them my number and they promised to keep in touch. I was tempted to see the old woman one last time, but she was still with her son. And I of all people should not encroach upon that.
I drove back home, the streets waned with life. I glanced at my watch and the hour of two leapt back at me. Upon reaching home, I glanced up to Patrick's apartment. His window was still open.
Patrick's apartment door was ajar. I pushed the door gently. The apartment was empty, doused heavily with cold incensed air. Retracing my previous footsteps, I kneeled down at the couch, perusing the picture frame by its side.
They were uncanny, down to their side-hair partings and the one-sided dimples on their corresponding cheeks. Standing up, I knew what Mrs. Yeo had seen earlier. She was looking at the picture.
Was she? And in that train of thought, was I?
I shut the door on my way out. Opening mine, it surprised me that my apartment didn't feel as cold. My windows were closed and the radiator had kicked in. That was it. I had been out far too long, far too late.
And for goodness' sake, nothing happens on Tuesday night. Right? It was the wind.
I tuned out the lights, shed my outer clothes and dived shirt-and-pants into bed. I lay still, feeling the weight of the sheets, just breathing to make sure. I took out my watch and dropped it on the dresser.
"Hey, you're back." She shifted to me. "What time is it?"
"It's late. Go back to sleep," I whispered as I wrapped my arms around her waist and brought her closer. She started to rub my hands, spreading a warmth between them. I felt her feet finding mine.
She reached out to touch my face in the darkness. "You're cold. You okay?"
I nuzzled her hair, kissed her nape, breathed in. Jasmine. I'd missed her all night.
"Yeah." I wanted to believe. "I'm okay."
- epilogue -
The movers came today. They didn't have much to move. The whole thing lasted for only an hour or so.
I had a great view from here. My window was up and the wind was decent. Nothing flew and things just flipped in a breeze that I liked.
Someone rapped my door. I turned my head and heard muffled footsteps meeting up to it. They stopped.
"You're expecting someone?" I shrugged. It was too early to think, much less entertain. The door creaked open and hushed words were exchanged.
"Hmmm?" She was letting someone in. I turned fully, lifting my feet off the table.
It was the old woman, Mrs. Yeo. She held something in her hand. The door yawned wider.
"I'm taking a walk. I'll be back, 'kay?" I nodded understandingly as she slipped on her jacket and swept up my keys. She hesitated, searching my face for assurance. I'm okay, I wanted to tell her. The door closed behind her and Mrs. Yeo stepped forward.
"Nian qing ren," she started. I smiled, a term of endearment that seemed to grow on me.
"I speak little English," she said haltingly as I motioned her to the couch.
"Wo de--my son," she handed the wrapped package to me, "Patrick know you. You take this."
I pushed the package back to her, shaking my head.
"No, no, ah bu shi," I tempted for muster, remembering that night.
"Hao, my son, ta gao shu wo, you take this." Her eyes begged to me. I took the package, dropping my head low.
She stood up, wiping her hands on her black cheongsam. "I go now."
"Hao," I replied. I think she liked it. She patted my cheek and smiled.
"Nian qing ren," we reached the door, "thank you. My son thank you."
I watched her leave, her footfalls faint as before. Gone was the camel overcoat but something else remained. Jasmine, and a touch of incense.
I opened the package back at the couch. It was a scroll, one that I had seen before, a glanced remembrance in the vaguest of memory.
It was a brush painting of white and melancholia, with two figures in them, in ancient Chinese dressing. Both were male, in the clouds, looking over the ground below.
Identical. Right down to their one-sided dimples.
Phrases used in the story
bu shi - no gan kuai, gan kuai - hurry, hurry geng wo lai - follow me hao - yes/okay ma, bao zhong - ma, take care ni lai - you come ni zhi dao - you know nian qing ren - young man qing bang bang wo - help me qing ni jiu jiu wo - please help me qiu qiu ni - (begging) please ta bing dao heng xing ku - he's VERY sick wo bu zhi dao - I don't know wo bu zhi shuo zhuo - (I'm scared) I'm stuck in-between, I don't know what to do wo de er zhi, ta lai kan wo, ta gao shu wo - my son, he visits me, he tells me wo de er zhi, wo de er zhi - my son, my son wo mei you ren - I have no one wo men yao kuai dian - we must hurry
My apologies to my Chinese ancestors and peers for any errors.
My thanks to Heather for your lovely beta and understanding (I reckon that since it worked for you, then it can work for others too), and Karen and YL for your help.
Thank you for reading--xie xie.
there is little 'new' in human experience