Jiang Yanli is worried about Wei Ying.
"I don't know how long he'll need to stay with us," she tells Jin Zixuan, voice hushed even though the windows of their house are closed and Wei Ying is outside wrestling the first leaves of the season into a meagre pile. He's been living in their basement for months already. She plans to let him stay as long as he needs, but she's married now, and her wife sometimes struggles with having a lot of people around. She doesn't want to make the decision unilaterally.
"A-Li," Jin Zixuan says, resting a warm hand on the dip of Jiang Yanli's hip. Her fingers spread automatically as they curve toward her belly, even though they just started trying for a baby right before Wei Ying moved in and nothing's taken yet. "I said it was fine when you wanted to invite him in the first place." She kisses her temple, then the shell of her ear. "I said he could stay indefinitely. You know I… get it."
"I do," Jiang Yanli says, turning into her wife's touch so that she's facing her instead of the window. She wraps her arms around Jin Zixuan's neck, wrists crossed behind her head, and pulls her down for a kiss. "Thank you," she whispers, mostly against her wife’s lips.
"He'll be okay," Jin Zixuan says. "He brought all those decorations up last night, didn't he?"
"That's true," Jiang Yanli says, brightening a little. He hadn't seemed particularly enthusiastic, but he had seemed determined, dragging box after box up from the other basement room to the foyer, laying out Halloween decorations, sketching potential tableaus onto a piece of paper.
You'll help me, jiejie, won't you, he'd said, eyes bright for just a moment, so of course she'd told him Absolutely, A-Ying, you know I love Halloween, even though for the two years she and Jin Zixuan have been living in this house, they haven't started decorating till partway through October, and it's barely just September.
Wei Ying stays outside for a long time, raking and re-raking the leaves. Jiang Yanli wants him to stay as long as he needs — longer — but she's not certain he'll agree. He came up to her last week in the kitchen, while Jin Zixuan was still out with the one friend she's kept from her college fraternity days, and assured her he'd get out of their hair "since I know you want to be making babies, jiejie, with your peac- wife and — I haven't figured out how Mianmian fits in to all of this, but if she's involved in the baby-making, I can just... peace, you know? If you need. Okay?"
He'd looked so earnest about it, too. Like he was willing to move out, and not just spend Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan's date night babysitting Wen Yuan as a favor to Wen Qing during one of her overnight shifts. Like he thought he was possibly getting in the way.
By the time Jiang Yanli hears the front door open and close again, Jin Zixuan is tinkering with all her dried flowers up in the attic and Jiang Yanli is paging through an old book on number theory in the living room.
Wei Ying pauses in the doorway and scratches his hair, ponytail pulling askew with the movement. "Hi jiejie," he says.
"A-Ying," Jiang Yanli says, closing her book with a smile, marking her place with a finger. "How was… outside?"
"It's so fucking hot out there," Wei Ying says. "Leaves are starting to fall, it shouldn't be this hot out."
"You do look a little… dewy," Jiang Yanli admits, letting her smile widen into a grin. "Come, sit."
She pats the couch cushion next to her, and Wei Ying flops down on it. He's a little rank, from the work and from showering infrequently. She pulls him in for a cuddle anyway, feeling the sweat on his forehead rub against her bare shoulder.
"I think we should start decorating tonight," Wei Ying says.
"Getting excited for your birthday?" Jiang Yanli asks. Her tone is light, jovial, but the question is, at its core, deeply serious.
Wei Ying doesn't reply for a long, long moment, in a way that Jiang Yanli knows means he's trying to figure out how to lie to her and get away with it. "I like Halloween," he says, finally.
Jiang Yanli knows this is true. She likes Halloween, too. Halloween is their thing: as kids, they would huddle in blanket forts while her mom was off on business trips and her dad was taking Jiang Cheng to soccer practice. They would watch horror movies and break into the fancy imported snack foods that her parents tried to hide away to impress important guests. She used to help both her brothers with their costumes, delighted that Wei Ying liked things nearly as scary as she, herself, did.
She knows Wei Ying likes Halloween.
In the past, it was the double magic of his birthday and dressing up and candy and horror movies with his big sister and Jiang Cheng not being able to complain because it was Wei Ying's birthday.
Things are different now, though.
"Halloween is good," Jiang Yanli says, and kisses Wei Ying's sweaty forehead. "If we get started tonight, we'll have the best-decorated house in all of Philadelphia."
"All of Pennsylvania," Wei Ying says.
"All of the East Coast," Jin Zixuan offers, coming into the room. "What are we talking about?"
"Halloween decorations," Wei Ying says.
Jin Zixuan makes eye contact with Jiang Yanli for a millisecond, then rolls her eyes. "You're not going to make it scary, are you?" Jin Zixuan asks. "Yanli says you two used to always make things scary."
"Your wife is a wuss," Wei Ying tells Jiang Yanli with a beleaguered sigh, heaving himself up off of her shoulder and shaking his head. "Jie, why did you marry such a wimpy woman?"
Thank you Jiang Yanli mouths at Jin Zixuan, who lifts an eyebrow in return. Wei Ying might read the expression as unimpressed; Jiang Yanli knows it to be a nod.
"Because I love her," Jiang Yanli says out loud, and she and Jin Zixuan smile at each other for a long moment.
"Gross," Wei Ying says, but he sounds pleased. "I may be twenty-two, but I can still catch cooties."
"Well, I'm twenty-nine," Jiang Yanli says. "And Zixuan is twenty-seven. I'm pretty sure cooties die off when you hit twenty-five."
Wei Ying shakes his head skeptically. "I'm gonna go," he says, and gestures vaguely toward the basement steps. "I'll see you later though? For decorating?" He grins at Jin Zixuan, a twisted attempt at a smile. "We can make it really scary this year. Lots of blood and moving parts."
"Whenever you're ready, A-Ying," Jiang Yanli promises.
All she could do was stroke his hair and make soothing noises.
Jin Zixuan brought them water and a bag full of sesame candy and then kept her distance, holed up on the sun porch at the back of the house. Jiang Yanli loves her wife, whose difficulty with high-intensity emotional situations is matched only by her awareness of when it's best to make herself scarce.
Wei Ying never explained the tears, beyond insisting he was sober again by the time he got to her house. He assured her that at least three of his professors were letting him finish up the semester via correspondence, and the ones who wouldn't either taught classes where it would be impossible for him to fail at this point, or classes that weren't essential for his degree, and then hunkered down in the basement despite the three extra bedrooms Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan offered him. Jiang Yanli was the only person in the family who he told he wasn't going to his own graduation. She texted Jiang Cheng but didn't bother telling their parents, not after everything that'd happened the previous summer.
She keeps waiting for him to cry again, but if he does, he does it quietly in the night while she's sleeping two floors away, or when she's made the trip down to Center City to surprise Jin Zixuan and Mianmian at work. She thinks that, probably, he doesn't cry then either. Jiang Yanli is familiar with the feeling of tears caught in a knot in your chest, thick and aching and refusing to budge, and sometimes Wei Ying walks like he's feeling that particular wound.
"Sometimes crying doesn't actually help," Jin Zixuan reminds her when Jiang Yanli voices her concerns. She cradles Jiang Yanli's cheeks in her big, warm hands and gives her a toothpaste-y kiss.
"I just always feel better after a good cry," Jiang Yanli says with a sigh.
"I never have," Jin Zixuan says, and kisses her again. "I feel better with Dr. Song and medication."
But Wei Ying has neither a therapist nor a prescription, and the time Jiang Yanli tried to broach the subject directly didn't go well. She's written a couple numbers — her therapist, Jin Zixuan's therapist, and a couple others they both recommended — and a website on a dry-erase magnet on the fridge instead and left it there, and hoped he'd make the call.
"We absolutely could," Jiang Yanli agrees. She'd insisted on a neighborhood with no HOA when she and Jin Zixuan bought a house together, so there's not going to be any formal pushback. There's a couple kids who live on the street, though. "Nothing too… macabre, probably, the Dennisons would lose it."
"The Dennisons are racist and probably deserve a fright," Wei Ying contends, which isn't untrue.
"No skeletons," Jiang Yanli counters. "And nothing dripping actual fake blood."
"Is real blood okay?" Wei Ying asks, and when she shoots him a look, he winks at her. "Fine, I'll keep the skeletons on the ground. Ghosts, though."
Jiang Yanli considers this. "Ghosts are fine," she decides.
"Good," says Wei Ying, tilting his head back to survey the branches above them.
They drag out some of the tombstones Jiang Yanli made once — a personalized decoration for the surprise party she'd thrown at her apartment in Queen Village for Wei Ying's eighteenth birthday party. They've held up remarkably well for carved and weatherproofed foamboard.
A funny look crosses Wei Ying's face as he looks at the inscriptions. "Do your neighbors get the xianxia jokes?" he asks, even though his gaze lingers on the one that just says BOB - an inside joke that Jiang Yanli has since forgotten the origin of.
Jiang Yanli shrugs. "They get the other ones," she says.
Wei Ying gets tired by the time they're done arranging the tombstones in a semicircle around the yard. He does — to Jiang Yanli's surprise and delight — admit as much.
"Don't worry, jiejie," he says. "We can do more tomorrow."
"I'm not worried," Jiang Yanli says. She is, but not about the decorations. "We have like two months to get it perfect."
Wei Ying smiles at her. Like many of his smiles these days, it doesn't really reach his eyes.
Jiang Yanli doesn't want to see that terrible smile, so she pulls Wei Ying in for a big, tight hug. "I'm glad you're here, A-Ying," she says, earnestly. "I've missed decorating for Halloween with you."
Wei Ying laughs a little. To Jiang Yanli's practiced ears, it sounds nervous. "We didn't get much done."
"Yet," Jiang Yanli emphasizes. "What do you say, want to go watch Hocus Pocus?"
"It's September!" Wei Ying protests.
"It's spooky season," Jiang Yanli says. "We've started decorating, we're totally allowed to perv on the sexy witch."
"When you put it that way," Wei Ying says, and follows her inside. "Although I suspect you've only suggested Hocus Pocus because it's like the only decent movie your wife can tolerate."
"You're not wrong," Jiang Yanli says, cheerfully. "Zixuan likes witchy tits too."
"Jie!" Wei Ying sounds scandalized.
It's more enthusiasm than he's displayed in months. Jiang Yanli bites her lip against the rush of emotion. "Go find my wife," she says, brushing a kiss to Wei Ying's cheek. "I'll throw together a snack."
She listens, waiting for Wei Ying's footsteps to fade up the stairs, before she allows herself twenty seconds to cry. Then she dries her eyes, wiping away the makeup smudges with rough swipes of her thumbs, washes her hands, and starts cutting up some fruit.
"Oh," Wei Ying says, as his gaze falls on the two of them; the way Jin Zixuan is huddled over Jiang Yanli, the way Jiang Yanli has a hand resting on Jin Zixuan's bicep. "This is — I can go. I can totally go back and crash at Wen Qing's if you need some time together."
"Nonsense," Jiang Yanli says. "We're just… sitting here, watching tv."
"Come join us," Jin Zixuan offers, but Wei Ying is already backing out of the room.
"No, no," he says. "I can — I'll just — downstairs."
Jin Zixuan stares after him. "I am going to make him feel so welcome in this house," she swears, once Wei Ying is firmly out of earshot. "Like, I know what he's feeling right now, I've been there, I know that we can't just tell him to stop, but I am going to do my absolute best to help him realize he belongs here."
Jiang Yanli stares at Jin Zixuan. "I love you," she breathes, and struggles to a half-seated position so she can take Jin Zixuan's face in both her hands and pull her down for a deep, thorough kiss. "I'd marry you again if I could, Xuanxuan."
"He's my family too, now," Jin Zixuan points out, blushing a little. She glances toward the basement, and then at the tv screen. "But if you wanted to thank me, I wouldn't say no to being tied up for a little while tonight."
"Baobei, I'll even spank you," Jiang Yanli breathes, reaching for the remote. "As hard and as much as you want."
(Jiang Yanli is mentioned, but briefly, and not in connection to her wife at all. When they were kids, Jiang Yanli's mom and Jin Zixuan's mom kept pushing the two of them together, to absolutely dreadful effect. Jiang Yanli loves her wife, but she's not certain they'd be together today if she hadn't, in the first year of her master's degree, run into Jin Zixuan panicking in the library about having just come out to her fraternity. Jiang Yanli ended up talking Jin Zixuan down off a proverbial ledge, and admitted that she, herself, was gay.
They've been inseparable ever since. This marriage is not what their mothers envisioned when they plotted for their children's union decades ago. Jiang Yanli has therefore been twice disappointing: marrying her wife, and choosing to be a housewife instead of capitalizing on her own education.
Wei Ying isn't mentioned on her mother's facebook at all.)
Jiang Yanli is, still, a good daughter. She maintains her facebook and likes her mother's many posts. She messages her friends from college — Emma just had a baby; Sheri is considering going on a date with the cute artist in their figure-drawing class; Qin Su is continuing to exercise her terrible taste in men. She keeps in touch with the neighborhood group, keeping an eye on the kinds of things people are saying — keeping an eye, in particular, on what comments are being shared about the Halloween tableau slowly coming together in the front yard.
She's about to check one of her father's infrequent posts — inevitably, a link to some old poem — when she notices a message request at the corner of the screen.
The message request is, as it turns out, a few weeks old. It's from an account with no profile picture and, when Jiang Yanli investigates, no friends, either.
She'd delete the request out of hand, but the name is familiar. Wei Ying used to talk about his roommate at length, every time he and Jiang Yanli spoke on the phone or grabbed a meal together. His Lan Zhan sounded like a very special young man, indeed.
Wei Ying hasn't talked about Lan Zhan since he skipped his own graduation.
Forgive me for reaching out to you like this, Lan Zhan's message reads. And forgive me for speaking so bluntly here. I do not wish to go behind Wei Ying's back to ask how he's doing. He hasn't replied to my last few emails or text messages, though, and I do not want him to feel like the regard in which I hold him is conditional upon a response. (Also, I don't want to pressure him with multiple unanswered messages.) I am just concerned, and would like to know if he's alright.
Jiang Yanli reads the message twice, and then logs out of the website. She can address her parents' posts later.
Wei Ying is hungry for lunch that day, rolling his eyes good-naturedly as his stomach grumbles. Jiang Yanli is pleased; his appetite has been hit or miss recently. She makes them hot dry noodles and texts a picture to her wife, who responds:
Jealousssssss those look gorgeous bb
What a nice treat for neidi!!
Yum yum yum
Way too spicy for me though tbh lol
"A-Xuan says these look too spicy," Jiang Yanli says, fondly, as she passes Wei Ying the chili oil and watches him load his bowl with several spoonfuls of the stuff.
"Again, I reiterate, your wife is a huge wimp," Wei Ying says, and smiles a little, privately. "I like her though." He pauses, and then glances up at Jiang Yanli. "Don't tell her I said that. I'm still trying to make sure she lives in constant fear of my wrath should she ever hurt you again."
"We were in middle school," Jiang Yanli says, laughing. "Everyone's an asshole in middle school."
"Not to my jiejie," Wei Ying says, stoutly. He adds another spoonful of chili oil and stirs it into his noodles.
"Speaking of school," Jiang Yanli says, calmly, focusing on adding a dash of chili oil to her own bowl. "I got a facebook message request from your old roommate today."
"Lan Zhan?" Wei Ying says, startled. He shakes his head. "Impossible. Lan Zhan doesn't have facebook."
Jiang Yanli weighs the benefits of telling Wei Ying that Lan Zhan doesn't really have an account; that it seems he just created one for the purposes of reaching out to her. "Some account named Lan Zhan reached out to me, at least."
"Weird!" Wei Ying says. Jiang Yanli watches his expression closely, but it's inscrutable even to her. "Huh. Well, what did he say? What did you say to him?"
"I haven't replied to him," Jiang Yanli says. "I wasn't sure if it would be a — violation."
Wei Ying looks surprised at that, then thoughtful. "No," he says. "I mean, if it really is him, I have no idea why he'd be reaching out to you, haha, but if he wants to talk to you that's fine with me."
"Okay," Jiang Yanli says, and doesn't tell Wei Ying that Lan Zhan was checking in on him, that Lan Zhan is palpably worried about him. "So you two didn't—"
"Didn't what?" Wei Ying asks, very quickly.
"Fight," says Jiang Yanli. "Last semester."
"No," says Wei Ying. "We didn't fight. We…."
He trails off for a long moment. Jiang Yanli waits, patiently, but he just shivers and shakes his head.
"Never mind." He smiles, forced; it's tight around the edges. "Say hi for me, okay?"
"Okay, A-Ying," Jiang Yanli says. She reaches over and rests a hand on Wei Ying's forearm for a lingering moment, and squeezes when he looks away from her.
Later that night, she opens facebook again. Wei Ying is okay, she sends. He gave his blessing for me to tell you this.
Lan Zhan replies almost immediately: Good, he says. I am glad to hear it. Thank you.
The next morning, his account has been deleted.
Wei Ying came downstairs just when the movie was starting, eyes red. Jiang Yanli paused the film. "Are you okay?"
"Is it your parents?"
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Wei Ying shook his head.
"Do you want to watch a movie with me?"
"Okay, jie— Jiang Yanli," Wei Ying said.
Jiang Yanli's heart clenched. "You can call me jiejie if you want, A-Ying."
Wei Ying stared at her for a long moment, eyes very wide. "I—"
"You don't have to!" she said, quickly. "I know we're not… I know you miss your family. But if you wanted to, I'd... I'd like it."
"Okay," Wei Ying said. "I'll think about it."
They watched Rosemary's Baby curled up on the couch, sharing a blanket against the mid-February chill, and loved it. A month later, Jiang Yanli borrowed a copy of Nightmare on Elm Street, and seven weeks after that, Mr. Vampire.
For Halloween that year, she helped Wei Ying and a very reluctant Jiang Cheng make jiangshi costumes. Horror movies and scary Halloween costumes became their tradition; when Jiang Yanli started college, Wei Ying helped her decorate her dorm room for Halloween, and big, blow-out decorations became part of their annual tradition, too. Wei Ying's birthday was heralded by a joint celebration of their siblinghood and the macabre. The older he got, the more extravagant his parties became.
Wei Ying comes home from an afternoon at the library, though, while Jiang Yanli has one of the shittier remakes of Dawn of the Dead playing in the background as she sweeps the floor. He glances at the TV and pauses.
Then he goes downstairs.
He looks tired, too. The spaces under his eyes are sunken, a bruised purple under skin that looks thin and stretched-out to the touch. Fragile.
He's looked exhausted for days now, but even when they're curled up on the couch together, Wei Ying's head in Jiang Yanli's lap, humming an unrecognizable tune softly as she strokes his hair, he doesn't sleep. He hasn't slept in front of her in — months, probably; maybe not even since his last winter break, when he conked out as she was roasting chestnuts to snack on and didn't wake up for three hours.
Jiang Yanli exchanges a glance with Jin Zixuan. She wants to tell Wei Ying to take a nap, but — what if it's the wrong thing to say?
Jin Zixuan blinks at Jiang Yanli. "This game is mind-numbing," Jin Zixuan agrees. "Hey, Wei Ying, actually, can we talk? I saw this decoration at Target over the weekend that I'd like to add to your display, but only if it won't ruin things."
"...What kind of decoration?" Wei Ying says, suspiciously. He doesn't look any more alert as he turns to face Jin Zixuan more directly, but the lines on his face soften somewhat.
Jin Zixuan visibly gulps in a way Jiang Yanli knows is for comedic effect, the knot of her throat bobbing as she swallows. "Uh," she says. "Like. It's an inflatable baby Yoda? Holding one of those jack-o-lantern trick or treat buckets?"
"That's horrible," Wei Ying says, scandalized. "That doesn't fit with the setup at all."
"The setup is terrifying," Jin Zixuan counters. "No kids will want to walk past the murder tent. Yoda is soothing. Yoda is familiar. Yoda is cute."
"The murder tent is fucking awesome," Wei Ying says, rolling his eyes. "Oh my god. Jiejie, honestly, I get that you love her but your wife is so lame. Inflatable Yoda. Honestly."
"So no Yoda," Jin Zixuan says, remarkably unperturbed.
"No, get the Yoda," Wei Ying says. "I like a certain degree of absurdity in my Halloween decorations, and you should have some input into what's going on with your house. Also we can give it a fake knife."
"Oh no," says Jin Zixuan, who is — at least to Jiang Yanli — transparently amused.
"Oh yes," Jiang Yanli says. Wei Ying still doesn't seem particularly energized, but he does seem less overwhelmingly exhausted. She sighs a little, inwardly, relieved. "That sounds great."
"My room," Jiang Yanli yells, scrubbing at the rusted cabinet joints with vinegar and a toothbrush. "I'm in the middle of something, come on up!"
Three minutes later, Wei Ying is poking his head into the room. "Jie," he says, breathlessly, when he sees her standing inside the open door to the walk-in closet. "Do you have — wait. What the fuck is that?"
"What the fuck is what?" Jiang Yanli asks, wiping one of the hinges off and scowling when the door still creaks.
"Why do you have a gun safe in your closet?" he asks. "Oh my god, is your wife secretly a gun nut? Do you need me to talk to her?"
Jiang Yanli does not want to scar her little brother by showing him the actual contents of the safe, no matter how proud she is of her collection of homemade floggers and nipple clamps. She just smiles mildly and says, "This isn't for guns, Wei Ying; we just thought it looked cool."
"Okay," Wei Ying says, staring suspiciously at the cabinet. "If you say so?"
"Was there something you wanted, A-Ying?"
"Oh, right!" Wei Ying snaps his fingers. "Do you have any extra white sheets I can use?"
"I can buy more with my babysitting money if you don't," Wei Ying rushes to say. "Like, it's not a problem. I just wanted to check! I was out taking a walk and I saw this one house with, like, hella decorations on the other side of the park? And it gave me some ideas. So I want to use some white sheets to make more decorations, but I don't want to use yours if you, like… need them. Which I guess you would, why would you buy sheets that you don't intend to use? So maybe I should just go to the store—"
"A-Ying," Jiang Yanli interrupts. She has plenty of sheets, and even if she didn't, she could absolutely afford to buy Wei Ying a couple of sets. She'd be thrilled to; Wei Ying hasn't sounded this enthused about anything in ages. "I have a bunch of sheets that I used as drop-cloths when I was redoing all the spare rooms. Would those work?"
"Oh, yeah, that sounds perfect," Wei Ying says. "Thanks, jie."
"C'mon," Jiang Yanli says. "Let's go dig them out."
"Baobei? Is everything okay?" Jiang Yanli asks, tentatively, when she slumps against the couch, rubbing her temples.
"A-Li, you were friends with Qin Su before we even knew she was my sister, please go save her from herself."
"Oh no," says Jiang Yanli. "Don't tell me she decided to text Tommy Chun again."
"Worse," Jin Zixuan says. "A-Yao talked her into his whole… Airbnb hustle malarkey. The demonstration half, not the— what is it your brother calls it? The gentrification half?"
"Oh no," Jiang Yanli repeats, with feeling. "A-Su does not have the patience for teaching white tourists how to fold dumplings."
"I would never, in a million years, ask you to subject yourself to that entire nightmare," Jin Zixuan says. "But."
"But they're family," Jiang Yanli says. "And I don't want Qin Su to go down for murder one, so."
"It's tonight," Jin Zixuan says, apologetically.
Jiang Yanli brings it up with Wei Ying while they're, yet again, rearranging their decorations. Everything has been put out by now, including an old unused tent they scrounged from the garage and painted rips and blood spatters onto. Behind it, Wei Ying has hung the sheets he spattered with grey silhouettes of American-style zombies and then spray-painted red messages like YOU CAN BE SAFE HERE and THE DEAD ARE NOT WELCOME.
It's definitely a creepy look — dead things surrounding a kerosene lantern, ominous signs promising safety but suggesting horror framing them — but Wei Ying has decided he wants one skeleton to be pushing their lawn mower over another skeleton's body in the corner of the yard, so they have to move some pieces around.
"It's comforting to know that your wife's family is as crazy as ours," Wei Ying admits.
Jiang Yanli snorts. "You two will be okay here, though?" she asks. "I'm not sure I'll get back by the time you leave to babysit Wen Yuan."
"We've coexisted in the same space without you present before," Wei Ying says. "I think we'll survive."
But when Jiang Yanli returns — earlier than expected, in that the session didn't run as long as she'd thought it might, but still an eternity longer than she'd prefer — Jin Zixuan meets her as she parks her car next to Mianmian's in the driveway. "Be quiet," Jin Zixuan says, "and follow me."
She leads Jiang Yanli around the side of the house. "They were watching me rake," she says, gesturing at the half-finished pile. "Laughing, you know? Quietly. Since I'm so bad at it. And then…"
Jiang Yanli blinks, and blinks again. Wei Ying is asleep, tucked against Mianmian's shoulder.
Mianmian smiles when she sees Jiang Yanli, like sunlight slanting into a warm room on a clear winter morning. "Totally conked out," she mouths, tilting her head ever-so-slightly toward Wei Ying.
"We didn't even notice at first," Jin Zixuan whispers. "It's so unexpected, we thought he just… got lost in thought."
Jiang Yanli, overcome, doesn't say anything. She slips her phone out of her pocket and takes a quick photo of it: the way Wei Ying's face looks so soft and young in sleep. The shadows under his eyes haven't faded, but the worry lines slowly etching into his forehead have smoothed over. She wants to remember this moment.
Wei Ying stirs awake a few minutes later. "Oh, hey," he says, and then he sees Jiang Yanli. "Oh no, am I late to babysitting?"
"You still have twenty minutes until you have to leave," Jin Zixuan says.
"Oh," says Wei Ying. "Okay. Thanks. Sorry, Mianmian, I didn't mean to fall asleep on you."
"It's fine," says Mianmian, deeply amused. "It's not the first time you've fallen asleep on me. I seem to remember an eventful first brush with vodka?"
"I don't," Wei Ying says, ruefully, and stretches, wincing as his back creaks. "Hey jie, do you know, I don't think your wife is scared of me anymore?"
Jiang Yanli has it on good authority that Jin Zixuan stopped being intimidated by Wei Ying the sixth time he loudly referred to her as Jiang Yanli's wife in front of their extended family. "Is that so?"
"She banned me from the kitchen," Wei Ying marvels.
"He was about to ruin one of the nice pots," Jin Zixuan counters. "Also he always burns everything. No more kitchen for Wei Ying."
"I've lost my intimidation skills," Wei Ying says, mournfully.
On the whole, he seems more pleased by this turn of events than Jiang Yanli would have predicted. She puzzles over it, turning it over and over in her mind as Wei Ying gets ready for babysitting and heads out, and as Jin Zixuan heats up the leftover dumplings she brought back from Qin Su's demonstration, and as Mianmian helps Jin Zixuan into the evening's harness.
It's as Jiang Yanli is settling into the scene, sitting naked in the armchair in the corner of the room and lazily telling Mianmian what to do to Jin Zixuan, that it hits her:
"He likes the boundaries," she murmurs. "They comfort him." It's a stunning realization, and one she makes a mental note to sit with for a while later on. Then she shakes her head to clear it.
"Okay, Mianmian," she calls. "Now the clamps. You can choose which ones."
The house was out of the way, though. Jiang Yanli had always thrown Wei Ying a huge birthday party, heavily decorated and entirely spooky with snacks and drinks themed to that year's horror franchise of focus. Her pre-marriage apartment was easy enough for Wei Ying and his friends to get to. But SEPTA has never been anything but a joke, and getting from University City to Chestnut Hill and back on Halloween night was nearly impossible, so for Wei Ying's twenty-first birthday, Jiang Yanli joined him for a theater re-run of old horror classics and went on his birthday bar crawl with him and his friends.
For Wei Ying's twenty-second birthday, he came to her. They curled up on the big cozy couch she and Jin Zixuan had just bought and binge-watched B-slasher movies while Jin Zixuan, Jiang Yanli's favorite trooper, sat in the corner of the room, focusing on weaving her dried flowers into a wreath and cringing any time a particularly sickening sound of blade-on-flesh came from the tv. It was the weekend, so Jiang Cheng drove down from Boston; he left his car at Jiang Yanli's and went with Wei Ying to the house party Nie Huaisang was throwing closer to Penn's campus. Jiang Yanli and her wife passed out candy to trick-or-treaters and cringed at the photos coming from Nie Huaisang's party and went to bed early.
Wei Ying’s smile over brunch the next day was haggard, but he seemed cheerful enough. Neither his nor Jiang Cheng's stories made any sense — it was very, very likely that they were both still drunk — but he appeared to be thrilled that the family was back together for his day, that he got to celebrate it in all the ways that mattered.
Jiang Yanli watches, now, as Wei Ying moves around her beloved house. As he picks up decorations here and sets them down there. As he goes outside to move some skeletons around.
It's October now. Jiang Yanli has it on good authority that Wei Ying's friends who have stayed in the area after graduation have dispersed through the city. Conceivably, if she were to arrange a birthday party for Wei Ying, many would be willing to come all the way out to her house to attend.
"Do you want a birthday party?" she asks Wei Ying as he comes back inside through the kitchen door and heads straight for the fridge.
He pauses, a little bottle of cow's milk in one hand. "No," he says, quickly and plainly. "I'm a little old for that, aren't I?"
"You're talking to the sister who rented an entire bouncy castle for her twenty-ninth birthday, didi," Jiang Yanli reminds him with a gentle smile.
Wei Ying nods. "I just," he says, and closes the fridge, setting the milk on the counter. He comes over to the kitchen table and leans down next to her, knocking his shoulder against hers. "You know I've been having a hard time lately, right?"
Jiang Yanli's breath catches in her throat. "I have noticed, yeah," she says, carefully.
Wei Ying — a boy full of light and laughter and movement — is very, very still next to her. "Okay," he says, slowly. "Okay. Well. I just — I don't want all that attention on me."
"Okay," says Jiang Yanli. "So we won't throw you a birthday party." She pauses. "What about a nice viewing of Poltergeist? Or Dumplings?"
Out of the corner of her eyes, she notices Wei Ying's ephemeral smile. "I actually think watching a lot of TV makes things worse," he says. "Remember during the summer when I was holed up in the basement for, like, two weeks, just marathoning dramas?"
Jiang Yanli does.
"I felt so low then," Wei Ying says. "I just — the more I watched, the more I couldn't get up off the bed, you know?" He pauses, then mournfully adds, "I'm sorry to break tradition like that."
"Hey," Jiang Yanli says. She elbows Wei Ying gently. "My didi is more important than any fucking tradition. We're already living in a house that looks super haunted and that's ten times better than any movie marathon."
Wei Ying sounds — taken aback, maybe.
"You sound surprised."
"I just," Wei Ying says, and shrugs. "Never mind. Hey, jie, I got this cool book of kiddy science experiments from the library last week and I've been figuring out things to do with A-Yuan next time I babysit him. Want to pilot one with me?"
"Of course," Jiang Yanli says. She pushes her meal prep aside and watches as Wei Ying gathers the milk, a pie dish, some food coloring, some dish soap. Watches as he drips the food coloring into the milk and then squeezes a drop of soap onto the surface. Listens as he explains surface tension and the riot of colors blooming across the dish. "You enjoy this," she realizes, abruptly.
"Yeah, I — I do," Wei Ying admits. "I've been, uh. Trying to think of things that feel good to do, you know? Science with kids is one of them. So like, you and Jin Zixuan better hurry up and give me a nibling so I have more kids to science with, okay?"
"Okay," Jiang Yanli says, warm. She reaches over and touches Wei Ying's hand. "A-Ying, I'm glad that you've been thinking so much about what does and doesn't feel good to you lately."
"Whatever," Wei Ying laughs. "Like it's hard? If I want to do it even more than decorating, it's good. That's all. Easy."
Jiang Yanli listens to her little brother talk with dawning horror. "It is hard, though," she says. "But you're doing it anyway." She pauses. "You know, if you called one of those therapists—"
"I don't even have health insurance," Wei Ying interrupts. "Or a job."
Jiang Yanli presses her lips together. She knows better than to offer to pay for him outright. "But if you did?" she asks. "Like, there are people who offer needs-based sliding scales. What if you found one of them?"
"You and Jin Zixuan both go to therapy, right?"
Wei Ying is quiet for a long time. "Maybe," he says, eventually.
"It's missing something," Wei Ying says.
"It is," Jiang Yanli agrees.
"Yeah," Jin Zixuan interjects. "Child appeal."
"No, that's not it," Wei Ying says, shaking his head. "We put out that inflatable Yoda of yours, that's enough child appeal. There's something else."
"I'm facetiming A-Cheng," says Jiang Yanli, already dialing.
Jiang Cheng scowls as he answers. "I'm in the middle of studying for my analytical geometry midterm," he says. "What is it?"
He makes them walk him through the entire setup once they explain their concern.
"It looks good," he decides, eventually. "But there's not nearly enough Friday the 13th shit."
"You're biased," Wei Ying says. "That's the only franchise you even like, for whatever weird reason."
"It's classic and it's not disgusting, like that one awful movie jiejie made us watch that one time."
"Human Centipede?" Jin Zixuan asks.
Wei Ying shakes his head, snaps his fingers, and says, "Cannibal Holocaust."
"No, no," says Jiang Cheng, and shudders. "種鬼."
"種鬼 isn't even that bad," Jiang Yanli says, rolling her eyes. "But, like, okay. More camping themes."
"I mean, you have a tent," Jiang Cheng points out. "Add a Camp Crystal Lake sign and maybe put a Voorhees mask on one of the skeletons."
"I married into this family," Jin Zixuan murmurs. "I made this choice."
"You did," Jiang Yanli says, delighted, and kisses her on the cheek.
"I have been doing it for about seven years longer than you," Jiang Yanli says, amused. "Once you've gotten the hang of the tension down, it should be fine."
"I guess," says Wei Ying. He picks the knitting up again, then drops it, surprised, when his phone vibrates.
His expression goes through several transformations as he looks at the message. "Everything okay?" Jiang Yanli asks.
"Yeah," says Wei Ying. "Fuck. Jiejie, look."
He thrusts the phone in front of Jiang Yanli.
"That's a carrot," she says, dumbly. The carrot looks funny, sure, but it's… it's just a carrot. A blurry carrot, no less, with blurry fingers caught in the corner of the frame.
Wei Ying snorts, impatient. "Lan Zhan said it made him think of me," he says. His tone — it's surprised. Maybe even delighted?
"I see," says Jiang Yanli. (She doesn't.)
"I didn't fuck everything up," Wei Ying marvels, quietly. He snaps a photo of his attempt at knitting and types quickly. "I'm going to tell him that I'm going to be better than him at knitting by this time next week."
"How good is he at knitting?" Jiang Yanli asks.
"Very," says Wei Ying. "But I bet I can figure it out." There's the little whoosh sound of an outgoing text, and he places his phone back on the table. "You're not going to ask me how I fucked everything up?"
"Do you want to tell me?" Jiang Yanli asks.
"Not really," Wei Ying admits. He nudges his phone further away from him, and fiddles with a stand of yarn, pulling it away from the ball and twisting and untwisting it between his fingers. "It was two days before I came here."
"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to," says Jiang Yanli. She aches to reach out to Wei Ying, to rest her hand on his, but she keeps to herself. She doesn't want to startle him.
"I know," Wei Ying says, with a flash of a smile. "I was, like, super drunk? I mean, I still remember everything that happened. I can't stop remembering. Me, of the shitty fucking memory, not forgetting this. But everything sucked back then, so bad, so I was wasted, and everything still sucked. It wasn't — it wasn't a good time."
"A-Ying," Jiang Yanli says, aching.
Wei Ying blinks and licks his lips. "I guess I was already pretty, like, depressed or whatever. You know? Everything kept getting worse and worse, and everyone else seemed to have it together, and I just — didn't. No job prospects, no interest in my classes or my major. I couldn't really sleep and I couldn't really get up in the morning, either, and not even the tequila was helping. And then Lan Zhan came home one day, when I was already pretty out of it. And he looked at me and told me he was in love with me."
He keeps twisting that strand of yarn, raveling and unraveling, tugging it, nervously, with his fingers.
"I told him I couldn't deal with his feelings on top of everything else," Wei Ying says. His mouth trembles. He looks up, but not at Jiang Yanli — just stares into the middle distance. "I couldn't, you know, catch my breath? Not for weeks. It was like — it is like — drowning in a big old vat of jello. I could move, but it was exhausting. You know? I couldn't deal with my own feelings, or whatever, and then Lan Zhan gave me more to carry."
"Oh, didi," Jiang Yanli breathes. She reaches out slowly, telegraphing her movements. Wei Ying doesn't stop her from grabbing his hand and lacing their fingers together.
"The funny thing is," Wei Ying says, with a wet sort of chuckle. "I've been in love with Lan Zhan forever."
This is both surprising and unsurprising. Wei Ying talks about Lan Zhan in such glowing terms, but despite being roommates ever since they were randomly assigned the same double freshman year of college, he's never mentioned so much as a crush. "I see," Jiang Yanli says.
Wei Ying laughs again, a terrible, broken sound. "When he told me, I was so mad," he says. "Like, it's been years, and you're saying this now? I also didn't believe him, you know? I thought he was maybe saying it just to make me feel better. So I told him I couldn't deal with that, and I told him to fuck off, and then I finished the bottle."
He looks at Jiang Yanli finally, eyes bright with unshed tears. Jiang Yanli's breath catches. Wei Ying hasn't cried in so long; she can't help but see this as progress.
"But now he's talking to me again," Wei Ying says. "He saw a stupid funny carrot and he thought of, like, this old inside joke we used to have, and he sent it to me and let me know. Maybe he doesn't — doesn't hate me."
Jiang Yanli thinks of that desperate facebook message Lan Zhan sent her all those weeks ago. "I doubt he hates you even a little, A-Ying," she says.
"Maybe," Wei Ying agrees.
When his phone buzzes again, he reaches for it.
(Actually, Jiang Yanli's mom may have been a little pleased that Wei Ying wasn't outpacing Jiang Cheng. Pleased, but worried that his shortcomings would make her lose face.)
Jiang Yanli is embarrassed to admit she wasn't particularly involved at the time. She was just starting to build a genuine friendship with and attraction to Jin Zixuan, and was impatient with how both her little brothers were being assholes to someone going through a rough patch with her family. She had her thesis defense to think about, and had to decide between looking for a job or applying to doctoral programs — all while knowing that going into pure math wasn't going to make her particularly competitive outside of academia, which she was growing to hate. There was a lot on her plate, and she no longer lived at home.
She let Wei Ying slip through the cracks.
She won't let him slip through the cracks again.
No, Jiang Yanli isn't pregnant yet. Yes, she and Jin Zixuan are trying; her wife has paused the HRT for now but they saved some of her sperm before she started transitioning just to be on the safe side. No, they're not going to use it yet — they've given themselves a year before turning to insemination.
Yes, Jiang Yanli is thrilled that Jiang Cheng did so well on his midterms. Yes, she's excited to see him when he comes home during Thanksgiving weekend. Yes, she's also sad that he wasn't able to come home for the Mid-Autumn festival.
Yes, Wei Ying is still living with her and Jin Zixuan. No, he doesn't have a job yet. No, she's not going to let him follow in her wanton jobless ways. Yes, he's still babysitting for that Wen kid. Yes, he's talking about job searching.
Yes, she'll pass along the gift they got him.
She's exhausted by the time she leaves, clutching the steering wheel, knuckles white from the stress of the meal. The drive home passes in a blur, compounded by the slow dimming of the day.
She almost parks in the wrong driveway. Her home is almost unrecognizable. In the five hours she was gone, Wei Ying has totally rearranged the decorations. Someone — Wei Ying and Jin Zixuan are equally likely — has put up orange and purple lights around the house and added several more ghosts to the trees. The skeleton pushing the lawn mower over another skeleton has a friend now, a dashing bony figure in a top hat and tie, presiding over a large plastic cauldron she's never seen before.
All the leaves in the yard have been raked up. They've been failing to stay on top of leaf removal for a few weeks now, but the grass has re-emerged, leaves piled neatly over the compost in the sideyard.
Jiang Yanli walks inside in a daze, toeing off her shoes and hanging up her jacket. She heads towards the kitchen, and almost immediately trips over several electronics, which have been strewn across the floor and partially disassembled.
Wei Ying walks in from the other direction, Jin Zixuan's hot pink tool kit in hand. "Oh, hey jiejie," he says, upon seeing her, and gives her a hug. "Sorry about the mess — your wife said it was okay — but I found all these old broken things in your other basement room and I had this great idea for how to maybe animate some of the decorations. How was Auntie Yu and Uncle Jiang?"
"The same," Jiang Yanli says. "They sent a gift along. Do you want it now or next week?"
"I'll open it later," Wei Ying says. He crouches on the floor and takes a screwdriver out of the toolkit, cackling as he does. "I bet they'd be horrified if they knew this was what I was doing with my degree."
"Hey, as long as it sparks joy," Jiang Yanli says. She's already feeling better, looking at Wei Ying grin over tinkering with tiny fiddly gears.
"It does," Wei Ying says, using the flat head of the screwdriver to try and lever the top off an old typewriter. "It really, really does."
Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan both look up at him, surprised. "You're awake for breakfast?" Jin Zixuan asks, shocked.
Jiang Yanli elbows her. "Good morning, A-Ying."
"Morning," Wei Ying says. He pours himself a mug of strong black coffee and slumps into the chair across the table from them. "So I was thinking."
"I still don't want a birthday party," Wei Ying says. "But maybe — do you think it's too late to throw a Halloween party? Invite a couple people? A-Cheng won't be able to make it but we can still invite him. And Wen Qing and A-Yuan and some of his little friends and Nie Huaisang and Lan Zhan and Mianmian and—" he turns to face Jin Zixuan— "whichever of your half-siblings you currently like. Maybe some of them could make it?"
"I don't think Meng Yao or Qin Su have concrete plans," Jin Zixuan says, thoughtfully. "Mo Xuanyu probably can't get away, but the others probably could."
"Good," Wei Ying says. He looks imploringly at Jiang Yanli. "Do you think we could do it?" he asks. "I know it's short notice."
"It doesn't hurt to try," Jiang Yanli says, and pinches her own thigh under the table to keep herself from bursting into tears at the way Wei Ying's eyes crinkle with his smile.
"Okay," Wei Ying says, slapping a palm on the table and standing up again. "Okay. Make sure they all know that it's for Halloween, not my birthday." He pauses, and shakes his head slightly. "Okay. I'll tell Lan Zhan that this is on. Wish me luck, okay jiejie?"
Not waiting for a response, he dashes off, coffee in hand. Jiang Yanli turns and stares at Jin Zixuan.
"A-Xuan," she says.
"That did, in fact, really just happen," Jin Zixuan reassures her. "I saw it, too. I think — I think maybe this is a good sign."
"Oh, thank fuck," Jiang Yanli says, and accepts Jin Zixuan's sweet teary kiss.