Save Me – Kelsey Wang

Everything existed of old, everything happens again, 

And only the moment of recognition is sweet. 

[Mandelstam]

After the death of my grandfather, the clocks were moved into the attic along with his other belongings. Except for the longcase clock with the heavy oakwood frame and bronze pendulum; it was left in the living room. Despite the years of disrepair, despite the rusted gears, despite the stillness of the pendulum like a candle at vigil, if I, in the minutes before sleep, breathed quietly enough, I will hear the hand of the clock count the hours’ advance, exactly as it had steadily counted out my grandfather’s hours. It leaned very close in the darkness and reiterated over and over like a patient teacher a eulogy on the evanescence of things: Because we live in time, we are subject to the law that nothing lasts forever, and everything passes. As a certain someone was fond of saying: Let the past go; let the future be. One must live in the present. I believed this unwaveringly, from start to end. Even though we both knew who among the two of us couldn’t follow his own words. 

The weather was lamentable. Agglomerations of cloud sailed through the sky like heavy ships. The sound of the rain on the pavements and the glass was as soft as grief. In the streets, cars rushed past, spraying sheets of water, but like in dreams, you couldn’t hear the noise of engines. There was mist, a thin, icy mist that froze in your lungs like shock and made you believe that you had dissolved into the night. Frost gathered on the borders of extinguished windows and on the edges of leaves. The nameless façades of buildings were dimmed as though with gauze. Mist seeped into corners and washed away the contours of things: the streetlights, the iron bridges, the gray reflections of sky between splashes of water. Chilled by the mist to an improbable degree, what remained was the city’s wordless, wintry indifference. I could barely make out my house a few meters away, and the boneless shadow slumped against the door. This pale night, this icy rain without end, this ghost. 

I was fourteen years old and already I understood that the world was divided into things that concerned me, and things that did not concern me and about which I could do nothing. I closed my umbrella and shook the rain out of it. The head hung low, indicating sleep, drunkenness, or death by hanging. A sleepwalker, a drunkard, a hanged man – I didn’t want to get into trouble with these sorts. Quietly I stepped away, but at that moment the stranger stirred and coughed. Then I noticed that the pale head was shaking; the whole body was shaking from the cold – the stranger wore short sleeves, foolish for the season, even fatal. I didn’t want to get involved with a stranger, but I didn’t want him to die of hypothermia. 

I tapped him on the shoulder. Are you alright? 

The stranger raised his head violently; his eyes flew open. Those eyes were frozen at me with a kind of half-crazed luminosity, terrifying in the darkness, like the eyes of a murderer suddenly struck by the flash of a photograph. He stared at me with eyes wide open from something like fear, or a sorrow that had exhausted all tears from him, or a weariness so great that it kept him conscious against his will. He seemed to want to speak, but it came out as a breathless trembling of lips. And I felt sorry for him. This feeling cut me to the quick. Maybe it was because, under the moonlight, he looked very very young. As though he had the childlike, immeasurable fear that I might go away forever and leave him at a loss.

I raised him to his feet and led him into the house, supporting his weight on my shoulder. His shirt was soaked through, cold as the feathers of a wet bird, or a cloud filled with water; my own clothes became cold and wet where he leaned against me. His head lay limply on my shoulder. There was a scent on him beneath the scent of rain and ill health that reminded me of something. What was it? From time to time his steps faltered and, drained of strength, he gasped heavily on my shoulder, breathing shakily through rattling teeth, his body shuddering and convulsing as though in the grip of fever.  

I fumbled with the door and kicked off my shoes. Relying on the faint light coming in from the window, I sat him down on the sofa. He was unusually obedient and folded himself down on the sofa without a word, his long legs spread apart, bent forward and staring at his feet with unblinking eyes like a sleepwalker that wanted to fall asleep again. As I felt around in the dark for the thermostat, I heard the steady dripping of water onto the floor, regular as the ticking of a clock.

Here, water. I reached out a glass of warm water to the pale silhouette sunk in the darker silhouette of the sofa. When he leaned closer with an unsteady hand, I heard the faint but distinct grinding of teeth clenched tightly to clamp down a shiver, and felt the tremor in his fingers seconds before the glass smashed on the ground. I flinched. The sound of glass shattering echoed in the room, rippled through space, chased away the shadows for a moment, then they crowded around us once again in blacker waves, pushing the silence between us toward the verge of shattering. He stared fixedly at the smashed glass that glittered with every drop of water from his hair and the tip of his nose. As though silently asking the glass to float against gravity. 

I grabbed his shoulders. Did you hurt yourself? He tore his gaze sluggishly from the broken glass. I slammed on the lights and went cold at the sight of blood on my hand. Blood was in the puddle of water at the stranger’s feet, on his white socks and white shirt, spread along his sleeve and collar, smeared on his lip, cheek, and brow, dripping from the ends of his hair. I felt a cold sweat on my temples and upper lip, and a wave of nausea that made me want to snarl like an animal. The commotion seemed to shake him from his daze; it wasn’t his blood, he said. He had only embraced someone who was bleeding heavily. And his hand twitched slightly as if it wanted to reach out and clasp my own hand in assurance, but it dropped back again. He returned to staring at the broken glass with a pained expression, as if what I had held out to him wasn’t a glass of warm water but a heart, and the heart had shattered on the ground. I turned on the light and forced myself to look at this figure soaked in rain and blood. True to his word, the blood was dried except where water had seeped in. Moreover, he didn’t seem to be in pain, just dazed and very pale, swaying slightly as if floating in a fever. But he was much more worn out than I had expected. The pallor of his face was probably not just due to the harshness of old fluorescent lights. When I cleaned up the pieces of glass, he made an ambiguous movement as if to help me, but I stopped him.

I’m not hurt. He added, after some hesitation, I’m not the one who was hurt. As he emphasized again that the blood was not his, the center of his eyes, a blackness that sucked at light, had no point of focus, and his lips were paling visibly. I shook out some chocolate from the jar on the table into his hands and went to get towels and clothes. Eat, I ordered, hoping my command would reach him. I helped him into clean clothes and dried his hair with a warmed, fluffy towel. He followed my movements with a tired gaze, motionless, kept muttering that he was here to save someone, kept asking for the time. I gave him the date, time, and year. As I wiped the blood from his face, I couldn’t help but sigh, What a sorry sight…A spasm wracked him. His whole body shrank back as if he had been stabbed, like the white, liquid muscle of a mollusk contracting with all its might. He looked ghastly. Unable to meet my eyes. Face twisted in sudden terror. 

One winter night, I was fourteen years old, my parents were on a trip overseas, and a stranger covered in blood appeared in front of my house. I didn’t know why but I picked him up. The bloodstained towels, clothing, and tissues made it almost impossible for the situation that we found ourselves in to be anything but homicide. Nevertheless, as I filled up the bath with hot water, these worries were outweighed by the problem of disposing of the bloodstained articles. When I returned to the living room, he was curled up on the sofa, breathing steadily in sleep. His expression in sleep was so clean and innocent that it was impossible to associate it with homicide. Huge shadows cast on the walls of the room by the passing traffic stared out at us like black flies in still lifes of fruits in dark rooms. I turned the light off, covered him with a blanket and whispered, Goodnight. 

The morning I woke up to the sound of running water from the bathroom. From this I had proof that what happened yesterday wasn’t a dream. But the clock on the wall patiently reiterated that life must continue. The stranger, like an anomaly of time, will leave, and life will go on as usual. At each ticking of the clock, I seemed to hear, little by little, my life setting itself back onto its correct track. I left for school without seeing him. When I came back, he was sitting cross-legged on the floor. Piles of books were scattered around him. I knew then that he would not kill me, that I would not have to grasp at him in order to prevent him from slipping through my fingers like a glass of water. But I must inform him that it is basic courtesy not to go through other people’s detective novels without permission, especially people you first met less than twenty-four hours ago. I also wanted to ask him what he thought of Keigo Higashino’s Miracles of the Namiya General Store. 

Four stars out of five, he said. I don’t consider it a true detective novel, but it has its winning points, especially the premise. Abruptly he lowered his voice. But, altogether, it is too fantastical. You can’t change the past. You must live in the present. Let the past go, let the future be. 

Then, strangely, he started to expound on this point in a flat tone, as though reading from a review in a newspaper: What stands out in Keigo Higashino’s novels is not the deduction itself but the portrayal of character motivation and the scientific description of…Suddenly he stood up and, remembering the script to which he was obliged: In comparison to detective novels, legal thrillers are better, because lawyers are just better. 

I didn’t accept it. Detectives find out the truth. That’s not enough?

The execution of justice is what matters. What can you do with just the truth? he shrugged. Lawyers make sure justice is served. If justice is what you care about, you should go to law school, he said, overlooking that I barely started high school. Have you considered law school?

I have, but the idea belonged to a future lost in the nebulous distance. In spite of the vehemence of his recommendation, his description of the law profession betrayed his ignorance, so the impression it made was more hilarious than serious. I wondered if he was one of those people who tortured those around them into dreams that they themselves failed to realize. His advice did not fall on deaf ears, however, since I was willing to carry the torch for him. His odd obsession with law school notwithstanding, his deductive skills were superb. Nothing was more mind-numbing than watching crime documentaries with him after dinner; but after he explained his reasoning, guided me patiently through his thought process, I was more astounded at myself that I did not see the truth at first glance. Were he a character in Keigo Higashino’s book, of the whole book only two sentences would have remained: Thus I solve the illusion of a locked-room mystery…Case closed, QED. 

I asked him if the novels bored him, if he saw through the author’s tricks immediately. He said that it was, to an extent, but in good detective novels, no one can tell what will happen next with absolute certainty, so you must read to the end, even if you have long foreseen it. 

With time, we settled into a routine. I would no longer be surprised when I found him reading my novels when I came home, and no longer scolded him for it. Then I would walk into the kitchen and prepare dinner for two. Sometimes he made requests, sometimes I ignored him. He claimed he was here to save someone, but he seemed content to hang around at my house, plunder my collection of detective novels, break all records on my video games, devour through my stash of sweets, squander my allowance on bubble tea, spoil plot twists in Harry Potter, shatter my image of a mature, twenty-six-year-old adult, ruin the peace of my private life. 

Once, it rained again. A local thunderstorm, accompanied by heavy rainfall and strong winds, coming and going in great haste like a bad dream that you can’t quite remember. I didn’t want to weather the storm and I didn’t bring an umbrella, so I waited by the school gate for the storm to pass. Afternoon storms were a seasonal phenomenon; I should have expected. I didn’t expect that he would come and find me; I never thought that he could find me. I raised my head when he called my name. In the shadow of the umbrella, his expression was gloomier than the sky. Strangely, I couldn’t remember telling him my name. 

He raised his voice over the heavy rain, asked why I didn’t call him. He did not try to hide his sour mood, and the brusqueness of his tone astounded me. I told him that it was raining, the signal was poor. 

He expressed impatience with the state of technology, as if he knew that it could be better. So you were just going to sit here and wait for me?

The person who came to pick me up in this unholy weather has no right to find fault with me on this point. 

Why did you wait for me? Idiot. As if I will always find you. He said this with a dismissive laugh that seemed to me very helpless and very lonely. Yet you found me, I thought. 

Whatever you say, don’t disprove it with your actions, I replied.

He fixed me with a wide-eyed glare for a long time and I wondered if I angered him. But the severity in his gaze suddenly fell away; he shrugged, as if I simply said something absurd. Then, I heard: No, forget it…He smiled at me; so, he only wanted to make me afraid. A weak, ironic smile. Only this once, he said to me. Don’t just wait for me next time. He stood and we headed home under the same umbrella. From time to time, he asked me how my classes are going, did I get into trouble, did my classmates do their part in group projects, are the teachers good-looking, can you buy bubble tea for me, when will the next Harry Potter movie come out, do you want to play Mario Kart through the night again. No thanks, I declined tactfully.

He never gave me the chance to ask what he did during the day, where he came from, why he stayed with me, how long he would stay. He and I shared an unspoken agreement to avoid such questions. In this respect, we understood each other well. I knew, of course I knew, that he came from the future, like the hapless protagonists of Miracles of the Namiya General Store. 

He was here to save someone; he had traveled through time in order to make amends. His motives and mistakes did not concern me. Better not to put myself in unnecessary danger. I have watched movies; I have seen what happens when you mess with time. There exist boundaries you must not cross. I knew all the lyrics, and I’d never sing along. But at the thought of leaving him alone, that night, I felt an indescribable pain pierce my heart; no, it was not the moment. As soon as he saves the person he wants to save, he will leave. In any case I was convinced of the futility. He was after someone who has since ceased to exist. The ghost was gone but he still tried; he seethed for a ghost he never knew. I wished he could see the wicked truth. He was searching for the person he knew in the past, but all traces have vanished except perhaps a photograph, the last evidence of existence, folded tightly in someone’s fist; he will find himself pursuing a ghost. All the while repeating, let the past go, let the future be, the past cannot be changed. How could he make such a mistake, knowing this principle? Such a mistake demanded the pride of a tragic hero, which gave the futility of his efforts a tragic dimension. And what a crazy idea – the resurrection of the dead. For surely he did not make all this effort just to play Mario Kart with me through the night. 

The rain stopped. We stopped with it. We sat down by a fountain in a dusky garden. Autumn had cried the fountain dry. In late evening, the valleys were ferocious shades of bronze like Roman monuments. A cloud hid the sun, and we sank silently into the half-gloom that was cool over our ankles like river-water and ate into our shadows. It was as if we were led astray into a dream. A strange stillness, like sunlight that could not reach the depth of the sea. As though you were looking at an old photograph, and should you look again, tears will fall. Such a tender emotion, touching on weariness, helplessness. Then the shadow lifted like a curtain, and color took on a new, glaring lucidity, too vivid to be real. Not the least shadow. Not the least tenderness. The sky in such flames, it hurt to look. The air was solid sunlight. The smallest detail was brought forth with an almost unbearable clarity. A net of black birds passed from sight into the south’s clear expanses. He stopped and leaned both hands on his umbrella as on a sword, looked up at the migration of birds as though dreaming after their bright destinies, hardly feeling the advance of the hour hand. I too would have liked to follow their journey above the clouds, but suddenly I heard the wail of the blackbird in the bare-faced branches, and a soft scent of decay made me tremble. It was the same scent of decay I perceived on him that night; the scent of blood had masked it. Only I turned around and noticed the withered trees around the dark, weathered fountain bending and shivering in the wind like the death-dances of pallid children. The birds might fly south, but on the appointed day even they must surrender to a vaster law: because we live in time, we are subject to the law of decay. If he chose to fix his gaze at the birds floating in the azure air than the decay at his side, with the same ignorance that emboldens someone to dive back in time, neither would he perceive it now. But if his only happy memories were those of flight and escape… Is it worth it, trying for something unachievable? Time will gain the upper hand. I, unlike him, did not have the slightest illusion. There are many ways to postpone the appointed day when the account will be settled, but you cannot flee decay. I will go through the theater of life like a wind rustling through the birches, merely momentarily stirring the pale underside of leaves, and leave no trace. Not even in a photograph that yellows and fades like a metaphor of memory. 

He believed that photography is the link between future and past because it prints history into a memory that connects us all to the same essence, one that affirms that everything you were searching for was within you the entire time. The events of our lives become bound neither to its particular space nor to its particular time, since it can be mirrored anywhere and repeated any number of times. Not to sound melancholy, but perhaps this is why life flashing before your eyes is so often depicted in movies as photographs of all the beautiful moments worth remembering. I argued that photography claims to bring us closer to the past, to the real time of memory, but it obscures its relation to distance and death and distances us from the already distanced reality it presents to us. What is unreachable still can remain distant even if brought close to us through the camera’s eye, the very nature of which consists of the simultaneous reduction and maximization of distance, because what is distant can be very close to us. I think what deceived him was the idea of photography as belonging to neither past nor future, neither subjective nor objective, neither at the mercy of time nor transcending time. I assumed that was what he wanted to convey: photography is an attempt to fix a moment of time and to bring it within the reach of our grasp. But I saw what he failed to see: photography brings the memory to us over a distance and at the same time tears the memory from the context from which it takes its meaning; what we are brought closer to is something other than the event. If you go far enough, you may even find connections between things where there aren’t any. Fundamentally, photography is a lost fight against the current of time; fitting, then, that he should like it.

We continued home. I walked more quickly than him and left him behind me. Then I waited for him to catch up to me. In front of a bubble tea shop, he paused for a while, and I had the impression that he was catching his breath. You walk too fast, he told me, and somehow I felt that he was scolding me again. I was counting the money in my wallet, but at that moment he produced a fresh roll of banknotes from his pocket that he handed to me. So he had money with him all this time; I never had to pay for him as if I owed him a debt that could only be paid back by buying him bubble tea whenever he wanted for the rest of his life. 

You had your own money! I said.

I could have, he accepted.

Why did you use my money?

Because it’s worth it. 

No word to say. Sullenly accepting my fate, I bought two bubble teas with his money. He glanced at my right hand clenched into a fist, and said calmly, No candy? 

Each bubble tea purchase came with candy.

There is, I said. Catch, and I swung my fist at him. In jest: there was no force behind it.

He caught my fist easily; I didn’t unclench my fist and didn’t apply extra force, simply leaned slightly into his warm palm. 

I’m paper. You’re rock, he said. I win. 

How childish; he turned a blow that wasn’t violent enough for a fight into a scuffle between schoolchildren. Nothing shocking; after all, he has been breaking Mario Kart records every day, bringing glory to me. Who taught him this game? It must have been someone stupidly childish. He must have lost to this stupidly childish person once and wanted to get even by winning me. 

He repeated that he won. For some reason, he won but didn’t seem happy. No one would be happy winning this kind of childish game, I thought. 

He said that the bubble tea will be his dinner. I automatically rejected this kind of irresponsible and unhealthy behavior. In any case, I was always the one making dinner. He shrugged; aside from more bubble tea, there was nothing he wanted.

There was not much left in the fridge: only instant noodles, eggs, chopped pork, mushrooms, vegetables, and pepper. But that was enough for the recipe that made me as rich as a king back in boarding school, 

Dinner is served. I set the bowl in front of him. To whet his appetite, I added: If you don’t try it, you will regret it for a lifetime. 

I observed how he raised his head violently from the DS, grabbed the fork and stuffed a huge mouthful of noodles into his mouth. I didn’t have time to remind him that I added extra spice. He endured it with difficulty, but swallowed it all down, and didn’t spit it out in my face. He looked somewhat pitiful, his mouth, nose, and cheeks slowly reddening. 

He didn’t have to do this; he didn’t have to make himself this pitiful. I didn’t expect my words to have this kind of tremendous effect on him, I only said them to persuade him. Even if it was my master recipe, he didn’t have to take it this far, he didn’t have to eat it in a way as if it truly would be a regret of a lifetime if he didn’t try it, as though there will be a dreadful, lifelong punishment waiting for him if he didn’t try. 

His eyes were wet, resentment mixed with anger, tears clung to his eyelashes. I didn’t know how to pacify him, so I promised to buy him bubble tea again and again. All the bubble tea that he wanted. 

After finishing, he pushed the bowl away and rubbed his eyes. The corners of his eyes were so red that they seemed to drip blood. Someone else who didn’t know what happened would have thought I had beaten him up without mercy. He raised his chin slightly; his voice was like a quiet wind bringing the words to my ears: I must give you something. 

The tone of his voice was so imploring that I had to obey. 

He took out a slip of paper from his wallet and tore it smoothly in half without hesitation; he returned one half to the wallet, gave me the other half. It was a photograph. It showed his profile turned slightly from the camera; his eyes were fixed on a point beyond the torn edge. An impossibly blue sky; a ring of white light. Pale hair, light eyes. A bright smile; I didn’t know that a person could shine so brightly. I cradled the photograph in my hands as if it were a butterfly that would flutter away at any moment, or a cube of crystal that would melt in my palm, or a glass that would slip like water from my grasp. 

When I saw the photograph, I knew with a certainty beyond rational proof that he won’t come back. But we were only two people who happened to meet, like two ships in a storm. At that time, we had only known each other for two weeks. I didn’t know why, but I saved him. I didn’t even know his name. And how, again, did he know mine? 

I asked him about the other half of the photograph. 

I made a wish. Then: There was a price. 

The photograph? I asked. I guessed this was the reason behind his conviction that photography is the link between the past and the future. 

He didn’t speak, averted his head, breathed in and out, turned back to me again after a while, and said with a slight smile: It was always meant to die with me. I wondered if he was speaking to me or to himself. 

We sat across from each other. A silence weighed on the two of us like a summer storm on the horizon. Something had to happen or be said in order for time to resume its normal flow. I asked him if his wish was granted; I asked if he saved the person he came to save.

He was staring at the empty space in front of him very absent-mindedly; at my question, he dragged his gaze to the photograph in my hand, then to the clock on the wall. He stared into my eyes directly for a few seconds; I had the impression he was searching for an answer in the depths of my eyes. Then he nodded firmly. 

I nodded too. Good, now you can let the past go. 

His mouth tightened in a terrible spasm, then into a smile. It was hard to know whether he was congratulating himself, or commiserating with himself. He began to tell me not to let strangers into the house so readily in the future, not to forget to bring an umbrella, because he – 

I was listening carefully and was about to nod to everything he said, but he cut himself off, and said, No, this is not what I want to say at all. 

Then what do you want to say? I asked. 

I want to say…He seemed to want to smile but his mouth twisted weakly into a grimace. I heard his voice speak to me: I want you to know that if you wait for me, I will come and save you. His voice did not shake. I was shaken by the detachment, by the sadness with which he pronounced those words, as if it was a confession to regret. I could have believed that he was confessing to a homicide. So sad a voice, that if he did not embrace me, he would shatter.

He embraced me tightly, and wanted me to remember that he will always come and save me. Whatever I do, wherever I go, he wants me to know, if I wait for him, he will come and save me.

Okay, I promised him, I will wait for you. I will always wait for you. 

I heard his breathing grow heavier and heavier in the embrace; I pressed my lips against his ear and whispered: Come and save me. 

He wept at this, the tears flowed silently, and he pressed himself closer to me; all his grief and pain were impressed on me. His sorrow was muffled like rain on a summer’s night, thick and repressed, trickling along my neck into my collar, making me cold. I didn’t ask who the person he wanted to save was, and I didn’t ask why the words grieved him; I only pressed his head into my shoulder and repeated what I said: Come and save me. Come back and save me. 

He left in the night. A few weeks later, my parents came home, and I transferred to another school. 

The first day of school, I arrived early to look for my seat. Next to me sat someone who was reading a novel, deeply fascinated. Pale hair. A detective novel. Legs crossed carelessly. I felt the same agony that seized me during the nights when I heard the clock count out the hours. It was a sensation stronger than fear and more terrible by far: that of hitting on a truth. But I wanted to play the detective, I will find out the truth, that is the role of the detective, I must find out the truth. A resolve took hold of me, so light, pushed me lightly toward him. I went up to him and gave him my hand: Nice to meet you. I’m looking forward to knowing you better. 

He didn’t bother to look up at me and didn’t reply. Undaunted, I sat down beside him and took out my textbooks. 

During class, he never once looked up, instead hid his head behind the textbook erected like a wall. From the podium he must seem the perfect student, but I saw the detective novel sandwiched between the textbook. After class, he swung his bag around his shoulder and stomped out. I slipped out after him and pulled on his sleeve: You like detective novels. 

This time it was a statement, not a question, but he answered regardless. 

Yes, and? he said, clearly impatient, as though daring me to report to the teacher, or challenge him to a duel like in some nineteenth-century novel. 

For your information, I said, referring to the novel, the professor’s wife is the murderer.

That caught him off guard. He blinked at me rapidly. 

She keeps changing her alibi. It’s pretty obvious. I said, adding to the injury.  

He seemed to take my good-natured hint, an honest gesture of friendship, as a provocation, and swung his fist at my face, either to shut my mouth or to address the perceived insult. Instinctively, easily, I caught his fist and held it in my palm, neither letting him gain ground nor letting him go. A familiar situation, a familiar game. 

Paper beats rock, I said. I win.

So?

I win, so I must tell you my name.

He seemed confused; perhaps he was thinking, shouldn’t it be the loser who says his name? And what kind of reward was this? But he also told me his name. Little did he know, when he did that, I won him a second time. He invited me to bubble tea in the school café. Was it a bribe? Since then, he often observed me in silence, and I had the impression that his eyes were scrutinizing me, trying to guess what was going on in my head. 

We became friends, graduated high school together, went to college together, shared an apartment together. All this happened naturally. It was good to share those ten years with him: Keigo Higashino novels, Harry Potter movies, Mario Kart games…He beat me in Mario Kart, but he could only listen in astonishment at the way I figured out the criminal within the first chapters, and grew more astonished when I explained my thought process. He would sulk as though I offended him, and mourned out loud that my talent would be going to waste in law school when I could become a detective with him. I agreed heartily: I should, since he obviously couldn’t solve any cases without me, what will he do? As I expected, he was furious and declared that, with me or without me, he will become the greatest detective in the world. A few days later, leaning towards me with a conspiratorial air and, shoving his face into mine to convince me better, confided that he wanted to open a detective agency with me. I asked him to let me think it over. 

The weather grew colder day by day, but to spare electricity we did not use the heater. Soon it will be time to wear a scarf indoors, I thought as I went through his wallet for my credit card. The photograph in the picture holder caught my eye. It showed me striking a peace sign at the camera, but my gaze was focused somewhere outside the frame. The photograph was strangely off-center for a portrait. Altogether, it was not an unusual photograph, but, as he used to say, The photographer does not search for an unusual subject matter but marks the commonplace unusual. Then I remembered another quote of his, If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough, and was slightly amused, because as a photograph it seemed too close, too familiar. Compelled by the impulse that pushes one toward one path in moments that change one’s life, I extracted the photograph between my fingers and carefully unfolded it. When I saw the other half of the photograph, I whispered to myself, I see. Now I see. Never once did I imagine that it would be waiting for me here, like a prophecy walking serenely through the years to finally exact punishment. My fingers tightened into a fist like I might flee. The photograph fluttered to the ground, delicate as a butterfly. But the photograph was as though engraved into my mind. And I remembered that a photograph is where a pause in time can continue forever, even though time itself passes and the photograph wears out with each look, and I remembered that the photograph was taken at our high school graduation trip. I had run off with his Polaroid instant camera; he ran after me along the seashore. In the end, he caught up to me, breathing raggedly, scolded me for wasting film on haphazard shots of the sea, but I threw an arm around his shoulders and raised the camera high above us, toward the sun and blue sky. Pulled him closer and pressed the shutter. The flash blinded him, and he burst out into a laugh and shouted at me: Stop taking pictures – the wind is too strong – 

It was an unusual photograph not because of its subject matter. It was unusual because I was the photographed and I was the photographer. Because I should have known that the beloved changes in the lover’s gaze like the subject in the camera’s gaze. Because the photographer is part of the picture and photography does not lie, even if the photographer is unable to see certain things, or unable to say certain things. Because I should have seen that he was not looking at the camera but at me, across the frame, across the conspiracy of time that united us. I would recognize the photograph anywhere, anytime, like love at first sight. Only in my hands is the photograph whole, like Narcissus finding his reflection, the puzzle piece finding its gap, a call finding its echo, a fraction finding its reciprocal: the one half exchanged for a wish from the future and the other half left in the past, because even he couldn’t do it, neither let the past go, nor let the future be. 

I couldn’t stay. I walked out in such a hurry that I did not have time to remember my phone or keys. A package outside the door almost tripped me. It was a box of bubble tea, racing up to my knees. Even after all these years, he couldn’t cure his addiction and bankrupted himself with bubble tea. Just like how he pretty much bankrupted me, once upon a time. Because it’s worth it. 

I backed to a cold wall and slowly slid to my knees. The monotony of falling rain set my thoughts adrift. I let my thoughts drift. I was no longer shaken. A feeling of emptiness took root in me. Unconsciously I glanced at my right hand. The fallen leaves brushed my sleeve. I felt as though standing before the doors of fate in hesitation, wondering what kinds of things were printed in a story called memory. It was pleasant to watch the birds flying to the other side of evening and forget myself for a moment in the dream of flowers, evening breeze, fragments of neighbors’ conversations. The dream floated away like foam. The tide had me ensnared. The axis of time opened indefinitely in the blink of an eye. All that I do is silently watched by time. It is strange, I thought as I followed the birds’ migration: Everything returns, the same days, the same nights, the same meetings. A scene occurs over and over, bears different names, appears to play a role in your life…

That time, as the evening lengthened our shadows, he followed the birds’ migration and forgot that there was no future for me or him. A little suffering, a little patience, and he will find a brighter destiny. Let him try. Then, leaving behind the photograph worn out like memory, let him come back filled with time to space. It is an unimaginable task. But if he can put his faith in the birds, he can do it. If there is hope, there is delusion, there is a way. I have faith in him. I want him to keep trying. A photograph, subject to decay, can become a symbol stronger than decay. Though I knew it was an imitation, a fugitive image, I was touched by its sincerity. How could I have failed to see what he failed to tell me. Me – the person he saved. It was always me.

I couldn’t help but smile. What a crazy idea – the resurrection of the dead. Like begging a falling glass of water to float against gravity. What a crazy idea. What a crazy idea, to be able to turn back time but unable to tell me to stop waiting for him. If only he knew how many of his troubles were self-inflicted. And how crazy I was, who intended to watch to the end without the slightest intention to save myself. If something is fated to happen, it will happen. If not now, then later. If not later, then now. If so, this isn’t my fault, this isn’t his fault.

This isn’t his fault.

Sadness gradually surfaced like colors in an instant film. The tears did not stop, but I was not crying. As though my soul was melting, I simply let the tears fall as I studied the birds scattered in the blood-colored sky like the entrails of a slaughtered bull, to find traces of my past or signs of my future in them, and I repeated: This isn’t your fault. 

I was a shadow. Nothing but a pale shadow, this evening, leaning against a cold wall, waiting. Waiting for the rain to end. I waited because everything was possible. 

He was surprised to find me in front of the door. I raised my head to look at him, knowing that my stupid smile will irritate him, knowing that my words will irritate him even more. You came and saved me…as always. 

What are you talking about?

I spread my hands in a gesture of helplessness. I forgot the keys. 

He began to curse at me. You didn’t even call or text me, or look for help?

The words hit me with the force of déjà vu. Pain that filled the mountains and the seas at that moment rushed toward me in mountainous waves, through the incalculable years, dragged out each minute and each second of my youth into a lifetime. The debt crossed mountains and seas along with the infinitely accumulated interest that I had forgotten. Having walked a thousand miles and thousands of hours, it was walking toward me with a smile. Therefore, I must use the words that I used before to answer the question that I answered before. Time demanded it. 

I always knew you’d come and save me, I said. 

He gave up reasoning with me and stepped past to open the door. The sun was behind him, he towered over me like an icy mountain. Use your head. Don’t just wait stupidly for me next time, idiot. 

I nodded enthusiastically and followed him in. I promised that I will wait for him next time, always. 

For dinner, I gathered what was left in the refrigerator, added finely chopped scallion, ginger, and a generous serving of spice. I presented my masterpiece: noodles.

He asked me if I added spice again. If I did, he would not touch it. And then he asked me why I made two bowls.

I said: It’s for you. And then, the words came so abruptly and fell so naturally from my lips: If you don’t try it, you’ll regret it for a lifetime. 

He huffed at the exaggeration and reminded me once again that he could not stand spicy food, why did I always – as if suddenly hitting on something, his voice dropped to a threat: If you try to start selling noodles here, I’m leaving. 

First, I assured him that I would never make it with a one-hit wonder recipe; then, I made a second earth-shattering declaration: I won’t go to law school. I will join his detective agency.

We played Mario Kart late into the night. He fell asleep sprawled on the sofa. In the dark, I watched one of the movies we rented, muting the sound and turning on the subtitles. The movie followed a secret society of well-meaning time travelers. The blue light of the screen flickered over us, giving the impression that we were at the bottom of the sea, where day and night ceased to exist, winter and summer, rain and hail. The elder time traveler was speaking to the protagonist after his mistake caused a famine. I replayed the scene. Time travelers wore masks, and I didn’t know if the lines were dubbed afterwards, but my lips moved to the words as though on someone’s behalf. Changing time, you took a person’s life and destroyed more people’s happiness. What great injustice you have inflicted on innocent people. Let the past go; let the future be! I replayed and replayed this scene, countlessly, tirelessly, until my eyes teared up from weariness. He was fast asleep. This was not the first time I watched this movie, nor the first time I have said these words in his presence. I often used them to end an argument, a verbal shrug of the shoulders, and to annoy him. In the future, if someone annoys him, these are the words that he will think of, anticipate, whether he wants or not; he will think of me, beyond will, beyond memory. 

All photography is regret, a play of light and shadow, a summoning of the spirits in the hope that they will be embodied for a moment, and time runs like water through our hands.

There was a model who, upon seeing herself in a photograph, told the photographer, It doesn’t look like me. The photographer replied, It will, because this photograph is the evidence that will remain, while you are just a person who will fade. You existed enough to be photographed. Back then, I expressed sympathy for the model. Now I know that he told me this story to teach me the role of the photographer: The photographer is essential for the photograph to exist. Looking even more deeply, you can see you are in it too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at the photograph, the photograph is part of your perception. You cannot point out one thing that is not here – time, space, the earth, the rain, the sun, the cloud, the sea, the heat. If you try to find out who I am, you will find out how inseparable I am from him. Whoever writes my biography must write our names together. 

Time has played a cruel trick on us. Whenever we met each other, inflamed by old memories, we looked past each other for a ghost. The one who traveled back in time should know that I always waited for him to come and save me, because I, inveterate gambler, bet on him again and again, for no other reason than that someone wanted me to remember that he will come and save me. 

Someone who never gave up on you, someone who put their trust in you, someone who reached out to save you…they are worth cherishing for the rest of your life. If his choice is to stand outside the flow of time, I will follow him. If he comes to find me, I’ll follow him. There is a dream, there is a photograph; I follow him. A dream is ruined by time and by time redeemed; a photograph is evidence that transcends time. Decay governs all that lives in time, but if he goes against it, let him go; I follow him. I don’t regret this, which is becoming my life. 

Human relationships, its sweetness and bitterness, the most precious, are experienced under exceptional circumstances, as are all of life’s circumstances. For what is time but a poor invention, a sickly creature, mute, elusive, and ungraspable? A breath, a movement, a word suffices to break it. When I found him, he thought that if he hadn’t come into my life, nothing bad would have happened, but he went in anyway. He couldn’t let go. He couldn’t. 

Me too, me too. 

When the bullet went through my stomach, I thought: At long last. It happened in an evening when you no longer quite know what year it is. The neon lights of the alley were too lurid to be real, giving me the feeling of floating in a photograph or in a dream. A dream or a nightmare. How quickly I fell. Beneath the gloomy, boundless sky I watched my lone silhouette fold to the ground. At the same time, a thousand murderous black birds circled above me and flew north. I was falling in the opposite direction of their flight; it was as though the birds were trying to lift me up. And then the sun was covered by a cloud, and I returned to earth. It was the easiest feeling in the world. I was unable to move, like in those nightmares in which you want to flee from an approaching danger and at the same time the ground is slipping away under your feet. The gunshot must have alerted the others. As though from far away I heard a great shout. When I turned my head around with difficulty and saw him running towards me with his mouth open in a wordless shout, I was called to fill in for the words that I did not hear, Of course you came. How could you have the heart not to. How could you. 

It was the first time his gaze stayed fixed on me for so long, the first time I noticed how light, gray, and faded his eyes were. He fell toward me with his entire body and pressed his lips against my forehead, shaking so violently that, for a fleeting moment, I almost felt sorry. And always, this gaze fixed on me, this clear and absent gaze, leaving me blurry. Too close to focus on. The torrent of color converged on the eye of the camera and burst upon the grayscale photos. The collision of color saturation and monochrome created a bright, beautiful, yet agonizing impression. 

My thoughts were as clear as though my head was plunged into freezing water. I’m so young, I’d be better off thinking about the future. So many beloved moments. So many fond memories. It was impossible to remember all the details. Details that are so beautiful when someone was there, but so hopeless when someone was not. 

The first night we met, after I got rid of the bloodstained clothes, I went back to check on him. He was eating chocolate candy, his hands shaking so much that he could barely unwrap it. It was a miserable sight: him chewing the chocolate candy and crying, his shoulders shaking. I shut the door quietly behind me and tiptoed into the bathroom. Recalling how miserable he was then, seeing how miserable he was now, I felt such certainty swell in my head that it crowded back all other thoughts. No matter what movies he quotes, no matter what photographs he tears in half, he will never free himself of the hope that I gave him. I am in the hope against decay from which he draws strength, and I am in the regret by which he is driven to this crazy idea. 

Now I see the end. Now I know how it all ends. Good to know.

An inveterate gambler, I won the bet and I was glad to death about it. This must be the lightness that fills a sleepwalker in a dream, or the lover that walks through the fires of hell. I feared nothing. All risks were risible. I sensed that this was the eternal return. If everything turns out badly, I could wake up and do it over. I was invincible. No need for a clock to count the hours’ advance. Decay is nothing, a monster to scare children, not even decay can withstand this. 

We walked on a Mobius strip, separated by one half-twist, one phase inversion. He will return to the source of the river in which no one can step twice. If he keeps looking, always in search of my ghost, in rain and at sunset, no matter if it takes ten years, twenty years, or even longer, one day he will find me. He will finally get an answer: through what miracle did he find me, why he came up with this crazy idea to come back to me, why he saved me, why I picked him up. This will be the detective’s only chance, perhaps the chance of a lifetime. He will take it.

I was only impatient to march to the end where there is nothing more but the evening’s curtain of fire, and an emptiness that blinded with its vivid, radiant lucidity. 

Without the slightest regret, I watched my blood soak into his jacket wrapped around me, into his white shirt, changing him back into that night, covered in blood that wasn’t his, he had just embraced someone who was bleeding heavily. I picked him up that winter when I was fourteen years old. That winter we played together, ate together, were together. I was saved by him this winter, at twenty-six years old. This winter, I suddenly found that all the things I lost were coming back to me in a roundabout way. The sky was getting dark, rain was about to fall. In the impossible minute return all the garden of our life, all the shadows we trampled, the birds, the greetings, caught breaths, winters, burials that seemed already to have taken place, sentences that seemed already to have been delivered. As I watched his shirt, cheek, and hair turn red from me, I couldn’t help but whisper in his ear with something like a laugh: What a sorry sight…If the original sentence expressed regret for what has passed, now it was helplessness for the future. What I said before kept taking on new meaning. Nothing like what I thought it would mean, and closer to what I meant. 

His soft hair brushed my neck, soft as a fox’s brush. I would have liked to wrap my arms around his back to comfort him, but warmth was flowing away from the ground where I lay. He held me so tightly, so desperately, so fearful that I might shatter, that I made no effort to hold on to life. Yet when I heard him call out my name, it was the breathless voice from back then that whispered my name that echoed in my ears. A whisper and a shout, hurtling through time and space to pierce through the same heart, then as now. No, it was not the moment to leave him. The sense of déjà vu took me by so much surprise that I almost wanted to laugh, a little more tenderly, a little more carefully. I didn’t know if I was choking from the blood in my mouth or from the happiness that slid into my soul.

What words could describe my state of mind? The language of rejoicing is so poor…Drunkenness? Ecstasy? Excitement? Soon I will reach the edge of the cliff and jump into the sea. One more step and I fall easily. No need for determination or preparation. If I wait with all my thoughts erased, I will find that it is easy to fall without even being conscious of it. Jump into the sea: let’s conjugate the verb in the past tense, first person plural. The sun is setting in the west, we are two people in an expensive race-car driving at full speed to the cliff overlooking the sea, taking with us all that is worth cherishing for the rest of our lives, driving straight to the sea, driving for many years, fearing no more the heat of the sun that scorches and scars one side of our faces, and no matter when we awaken, when we embrace, when we quarrel, we are still regretful, still grateful, from start to end. No need for sorrow. All causes and consequences – I have known them all, known them already.

A pity that I was lying on the ground with my eyes open and blood trickling out of my mouth and couldn’t convey my epiphany as clearly as I would like. The wall I was facing was getting closer and farther away by turns. My head hurt like it was going to split open. It was hard to lift my eyelids, and I felt I was losing consciousness again. Hearing my own breathing, I begged for patience. Above all, there are words that I must give him, cruel words equal to the cruelty of a fate that will tempt him to escape, that will teach him to endure temptation, endure hardship, understand that after all the temptations and pain he still must endure everything anew. The words flickered at the edge of my consciousness like shadowy beings, grabbed me by the throat, pulled me in multiple directions like a flame tugged by a drought, at times addressing me with the words from the movie, at times addressing me with the voice of my grandfather’s clock. I heard them, loud as though they were slapping the walls of my skull. I took the words inside me, like a light, like a blessing, like a bullet to the gut, holding onto them and not letting go. Now I let go.  

In the advancing darkness, I felt the heat of his breath against my ear, and I breathed his name softly back to him. Although only breath, the words which I command are immortal. I addressed myself: Give him something real, not something given to you thoughtlessly, not something like a secondhand truth. Give him something real, something that will bloody his hand, something that will make his tears fall for you. Just like now

His face was only a few centimeters from mine. He fixed me with a blurred gaze. I felt my mouth twisting in terrific joy. Dizziness overwhelmed me. Blood continued to flow from the wound. Life was ebbing out of me. As though in a half-sleep, I spoke without breath but clearly moving my lips. Even if I could not take another step, draw another breath, make another sentence. I articulated each word very clearly so he could read it from my lips. Save me.

Give me your hand, save me.

Reach out your hand and save me.

Save me.

Save me.

Decay by Georg Trakl

At nightfall, when the bells of peace are ringing,

I watch the birds’ astonishing migration;

In long rows, like groups of pious pilgrims,

They pass from sight into autumn’s clear expanses.

Leisurely walking through the dusky garden

I dream after their bright destinies,

and hardly feel the hour hand’s advance.

I follow their journeys above the clouds.

Then a soft scent of decay makes me tremble.

The blackbird wails in the bare-faced branches.

The crimson vine leaves sway on rusty treillage.

Meanwhile, like death-dances of pallid children

around dark brims of weathered fountains,

Blue asters bend and shiver in autumn’s wind.