Lily glances down at the handwritten letter. Her hand trembles as she sips lychee wine. The drink cools her throat, tingling her wrinkled skin.
She recalls the day her granddaughter was born. A cherubic baby, Mei weighed ten pounds and three ounces. Lily believes Mei’s size brought good luck and prosperity upon the family. Even now, despite everything.
Around the time Mei would have been eleven and likely five feet tall if she took after her mother, the first imposter knocked on Lily’s crimson door.
Lily squinted at the strange girl whose eyes were too dull, whose nose was too long, whose cheekbones were too flat. The girl held the hand of a middle-aged man with dishevelled hair, wearing glasses that seemed too narrow for his round face.
“Poh Poh,” the girl squeaked. “I’m—”
Lily waved a hand to silence her. She grabbed the girl’s tiny wrist.
Heat travelled up Lily’s arm until her entire body bathed in sunlight. Her eyes fluttered closed as her mind filled with youthful thoughts: white rabbit candy, pellet drums, and lion dancing. When she opened her eyes, she was sitting in the passenger seat of a car with frayed leather and chipped wooden panelling. A dusty, tasselled charm of a cracked sycee swung from the rear view mirror. She glanced down at her hands, small fingers and smooth skin. Her muscles felt firm and full of life; her body moved with ease, in a way that felt foreign and strange. Outside, the familiar arms of willow trees swayed gracefully as if to rhythm. She could see as far as three blocks away, honing in on the nearest street sign that read Nán Jiē. Soon, she’d approach the roundabout that would lead to her home.
It had been over thirty years since Lily had seen through the eyes of a child. How quickly life can alter perspective. Had it not been for the incessant tapping on the vinyl steering wheel, Lily would have explored every micro detail.
The driver yanked down the sun visor to examine his appearance in the mirror. He licked both palms, only to spread that filth through his hair. From this proximity, Lily could spot every blackhead on his nose. He smelled of stale cigarettes and too many late nights.
“Do you remember your lines?” He cut a sharp glance at the girl, though it was Lily who was glaring back at him. “Oh, don’t give me that look.”
Through her shen, Lily sensed the girl’s hesitation.
A horn blared from the car behind them. The man flipped up the sun visor; the traffic light had turned green. He threw up his arms, scowling at the driver through the rear view mirror. “Kào běi,” he swore. “Quit your damn whining.” He slammed on the gas pedal.
Lily’s irritation flared. What kind of man spat out profanities in front of a child?
“Grab the bag from the glove compartment,” he ordered. “Rip off the tag.”
Lily felt the girl twitch as she fished out the generic eyeglasses to remove the price tag that read Rx Pharmacy. Her naïve curiosity roused a fondness within Lily. “Why are you wearing these?”
The girl’s voice was sweet and laced with innocence. Lily’s imagination flourished with the delicate sounds of a young Mei. Stirrings of what ifs circled her mind, unformed memories cast at sea.
“Because it makes me look smart and trustworthy,” the man said.
The girl giggled, her youthful spry swam through Lily. “You’re not very smart.” Her sharp quip reminded Lily of her own daughter, a strong-willed child with the gentle heart of a qilin.
“Gimme those.” He ripped the glasses from the girl’s grip.
A surge of defiance bloomed in the girl’s chest, Lily’s own anger rising. The girl huffed, turning to face the window. Lily could hear the child’s desires rush to the forefront of her mind as quick as a rising sky lantern. She yearned to go home. She hoped for red bean buns and for extra time to play outside. She wanted to be anywhere but here.
An unexpected sadness spread through Lily. Had Mei wished for sweet rice cakes and warm baths? Had she thought about her home? Had she felt alone?
“This is stupid,” the girl said.
The car swerved, taking a sharp right onto a residential street. The girl’s pulse spiked. Her eyes ballooned as a pedestrian jumped out of the way. The girl gripped the dash as the car screeched to a halt. Lily felt the seat belt dig at the girl’s chest. The man lunged past the centre console, his moist breath heated her cheek. Lily recoiled at the stench of salted fish lingering on his tongue.
“Don’t you want her shen?” he bit out.
Lily could almost hear herself scoff. The girl shrank in her seat, squeezing her eyes shut.
Lily released the girl’s wrist, her consciousness returning to where she stood on the front porch. As much as she wanted to help this girl, she would not be deceived. She dismissed the opportunists, but the heaviness in her heart remained. Hadn’t she prayed to the Gods she’d relinquish her shen if it meant bringing Mei home?
Despite the countless impersonators that came after, Lily remained dead-set on hearing out each one. She remembered all too well what the police detective said that fateful night in September: Your daughter and her husband died on impact. The boy is stable, but the girl flew through the windshield. We haven’t located the body, but we’re searching the grounds.
They stopped searching after twenty-one days.
Lily sips her lychee wine; its sweet taste tingles her tongue, settling her nerves. From her bamboo desk, she stares out the bay window to appreciate the lush garden and a koi pond. The water ripples as the school of fish swirl in familial harmony.
She takes a shaky breath before glancing down at her grandson’s letter.
Dear Poh Poh,
I found her.