I stumble dizzy and carsick into the kitchen to find Mother unpacking. Her eyes dart everywhere rather than focusing on the task at hand. Bowls and plates litter the island, the dining table, and the edges of the sink. Cupboards sit open, empty. Father stands next to her, rubbing a hand across his stubbled chin, running a finger along a growing shadow of a mustache. His other hand rests against the sink, twitching, not knowing where else to place it or what he should be doing with it.
“The agent said it might take a while before he appears,” Mother says in a feverish whisper, fixing her hair the way she used to right before leaving for a job interview.
Before we got the house, she worked in a travel agency downtown. But that didn’t last long. Mother said there was a new co-worker who too closely resembled what my brother would have looked like as an adult. Their names were also similar.
“In the pamphlet she gave us, it says placing their items or photos around the house might help,” Father says.
Mother flings herself over to a box by the fridge and rips it open. She takes out several framed family photos—none are recent. All the pictures, like my brother, are frozen in time. Mother hurries around the house while Father and I stare. She places one frame on the dining table and one on the coffee table in the living room. Her footsteps thunder up the stairs. Doors open, close, open, close. Footsteps pitter, patter, pitter, patter. She returns, and I imagine she has placed a similar family portrait on the desk in my room: Mother, with her hand on my shoulder, the other hand on my brother’s, Father behind her with a hand at her waist and the other on my brother’s head.
When Mother returns, she grabs a stack of unframed photos, this time of only my brother: ultrasounds, preschool and kindergarten pictures, him in a graduation cap, holding a certificate of excellence at the end of first grade. His photos end there. A younger me, half my brother’s age, stands in the picture, clutching his arm with a wobbly smile and missing teeth.
My brother was always the golden child, the one who carried the family’s honor, the one who would have carried the family name as per tradition—unlike me, who will only carry the name of my husband if I marry. Mother and Father often try to convince me that they are not as traditional as their parents, yet they doted on my brother, the first-born son, and often forgot about me. They still do, even though he’s gone. I’m convinced that, had they been offered the choice, my parents would have traded my life for my brother’s, with little hesitation. At least, Mother would have, and probably still would, if given the chance. I grew up hearing her complain often how Father’s Mother was always insisting that my parents try for another son, but Mother was—and still is—too heartbroken to think about children.
Mother disappears again. Father and I wait, listening to the ticking of a small clock—the same one Mother used for my brother’s reading hours, back when we still lived in Fuzhou. I still remember the way my brother drew me closer while he read so that I could see the words, but they were always too advanced for my age. I can recall the images, but I don’t recognize the Chinese characters in my memories.
After Mother sets everything up, the three of us sit in the living room waiting for something to happen—for my brother’s promised appearance—but nothing does.
The new arrivals to the neighborhood moved into the house across the street. There is only one reason anyone would trek through the guarding trees to get to HOME: not to seek new life, but to satisfy a longing for the dead.
Houses in HOME sate the unending hunger of those most vulnerable, unsuspecting. They feed on our desires, our pain. So much pain. And to wallow in such pain… It is a hideous thing.
Isn’t it strange? How everyone here desires their homes to be haunted?
You wonder if the newcomers will be the same as the others. You wonder if they, too, will be unrelenting, or perhaps they will be like you…unhaunted.
After we eat dinner in silence, I move to the living room window and look out upon our new street. Our lawn is overgrown and full of weeds, but it is also full of people. I had been too sick on the drive in to care much about these odd vagabonds, but curiosity gnawed at my mind.
“Why are there people on the lawns?” I ask.
“Don’t worry about them,” says Mother, sounding more than a bit absentminded. “The agent assured us that these people are a normal occurrence here, since everyone wants to move into this neighborhood and is more than willing to wait. What did she call them again? Oh yes, lingerers—that’s the word. But it matters not. We’re just grateful we got a house here. Aren’t we?”
I look out again at the trees that have grown too tall, too unruly for the narrow street. Their overgrown branches cast ominous shadows over our house and the rest, preventing any sunlight from reaching the roofs or shining through our windows. This house resembles little of our home in Scarborough, and it’s nothing like our home back in Fuzhou.
Father looks to Mother. His grip tightens against his chopsticks, and his knuckles turn white. “Yes, yes, yes,” he agrees.
Most of the neighborhood is unkempt, but directly across the street, a plain little home rests upon a neatly trimmed plot of grass. Cared-for flower beds line the house’s front facade. Above the tangles of rose and lavender, I see an old woman sitting by her front window, clutching an urn upon her lap. Instead of drawing the curtains closed like I expect her to, she continues to stare at me and my family.
I turn back to my parents, speaking again of the people on our lawn. “Can we ask them to leave?”
“No,” Father says, eying Mother through a mask of worry.
Back outside, a man leans against the large SOLD sign stuck into the grass. Below it is the neighborhood’s name in a smaller bold font: HOME—Homecoming Of Missing Entities. It sounds like a joke, but nothing about this place feels worthy of laughter. Mother has a smile on her face, but Father seems more wary about this endeavor.
The lingerers continue to stare at the house, into the house, with their bodies almost leaning toward the front door, as if being manipulated by an unseen puppeteer and their invisible strings. The lingerers on the other lawns hold the same position. My parents pretend to not be bothered by it, but I can see the sweat glisten on Father’s forehead, and I can see Mother discreetly wringing her hands, playing with her wedding band.
A boy sitting on the lawn two houses down, across the street, has his back turned to the brown and yellow house he sits in front of. His eyes catch mine, and I can see a spark of curiosity.
I wonder how long the boy has been here. And I wonder when I will be able to leave.
The next day, Mother takes a wet rag to the framed photos of my brother and wipes the glass. She runs a feather duster over the unframed photos that have been taped to the walls; the adhesive holding them there has already begun to fail. Father follows behind, lingering by the entrance of each room with hands behind his back, watching Mother with a longing expression. I can see he’s afraid to step in, as if the action would disrupt a ritual meant to remain between mother and son.
Mother isn’t how she used to be, but neither is Father. I don’t blame them, but sometimes I wish I am an only child. I attempt to shake the cruel thought from my mind, but a small voice prods at my consciousness despite my efforts. It reminds me that this cruelty inside me is alive, and perhaps, always will be. An evil voice whispers: If there is to be only one child, it wouldn’t be you.
“She said it should work,” Mother mutters. “It has to work.” Her voice is becoming more feverish by the second.
Father approaches Mother, but then backs away when she throws her hands at him, exasperated.
“The agent did say it might take a day or two,” Father reminds her. “Maybe even a week—”
Mother shakes her head, jaw clenched. “You don’t understand how much convincing—”
“I know, I know—”
“How much money—”
“Don’t worry, we can pay—”
“I’m not even close with that cousin. But thank goodness for the debt they owed my late Father. I guess I should be thankful they parted with the house despite not wanting to.” Mother scrubs too furiously at one particular photograph on the wall before realizing her mistake: the water from the rag has damaged the delicate paper.
Instead of pausing to assess the damage, Mother trembles, then scrubs even harder at the smearing ink until the paper flakes apart and falls in pieces to her feet—one foot bare, the other foot wearing a slipper. She collapses with the tattered remains of my brother’s photo in her hands. We had to travel an hour away from Fuzhou and climb halfway up a mountain to take that photo. In it, my brother wears his favorite Power Rangers swim trunks; they were handed down to him from our cousin.
I step backward so that I can hide behind the frame of the living room doorway. Father approaches Mother slowly and with caution. When he is near enough, he reveals a slipper in his hand. While Mother tries to piece together the image she destroyed, Father kneels down beside her and gently secures the slipper over her bare foot. Mother hardly notices—even when Father places a hand on her hand and gently strokes her fingers, works carefully to loosen her grip on the soggy pieces of paper.
Mother doesn’t sob, but she lets the tears stream silently down her cheeks. Father doesn’t cry either, but he allows his eyes to redden, burn. The tears gather, but he refuses to let them escape.
I return to my room and pull out the photo printer from beneath my bed. I search my phone for the image of my brother that my Mother accidentally destroyed. I find it and reprint it. While I reprint the photo, I make note of the “airplane mode” symbol in the corner of my phone and how it’s still turned on. The agent insisted that we stay disconnected from the outside world for as long as we’re here—which might be forever—because, according to her, the dead deserve our full attention.
When Mother and Father retire to their rooms at night, disappointed that my brother didn’t show up today, I tiptoe to the living room and tape the freshly printed photo to the spot left bare by its predecessor. I hope this gesture of mine coaxes my brother to appear. I hope he sees it as a peace offering for all my prior transgressions.
In the morning, Mother and Father pick quietly at their breakfast. A single piece of burnt toast, now soggy, lays forgotten in the damp sink. I join the table and fork the glossy, veiny exterior layer of a century egg into my steaming porridge and begin to eat. Father meets my eye, then stares past me to the reprinted photo I taped to the wall the night before. He looks back to me and nods. Mother refuses to acknowledge either of us, choosing instead to stare at my brother’s portrait sitting in the middle of the table. She runs a finger over the glass, her cheeks bulging, food still held in her mouth, unswallowed.
“I want to go home,” I whisper.
Mother slams down her chopsticks, causing the table to quake.
“This—” Mother gestures around us. “This is our home.”
I shake my head.
“Wenqi,” she says, eyes narrowing, “you know why we’re here.” A pause. She chews on her lower lip. “You know what we sacrificed to come here. You—”
“You made me sacrifice everything! I didn’t agree to this!” I say.
Mother’s mouth hangs open. She turns to Father, who has his arms crossed over his chest, but he isn’t looking at either of us, only at the gloves he will need when he leaves for his construction job back in Toronto. It’s the one thing he doesn’t have to leave completely behind—or rather, the one thing he can’t leave completely behind.
“See!” Mother says to Father, motioning with an open-palm in my direction. “This is why he won’t show up.” She whips her head back toward me, sneering. “You have to want him here, Wenqi!”
I would be lying if I say I do, but I would also be lying if I say I don’t. As a child, my brother gave me more affection than Mother, Father, and all my relatives combined. I know I should be appreciative, but I mostly wonder if he did it simply as a way to cope with all the attention he received for the both of us. Maybe he wanted to give me something of himself unconditionally as protest to the conditional way he was often praised by the family, which meant worrying, nagging, and undue pressure.
“I do,” I say, as evenly as I can.
Mother shakes her head, teeth clenched and grinding, her jaw jutting outwards. She turns her back to me.
“You’ll sleep in the room we set up for your brother tonight. You’ll share a room. Like how you used to as children.” Her voice is tight and pitched.
Both Father and I look at the back of Mother’s head in disbelief—Father more in shock, me more with anger.
I look to Father for help, but he only looks away. He grabs his construction gloves from the table and makes an effort to check the time in silence—this is only for show since his body knows exactly when it needs to leave for work. Wordlessly, he heads for the front door.
Mother speaks again.
When night arrives, I retire to my room only to find that the door has been shut and locked with a key. But instead of making my way to my brother’s room like Mother wants, I sleep sitting upright against the wall beside my door.
I drive my fingers into my ears, a futile effort.
I squeeze my eyes shut so tight that the black landscape behind my eyelids speckled with white.
Kan zhe wo. Look at me.
I want him here, but I’m afraid.
In the morning, I wake to find myself in my brother’s bed, Mother’s face hovering over mine with anticipation. The weight of her presence is suffocating.
“Your brother? Did he appear?” Mother asks, as though it is the most normal question in the world, as though resurrecting a ghost from the dead is as mundane as completing a homework assignment. She smiles, too wide, too bright, straining to wait patiently for my answer. She used to be more patient, but I could be misremembering. Maybe the patience I recall was reserved only for my brother.
“No, he didn’t,” I say, hoping that after enough failed attempts, she will eventually give up this morbid game. It’s a futile hope, but one I can’t help but cling to.
Mother’s smile twitches, then fades. She leans back, allowing the sun from the open window to pierce my eyes and cast her almost fully in shadow. Mother brushes the loose hairs from her forehead, then forces the smile to reappear.
“Well, we’ll try again until he does.”
She springs to her feet, brushes the wrinkles from her nightgown, and rushes toward the entrance, closing the door a little too hard on the way out.
The next evening, when Father returns home from work sometime after midnight, I’m crouched outside of my parents’ bedroom door, watching Mother sleep. Curled into the fetal position, Mother holds herself as though she is clutching a newborn baby. But when I hear Father’s footsteps move toward the stairs, I rush back to my room and jump quickly into bed (Mother had forgotten to lock the door today).
Instead of climbing the stairs, Father’s footsteps wander off again.
I stare at the ceiling and listen to his path below: down the hallway and into the living room, then into the kitchen, no doubt in search of leftovers. He knows they won’t sit well with his stomach, but I’m certain he eats them anyway.
Shortly after, he heads upstairs.
My eyes droop, but when Father doesn’t go to his and Mother’s room and instead passes it, they pop wide open. I hold my breath as he shuffles by my door, his shadow drifting past the small gap, the one I keep open out of habit, ever since I was a child. Part of me hopes he’ll pause and poke his head in like he used to, come inside, even if it’s just to tidy up the dirty laundry and stray papers scattered about the floor.
Father’s footsteps stop in front of my brother’s room. With stealth, I crawl on all fours to my bedroom door and shove my eye against the gap, careful not to accidentally shut it with my face.
Father with his back to the wall beside my brother’s door. He slowly drops to a sitting position and rests his head against the frame. He whispers just loud enough for me to hear—loud enough, perhaps, out of fear that my brother won’t hear his words otherwise.
“Your mother misses you,” he begins. “So does your sister, even though she doesn’t say it.”
I pull back into a child’s pose, resting my forehead on the back on my knees, tears collecting fast, even as I will them to stop. My nose burns, and I almost choke on my own saliva when I gasp. I hold a hand over my mouth.
“I—” His voice cracks.
My body heaves. Tears fall.
Father tries again. “I—” Falters again.
A shuddering breath, but I can’t tell who it’s from.
But the voice doesn’t belong to either of us.
A screech comes from upstairs. It’s a sound not of horror, but one of shock and joy. Father has an expression of nervous excitement, but I feel my stomach churn, forcing bile into my throat. My brother didn’t appear last night, only his voice, but today—
Father is the first to make a move, heading toward the stairs without looking back. I follow suit only when he disappears around the corner. The stairs feel like a mountain, exhausting me both mentally and physically by the time I reach the top.
Mother is crouching down, embracing… something. I’m afraid to see what it is.
Father pauses at the doorway for only a moment before striding quickly toward Mother. Beside her stands my brother, his head resting on her shoulder, his hair tousled the same way it was when he was alive. His portrait comes to my mind, but the face of my brother’s ghost—the thing standing before me—remains blurry, like static. His features waver, flitting in and out of sight. From what the agent has told us, Mother and Father should see my brother precisely as he was before his death, with great clarity. A perfect replica.
With a glitching grin, he says to me, “Meimei.” Little sister. His voice warbles in and out of the correct pitch, and it crackles, flipping through radio channels quickly, from one station to the next.
Do my parents see and hear the same thing? There is an air of uncertainty in the room, but Mother and Father’s expressions hold delight. They beckon me forth. My brother raises a hand to greet me, the fingers merged as one.
I’m the elder sibling now, so why do I still feel so small? Much to my parents’ dismay, I’m hesitant to approach.
Father tries to convince Mother that I will come around eventually, but Mother looks as though she will force me to sleep in my brother’s bedroom again. Father secures her surrender once Mother realizes that my brother is here to stay, no matter how uncomfortable I may feel about it.
My brother continues to appear at the same spot in his bedroom, at the same time each day: 4:04 p.m., the precise time of his death. And he continues to return to his room every night at the same time, disappearing at 10:44 p.m., the precise time of my birth.
On my way to school the next morning, I avoid making eye contact with the lingerers as best I can, which is easier than it sounds since it’s a rather short walk, considering. The school is nestled inside the residential part of town not far from where I now live, but unlike the homes surrounding it, the school is a squat, three-story building made of red brick. Blue-green ivy, with purple-red tinged stems, crawl along the walls.
The building is half the size of my previous high school in Scarborough, so I’m convinced it will be easier to navigate. But when I enter, I find myself lost as I walk in search of the principal’s office. I look around and become confused by the concept of direction. But stranger still is the way the corners have been rounded, as if forcefully sanded down. Some are smoother, more rounded, than others. It’s as though an architect had started the ambitious work, this experimental design, and then abandoned it just prior to completion.
Every sign plastered on the walls feels aged and none of them direct to the correct rooms or areas. This must have been a very different school before. In sections where the streaky white paint on the walls has started to chip and peel, a rotting, mossy-green color peeks out from beneath.
Students roam the halls in small clusters, never more than two or three people to a group, always pressed against the walls. A few look alert, but most have spaced out. I catch bits of conversation here and there, and sometimes I find my gaze wandering to the face attached to the voice to see if I might recognize them from the neighborhood.
“That’s the new girl,” says a student to her friends.
The girl speaking is my neighbor, but I have yet to formally meet her. Dad insisted I introduce myself, but Mother said there was no need, and her opinion won out. Back in Scarborough, Mother dried flowers inside phone books and gifted them to our neighbors, but she would never do that here.
The girl’s criticizing stare lingers, then flicks away. I can feel her eyes return when I pass.
“The one who moved in across the street from the old woman?”
I don’t recognize any of the other students, but I notice other things about them. Some look disheveled, some well-rested, others look anxious, their eyes constantly darting. I see a girl walking barefoot, and later, a boy with a single shoe on, untied. He’s wearing a holey T-shirt and torn jeans with frayed edges.
When I arrive at the principal’s office, I see the lingerer boy—the defiant one from the day before—seated on a bench nearby. Instead of taking a seat beside him, I loiter around a nearby bulletin board and pretend to read the tacked-up announcements.
A group of girls are standing in a circle across the hall and chatting loud enough for everyone to hear. Every now and then, they glance in my direction, their eyes suspicious.
“I hear there are no ghosts in her house.”
“The new girl? Or the old lady?”
“The old lady.”
“I heard she killed her husband.”
“That’s just a dumb rumor. She’s waiting for his ghost.”
“Well, he’s not showing up.”
“Do you blame him? I wouldn’t want to see her again either.”
Without looking his way, I address the lingerer boy with a whisper.
“Who are they talking about?” I ask.
The boy remains immobile. He doesn’t look my way when he says, “Don’t talk to me.”
I bite the inside of my cheek and pretend to read the bulletins again. That’s when I notice they’re all out of date. Just some old tryout calls and past announcements for school dances and assemblies—all from nearly a decade ago. I search for anything posted that might be recent, but the only thing I find that fits the description is a business card that advertises the services of a local real estate agent named Tania Yemen. I quickly recognize her as the same agent who visited my parents back when they first heard about HOME from the cousin who used to own the house we live in now.
“I knew someone who used to live near that house,” says one of the girls. “I guess the old woman was always screaming weird things late at night, waking all the neighbors.”
“That’s nothing! I’ve see her walking around the streets in the middle of the night!”
“Mrs… Mrs… Mrs… What is her last name again?”
“What about the new family? Who do you think they’re here for?”
That’s when I stop listening. I feel their eyes on me as I abandon the bulletin board for the principal’s office. I pause to stare at the lingerer boy, but he pretends I’m not there.
“You are very lucky to be here,” says the principal. She hands me my schedule and returns immediately to the paperwork on her desk. I’ve never transferred schools before, so I’m not sure if such a curt welcome is normal, but I assume it’s not. No one here seems to care much for formalities.
The only thing of note is the Venus flytrap on the Principal’s desk—dead, shriveled; probably has been for awhile now.
On my way out, the secretary pays me no mind. The lingerer boy is no longer on the bench. I look out the window to see a truck pull up to the house across the street. The lingerers there all rise and trudge, with blank stares, toward the bright yellow vehicle. Painted on the side of the truck, in bold font, are the words Good Things Come to Those Who Wait.
Before I can see why the lingerers are forming a line, the school bell rings. I scramble for my schedule, remembering there is only ten minutes in between periods.
First Period (8:20–9:30)—Algebra
Second Period (9:40–11:00)—Biology
Third Period (12:40–1:50)—World Issues
Fourth Period (2:00–3:30)—HOME
I squint at the last class on the list, wondering if my eyes are deceiving me. At my old school, home period is where students gather for morning announcements. Why is this one at the end of the day? And why is it ninety minutes long?
In World Issues class, my teacher discusses “current issues” that happened in the 1980s, decades before I was born. I wonder if he knows the world has changed, or if he’s taught the same thing since the year he first arrived in HOME.
I arrive to HOME period five minutes early, but everyone else is already present. The seats are arranged in a circle, and only one remains free. I rush to claim it while trying my best to avoid eye contact with the others, my head bowing low. The chairs have this strange, purple velvet covering, the same material as the half-drawn curtains along the windows. I immediately feel a breeze and look up to see a rusty fan hanging from the ceiling, cooling the room with its noisy rotations.
The teacher is seated on a wheelchair. Before the bell, she had been making her way around the exterior of the circle and holding court with each student in whispers, but once the bell rings, she breaks from the casual chatter and begins the class for real. Murmurs between students die out as a gentle hush falls respectfully over the room.
“Welcome, welcome!” the teacher begins. She turns to me and smiles. “And you must be Wenqi. You may call me Mrs. Juna. Class, please welcome your new classmate, Wenqi.”
For the first time since entering the classroom, I notice that the lingerer boy from before is seated directly across from me.
“Hello, Wenqi,” everyone says. They reply in perfect unison, like a well-conditioned hive-mind. Only the lingerer boy’s mouth remains shut. A chill runs through my bones.
Mrs. Juna addresses me again. “Since it’s your first day, for this exercise, you can go last. Rather than me explaining all the little details, I ask that you observe the other students and dive right in when it’s your turn. I’ve discovered over the years that it’s better this way.” She offers a discomforting smile. “But don’t worry. You’ll do fine.”
Mrs. Juna speaks again to the class. “Let’s help our new arrival acclimate a bit better to the neighborhood. What are the two main things to remember about HOME?”
“Interacting with the ghosts as much as possible will keep their presence in our lives strong,” the students say.
“If we desire to move on, we must first cut ties.”
“Good, good… very good…”
“And what do we do about lingerers?” Mrs. Juna asks. “And to the lingerers in the classroom, what do we do about the residents?”
“Leave them be.”
“Now, who wants to start us off?” Mrs. Juna’s eyes wander as several hands shoot up. “Penny?”
A student rises and takes a step forward. “My grandmother’s presence is growing stronger. At first, she only appeared in the kitchen, but now she wanders into the living room. She still can’t move to any of the other rooms—or maybe she doesn’t want to; I’m not quite sure—but my grandfather…” Penny falls silent and sits back down.
“Thank you, Penny.” Mrs. Juna nods. “Yes, Bawkinu?”
The student next to me rises.
“My parents are getting anxious. My mother’s health is declining. We’re not sure if she’ll make it until the next house frees up…”
A few students voice sympathy as he retakes his seat.
And it continues.
One student’s grandfather remains only in his favorite rocking chair. One student’s father just paces in her basement. Another student’s sister moves from bedroom to bedroom, but does nothing else.
Their stories are different, but what they seek is the same. They all want to find meaning, make meaning, see patterns where none exist. I wonder how long they’ve been trying to make sense of death. I wonder how many have already done so, but are being kept here by parents who have not—just like my parents are doing with me.
Everyone except the lingerer boy has taken their turn.
Mrs. Juna calls on me. “Wenqi.”
I panic, and my ears warm, heat crawling up my neck. I think of my brother and his glitchy appearances. I think of Mother and the robotic routine she is falling into. And I think of Father, his demanding work schedule, his many duties, but also his gentle heart and kind gestures, his attempts to keep the peace in our home.
“I want to leave,” I blurt.
An intake of breaths sucks the air from the room. All eyes look to me. Some look hurt, but most look on with anger. Surely this isn’t the first time someone has admitted this? Or are such disclosures taboo? Perhaps I appear spoiled, ungrateful. I know many have given a lot to find a home here, and some still wait.
I chew the inside of my cheeks until blood pools beneath my tongue.
That’s when the lingerer boy catches my attention.
Once he sees me looking at him, he mouths, “Me too.”
The final bell rings.
On my way back home, I look into the windows of the homes I pass. People inside are embracing or talking to things that are invisible to me. One old man stands by his window, looking out at me, his arm wrapped around the invisible shoulders of who I assume is his late wife.
When I get home, Father is in his car, waiting for the slow rise of the creaking garage door to finish opening so he can move the vehicle inside. He does, and the lingerers quickly take up the space that the silver Lexus vacates. It’s strange how Father pays no attention to them, as though they’re not even there. He’s somehow gotten used to them already—gotten used to this new normal—even though it’s only been a week. When Father turns off the engine, it turns off the hope I have of going home. Most of our neighbors have cut off all connections to the outside world, but Father plans to keep commuting. Maybe one day the engine will stay running.
Across the street, the old woman is by her window again, this time staring at her rose bushes.
In the kitchen, my brother has already arrived. His wavering form is seated at the dining room table with a stack of half-eaten youtiao in front of him. He pokes and prods at the youtiao, then holds it up for me to see.
Mother caresses the top of my brother’s head adoringly. “My darling boy was hungry, so I told him not to wait for you.”
“Sorry I’m late,” I say. “I took the long way home.” I take a seat next to my brother and try not to cringe when he flops one of his youtiao onto my plate. There is no long way home. But Mother doesn’t care.
“Food’s cold, but dig in.”
I don’t have much of an appetite, but I force a smile and eat. The youtiao on my brother’s plate are perfect, but mine are dry and burnt—rejects of the batch. I eat the youtiao my brother gifted me and leave the rest to rot.
The next day at lunch, I see Penny and Bawkinu sitting on the floor against the cafeteria wall rather than at a lunch table, and instead of crowding into one of the noisy tables myself, I take a seat on the floor next to them. Bawkinu is the first to break the awkward silence.
“Thank goodness for lunch,” he says with a scowl. He takes a bite of his sandwich and stops, now having reached the midpoint. “I wish they’d let us take more than one of these. I’d love to take a couple home.” He stares at the sandwich, likely contemplating whether to save the rest for later.
“You can have mine,” Penny says, handing their half-eaten sandwich to Bawkinu. Their hand then goes to fix a stray baby hair that came loose from their short, gelled-back, copper bob.
Bawkinu pushes their hand away, then scratches the base of his scalp where his dark buzz cut ends.
“You can have mine too,” I say. I hold up the lunch bag I brought from home. “I packed a lunch.”
Bawkinu sneers at the box lunch and snatches the ham and cheese sandwich from my hand. He pushes up his ripped sleeves, his shirt missing a few buttons.
“Why are you sitting on the floor?” I ask.
The pair shrug. “Why not?” they say at the same time, then share a smile.
I’m about to dig into my bag full of leftover stale youtiao when I remember why I approached the pair. Through the windows of the cafeteria, I see him sitting under a tree outside, staring at his hands. I point him out to Penny and Bawkinu with a discreet nod. “Who’s the boy?” I ask.
Penny’s brow furrows. “Who? Liam?”
So his name is Liam.
Between bites, Bawkinu says with a dismissive tone, “He’s older than the rest of us. A year? Maybe two? He’s been here for a while.”
“Do you ever talk to him?” I ask.
Bawkinu just shakes his head No while chomping on his next bite.
Liam is not at school the next day, or the day after that, but I continue to see him camped out on the neighbor’s lawn with his parents. I’m too afraid to approach him.
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