172

172

Two souls chase each other through infinite lifetimes, but will either find what they are looking for?

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Illustration: Sarene Chan

1842

This time they grow up together.

This time, her name is Liyin and his is Jinqua. Liyin is five when she runs into him, hollering at her from his side of the street, a sweaty mess from playing hide and seek. She recognises his too-wide grin somehow, and fumbles with her basket of fresh fish.

Jinqua walks her to the port, grubby hands insisting on carrying her basket. Liyin shuffles closer as he points at the ships, the sea flinging kisses onto their salt-stained cheeks.

The port is their meeting place, and they spend day after day watching magnificent ships arrive in Hong Kong, bearing silk and jade and other things they cannot afford.

Liyin is 15 when "The New Neighbour from the Opposite Street" informs her that a fisherman's daughter does not deserve a merchant's son, and oh, Liyin, why did you even try? Liyin's hands tremble as she walks back to her side of the street.

She avoids him for a week.

On Monday, Jinqua breaks into her house, and he is tall and dark and angry in the doorway. Liyin winces when he sits down, the scent of a freshly drawn bath slowly curling its way into the tangy smell of fish.

"Stop it," he says, and she nods, fingers curling around the edge of her basket.

They walk to the port together, a hamper of fish hanging between them. Somehow, the basket feels lighter, and Liyin savours the way she recognises the slope of his grin, the lilt in his voice. 

Somewhere in between watching the waves claw at the dock and the tenth ship sliding into the harbour, Liyin is hit with a very clear memory of a blond Jinqua lacing their hands together under a desk, blue eyes shining bright.

Then she remembers. The multiple Jinquas in her lifetime: Jinqua pushing her into the grass, hands combing through brown curls; Jinqua in uniform, waving as he heads off to war. And maybe something makes more sense, because Jinqua is looking at her with the same grin, mouth too wide for his face, eyes in crescents. 

"Jinqua," she breathes, and feels slightly guilty when he looks almost relieved. Her mind is bubbling with the different lifetimes, the numerous Jinquas, the kisses in the dark and the feeling of his fingers on her wrist; the disbelief, the wasted lifetimes and the emptiness. And always, he is the one who comes looking for her, faith clutched tight in his palm, tracing her across countries for their souls to meet.

Jinqua gazes at her, something she recognises as hope and determination in his eyes. 

Liyin is 15 when Jinqua whispers three words to her in the middle of watching a ship unload its goods. She traces the familiar smile on his face with one of her own. 

Liyin is newly 22 when she goes off to sea with her father, Jinqua waving wildly at the dock. Liyin laughs, waving back, ring snug on her finger. 

"I'll be back with the best fish in the country!" she shouts, and the salty wind tangles in her hair. Jinqua waves harder.

Liyin doesn't come back. 

 2014

 They stumble into each other in Hong Kong again 172 years later.

This time, she is Abigail and he is Ethan, and he is not hers.

The gang is having dinner at Grand Hyatt, and she wonders why she still feels out of place beside the bleached tablecloths and dainty champagne flutes. 

Her best friend is giggling opposite her, animated hands nearly hitting her in the nose. Samantha is next to her, inhaling the champagne with fervour, cheeks red. Abby's dress constricts around her ribcage and the way her heels pinch her toes makes her nauseous. She's plotting escape routes, whether or not to grab her purse and just run when she sees him across the room. 

The moment is an explosion: she feels broken, scattered into tiny pieces onto the fancy tablecloth then being repaired at blinding speed. Completion swells in her chest. Everything is right and everything feels absolutely wrong.

"Abby," Mia says from across the table. "My boyfriend, Ethan."

Ethan grins at Mia, and it is the same smile, the one where his grin is still too big for his face. He's tall, something she has been recognising as a constant in his lifetimes, and he still manages to make her breath falter. Something in her heart twinges when he gives her a polite smile and, she thinks, he doesn't remember.

She barely registers dropping her spoon on the floor, the sharp thud of the metal loud in the room. Maybe it's because it was always him who remembered first, the one who sought her out, made her believe; it feels a bit like defying a long-standing tradition. Her chest clenches.

Abby looks at the way his long limbs overlap when he folds himself into the booth, their elbows brushing. Something ugly boils inside her veins when Mia beams at her, and she stabs a bit too hard at her steak. 

"So," Ethan starts casually. "You're Mia's best friend."

"We used to room together during school," she says. The champagne lingers like acid in her mouth.

Ethan suddenly grins and she can feel her heart tightening into something like a stranglehold.

"So you know she snores like a lawnmower." Ethan laughs when Mia shrieks and flicks a piece of bread onto his suit.

"Yes," Abby says, gripping her fork tightly. Her stomach is in the vicinity of her knees and she forces a smile. "And she talks in her sleep."

Ethan chuckles, the sound ringing in her head. Please remember, she thinks, and she shoots a guilty glance at Mia.

They end the dinner with hugs all around, and she prays, to whichever deity throws the dice, that Ethan won't be able to hear the way her heart is pounding almost painfully when he slings an arm around her.

Fate obviously does not favour her today because 10 minutes later she finds herself in the backseat of his car, desperately trying to ignore the hushed conversation Mia and Ethan are having in the front seat.

"I can't believe you're both living in the same building," Mia marvels, catching her eye in the rear-view mirror. Ethan nods blankly, fingers tapping on the steering wheel. "Now I can visit you both at the same time!"

The seat belt digs into her waist and Abby smiles back, slumping down further into the seat.

 ***

Ethan calls her up later in the week.

"I got your number from Mia," he explains, and Abby can picture the way he's grinning. "There's a new coffee shop at the end of the street and I happen to know you might be interested."

She snorts into the receiver. "And how would you know I like coffee?"

"Lucky guess?" he says after a moment. Abby laughs, something feeble and ugly, and hangs up.

 ***

The coffee shop is eerily similar to the one she remembers frequenting when they lived in Paris. Back then, he had scrawled his number on her daily cups of coffee until she approached him to stop. They grew old together that time, blond hair thinning into silver strands. It was a good life.

She hesitates at the door before entering. Ethan waves at her from the middle of the shop, impossibly long body sticking out in the sea of tiny tables. She slides into the chair, their knees knocking, and wonders why she signed up for this.

She knows his order, she realises, just before he flags down the waiter. It has always been another of his constants, engraved in her mind. She wonders if he's changed his mind.

"A peppermint tea and a regular coffee, three sugars, milk on the side."

She feels as if someone has just shoved a blunt knife right between her ribcage.

Ethan meets her eyes, his expression pleasantly blank, and she sucks in a gasp.

"You remember me," Abby says, horrified to feel wetness forming in the corners of her eyes. The waiter looks slightly alarmed as he delivers their drinks, backing away almost comically.

"Of course I do," Ethan says, staring into the deep abyss of his tea. A blunt finger traces the edge of his cup, sliding across porcelain.

"Then why," Abby says, and the strain somehow manages to creep into her voice. "Why-"

"Sometimes I feel so tired," Ethan interrupts. "I get tired of trying to find you."

Abby's heart pauses, then restarts, hammering in her ear.

"I love you, I still do, and maybe I always will." Ethan says, looking up. "But it hurts - sometimes I convince you and sometimes I don't, and I'm really tired of trying to guess."

There is blood rushing into her head, and Abby's hands are shaking. She looks down at her untouched coffee.

"You don't have to guess," she bursts out, and Ethan smiles.

 2186

It's easy to find him this time.

His flame-coloured hair makes him stand out even more than usual, and she feels the urge to laugh at the way he still towers over everyone.

Something akin to excitement is fluttering in her veins, but she forces herself to walk slowly, taking the time to admire the new airport. Hong Kong has really changed, she thinks, eyes tracing the glass ceiling. The electronic ticket tattooed on her arm blinks furiously, and she walks just a bit faster.

This is the final call for Cathay Pacific Flight CX172 to Guyana.

"Seven minutes and 29 seconds!" She hears him saying to the politely disinterested flight attendant. "That's like the longest total solar eclipse since 4000 BC!"

His grin still manages to make her heart stop and she stifles a smile, watching the way his long arms barely avoid slamming into another passenger.

"I hope I get to see a total solar eclipse one day," she remembers him saying as he scanned the book. The library was dusty and cold, and she had spent an hour complaining about the British weather before he finally found the book. 

"I'm pretty sure you and I have seen them at least a thousand times," she had replied, fingers carding through his brown locks. One day, she thought, they were going to get caught for sneaking into the library after hours.

"Those," he had snorted. "Those were babies. But this," he jabbed a finger at an illustration and she squinted, moving closer. "Saros 139. Seven minutes and 29 seconds. I want to see this."

Her heart is leaping into her mouth when she steps forward, hands balled into fists at her sides. She feels recognition spark in the air when he turns around, meeting her eye.

"Found you," she breathes and his smile shadows the sun.

This story by Jessica Chan Jing Ga, 17, of Headington School, Britain, and a former student at St Paul's Convent School, who won the South China Morning Post and RTHK fourth annual Top Story competition - Junior Category. Jessica also took second place in this competition back in 2012.

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