The visits start a week after Kwong’s first surgery.
Despite the stinging January cold, the high school boyfriend sits on the tiled floor in his boxers, scrubbing the bathtub’s edge with a moldy brush.
“Mikey?” She reaches out of the scalding water with a dripping wet hand. He laces his fingers between hers and presses her hand to his cheek in that sweet way he often did when they hadn’t seen each other in a while.
She breathes in the smell of car oil still on him.
“I’m so glad you’re back,” she says. Relief pools at the bottom of her gut as she quietly confirms the mole under his left eye, the black toenails on his right foot where his drunken father practiced his sadism. Proof that he’s real. He’s the first visitor after all, and she doesn’t quite believe it yet.
He doesn’t say a word, but he smiles as best he can with his jaw still missing from the accident at the factory.
• • •
Our parents were thrilled when Kwong was selected for an Upgrade. That precious little neural mesh that will give her access to the Floating City and all its endless possibilities. She’ll be one of the ten lucky Outer Ring residents selected this year who can move to the City once her surgeries are complete. She’ll be our family’s first. The beginning of a new, better chapter, Dad says, even though she won’t remember being a part of our family once she’s there. Mom bought a cream cake topped with fruit from the bakery near the station and asked the owner to write “Congratulations” in blue frosting. It was way too expensive, and Mom will be feeling it by the end of the month when she has to stretch the protein ration, but for now pride trumps her usual survival instincts.
At school, Kwong keeps her eyes on her scuffed hand-me-down sneakers after the news, like a ballerina clinging to a visual anchor to fend off vertigo. Those’re my old yellow trainers, the ones I should’ve thrown out before our parents had the chance to force them on her in the name of frugality. The teachers congratulate her in class as they pass back graded papers. The principal remembers her name for the first time in four years. The neighbors wave at her like a war hero on her way home. This year’s list of Upgrades has traveled through the Outer Ring fast as mice—even the walls themselves seem to pulse with the joyful news. She feels everyone’s excitement, pride, and jealousy like a wall of water; it could drown her if she let it.
Friendship lasts only as long as a memory. Kwong can’t look her classmates in the eye. Some she’s spent more than a decade with, their history of favorite music, petty fights, and broken hearts a record parallel to her own. She knows she won’t remember a single one of them this time next year if the surgeries are successful. Snipped bridges, memories like abandoned islands. Still, her friends leave congratulatory notes in her shoebox at school and give her hugs when they see her in the halls. They smile: half searching her face for imperfections to secretly hate, half hoping it will be their turn next year. They know the drones in town keep track of good behavior.
“Don’t worry too much,” Grandma tells her, peeling a boiled egg. She then puts it into Kwong’s chipped bowl as they eat dinner. Eggs and proteins are hard to come by, but the family packs them into her bowl each night like an army putting all their bets on their strongest soldier. “People come and go. The ones that matter … you’ll meet them again. You’re not like us, old and half in the ground already. Now eat. Brain food.”
Grandma gestures at the untouched food, her eyes on the television and the pretty imperial princesses gasping about arranged marriages and treacherous eunuchs. She doesn’t notice how Kwong stares at the closed bathroom door, poking absently at the egg. How she counts the minutes to sundown, longing for the hot water against her skin.
• • •
The day after Mikey visits her in the bath, Kwong stands outside the bakery near the station as if expecting him to arrive on the next train still smelling of the smoke-choked Factories. He used to buy roasted pork buns after payday and they would eat them together in the park like sweet, savory treasures while watching the ducks. She’d never invited him to the house, too ashamed or afraid of our parents’ disapproval, the way they’d wrinkle their noses at his oil-stained shirts and ask what school he went to when they knew his family couldn’t afford it.
“Kwong-ah? What’re you doing in the cold? It’s bad for your head,” the baker’s wife asks. She comes outside, a wool shawl wrapped around her head and shoulders. She too had been at the Upgrade Clinic the week before, one of the others selected for the surgeries.
“I was supposed to meet a friend. I guess I got the meeting place wrong,” Kwong says apologetically, bowing slightly the way the teachers taught her. The way she knows she will have to for at least the first year in the Floating City to prove how well she can fit in, that the drones hadn’t made a mistake in selecting her.
“You too?” The baker’s wife laughs. “I was taking a walk the other day and ended up in front of some old house and had no idea what I was doing there.” She tucks a loose strand of hair back into her scarf. “I even took the keys out of the mailbox without realizing. Had to run before the old people inside saw me!”
Doesn’t it bother you? Kwong wants to ask. She pictures the baker’s wife standing in front of that cracked door, her body remembering but her brain a stranger. Why doesn’t it bother you? Kwong knew there was no one she could ask this simple question to. She doesn’t want anyone to think she isn’t grateful for the opportunity she’s been given.
A train pulls into the station and the usual stream of commuters pools out. The baker’s wife waves at them all happily, hawking discounted coconut cookies and special fruit cakes for the upcoming moon festival. She answers a neighbor’s question about her first Upgrade surgery like someone talking about a new haircut. I’m still getting used to it, but it’s not as bad as I expected! You probably can’t even see the scar after a few months. The Upgrade consultants have been super sweet!
Kwong watches the woman, feeling like she’s drifting away, untethered—a boat lost at sea, her hands both too full and too empty.
When she gets home, Kwong kicks off her sneakers and heads straight to the bathroom. She runs the bath until it’s near-boiling, until wisps of steam curl over every tile, every inch of the room. Until the air feels like fire itself. Then she steps into the water and waits. Someone, please, she thinks.
• • •
By early spring, Kwong’s visitors number in the twenties; enough to fill out two undead baseball teams. Dead grandparents eager for a round of mahjong, broken-necked classmates reminiscing about cafeteria lunches and clumsy first times, vengeful aunts eager to share embarrassing stories about their unfaithful husbands.
The family doesn’t know what to do about the hole in their daughter’s head, an inch from the bottom of her cerebellum, that keeps leaking out the dead.
“Hallucinations aren’t completely unheard of. Most pass within the first few days though. Has she tried an ice water bath?” the Upgrade consultant asks with a patronizing smirk, not entirely believing Kwong’s story. “A good shock to the system could be effective at hastening the memory purging process. This is your family’s first generation to Upgrade right?”
Dad hesitates and then nods. I guess a part of him still remembers me, despite how hard he’s tried to forget.
“You know we can’t finish the Upgrade unless the brain is … clean,” the consultant says, running his tongue over his teeth as if tasting the unpleasantness of the word. “She can have another month to acclimate, but then we’ll have to cancel the remaining surgeries and give her place to the next person on the waitlist.”
Anger flashes on Dad’s face. His calloused hands ball into fists on his lap. For a moment, he considers violence. His eyes then settle on the wall of degrees, the wall of tenured authority, and his face quickly dulls into shame.
Kwong says nothing, like a shadow on the ground, a faded stain in the carpet. She counts the minutes as if praying.
“Will the other surgeries hurt?” Mom asks in a soft voice, staring at the two scars under the consultant’s left ear. “Kwong’s always had a low pain tolerance.”
• • •
On the last day of August, it’s finally my turn to visit. I’m nervous. The hole in Kwong’s head is a tighter fit than I expected, so I suck in my astral gut to squeeze through. I don’t want her to think I’ve come to get revenge or anything, so I bring a peace offering: old photos she’s never seen, ones of Mom and Dad when they were still young enough to look genuinely happy instead of those smile-for-the-camera-the-relatives-we-hate-are-watching smiles. She’ll get a kick out of Mom’s sasquatch perm, Dad’s super cringe skater boy phase, the baby photos where we’re crying, fat as Buddha statues. These photos were in the deepest parts of our old house’s closet, the place where I’d hid after the fight with our parents. The place where I’d found the blades.
The bathroom is steaming when I arrive.
Kwong isn’t surprised to see me, like she’s been mentally rehearsing this for months.
She probably has.
“Mikey’s busy writing you a god-awful love letter, so I’ve come in his shining stead,” I say.
This catches her off guard. Her face wrinkles into an embarrassed-pleased-annoyed pout, which is the Kwong face I like best.
“Do you want to get in?” she asks, still flustered.
I shake my head.
We used to share the bath when we were kids. She always kept the faucet running so the water stayed extra hot. I hated it back then, my body jolting the moment I dipped one foot into the scalding water. She’d always have to steady me in.
“You just need to get used to it,” she’d insist, filling a small duck bucket with the boiling water and slowly pouring it over my head; the sting would slowly dull as my skin became red and numb. She was never satisfied until the water was up to my neck. “This way you can make sure you’re really getting clean.”
“I don’t need to burn myself to feel clean.” I would frown as she massaged the soap into my scalp, pulling her fingers through the knots without mercy. “I’m not you. You’re the one that doesn’t know how to let things go. That’s why you’ll never fit in with the Upgraded kids,” I’d say, parroting something I’d heard our mom say on the phone.
“Maybe I don’t want to,” Kwong would reply, though she’d never repeat that in front of our parents.
I look at my reflection in the steamed mirror, not surprised to see only an outline of light. I blink away the condensation on my ghostly eyelashes.
“Congrats on getting selected,” I say.
“They say they’re going to increase the number of slots next year. To make the Upgrades more accessible to kids from the Outer Rings.”
Well la-de-da, good for them. “I’m sure Mom and Dad were yipping for joy after they saw your name on the list.”
Kwong ignores this comment. I guess I would have too. Good for her that she’s finally figured out that silence is sometimes the only honest answer.
“Is this us?” she asks instead, pointing at two shrieking babies on a bare mattress in one of the photos I’ve brought, their heels kicked up in the air, faces meltdown red.
“Yeah, this was back in the old house. Mom’s trying to figure out how to put on the diaper. Dad’s scrubbing the sheets in the bath after you blew a liquid cannon like it was the parade finale at Disney World.” I laugh. I don’t tell her how, in the trapped light of the photo, I can hear the neighbor’s television through the open window, smell the garlic and fried beans in the kitchen, and see Grandpa unhelpfully skittering in the background between photo-takes unsure how to help Mom. Memory and time move differently after you’re dead, and even the smallest details can unfold like fresh movie reels if you want them to.
If the memories are still there.
“I don’t remember that,” she says.
“You don’t need to remember this kind of stuff. It’s not useful to you anymore,” I say, eyeing the tail of the first scar under her left ear.
Outside, our parents are talking about the additional hippocampal surgeries and the post-Upgrade meds they can’t afford but will. About being careful and not making the same mistakes again. I can hear all of it, even if Kwong can’t.
“Why did you do it?” she asks like I expect her to.
“Dad was being an asshole and Mom only does damage control once the whole house is on fire,” I say, handing her the face wash still on the sink. “I guess I just wanted to know I still had some control.”
“Did it hurt?”
“Only a little bit,” I answer. The one merciful thing about death is that you can’t really remember how you got there. Your last few moments are like someone fast-forwarding through the ending credits of a movie before looping back to the beginning again.
“Is it easier … than here?” she asks.
“Don’t be stupid,” I say, but then I see the look on her face, like someone finding a dead baby bird fallen from a nest. “Sorry. I just … I don’t know if easier is the word I’d use. It’s more …” I stare at the silver surface of the bath water. “… quiet, I guess. More gray.” Kwong follows my gaze to the tiny soap bubbles, her eyes wet. “But hey, everything tastes like crap. They have no concept of sugar or salt. The food might as well be burger-shaped clay. And the rooms are tiny as shit. Big Auntie won’t stop complaining about the lack of AC.”
Kwong’s expression softens, but the smile is not quite there yet.
“We do have a really good transportation system though, from point A to Z in less than a living minute. And the roasted pork buns aren’t half bad if you go to the right dead auntie,” I say, splashing the water gently so she looks up. Because I can’t stand that look on her face like she’s planning something awful.
There are no bakeries in the afterlife, but there are children, adults too, who can stare for an eternity at things they want behind glass displays that are just out of reach. I don’t tell her this.
“Will I still see you after the surgery?” she asks.
“Of course. I’ll haunt you till the end of time because you took my Upgrade.” I laugh, because I’m better at lying than she is.
I think of how, in a different life, I’m sitting on the couch outside helping her pick out a dress for prom. Her hair is glossy and long, far longer than mine. She’ll be fresh-faced like the girls in the train ads for the Floating City, the ones who exist in a world of crystalline blue skies and endless red towers of pleasure. A place always just out of reach. Her boyfriend is leaving his shift at the factory early so he can scrub off the motor oil from his face so our parents won’t judge him. Grandpa is playing mahjong in the slow summer heat with his old friends in that golden light just before sundown. And there’s no hole in her head, no place for life to tempt back the dead.
As I watch her wash her hair—massaging the shampoo into the long, thin hairs like black silk—something leaks from me too, a memory unspooling on the still water. I lean in to get a better look: it’s me, leaving the bathroom before Kwong, body all wrinkled, meaty-red and boiled from the hot water. I sink into the couch outside, cooling down, as Mom shuffles through drawers, trying to pick out an outfit for my Upgrade Consultation.
“Don’t tell them about our family. They don’t want to hear about that kind of stuff,” she says, pulling gently on the ends of my wet hair. She always complained about how it was too short and wouldn’t fully cover the scars under my ears after the surgery.
“Will I forget about Kwong too?” I ask, watching my older sister still toweling off in the small window of the bathroom. My older sister who would always hold my hand when we crossed the street, even when I was old enough to find it embarrassing. My older sister who always snuck eggs into my bowl. My older sister who was the last to leave the crematorium when they burned my body. My older sister who couldn’t let me go.
“Your sister will be fine. She’ll have her chance. Just tell them you’re ready. It doesn’t matter if you are. You might not have another chance after this. You need to think about your own future.”
But Ma, the future is just a word—its shape expands and shrinks with the body it’s tethered to. And it can turn to dust with that body.
There’s a knock on the bathroom door and the reel sputters to a stop.
“Kwong, who’re you talking to?”
It’s Mom. I guess my time’s almost up. I hear the background whispering that Kwong can’t: She’s doing it again. They’re never going to give her the Upgrade if she keeps telling people she can see …
I try to listen to the sound of the faucet instead, the hot water still gushing out. I imagine myself swimming against that stream, the water scalding my skin until I’m numb and nothing can hurt me.
“Hey sis?” I say.
“Don’t talk about me at your Upgrade Consultation, ok? They don’t want to hear about that kind of stuff. I’m boring anyway.” I laugh and gently pull on the ends of her long, wet hair. It’s enough to hide the scars, the unnecessary memories. “And holy hell, stop spending your baths chatting with dead people. We’re all busy doing dead people things, having dead people meetings, navigating dead people bureaucracy, buying dead people groceries on sale, doing dead people laundry, going on awkward dates with other tired dead people. And I gotta do at least five hauntings a day if I’m gonna make a post-living wage.”
She laughs finally, just like we used to, hiding in our tiny bedroom during Chinese New Year while the rest of the family gathered in the living room like disgruntled ghosts trying to one-up each other’s tales of misery. We sucked on salt popsicle sticks and watched videos of the rich kids’ parties in the Floating City—the giant cakes and cars and celebrity visits, the low-cut dresses that showed off their smooth necklines, the scarless space under their ears. Fuck ‘em. We’ll make a cake out of Dad’s instant noodles, I’d joke, and she’d laugh, pantomiming the motions of building the cake. We’d been young enough once to think our poverty was something that we could laugh about, our parents’ shame not yet full enough to spill onto us.
There was so much ugliness in the world, but we’d had fun too, right sis?
There’s another knock on the door.
Kwong’s laughter cuts off like a zipper closing.
“Please don’t leave,” she says, her voice catching in her throat. The hole in her head flickers as if breathing, almost weeping.
I’m not the one leaving, dummy, you are, I think, but I don’t say it because silence is the only way I know how to let things go.
“You’ll be okay,” I say, stepping into the bath just like I did when we were still kids. It’s hot, so hot I can barely think, but I grab a hold of her arm to help her out. My legs wobble, my body fraying in the boiling water. Kwong’s hand darts out without thinking, steadying me so I don’t fall under. Muscle memory can last for years even after the brain forgets. Some say forever.
“I’ll be okay,” I say, squeezing her hand. “Now come on, you’re all clean and ready to go.”
• • •