Junior first runner-up: My Heart in Your Hands, by Sunny Ling
She cradles her daughter’s hand, the way most people hold something precious to them, gently but at the same time possessive.
Time is her enemy. There are never enough seconds in the day to spend holding the hand of the person your soul clings to.
The curtains are closed and the lights are already on, even though it is only one in the afternoon. The air smells like generic lemon disinfectant and a distinctive underlying odor.
It is the stench of sickness.
There are only a few places in Hong Kong where time seems to completely slow– convenience stores at two in the morning when it’s just you and the cashier, the upper deck of buses at night, schools after everyone has left.
Her daughter is smiling. The white flash of her teeth is like a blinding ray of happiness, her entire face lights up, impossibly girlish. For a moment she looks like herself again, like she did before all of this.
She squeezes her mother’s hand firmly in her thin fingers and says, “Mom, I can see colour.”
Lena has found her Soulmate.
Time picks up. She can hear the steady beep of the other patient’s heartbeat in the next bed, the quick steps of a nurse with a purpose, the squeak of a chair as someone leaves.
She blinks and makes sure her voice doesn’t shake when she says, “I’m so happy for you.”
She sees the world in black and white.
They say meeting your Soulmate is a burst of colour in a monochromatic world. A feeling of something you can’t express in any amount of words or in any language in the whole world. Some have come pretty close. Koi No Yokan, Japanese, knowing that you were destined to fall in love even though you have just met. Or as her mother had called it: Yuan Fen.
Something decided by fate. Mrs Chen calls it unnatural.
There is nothing romantic about finding your Soulmate. Serial killers have them, rapists have them, children have them.
Lena has a Soulmate.
A Soulmate is the epitome of love and partnership. Everyone has one, so while Mrs Chen casts the notion aside as frivolity, she cannot deny its fairness.
Mrs Chen married someone who wasn’t her Soulmate. She had chosen love. He left when Lena was five, when he just couldn’t take it anymore.
Mrs Chen takes one look at the fresh flowers on Lena’s bedside table, a profuse riot of shapes out of place in the orderly lines of the ward, and forces a tight smile.
“This is red, mom.” Lena explains holding up a muted gray flower. She shows Mrs Chen the leaves, which are a darker shade of gray. If she pretended well enough, she could trick herself into seeing the colours. “These are green.”
She smiles for her daughter, who fills the room with giddiness and a rush of words. “How nice.”
Lena’s forehead wrinkles for a moment before she brightens up once more. “He works in the hospital. He came in today to see the other patient with the kidney problem. It happened so fast, I barely had time to think.”
“How nice.” Mrs Chen repeats calmly and moves to rearrange Lena’s pillows. “When can I meet him?”
Lena bounces in her bed, childlike. “As soon as he finishes his shift.”
“Maybe tomorrow then.” Mrs Chen says. Her mouth is dry and she desperately wants a drink. “I have to go.”
Lena visibly deflates and puts the flower down to grab her mother’s limp hand. “Please stay.”
Mrs Chen shakes her head. “Your Soulmate will still exist tomorrow, won’t he?” Lena nods sheepishly, glancing down at their intertwined fingers. “Yes.”
“Then there’s no difference if I meet him in the morning.” Mrs Chen wrenches free from her daughter’s grip and shuffles over to the chair. A black cane is resting against it.
“I’ll bring some red bean buns to celebrate,” she says primly, making a show of gathering her things. “Get some rest, okay?”
“Love you.” Lena says, pulling the covers over herself.
Mrs Chen feels something in her heart loosen at the words. “Love you too.”
Drained by the events of the day, she doesn’t walk home. Instead she takes the bus to think.
There was not a lot of thinking to be done, as there was young girl a few seats in front of her who was chattering incessantly into her phone.
“Rachel tells me she’s been seeing yellow lately.” The girl’s inky ponytail swings as she cocks her head. “I think — I think she’s lying about it. There’s never been any proof.”
“I don’t think she’s going to meet her Soulmate anytime soon, TBH,” the girl continues, oblivious to the fact that her voice is piercing the otherwise silent environment. “Maybe she doesn’t have one.”
Mrs Chen, trying to ignore the young girl, gazes out of the window. It is hard to tell objects apart when your vision is stuck in the same tones, another inconvenience of the system.
She thinks she sees a group of men and women on the street corner, waving signs for ‘Equality Now!’ while the world passes them by. Such protests are common in Hong Kong nowadays, as the topic of non-Soulmate marriage was becoming fashionable again.
In another life, that could’ve been her on the street, demanding rights that should’ve been given freely.
But Mrs Chen doesn’t involve herself in these things because she knows her place. As a woman past her prime living on a pension, she is only one step above vagabonds and drunkards.
“Ugh.” The girl groans, and her phone case, a glittering mess of rhinestones, catches Mrs Chen’s eye. “I feel like we just aren’t respected. They keep wanting us to have opinions about Soulmates and stuff, but when we give them, they shut us down. It’s not fair.”
Mrs Chen rubs her hands and thinks of her ex-husband. There are varying degrees of unfairness. Injustice is different for everybody.
There are people walking down a well-lit street, in twos and occasionally threes. There are no protesters here.
She turns from the window. The girl is still talking. There is now an air of irritability among the passengers.
The girl glances at the back of the bus, phone still clutched in her hand, and their eyes meet. Mrs Chen averts her gaze and does not look up for the rest of the journey.
As she leaves, the girl is texting.
New York is antiquated. Paris is pretentious. London is overpriced. Hong Kong is Hong Kong.
With seven, nearly eight million people crammed into limited space, people are bound to meet the same person again once in a while, yet so few ever find their Soulmate. In Hong Kong, you are never alone but always on your own.
Mrs Chen hobbles down an alley in the brisk morning, before the city wakes. It is a cloudy day, judging by the increased grayness, and the perfunctory attitude of the convenience store staff.
There is no traffic in the alleyway today. Usually there are a couple of workers leaning against a cart or trolley, smoking.
Mrs Chen moves slowly to her destination, leaving the smoky alleyway. A plastic bag holds a box of steamed red bean buns. She is just another face in the crowd here, anonymity being one of the comforts of big city living.
Lena has found the person she is supposedly destined to be with, and Mrs Chen is bringing buns.
Her daughter is staring at the ceiling dreamily when she walks in, pillow thrown onto the chair Mrs. Chen had sat in yesterday.
“I think I’m in love, Mom,” she proclaims.
“So quickly?” Mrs Chen replies, not without affection, putting the pillow into her lap and settling into the chair.
“It just happened.” Lena rolls over to her side, holding her blankets. The monitor tracks her rapid heartbeat.
As Mrs Chen listens to her daughter talk about her Soulmate, her heart knots. She has lived long enough with Lena’s fragile condition to know that it is a worry.
A Soulmate is a lifelong connection and they both know Lena has anything but that sort of time.
The man who strolls in, all bright eyes and hands in pockets, is exactly the sort Mrs. Chen had feared — the kind that gets better with age. Lena is beaming like all her dreams have come true.
The world is unexpectedly brighter. Time stops in the room. When she sees for the first time, there is only this man and her daughter.
Mrs Chen has to hold in a gasp as the colours burst across her vision all at once. She had had sight but not vision for her entire life. Her heart swells with a strange joy. She thought such intensity only existed in stories.
She stares at the walls, painted a colour she has previously thought is off-white, but is not. She has no words for this. How can she when she has been seeing nothing but black and white for the past 60 years?
“I’m Thomas.” He offers his hand politely. The spell is broken. Mrs Chen stares at it from her seat, steeling herself, and opts not to shake it. She aims for an approving smile that comes out more like a grimace. “Lena’s beautiful.”
Mrs Chen gasps softly at the sudden explosion of prismatic colours in her life, but she has to put that aside and focus.
Did he just say her daughter was beautiful? That was all he had to say after meeting his Soulmate?
“Mom.” Lena calls out after a moment. The lines around Thomas’ eyes crinkle. “Are you alright?”
“I think he’s the one.”
Mrs Chen does not stop staring. It is harder to read people. Now she sees only the brightness of his clothes and the wide redness of his grin.
“No,” Mrs Chen says bluntly, her voice unwavering as she faces the glaring hues.
Lena’s smile falls from her face. She speaks in a chillingly flat tone. “Can you give us a moment please?”
Thomas leaves, Mrs Chen watches him disappear behind the door before she speaks, but her daughter beats her to it.
“What is wrong with you?” Lena snaps, eyes flashing, her voice raised an octave. “He’s my Soulmate.”
What does that word even mean to her?
“Is it because he’s a nurse?” Lena continues, years of sacrifice and love forgotten in the hatred of the moment. “Or because he’s two decades older than me?”
“No, of course not,” Mrs Chen replies quickly, leaning forward to grasp Lena’s trembling hand. “It’s—”
Lena snatches her hand out of Mrs Chen’s forcefully, mouth twisted into a snarl. “You don’t understand do you? You think all men are like my dad, but guess what? Thomas is my Soulmate and he’s never going to abandon me!”
The heart monitor beeps furiously. Mrs Chen clenches her hands. “Lena, your heart.” “Stop talking about my heart!” Lena fumed. “I hate it when you do that!”
They say angry people speak the truth and Mrs Chen agrees wholeheartedly with that statement. “It’s not about your heart.”
She is about to attempt to tell her Thomas might be her Soulmate as well as gently as she can, but then decides Lena will misinterpret her words.
Lena’s breath comes heavily, her chest rising and falling as she gulps for air. “He’s my Soulmate as well,” she says simply.
When there are no tears, Mrs. Chen wonders if Lena has even heard her. The silence is terrifying.
Lena’s whisper hangs in the air.
Her daughter closes her eyes, her hand on her chest, her pulse quickening. She bites down on her lower lip and looks as though something is tearing her apart inside out.
“We have the same Soulmate.” Mrs Chen is barely audible. The heart monitor skyrockets.
All is black and white.