I woke up to sunlight stabbing at my eyes through the gaps in the curtain. I groaned and sat up, blinking the sleep out my eyes and taking in my surroundings. I was lying on the sofa in my dimly lit apartment, the curtains across the windows drawn, my laptop open on the table next to me, showing a black screen. I must have fallen asleep while watching some movie – I could not recall what it was. Slowly sitting up, I groaned as I felt the kinks that resulted from sleeping on a sofa. With my left hand, I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, while I reached over and tapped the spacebar with my right. No response. I tapped it several more times. Nothing. I groaned and glanced to the battery indicator. It was unlit.
I forced myself into a proper seating position on the sofa, yawning and stretching to work out the kinks. I placed my feet on the cold parquet flooring, kicking away the empty beer cans, and groaned as I contemplated the impending task of clearing up. I quickly shook my head and got up. One problem at a time. I picked up my laptop and brought it over to the other side of the room, next to the television, plugging in the charger. I picked up the adjacent remote and clicked it, causing the lights in the room to come to life. I covered my eyes briefly, sheltering them from the sudden intrusion of bright lights, but they adjusted quickly. I stepped over to the window and peered through the gap, glancing down at the road, noting the number of cars. More than usual. I sighed. At least I had the day off; I could wait for rush hour to end before leaving.
I bent down and began picking up the empty cans. One, two, three… I had apparently finished off a six-pack of beer on my own in one night. I shook my head – chastising my own indiscretion – and tossed the cans into a trashbag. Heading to the kitchen, I poured myself a glass of water and filled the kettle, setting it to boil. I glanced at the date on the calendar, casually sipping from my glass as I came to a decision.
“Guess I’ll take a shower.”
I placed the glass back on the kitchen counter and stepped in to the bathroom, turning the tap and enjoying the comforting feeling of warm water striking my back, paying special attention to my hair, draping down over my shoulders. Perhaps it was time to cut it again. The length was getting a little annoying to handle. I did not bother to draw the shower curtains – I lived alone, after all. As I washed off the sweat and dirt of the previous day, my thoughts turned to the dream. It was the same dream again. That same dream that had haunted me for so long. I probably had that dream because I had been thinking about Eury the previous night. Today was, after all, her birthday.
Towelling myself off, I walked over to my bedroom and opened the wardrobe, revealing a rack that held mostly pantsuits. There were a few dresses, reserved for social events, but it was largely a wardrobe dictated by practicality, with black and white being the dominant colours. There was one particular piece of clothing which stood out amidst the rest, a traditional Chinese ruqun. The base robe was a lilac colour, starting from a lighter shade at the top and gradually getting darker toward the bottom. The waist skirt was a pale lime green which contrasted beautifully with the rest of the garment. The robe was adorned with white embellishments, white flowers embroidered into the silk-like fabric. The material was light as silk and similarly soft to the touch, but sturdier and stronger. It was not a material which could be found in this world. Across the back of the garment, in stark contrast to the otherwise feminine design of the robe, was an embroidered motif of a white, double-edged sword, its blade pointing downward, surrounded by flower patterns. Instead of long, billowing sleeves, the robe had sleeves which flared out to a size only slightly larger than my arm – an unorthodox design choice for a robe of its like. The strangeness of the garment was completed by the inclusion of a loop on the side of the waist skirt, meant for a sword belt.
I sighed and took the robe down from its hanger. Although I found the garment beautiful, I was always hesitant to wear it. It brought back bad memories. Nonetheless, on this single day, every year, I would wear this garment. I looked ridiculous during the first couple of years; it was far too big for me. I had finally grown into it three years ago, and it now fit me snugly. Just as it had all those years ago. Remembering my lessons on etiquette, I slowly and gingerly slipped it on, careful not to damage or crease it.
Walking over to the table which held my car keys, my eyes briefly settled on the large, brown envelope I had received the previous day. My fingers brushed along its surface, tempting me to read it, to reconfirm its contents, but I stopped myself. Today was not about me. Today was about those whom I had left behind. It would do no good to dwell on my own worries. I took my keys and smartphone, briefly checking my messages. Four inquiries about ongoing projects, including one with a particularly large cosmetics firm. I briefly replied the most urgent message with a request to leave the copy on my desk for vetting, and grinned in self-admonishment as I briefly imagined Eury scolding me for working on my day off.
The drive was rather smooth: rush hour was over, so I didn’t have to worry about traffic congestion. I reached my destination in short order, shivering in the air that signalled the coming of autumn. The ruqun I was wearing did nothing to keep out the cold, but I endured it. Eury would probably have gotten mad at me for doing something so silly, but it didn’t feel right to come here without wearing the garment she had painstakingly made for me. Besides, I had withstood far harsher climates while garbed in less. This much cold was inconsequential.
I made a quick detour to a nearby florist, picking up a bouquet of carnations. My unusual choice of dress caught the eye of several people, but thankfully, the area was largely free of human presence – not many people visited graveyards on weekday mornings. I quickly found the plot I was looking for amidst the many rows of headstones. Two headstones, side by side, with a third, smaller one next to them. The two larger headstones bore the names “Ling Zhanxi” and “Rachel Ling”. I placed the bouquet down in the centre of the graves, running my fingers over the carved names. I whispered to them, wondering if they were watching me from some afterlife, telling them the recent developments in my life, telling them how I was being considered for promotion again. I told them that I was still single and unmarried; I had yet to find anyone who could make my heart race. I did not tell them what the doctor had told me the previous day, if only because I had not yet come to terms with it.
When I had finished speaking to my parents, I moved over to the third headstone – it had the name “Eurydice Ling” carved into it. The grave was, of course, empty. According to the family register, Eurydice Ling did not exist. There was nobody to bury. I could not even be sure of whether she was still alive. Still, I knew I would never see her again. That was why my first paycheck had gone toward paying for this headstone. It was my little way of coping with my loss. Gathering up the skirt of my robe, I sat down and leaned against the smaller headstone, imagining that it was the familiar back of my sister that rested against my back.
“Happy birthday, Eury. 13 years, huh…”
It had been 13 years since I last saw Eury. I wondered how she was doing, whether she was still alive. Of course, she could have died a long time ago, and I would have had no idea. Time flowed differently over there. As I sat on the grass, watching birds cross the sky, my thoughts left my mouth in a whisper.
“I miss you, Eury…”
I tucked my knees to my chest, burying my head in them. The image of the brown envelope appeared, unbidden, in my mind. Tears began to leak from my eyes.
“It’s no fair, Eury. It’s no fair that you made me leave without you. You’re unfair.”
I could lie to anyone else, even my parents. But I had never been able to lie to Eury.
“I’m dying, Eury. I’m… dying. Alone. There’s nobody here. Nobody with me. I’m alone, and I’m dying.”
The tears would not stop. I sat there crying for a good twenty minutes. When I finally got over my emotional outburst, I simply sat and chatted with her, imagining her reply. With each statement, I imagined her responding, I pictured how she would respond. I did this every year, on this day. I talked to her, and imagined her responding. Occasionally I would ask her about the few friends I had made in that world, but naturally, I would receive no response. I imagined her telling me about having fun with them, leisurely spending their days in the empire that I had helped to unify.
When several hours had passed, I pushed myself off the grass, lingering with one hand on the headstone.
“Goodbye, Eury. I don’t think I’ll be able to come again next year. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, I hope you managed to find your happiness.”
With those parting words, I left the graves behind and headed back to the car.
As I entered the car, I checked my phone. It was four in the afternoon. The same project team that was handling the cosmetics advert had messaged me again, asking me whether it was possible to review the copy by today. I sighed, setting my car on the path to the office. It would hardly be the first time I went to the office on a day off. I could probably cancel the remainder of my off day – it was mostly over, anyway. As I absentmindedly pondered the possibility of planning a round-the-world trip within the limited time I had left, I failed to take proper notice of my surroundings. It was a rare lapse in focus, brought on by a combination of my emotional state and a lack of sleep. As such, I did not notice when the traffic light at the junction turned red. The last thing I heard was a blaring horn and screeching tires.