Year Zero, December

Most of the time, the dead mall was what it was: a dead mall.

The only redeeming qualities were (1) the banquet restaurant on the second floor and (2) the central space on the ground floor that could be used to host and organize volunteer work.

December was the time of the year where a Christmas tree was put up, an assortment of red and gold decorations strung up on the ceiling and around the balcony railing. December was also the Monsoon season and tonight, Qi Li had volunteered for the last shift to package essential supplies, all donated, that would be sent to flood victims and evacuees.

It was after 9:30pm, so not many people were left but it was enough. The bulk of the work had been done earlier in the day and once the lorries arrived to transport everything, all Qi Li would have to do was help clean up and leave.

Apart from himself, there was a small friend group of around five girls, ten students from a university club and three adults from the organizing committee of this project. Two small trolleys of donations weren’t much of a challenge to sort and pack.

Qi Li sat by the foot of the Christmas tree to do his work. He nestled some canned sardines between a bulky packet of milk powder and sheets of bubble wrap. He used the very tips of his nails to pick at the corner of a roll of tape. He sighed and glanced up to see a banner with a reindeer painted on it, skimming over a few other posters.

“Do you need help?”

The person who said this was someone he had never seen before. Qi Li turned to look over his shoulder to see who he could be asking, then realized horrifyingly that the question was directed at him.

“I hate this kind of tape too,” the stranger said, holding out his arm. Qi Li handed over the beige roll of tape and watched as the newcomer’s fingers carefully peeled out one end, then caught it deftly before pulling out an intact strip with a successful rip.

Qi Li held the flaps of the boxes shut while the stranger sat down on their haunches to tape it up. He looked at the ground the entire time and wondered if he could discretely tilt his head back to look at the banners once more, anything to not be tempted to stare.

Spending the last few years through a plague meant that for a long time, Qi Li had seen practically no new faces—always just the eyes, forehead and the beginning of the bridge of the nose. He’d purposely volunteered for the shift with the least people; he wasn’t used to crowds or groups larger than ten and felt like hiding his own face more than three-quarters of the time.

It bothered him how he wasn’t used to seeing new, unfamiliar people. Or an individual, for that matter.

Tousled dark hair, square-framed glasses, dark eyes. Likely a student from college or university, tongue slightly sticking out at the corner of their mouth while they pressed the tape flat to the box.

Qi Li suddenly sat back up after remembering, “I don’t have any scissors.”

The stranger shrugged. “It’s fine.”

Before he could ask, the stranger had pulled out some keys, stabbed it through the tape with a piercing pop, and Qi Li fully flinched before he could even think of hiding it.

A few moments passed before Qi Li registered the silence and opened his eyes.

“Sorry,” Qi Li said, voice tight. He lifted his head back up.

The stranger was still there and met his gaze. “I should be the one saying that.”

“Don’t.” Qi Li picked up the tape once more and pulled it out properly, determined to finish taping up this one box so he could move on to the next. There was the familiar tightness crawling up his chest and squeezing his throat, making his jaw ache keeping it at bay.

However, the interesting thing was the way the stranger sensed or noticed it. He sat down on the floor and put aside his bundle of keys.

“I’m Ming Zhang.”

That wasn’t what he’d expected to hear. On the other hand, Qi Li privately thought it was a name that quite suited him.

“Qi Li,” he replied out of courtesy. Before the world stopped and everything came to a standstill, he used to add, “When you say it fast enough, it sounds like you’re saying ‘chilli’, the spice.”

“Mind drawing out the characters for me to guess?” Ming Zhang asked. A soft smile had started to form by his eyes and quirked at the corners of his mouth. It looked real enough and the sight made the strain in Qi Li’s chest dissipate slightly.

Qi Li tried to keep his hands steady when he accepted Ming Zhang’s outstretched palm, keeping his touch light. Two characters, recognisable and distinct enough. Their meanings practically mirrored one another.

Ming Zhang grinned once he was done.

“Pretty name.” He handed over the keys and Qi Li stabbed it through the piece of tape, exhaling once he pressed the loose end down to the cardboard.

Ming Zhang watched, having shifted back a short distance away.

The next sentence spilled out before Qi Li had fully thought it through. “Do you want to do the next box together?”

Ming Zhang tilted his head to the side, a small thrill flickering across his eyes. You could practically hear the hiss of ignition, the lighting of the fuse of a firecracker or a child’s sparkler. Both held the promise of fire and wonder.

“Of course.”

Year One, December

It had rained. The porch was green under the yellow lightbulb and the plants outside looked like they’d converged into a black gaping maw. The cool air smelled like mango skins and lychee.

The pounding in his head had mostly receded after swallowing the painkillers but the cold drink went a long way as well. Qi Li set the empty can on the short table and wiped the back of his mouth, closing his eyes once the light got too incessant.

“You alright?” a voice from behind called. Familiar footsteps that Qi Li could recognise by raw instinct alone pattered across the wooden boards.

Ming Zhang sat down beside him, shoulder and thigh bumping against one another, making his skin warm. “How you?”

“I was just going to go back in.”

“I’d advise against it.” He raised his arm crookedly. “They’ve started a rather treacherous game of UNO.”

The chess club and board games club were incredibly cut-throat when it came to cards.

Qi Li massaged the side of his head in the hopes to combat the momentary sensation of a million pinpricks burning behind his eyes. “Join them, you coward.”

“There are enough players to cause a terrible enough fight. I need a moment to myself too.”

It always started with Ming Zhang putting one arm around Qi Li. Then, his two hands would magically find each other, which would pull Qi Li into a pleasant albeit occasionally strangely positioned hug; he used to be left aghast at how he’d made friends with a lanky and highly affectionate cat in human form, among the other things.

Qi Li opened his eyes, focusing on the distant tick of raindrops hitting the roof and the quiet gurgle of water streaming through the rain gutters.

“What are you doing for Christmas? Fortunately it looks like there won’t be any floods this December,” Ming Zhang said at last, gently pulling away.

Volunteering because of the floods that had happened last year was how they’d first met. Attending and meeting each other at the same university less than a month later was the main reason they had been able to maintain a friendship.

Their blossoming acquaintanceship, whatever you could call it at that time, had persisted in spite of joining different university courses—Ming Zhang did journalism and Qi Li did accounting and finance—and different university clubs—Ming Zhang joined chess and Qi Li joined board games.

Maybe a more discerning eye would have immediately known that the chess club and board games club had a strong alliance. Having an hour of lunch at the same time was convenient. Qi Li ended up seeing Ming Zhang a lot more than one might expect.

“This Christmas,” Qi Li said, drawing circles on the porch, “I’ll probably stay at home to help my mother, aunt and grandmother cook dinner.”

“Your father isn’t flying back for the holidays?”

The last time Qi Li had seen his father in the flesh was before the plague.

Qi Li shrugged. “He said he forgot to take leave.” He reached over to take his can back and knocked back the last cold dredges of the freezing liquid. The carbonation burned in the back of his throat and fizzled down his throat.

Ming Zhang tapped his fingernails against the wooden porch before saying, “My grandparents were moved into a nursing home a few months ago.”

“It’s been planned for a while, hasn’t it?”

Ming Zhang nodded. Qi Li couldn’t say he knew the whole story but the bits and pieces were sufficient. Hip replacement, pacemaker, then paranoia, rageful fits and wild bursts of anger exacerbated by the time during the plague.

He pushed his empty can aside. “How did they take moving in?”

“They told my parents, both of them, to never visit them. Ever.” Ming Zhang’s head dropped but then he looked up and smiled, although it was shaky. “Christmas is a good time for miracles though, isn’t it?”

“It should be.”

Qi Li took the extra canned soft drink he’d brought out and popped the tab open, throwing his head back to take a strong swig. It was still piercingly icy and slammed his skull with an immediate brain freeze. Ming Zhang took it when offered and had a few sips.

Once they’d finished it between them, Qi Li hugged his knees to his chest. He didn’t recoil like a gun had fired when Ming Zhang hooked his chin over his shoulder. It had taken quite some time to get here, almost the whole year in fact, but each step had been just as concrete and tangible.

They stayed like that for a while, paying wavering attention to the sound and sight of the rain.

He drank three quarters of the can, mainly because it was his drink but also because Ming Zhang didn’t exactly need that the most. Qi Li leaned ever so slightly to the left so that their heads bumped against each other. He could feel the thrumming reverberate through and across the chamber of Ming Zhang’s head.

 “Come on,” Qi Li said. “Let’s go back inside.”

Year Two, December

The second year of university passed by as normally as it could.

Some people don’t get to see their fathers. Others are rejected by their grandparents.

There were times where Qi Li would get far too deep in his head. He used to let those waves course over and carry him to whatever battered and beaten place they led to. Before, he’d had to claw his hands bloody and torn to get out of it.

Now, it was different though. He took a painkiller before his headache got worse and made a call. Ming Zhang picked up on the first ring.

There was a café near the dead mall. Qi Li thought of getting a soft drink, then decided on an iced chocolate. Chocolate, sugar and ice always worked wonders to stave off headaches. Ming Zhang had brought a water bottle, so he ordered a slice of cake instead.

“I went for a walk with my mum yesterday,” Qi Li said. He’d followed her after his father had phoned them. There was a time when no one had been able to go outside, so he tried to appreciate it. “I didn’t feel terrible after.”

“That’s good.”

“There was a downpour five minutes after we got back home.” Qi Li picked up one of the forks and eyed the end of the pointy tip of the cake slice. “She said we could have drowned in it.”

“Was it a sad we missed the chance ‘could’ or a good we missed the chance ‘could’?”

“Not sure.” Qi Li cut through the cake, pastel green frosting giving way to the fork. “What flavor is this?”

“Chocolate. With mint frosting.” Ming Zhang picked up the second fork. “I wanted to share.”

It was a ludicrous wish even to his own self but Qi Li wished they could’ve known each other for more than two years. He’d disallowed himself to believe anything when they’d first met, had hardly dared to believe anything more would come after their first year…

“I’m really glad we met,” Qi Li said, consciously keeping his eyes away from the table. He saw Ming Zhang’s smile reach his lips, and heard the small burst of laughter that came from his throat. He felt a dizzying rush of blood crawl up his body and reach his head.

Ming Zhang grinned.

“Me too!”

Year Three, New Year’s Eve

Around the middle of their third year of university, Qi Li attended two wakes in the span of four months.

It went without saying that losing both grandparents in such a short amount of time was difficult. Grief was hard for everyone and knowing Ming Zhang’s situation, Qi Li knew it was more complex. Either way, grief didn’t simply vanish even when the year was coming to an end.

But alongside the grief over the last four months, there had also been slow and gradual steps towards healing.

Qi Li sat on Ming Zhang’s living room couch with a hot cup of a chocolate malt drink. Ming Zhang sat next to him, alternating between typing on his laptop for five minutes and then watching the series playing on the television for thirty minutes.

It was only after their finals ended that the dark bags under his eyes, the weight he’d carried, had started to lighten.

“Spending the New Year with your mum and family friends?” Qi Li asked, looking away from the television. He had to tilt his head back slightly to meet Ming Zhang’s eyes.

Ming Zhang nodded. “Same for you?”

“It doubles as a celebration of life as well; one of my relatives is having a small gathering.”

“Should I wish you in advance, then?”

Ming Zhang pushed his glasses up his nose, smiling all soft and gentle. If you want.”

Qi Li found the courage to take Ming Zhang’s hand and intertwine their fingers; wanting, purposely, deliberately seeking it out for the first time. Ming Zhang gently squeezed Qi Li’s hand in return.

You, Qi Li thought. In every form, you are my one constant in this changing, revolving world of chaos and confusion.

If there was something he could believe in, it was the two of them.

“Happy new year, Ming Zhang.”

“Happy new year, Qi Li.”

Written by: Zhen Yi

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