There was a fortune teller at the foot of Yongchang Tower.
He was an odd addition to the business district. Yongchang Tower was a modern glass needle that pierced the sky with its ambition. But his stall was pieced together from a sheet of plywood and an upturned ‘No Street Vendors’ sign.
Su Qing had to admire his resourcefulness.
She was a superstitious woman herself, and while many of her colleagues scoffed at the sleepy fortune teller who dozed outside their office, Su Qing had a bit of a soft spot for him. Whenever she prepared for an important presentation, she made sure to stop by for some lottery poetry.
‘Hey Mister Fortune Teller,’ she said. ‘I have a big meeting on Monday. Can you draw a lottery poetry for me?’
The fortune teller jerked awake. He rubbed his eyes blearily. ‘Huh?’
It was truly amazing how he could sleep at any time.
‘One lottery poetry, please.’
‘Sure, sure,’ he said. ‘That’s two yuan, Miss.’
He began rattling his little cylinder as she fished for her purse. Once she’d paid, he held the sticks out in front of her.
‘Make a wish!’
Su Qing closed her eyes and prayed that her upcoming review would go well.
He plucked a stick from the cup and examined it with a frown.
‘Number seventy-six,’ he mused. ‘Not bad, but not great. It’s a bit of a mix.’
Su Qing’s heart sank. ‘How so?’
The fortune teller tilted his head to one side, like a cat. ‘Today isn’t a good day for you. Don’t risk your money. And don't go out on any dates, they'll end in disaster. But an unexpected event in your future will bring you money soon.’
‘And my wish?’
The fortune teller grinned. ‘Your wish should come true sometime next week!’
She sighed in relief. ‘Perfect. Thank you so much, Mister.’
It really was lucky to have a fortune teller on hand.
On the days that footfall in the shop was light, Liu Mingna’s favourite pastime was people watching. Her counter faced directly into the street and gave her a great view of everyone that walked by. A young mother who was trying to wrangle a screaming toddler, fat tears dribbling down his fatter cheeks. A line of businessmen barking into their mobiles, pinching the bridge of their noses. An older woman dressed in a beautiful lilac hanfu, who moved so gracefully she was almost ethereal.
And then a man walked by, who was so gorgeous that Liu Mingna’s heart skipped a beat. He had a beautiful symmetric face and a masculine jawline. He wore a sleek navy suit and glanced at a magnificently expensive watch.
He was the most perfect man Liu Mingna had ever seen.
Or at least, the most perfect man she’d seen that day.
As though sent by the Heavens, the fortune teller skunked past her window, his shoulders hunched to avoid attention. She leapt up from her seat and tumbled out the door.
‘Aiya, Xiao Yang!’ she called. ‘Quick, read my fortune! There’s a handsome man across the road and I think he might be my future husband!’
Yang Jinghua glared at her. ‘Old Lady, it doesn’t matter how many times I read your palm. It’ll still say the same thing. You don’t want to hear it.’
Liu Mingna bristled. ‘I do want to hear it! Xiao Yang, hurry up! I don’t want to miss my chance!’
‘You missed your chance when you were born twenty years too early for him,’ Yang Jinghua retorted. ‘It’s my day off, leave me alone.’
Yang Jinghua was always snappy, but today he was even more agitated than usual. Liu Mingna paused.
‘Look at you!’ she said. ‘You’re so skinny. You’ll have to come in for a meal.’
Yang Jinghua looked at her warily. But there was an edge of something else there too. A hunger.
‘What’s the catch? Giving me some food won’t change your fortune, you know.’
‘I know, I know, you silly boy.’ Liu Mingna waved her hand impatiently. ‘I just made too much soup to eat by myself. A growing young man like yourself should help his elders.’
‘I’m twenty-three,’ he grumbled. ‘I don’t think I’ll be doing any more growing.’
But he followed her back into the shop nonetheless. The soup was nothing special, just some stock and a handful of leftover vegetables that were about to turn. But Yang Jinghua slurped it as though it were the most delicious meal he’d ever eaten.
From then on, whenever she made soup, Liu Mingna would cook an extra portion for the hungry fortune teller.
Jinghua’s Computer Repair Shop looked in need of a repair itself. Fluorescent lights flickered intermittently. The paint around the doorframe had flaked and was tearing off in long curling strips, like peeled potato skins. The windows were pockmarked with fingerprints and other unidentifiable stains.
The sight of it did not fill Huang Wen-Cheng with hope.
But Huang Wen-Cheng’s laptop had suddenly decided that it no longer wanted to be a laptop and would instead prefer to function as a particularly expensive paperweight. No matter how he prodded and cajoled it, it stubbornly refused to load the operating system at all.
Huang Wen-Cheng had an assignment due in exactly ten hours. And as a poor university student, Jinghua’s Computer Repair Shop was the best he could afford.
He swung open the door and prayed that whoever was inside could help him.
The lone employee cast a lazy stare in his direction. ‘We’re closed.’
‘What?’ Huang Wen-Cheng asked weakly. ‘You’re what?’
‘Closed,’ the employee repeated. ‘It’s almost midnight.’
Somewhere in the back of his head, Huang Wen-Cheng had been aware of this. But the thought had been swept away amongst the rough sea of panic that had arisen when he’d realised that the only copy of his assignment was saved on that shitty, uncooperative laptop.
‘Please,’ he said. ‘Please, please, please, I really need your help. My laptop won’t let me sign on and I have an assignment due tomorrow and if I don’t hand it in, I’ll fail my class and then my parents will kill me and — ’
‘Alright, alright, please breathe,’ the employee interrupted. ‘I’ll take a look at it. Give it here.’
‘Thank you,’ whispered Huang Wen-Cheng, weak-kneed with relief.
The employee took his laptop and flipped it over in his hands. ‘It’s still powering up, look. It’s probably just a software problem.’
Huang Wen-Cheng leant forward eagerly. ‘Can you fix it?’
‘I’d probably need to take a better look at it tomorrow. But if the hard drive is fine, then I could mount it on a caddy and we could turn it into an external drive. Wait here.’
The words meant absolutely nothing to Huang Wen-Cheng, who was a literature and poetry student. But they sounded promising, so he waited with a swell of hope ballooning behind his ribs.
The employee returned with a little metal contraption and began stripping Huang Wen-Cheng’s laptop to pieces. After a short while, he plugged something into his own computer and turned the monitor around to show Huang Wen-Cheng.
‘What’s your assignment saved as?’ he asked.
‘Human Isolation and the Traditions of Shanghainese Poetry.’
‘That sounds… fascinating,’ the employee said wryly. He clicked a few buttons and then Huang Wen-Cheng’s assignment popped up. ‘Is this it?’
‘Yes! Yes, it is!’ Tears streamed down Huang Wen-Cheng’s face. ‘Thank you so much! You truly are a master of your craft!’
The employee rolled his eyes, but he looked pleased. ‘They don’t call me Computer Master Yang for nothing, you know.’
Huang Wen-Cheng bowed and silently thanked the Heavens for guiding him to Computer Master Yang.
This was the third job Peng Haozhang had lost in as many months. He was a university dropout and now, even the fast-food industry had branded him unemployable.
The future looked bleak.
Despair hung over him throughout dinner, like a particularly stubborn cloud. His girlfriend, Ma Yuqin, sent a series of concerned glances in his direction, while Yang Jinghua took advantage of his despondency to pile his own bowl high with fragrant spicy prawns.
‘It’s only a job,’ Ma Yuqin reassured him. ‘You’ll find another.’
Peng Haozhang dropped his head into his hands. ‘Maybe. But my rent is due at the end of the week. How am I going to pay for it?’
Ma Yuqin smiled helplessly. Unfortunately, she was equally broke.
Then Yang Jinghua, who had seemed oblivious to the entire exchange as he’d been busy slurping noodles, clapped a hand on his shoulder.
‘I can lend you the money,’ he said.
‘What? No, I can’t take money from you,’ Peng Haozhang protested. ‘You’re just as broke as me.’
‘As if!’ Yang Jinghua replied. ‘Come on, I had a great week at the shop. And I got a huge tip at Yongchang Tower too.’
Peng Haozhang and Ma Yuqin exchanged a hesitant glance.
‘Are you sure? I don’t know when I’ll be able to pay you back.’
‘Yes, yes, I’ll transfer it to you just now.’
He had already whipped out his phone and started the transaction.
‘...Thank you, Xiao Yang.’
Yang Jinghua, never one to let a moment turn too sincere, flapped his hands dismissively. ‘It’s fine, it’s fine. I’ll eat all the prawns tonight as payment though!’
He dived for the sharing bowl before Peng Haozhang could protest. Dinner dissolved into a fight for the final prawn, but Yang Jinghua’s determination won out.
‘You’re so irresponsible, Peng-ge,’ he gloated, holding said coveted prawn aloof with his chopsticks. He was elated to finally be the most responsible person in the room.
All of the previous goodwill Peng Haozhang had felt towards him collapsed. ‘This coming from the guy who pretends he’s not home when it’s time to pay his bills.’
Yang Jinghua spluttered, spraying rice all over the table without care, barely noticing Ma Yuqin’s wince.
‘I do not do that!’
‘You did it last month!’
‘I paid last month’s rent! You can ask my landlord!’
‘Yeah, three weeks late!’
‘Boys!’ Ma Yuqing interrupted. ‘Let’s not be Zheng men arguing over their age, hm?’
The pair muttered an apology in unison and resumed eating. Ma Yuqing smiled, temporarily mollified. Sometimes Yang Jinghua could be childish and argumentative, but he really was a good friend.
As soon as she could afford it, she was going to buy an entire stack of his talismans.
Red 88 was a dingy little bar, the type you’d walk right past if you weren’t specifically looking for it. Jiang Rongzhuo couldn’t really remember how he’d first come across it. As he’d aged, his memories of his teens and early twenties had slowly disintegrated, like how old photographs peeled under the sun.
He supposed he must have come to know Yang Jinghua through their mutual patronage of Red 88. They didn’t really have much in common otherwise.
Aside from their crushing, chronic inability to land a wife, that is.
‘I don’t care if I have to hire a date,’ Jiang Rongzhou said. ‘I can’t show up alone for another Spring Festival. My mother will sign me up for speed dating again.’
Yang Jinghua was not sympathetic in the slightest. He shook his dice impatiently. ‘Aiya, Jiang-ge, can you take your turn already? I don’t want to hear you complaining about meeting lots of beautiful women.’
Jiang Rongzhou hawked back another shot. ‘Sure, sure, they’re all beautiful. But you know what else they are?’
Yang Jinghua took a resigned drag from his cigarette and shook his head.
‘They’re picky,’ Jiang Rongzhou said. ‘The last girl my mother set me up with? She said she wouldn’t even think about marrying a man who doesn’t own his house. Who owns their own house these days, huh? Guys like us are doomed. We’re both going to die old and alone.’
‘Speak for yourself!’ squawked Yang Jinghua. He yanked a shot of baiju from the little silver tray between them. ‘Maybe she just doesn’t like drunk old bastards! Did you ever think about that, Lao Jiang?’
‘Lao Jiang’ Jiang Rongzhou wailed. His dice clattered across the table. ‘That’s what the second last girl called me. She said I was too old to rent a condo too. I’m telling you, you and I are doomed to die as bare branches.’
Yang Jinghua’s face — which was usually overly expressive to the point it was comical — paled instantly.
‘Do you really think so? Maybe I should read your palm to make sure.’
Yang Jinghua was ostensibly descended from a line of famous exorcists, and he used this claim to peddle his shitty fortune-telling. Jiang Rongzhou was usually pretty skeptical of his drinking buddy’s clairvoyance, but right now he was drunk and desperate.
He presented a sweaty palm to Yang Jinghua. ‘What does it say?’
Yang Jinghua took his palm with both hands, studying it intently.
‘It says,’ he started. Then he leant forward, as though he was about to dispense some great wisdom. An icy shiver ran down Jiang Rongzhou’s spine.
‘It says that you owe me a thousand kuai! Yahoo!’
Jiang Rongzhou stared down at his dice in despair while Yang Jinghua crowed and shrieked about his victory.
the cold moon sheds light upon the graves. unutterable is the ghosts' deep grief.
Red 88 was a dingy little bar, the type you’d walk right past if you weren’t specifically looking for it. On a Thursday, Jiang Rongzhuo usually played dice and drank with a brat called Yang Jinghua.
But Yang Jinghua hadn’t made it for two weeks now. Jiang Rongzhou was almost starting to get worried.
He settled into their usual table, a rickety little circle that was far away from the cold entrance but still close enough to the bar that they could attract the bartender’s attention with minimal fuss. He lit a cigar while he waited across from a tatty, empty seat.
After ten minutes had passed, he ordered a tray of baiju shots.
He was the only customer, so the bartender brought them over a few seconds later.
‘This one’s free,’ the barkeep said. ‘For Xiao Yang.’
Jiang Rongzhou dropped his cigar case. ‘Eh? What’s that all about? He’s not even here yet.’
The bartender froze. ‘Haven’t you heard the news, Mr Jiang?’
Red 88 was often empty, but it was rare that it felt so eerie and cold.
‘What? What news?’
The bartender gulped. ‘It’s Xiao Yang. He… he…’
‘He what?’ Jiang Rongzhou demanded.
‘He died, Mr Jiang. He was hit by a truck. It was all over the news at the start of the month. Didn’t you see it?’
‘No,’ he said softly. ‘I hadn’t.’
Sweat began to bead on the bartender’s face. ‘I’m so sorry, Mr Jiang. I thought you’d already know. If you hadn’t seen it on the news, maybe his family would have said something.’
Jiang Rongzhou coughed, trying to clear the rough scratchiness that irritated the back of his throat.
‘I don’t think he had any. He was a bare branch, like me.’
An uncomfortable silence stretched between them.
Jiang Rongzhou cleared his throat again.
‘Well,’ he said. He raised up a glass. ‘To Xiao Yang.’
He hoped that in his next life, blossoms would smother Yang Jinghua’s bare branch.
This was the third commendation that Peng Haozhang had achieved in as many months. He was the top salesman yet again, and his boss had hinted that a promotion was just around the corner.
The future looked bright.
He was glowing throughout dinner that evening, lauding his fiancée’s cooking and indulging in every dish that passed by on the dinner-table turntable. Ma Yuqin blushed and preened at his praise. Their wedding loomed on the horizon and he was looking forward to it more every day.
But there was still an empty place at the dinner table.
Monday nights were quiet now, the noisy trio dwindled down to a sombre two. It had been months since the accident, but Peng Haozhang still found himself poised to fight for the final prawn.
Ma Yuqin noticed and placed a hand gently on his arm.
‘His talismans really were lucky, weren’t they?’
‘Talismans?’ said Peng Haozhang. ‘You mean those scribbles on the back of the hamburger coupons? That he had the nerve to charge twenty yuan for?’
A wet laugh escaped Ma Yuqin. It was good to see her laughing again.
‘Let’s not let one speck on a jade stone obscure its brilliance.’
‘One speck?’ he teased. ‘Remember when he had to stay with us and he sang so loudly in the shower that our neighbours complained? Or the time he spilled chilli oil all over our rug? And he read your mother's fortune and told her she'd die within the week?’
Ma Yuqin was really giggling now, and really crying to match. Peng Haozhang swept her up in his arms and kissed her forehead.
He supposed he couldn’t say too much. He still kept a hamburger talisman in his wallet, after all.
Jinghua’s Computer Repair Shop looked in need of a repair itself. The fluorescent lights had given up entirely, casting the shop into shadow. The paint around the doorframe had flaked and was tearing off in long curling strips, like peeled potato skins. The windows were pockmarked with fingerprints and other unidentifiable stains.
The sight of it filled Huang Wen-Cheng with relief.
It had been just over a week since Computer Master Yang had saved his assignment. Huang Wen-Cheng had left the shop in a hurry back then, barely looking back after Computer Master Yang had handed over his assignment on a blue thumb drive. He was embarrassed at how ungrateful he’d seemed. So today he’d returned with a bottle of red wine and a box of crumbly Jeera biscuits his sister had brought home from her latest trip to India.
He felt a little guilty about regifting them, but if anyone deserved to eat them, it was Computer Master Yang.
Although he arrived just after midday, Jinghua’s Computer Repair Shop was closed. The door was dusty, as though it hadn’t been opened for some time.
Huang Wen-Cheng shuffled from foot to foot. He had wanted to thank Computer Master Yang in person, but he had a lecture soon. He waited for another ten minutes, but no one came to unlock the shop.
There was nothing else he could do. He cast a furtive glance around the street, and when he was satisfied that it was deserted, he tucked the butter biscuits and the wine behind the sign.
He hoped that Computer Master Yang would be back soon. His tablet was playing up.
On the days that footfall in the shop was light, Liu Mingna’s favourite pastime was people watching. Her counter faced directly into the street and gave her a great view of everyone that walked by. A young couple intertwined so close that they moved as a single being. A gaggle of children on roller skates, who could barely control their own limbs. A young man with a bold green and pink coat that looked as though it belonged on the runway rather than a little side street.
And then a man walked by, who was so gorgeous that Liu Mingna’s heart skipped a beat. He had thick, dark hair and a piercing set of brown eyes that glittered behind his classy glasses.
He was the most perfect man Liu Mingna had ever seen.
Or at least, the most perfect man she’d seen that day.
She glanced down at her palm, but all she could see was three thin, wiry cracks. It meant nothing to her.
The beautiful man crossed the road and then disappeared around the corner.
A large vat of soup bubbled impatiently on the hob. She quickly adjusted the gas to stop it boiling over.
She’d made far too much soup for one person.
There was a flower memorial at the foot of Yongchang Tower.
They were an odd addition to the business district. Yongchang Tower was a modern glass needle that pierced the sky with its ambition. But the flowers were haggard, a sad handful of wilted white lilies and sagging yellow chrysanthemums. They looked out of place against the gleaming buildings and sharp business suits.
Su Qing approached it with a tremor.
She’d recently run into a spate of good fortune; her review unfolded even better than expected, and she’d received a substantial bonus as a result. The fortune teller’s prediction had given her the confidence she’d needed to really wow her boss.
But there wouldn’t be any lunchtime lottery poetry now.
She knelt down at the memorial and brushed some dirt from the flowers. They were soft in her hands, as though the petals were spun from crêpe paper. She brought a chrysanthemum to her face and inhaled deeply. Then she drew a small bamboo cylinder from her bag.
‘I don’t really know how to do this,’ she confessed. ‘But I bought the same booklet you used. Let’s see what’s in store for you, Mister Fortune Teller.’
She rattled the cylinder and then pulled out a stick.
‘Number seventy-two.’ She flipped through her booklet. ‘Today is very unlucky.’
Well, that went without saying. Su Qing swallowed. ‘But you should keep your head up. It says you should try to stay optimistic. Your love life looks — oh wow! There’s a beautiful stranger in your future. And it says… It says....’
As much as she tried, Su Qing couldn’t suppress the hitch in her voice.
‘It says that you’ll get your wish sooner than you think.’
The flowers rustled in the wind.