Surrounded by nothing but the colour brown, towering stacks of boxes barricade me in my soon-to-be-vacated bedroom. Hoping a splash of colour will make me feel better, I blindly grab for the closest marker sitting on my desk. The other markers tumble to the floor as I bite off the cap and slash a streak of blue across the first box within reach.
But the cardboard absorbs the ink, turning the steely shade of blue to putrid green. I sigh, realising even my boxes are turning ill over the idea of moving to the States.
"Lei?" My grandmother's voice travels throughout the house.
"Back here!" After snapping the cap back on the marker, I turn down the music streaming from my phone.
She appears in my doorway, along with the smell of freshly baked Chinese butter cookies. "Is this a maze?”
As I follow her gaze around the room, it seems as if the last twenty years of my existence, first in London and then Oxford, can only be summed up by a dozen or so boxes. In my defence, some of them are oversized.
Offering her a smile, I open my arms wide. "No, Ah Ma. This is just my life."
"Can I lure you out with cookies?" She holds the buttery bribe out towards me.
"Just give me about a century to find my way out of here." I give the box with the sickly green streak an encouraging pat before using my foot to push it aside.
Ah Ma holds the container out, and I take a cookie off the top, shoving the entire thing in my mouth. Quickly chewing as if I’ve been trapped without food all weekend, I mumble, “Thanks.”
"Can we talk?" I frown when I hear the slight tremble in her voice. My grandmother, Chen Yajun, usually has an air of confidence that follows her around like a heat-seeking missile, so her uncertainty has me on high alert as we walk into the sitting room.
Band equipment and various pairs of kicked-off trainers contrast against Mum’s posh wallpaper and ostentatious antiques. After sitting down, I try to shift around, but after living here for the past two years, my mates and I were never able to break in this ridiculously expensive yet bloody uncomfortable sofa.
I wait for Ah Ma to speak, but she knows patience is not my best attribute. "What is it?"
“It’s probably nothing.” She looks down at her hands, and the small red sapphire on her wedding ring sparkles as she twists it back and forth. Even though my grandfather passed away over ten years ago, Ah Ma only takes her ring off when she’s gardening. “The doctor says something’s not quite right with my heart. I didn’t even want to mention it with your moving, but we don’t keep secrets from each other.”
I suck in a breath, and my chest tightens, making me rub the spot over my own heart. “Not quite right, how?”
When I study her closely, she appears the same as always. She’s wearing one of her favourite shirts with a pattern of bright orange and pink flowers, her tight grey curls are perfectly in place, and her rosy lipstick is smudge-free.
She gently pulls my hand off my chest and holds it. “Again, it’s probably nothing. I’m old. My heart’s old. That’s all.”
I squeeze her hand but narrow my eyes. “I love you, Ah Ma, but you expect me to believe the doctor’s diagnosis was old heart?”
She shifts more in my direction with a slight smile on her face. “I don’t think he graduated at the top of his class.”
“If Dad had anything to say about it, I’m sure he did. He’s probably the top cardiologist in the UK.” How can she joke about something so serious? She must know she’s the most important person in the world to me. “Maybe I should stay.”
She immediately shakes her head, all traces of humour gone. “I would never forgive myself.”
My shoulders drop. “Don’t say that.”
“I mean it, Lei.” She squeezes my hand back. “You’re twenty years old. I want your life to be full of adventures just like this one.”
My move to the States in a few days will probably feel more like a train wreck than an adventure. In this case, it all comes down to the things we do for our friends. Not only are Liam and Rob my best mates, but they’re also my bandmates. We decided to relocate our band, Brotherhood, to New York City. Although, the term we is still up for debate.
Liam, our lead singer, moved to the States last January to attend Juilliard because he’s also a brilliant violinist. Rob and I didn’t want him to choose between the band and his dream of attending school there, so we agreed to move with him—me more reluctantly than Rob. This decision wasn’t easy, though, and it cost us our drummer, Eric.
Now that we’re short a drummer and moving to a country where our Oxford-based band is relatively unknown, it could either be an adventure, as Ah Ma put it, or a complete train wreck. And with her news today, I suddenly feel torn in two different directions. “It doesn’t feel right leaving you now.”
My grandmother straightens up, and she’s either faking it, or some of her confidence miraculously returns. “There’s nothing wrong with me, and you are going to New York.” She pushes off the sofa as if to prove her agility and walks over to my four-string electric bass guitar, the same one she bought me when I was thirteen. Now I use my five-stringer more, but I’ll never get rid of the one she gave me.
Running a hand through my short black hair, I suppress a heavy sigh. “If there were nothing wrong, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, yeah?”
When she plucks a string, the low sound vibrates around the otherwise quiet room. “It’s nothing serious is all I’m saying.”
I stand and then close the distance between us, pulling her into a hug. Her familiar floral perfume surrounds me, and memories flash through my mind, especially the times she was there for me when I was younger and struggling with my identity.
As a British-born Chinese bloke, figuring out where I fit in was confusing. When we visited Hong Kong, I felt more British because of the differences in how I was raised. In London, I felt more Chinese because of the way I looked. Neither place seemed to particularly want me. It was exhausting trying to be more like my British classmates. I was so tired of their asking, “But where are you really from?”
Year 6 of primary school was especially rough. Ah Ma would tell me how unique I was because of my differences. Of course, no one wanted to be unique at eleven years old—we only wanted to fit in. Even though I couldn’t appreciate her message at the time, her simply listening was enough. At least I didn’t feel completely alone.
“You’ve always been here for me. Now I should be here for you.” Even though she feels sturdy in my arms, I have no doubt her heart condition is more serious than she’s willing to admit. She can be just as stubborn as she is confident. Someone needs to look after her, and that someone should be me.
Ah Ma pulls away and looks up at me. “I don’t want to hear another word about it. Now, Jun and Liena are taking you to the airport?”
When I realise she’s finished talking about herself, I sit back down on the sofa. “So they say, but I won’t be shocked if they ditch me.”
Her expression softens. “Lei, your parents love you.”
Looking down at my hand, I pick at the dried acrylic paint on my thumb. “Maybe they do, but they’ll only accept me if I do things their way. I’m a bass player, not some bloke in a suit and tie.”
She takes a few steps until she’s standing in front of me. “If you would only talk to them about it.”
I reluctantly meet her gaze. “Maybe.”
She leans over and briefly rests a hand on my cheek. “I’m only a call away if you need me.” And that’s one of the best things about Ah Ma; she’s always been only a call away.
After Ah Ma leaves, I ring Dad hoping he might tell me more about her heart condition, but the call goes to voicemail. Typical. Not bothering to leave a message, I begin unloading a cupboard in the kitchen.
When I pull out my thin plastic cutting board with several guitar-pick-shaped holes at the bottom, I smile while shaking my head. Rob will try to turn anything into a guitar pick. I take a photo of the cutting board, tagging him and posting it on Instagram with the caption, “Look what I found while packing for NYC.”
Rob must see the post right away because he strolls into the kitchen a few minutes later wearing one of the more recent band T-shirts I designed with his tawny-brown hair messy as usual. He takes the cutting board out of a box and holds it up. “Something to remember me by while we’re apart?”
I roll my eyes. “How will I live without you for two whole weeks?” We’re both transferring from Oxford University to different schools in the States. Since his classes at Manhattan School of Music start later than my classes at Columbia, he’s staying around to spend time with his girlfriend, Emily.
Rob ignores my sarcastic tone as he grabs one of Ah Ma’s cookies from the container and talks while chewing. “I’m gonna miss your grandmother so much.”
“She’s not dying or anything.” I wince. Ah Ma is fine. She said it wasn’t serious. She’s going to be fine.
His brows pull together while studying me. “You okay?”
Waving him off, I plaster on a smile and change the subject. “Did you hear Felix’s drum track for that new song?”
Rob snaps his fingers together. “Your boyfriend is brilliant.”
“Felix is not my boyfriend.” A flush sweeps across my cheeks, though.
Felix is one of the first people Liam met at Juilliard. Lucky for us, he happens to be a drummer. He’s been helping us with our new music so we can get a feel for the songs until we find a replacement for Eric.
Felix also happens to be exactly my type, so I have to keep reminding myself I don’t like dating friends of my friends—it never ends well.
“If you say so.” Rob grabs his keys off the counter. “I’m going to see Emily.”
When he takes a handful of cookies before walking away, I think about how Ah Ma will continue to spoil him once I leave, but then she’ll be alone once Rob joins us in New York. I close the cutlery drawer a tad too roughly before resting my hands on the countertop. Taking a deep breath, I look around at all the boxes. This feels wrong.
I decide I need a break from packing and walk out the back door to my favourite part of the house. Our courtyard has vine-covered brick walls on each side lined with small bushes and trees. A shell-coloured water fountain sits in the centre with two curved stone benches around it.
There’s only one thing from this house that I can’t take with me—the back concrete wall that I painted from top to bottom in abstract shapes using every vibrant colour of the rainbow. It’s basically graffiti, and I still can’t believe I got away with it.
My parents, who are experts at controlling my life and being absent from it, surprisingly didn’t bat an eye when I shared my vision for the wall since they own this house and Ah Ma’s house next door. Although, I did overhear Mum say it could just be painted over later. A few cans of very bland beige paint is all it would take to erase countless hours of inspiration. If only they could cover me in beige paint, too.
Rolling my eyes at myself, I kick at a pebble and decide not to spend another moment thinking about my parents. Instead, my thoughts shift back to Ah Ma. There are only a few more days until I’m in a different country at a different university with no idea what the future holds. And after Ah Ma’s news, I’m ready to unpack every single boring brown box and never leave.