We zig-zag along a crooked stone bridge towards the tavern. Mist blankets the water, which is riotous with koi, though it’s a clear day elsewhere — a hologrammic projection of the weather from hundreds of years ago. Our daughter, Ruyi, is determined to catalogue the brilliant colors of the fish with her limited vocabulary. Across the marsh I can hear the knocks of unseen sampan bumping together in their moorings, hollow-sounding.
Our dining companions, classmates of Song’s, secured a table ahead of time, so when we finally cajole Ruyi into the tavern, we’re escorted through the crowded waiting room, over bridges, past serene gardens, into a glassed-in pavilion, then seated at a simple wooden table overlooking a new angle of marsh.
Introductions. Song’s classmates, husband and wife, both bespectacled and dressed sharply, praise our daughter’s beauty — dark eyes, pale skin, chestnut pigtails. The menu scroll reads like poetry, its stanzas inscrutable to me, but the natives take command of the ordering, my mind wandering, casting ahead to the five-hour transcontinental train ride back to the States, to visit my father before his mind sinks too deep into the mire of dementia. Mom said he’d eaten some rancid meat, needed to be hospitalized — he couldn’t smell that it had gone bad. The last time we’d visited was several months before Song’s transfer to the Shanghai branch. At the time Dad was cold and mechanical when dealing with the present, but would light up at phantoms from the past — same as Granddad had been.
Ruyi grows restless, so I walk her around. We discover a dining room with a guzheng player, her veil shimmering with each flick of her spidery fingers across the instrument’s sounding board. I imagine the cool spray of waterfall mist and realize I’m watching, listening to, a hologram projected into the present out of the intervening darkness of centuries. When Ruyi attempts to spring away, I hold her fast, hoping she can enjoy this technological marvel with me — for however long her attention span allows.
Upon returning, we’re greeted by a platter of roast duck, spicy seafood stew, red-braised pork, and countless other delicacies, a banquet with a curiously subdued bouquet, perhaps due to some idiosyncrasy of the restaurant’s ventilation system. The classmates are discussing with Song purchasing a timeshare in the Summer Palace, and so I grasp the purpose of this lunch in the briefest conversational snatch.
I manage to get a few bites of fruit and meat into Ruyi before she wriggles off the bench and bolts. Apologizing, I dash off in pursuit. When I catch up to her, I find her examining another child, a Chinese boy of around the same age. I look up at the boy’s mother and try to conceal my surprise — the same woman I’d encountered here fifteen years ago. She’s tall, her figure spare, in tight-fitting black slacks and a maroon blouse.
Our gazes touch before she turns down to her son, then Ruyi sprints on, now with the boy in tail, entering an island garden thick with red spider lilies and devilwood. The boy clambers onto a stone bench while Ruyi names the colors of the boy’s clothes, mixing languages. The woman chats to the two children.
I stand farther back, a voyeur to the scene, which glimmers in the sunshine, but soon the woman turns, permitting my presence.
“How old is she?” she asks in Chinese. In that moment, I wonder if she’s a hologram too, a ghost.
No, can’t be.
“Will be three soon.”
“In preschool yet?”
“Started a few months ago.”
The boy, eyes closed, tries to kiss Ruyi, leaning in from far too far away.
“Shake hands,” I suggest, feeling a pang in my chest.
“Hug,” the woman says, though the word she uses is closer to embrace.
The children shake hands, then hug — or embrace. We laugh.
Finally, the boy manages to kiss Ruyi on the side of her head. She squirms, giggling.
We break them apart, and while doing so our hands brush together, eyes meeting, years collapsing upon each other. I see now the etchings of crow’s feet around her eyes, the few strands of silver shining in the lustrous black hair. No, if she were a hologram, she wouldn’t have aged; we hadn’t had children before, when we met at this tavern years ago. Besides, near-past holograms are infamously rendered blurry and inaccurate — i.e., temporal far-sightedness. Tech reports predict it’ll be years before near-past holograms can be rendered as things of beauty, of reliability.
My heart is racing when I stand, taking Ruyi’s hand in mind, so light, so insubstantial.
“Time to finish lunch,” I say. “Say bye-bye, say zaijian.”
We smile and wave, our focus on the children. Thus I only see the strain in the woman’s smile in the unreliable periphery.
“There you are! I’ve looked everywhere for you,” comes a voice from behind, and the scene dims, flickers.
I turn to find a strange woman, pale and dark-eyed, chestnut hair a jagged modern asymmetry. A hostess maybe, her English impeccable.
“Just collecting my daughter,” I say, but Ruyi has vanished. My throat constricts with panic. “She’s run off. I’ve got to find her.”
Her eyes welling with tears, the woman loops her arm in mine. The panic dissipates, then she says something confusing to me, which turns over in my mind as she guides me back to the table, seating me before a pot of steaming tea. I squeeze Song’s hand, ancient-looking in this harsh light, and intending to talk politely with our new partners in timeshare, I look across the table, finding to my surprise that they’ve been replaced by this mysterious woman and some other man — husband?
Her words continue to replay in my mind.
“She found you, Dad.”
Tim Boiteau lives in Michigan with his wife and son. He is a Writers of the Future winner, with fiction appearing in Deep Magic, Dream of Shadows, Kasma Magazine, and others at EDF. He wrote the first draft of “Timeshare” on his phone while his taxi was stuck in traffic en route to the airport in Shanghai.