Threes

“God help the Yong family. One after the other.”

It takes me a few moments to understand what he’s saying, and when I do, rage creates flood damage inside of my already broken heart. I bite my tongue and draw blood, the taste of it like a cold metal marble coated in salt, laying unwanted in my mouth. Beyond rage, the ring of truth that shadows the words come swishing in. The truth hurts more than the anger. The truth hurts more than anything.

“Don’t say that. Their family will pull through.” Theo says it with confidence and I cross my arms over my chest to block out any more sympathy. Ouch! It comes anyway. Poor Theo. I’ve added the look on his face when he heard, to the things I’ve forbidden myself to think about.

“What’s left of it.” Mr. Hines, he funeral director mutters.

It takes all my willpower not to jump from behind the corner. I stare at the crimson roses on the wall paper instead. The roses offer no words of comfort, just stare back at me. They seen too many just like me, despairing and feeling like the world will crumble in. They seem to shrug, old roses are these, and say We’ve seen it all before. You’re not new. And they’re right. I’m not new. I’ve glanced at these roses twice this year.One after the other.

“There’s still Janie.” Theo loyally defends me. “There’s still Mr. Yong.”

Mr. Hines’ small eyes wander over to the buffet. I didn’t want there to be food, as if this day is a day to eat and think and feel and sleep just like any other. I think I’ve forgotten how. But in our culture, there is the belief that food at a funeral brings good luck. I can see Hines looking longingly at the steaming bowls of rice. We’re the only Chinese in our town but Grandfather seems determined not to die and as long as he’s around, our customs must be followed. Grandfather’s seventy-seven and she was fifteen and I wish it were reversed. But that’s a wicked thing to think and it’s the terror and exhaustion of the day that’s mixing up my brain. I shake my head and see Hines make his way wearily to the plates of hot, flavorful bak-choy sitting in sauce and slippery, spiced-up chow-fun.

But before he leaves entirely, he turns and makes a weak joke. And it sends splinters down my spine. And I’m trying not to reveal my hiding place but I want to scream and run and break things. And the roses turn up there noses to me as I slide down the wall and cover my face with my hands and my mind is screaming, fuck you, Mr. Hines and my heart feels like it’s punching it’s way out of my chest.

“If the Yongs keep dying, they’re gonna make me a rich man.”

And then I close my eyes. The voices, Hines and Theo, smell of pork fried rice, the sorrow, the apologies for this inevitable thing, the roses, my salty tears and the funeral home melt away into blackness. Melting until everything is…

Gone.

When my father shakes me awake my foot is asleep and i’m crumpled on the floor. Embarrassment flushes up the side of my face. Had I really fainted in the middle of the funeral reception? My eyes are still slightly wet. What a mess.

“Jane?” My father pulls me up and I struggle to balance on my one awake foot. “Are you all right?”

“Fine.” I say.

“It’s time to come out.” He pushes back my hair. “You should have some food, talk to your friends.”

I shake my head. “I’m not hungry.”

His dark eyes dart across my face, drinking in deeper meaning than he should. His face is full of understanding, it makes me uncomfortable.

My traitor stomach grumbles. Father shakes his head.

“Please eat, Jane.”

I want to refuse, but how could I deny him anything today?

“Fine.” I sigh. Turning for the buffet. Theo stands there, awkwardly looking at his feet and holding a plate of snow peas, rice and mushrooms with water-chestnuts. I grab a plate and reluctantly pile on chow fun.

“You okay?” Theo asks as he moves to let me grab a bowl of rice. I don’t answer.

“How’s the bak-choy?” I ask instead. It’s a stupid topic, the one Chinese food place in town is hideously Americanized. It’s the fortune-cookie and ramen noodle (even more dumb since ramen is Japanese) type of restaurant, and the owners are far from Chinese. I know it’s weird for me to care, since I’m completely American and want to be known, considered as such. In a town as diverse as a ream of white paper, it’s a struggle to be known as something besides “the chinese girl.” And still, I scoff at the overcooked, abused bak choy leaves.

“It’s okay.” Theo says. Glancing at me with worry. “Janie…I…are you sure-”

“Don’t, Theo. I’m really okay.” My stare is thick and stubborn, like when you write so furiously on paper that your pencil leaves lead dust.

He stares back, just as hard. “Janie, it’s all right to be sad. I miss her and I know you do too.” Of course he does. He was Sarah’s boyfriend after all.

I trace my thoughts into the floor with my gaze, heat flooding my cheeks as I force myself to eat a bite of noodle. I will not cry.

“The funeral’s almost over.” I tell him. “You should go home.”

He shakes his head, adamant.

I feel annoyance start to squeeze. “Fine.” I say. “If you don’t go, I will.”

I walk quickly, not quick enough to escape his voice.

“Janie. Wait. I think you should talk to someone.”

“Go away please.”

He doesn’t follow me outside. I just want to be alone. I don’t like mourning in pairs and groups. My misery doesn’t like company. It shuns it. The weight of my sorrow is one thing to bear, adding Theo’s or my Father’s or Hayley’s to the mix and it’s all too much.

The smell of fresh air is sweet, cool and lovely on my shoulders. I close my eyes. There’s a little garden out back, nothing special. I find myself moving in that direction. There’s a few flowerbeds and a tree. A stone bench beneath the shade of it. I sit. I watch.

Sarah would have loved this garden. When she was little, around three years old, she liked things to be pretty, to be happy. But that was when she was playing dress up and coloring with crayons. And more importantly, it wasn’t enough to fend off the depression, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.

Sarah only wanted brightness all the time. She couldn’t deal with the bad. She couldn’t deal so she stopped dealing with any of it. Of us. It was so selfish, so Sarah, to do this to us. Right after Mom. One after the other.

I fumble with the cell phone in my pocket. Text my father that I’ll see him later and I turn to leave.

I want to run, but it’s hard in these stiff black shoes. I wanted to wear the friendship bracelet with the red, heart-shaped beads Sarah had made for me, but Grandfather wouldn’t allow it. Red is the color of happiness.

And speaking of Grandfather, there he is. Shit. I keep my head down, try to escape unnoticed, try not to panic. But he’s too fast. He turns and spots me with his steel eyes.

“Tiam Moi!”

As if I need anything else to stress over.

Grandfather lives in America, but really, he lives in China. He lives in China with his head and his heart. If he closes his eyes, he’s back in his home, in Guangdong. when he opens them, he’s in a suburb in Connecticut. I’d feel sorry for him if he wasn’t such a condescending ass all of the time. He drags our traditions into every little thing he does. and we all suffer for it. Like refusing to call me by anything other then the Hakka name he forced upon me. To him, Janie Yong doesn’t exist. Tiam Moi, obedient granddaughter does.

“Where are you going?” He demands, eyes darting disaprovingly over my plain black dress and sweater from Old Navy. We fought last week over the white cheongsam he wanted me to wear. He had thrust the garment in my face. “This is custom!” He had spat.

“Your custom.” I had retorted. “I’m an American.”

I’d never seen him so angry.But my father had stepped in. “Dad!” He had hissed quietly. “Let Janie wear what she wants. It’s her sister’s f-funeral. Just let her be.”

Now Grandfather crosses his arms. “Tiam Moi?”

“To the riverside.”

“That isn’t safe.” A shadow stalks the corners of his face. Actual concern colors his cheeks.

I blink. “What are you talking about?”

Real worry now. “You could fall in. Drown.”

“I won’t.” I say, thoroughly weirded out. “And I know how to swim.”

Grandfather bats that away. “Bah! You know the saying. You must be careful, Tiam Moi.”

“Saying?”

He wrings his wrinkled hands. “Threes.” He whispers, voice as thin as rice paper. “Bad things happen in threes.”

“Bad things happen in…” I go cold as the words of the ancient saying squeezes the life out of me. “You don’t mean-”

He shakes his head grimly. “First my daughter in law. Then Gin Lian. There’s one left. Bad things happen in threes.”

First Mr. Hines and now my Grandfather? “You think I’m the third?”

He stiffens. “We should all be careful.”

I push through him. Superstition. Nonsense. Complete crap. But what if? I hate myself for admitting it, but doesn’t it seem strange? My mother dying and my sister following suit so soon? “Whatever.” I say. “I’m going.”

His sallow face turns red. “Tiam Moi! One never addresses one’s elders in that tone!”

I start to walk away briskly, biting my tongue as to not speak the words that spring to mind. American girls really don’t give a shit, Grandfather. But I don’t. He’s a lost cause.

Bad things happen in threes.

The thought is too much to bear. The river pulses before me. My cold fingers grasp the cold metal of the fence that prevents me from putting a toe in. Even Sarah’s suicide hasn’t ruined it for me. We spent so many happy memories here that the fact that this was the site of her death is overwhelmed with all the little joys spent here. All the little joys strung together to tackle the big evil.

The river is not blue. It is not green. It is not brown. It is combination of these colors, blended together with strange touches of red, of yellow of orange where the sun hits it. It rushes, unstoppable, busy as hell. It only recently thawed, so it’s awoken, had it’s morning coffee and is on a working rampage. Water flows, seemingly infinite.

“I thought I might find you here.” Hayley’s voice makes me turn. She doesn’t offer a smile or polite nod. She charges me, nearly banging me into the fence. Her hugs are always tight. I struggle for breath.

“Are you all right?” She asks me firmly.

Everyone asks this. I’m prepared to tell her i’m fine, but unlike Theo, Hayley is no so tactful. She can tell when you’re BSing her and she’ll make you pay for it. So I shrug instead.

“I miss her.” She says. Then her eyes narrow. “Why did you come back here?”

“I love this place.” I say softly.

“I hate it.” Hayley’s voice drops low. “She left me here. And I was her friend.”

“Her best friend.” I whisper and put a hand on her shoulder.

“Besides you.”

“It doesn’t matter. Neither of us could save her.”

And there it is. The sadness of knowing that put together, Hayley and I both failed to be big enough to stay alive for.

“Hey.”

Theo runs up to meet us. From the way, he’s gasping, he must have sprinted here.

“How’d you know where to find me?” I ask them both, bewildered.

“Your dad told me.” Theo says.

The three of us look out at the thundering water with the doll-size waves.

“How are you?” I ask him.

“I’m heartbroken.” He says like it’s the simplest thing. His eyes stare at the distance and I know he’s imagining her before the depression. If I think hard, I can see her too. Laughing, even. Theo and Hayley glance at each other in awkward submission. We’re a weird group, the best friend, the boyfriend and the little sister. We’re missing the piece we have in common, our connection, our link. And yet, we are brought together from her death.

My eye is bothering me. It wells up obnoxiously and I blink hard.Don’t cry. But the tears don’t listen.

Nobody ever listens. Not Sarah. Not anyone.

One look at Hayley’s tough mask and Theo’s unhidden sorrow and I let out a sob. I sink to the earth, ruining my dress. Why can’t I ever stay on my goddamn feet? I stand on chicken legs once Hayley helps me up. She’s biting her lip so hard i’m sure she’s tasting blood. Theo just stands and stares at me with such understanding I feel interrogated. My face turns hot.

“Sorry.” I viciously wipe my wet cheeks with the back of my hand.

“There’s nothing to be sorry for.” Theo says.

“I hate her!” Hayley explodes. “I hate her for leaving.”

We are all that remains of her legacy. If this were a movie, we’d be the supporting characters. We’re the ones left behind.

“She’s happier now.” Says Theo with such certainty, I’m suddenly envious. Envious of the way he looks at this thing with such simplicity. He always did understand her. Maybe some people are just born that way, knowing what’s best. I’d rather have understanding sadness that confusing sadness.

I don’t know how long we stand there, except that we stand for a while. The breeze whipping us and the salty smell of the air hanging around.

“You guys?” I say. “Do you…”

They turn to look at me. I blush, feeling foolish. “Do you think bad things…happen in threes?”

Hayley raises her eyebrows. “What?”

Theo tilts his head to the side, trying to figure me out. “Not really. I don’t think so. Why?”

I let out a sigh of relief. It’s Hayley’s incredulousness, Theo’s confusion that placates me. “No reason.”

“It’s getting late.” Theo says as the sun dips into the water for a drink, melting orange into the sky. “We should go back.”

I think of Grandfather waiting for me back home. I can’t hide forever. “All right.”

Hayley grabs my hand. She gives a quick squeeze and lets go. There and then not. Theo leads the way and Hayley follows.

I wait for a moment, looking back at the churning river. It’s ancient, the greens and blues and browns never-ending, polluted with modern waste. I close my eyes and see the place where they fished out my sister’s broken body. I open my eyes and see nothing but water. It’s innocent in this whole ideal.

“Bye Sarah.” I whisper.

As I turn I catch sight of something colorful on the ground. Little wildflowers. They must be the first of the spring.

They hold their arms up to the light, their beautiful purples shimmering in what’s left of the sun, their leaves freshly born, their calyxes gently cradling them, their corrollas in full bloom.

In Chinese culture, we have a saying. “Bad things happen in threes.” I know that’s not true. At least, not in my case. Because I intend to live for a long time.

The wildflowers bring the promise of Springtime. They are small, violet and newborn.

There are also three of them.

Kai Willians
Age 14, Grade 8
Manhattan Country School
Gold Key

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