After swallowing the pills, Liu turned his wheelchair around and moved slowly over to the balcony. The sun was bright out there, and so was Liu’s mood.
Before he got his breathing right, he lifted his head to look up at the balcony of the top floor of the building across the street. There was no sign of him at all. He looked down at his watch. There were ten more minutes to go.
The old guy is more patient than me, and he wouldn’t show up till the last second, Liu thought. The man referred to was Li. The two were born in the same year, graduated from the same college, started working for the same company on the same day, got married on the same day, and retired on the same day. They also lived in the same residential area, though in different buildings. Liu lived on the ground floor of Building A, while Li lived on the top floor of Building B. They were lifetime friends. People could not say clearly why they liked each other, but they all agreed part of the reason was that they shared the same hobby.
Liu and Li both loved Chinese chess.
After playing with each other for decades, neither of them could claim victory. Upon retirement, they played chess every day, taking turns hosting from their respective apartments. Several years ago, they both became widowers after their spouses’ death, and with their children all out working long hours, the two played chess even more. In fact, it was chess that reinvigorated their wilting lives.
“If we can’t outwit each other in chess, we’ll see who will live longer,” Liu said.
“Deal! Whoever dies first will be the loser!” Li laughed out loud.
A few more years passed. Liu and Li both had difficulty walking and had to resort to wheelchairs.
Liu could no longer reach that top floor and Li couldn’t come down to the ground floor by himself, either.
Let’s play chess by phone, Liu said, I’ll call you at ten every morning.
As soon as ten o’clock arrived, Li’s telephone would ring, and the two would start playing, chatting, and even joking about how death was already summoning them, and by the time they were about to hang up, they would remind each other to take care, eat as much as they could and not worry or be upset about anything.
One day, Liu’s routine call was received but not answered. Liu dialled again several times but still received no response. He got worried and called Li’s son that night. “What happened to your dad? Why wouldn’t he talk to me?” he asked.
“He lost his voice.”
“Lost his voice?!”
“He hasn’t been able to speak since he got up this morning.”
“He is not deaf yet, is he? Give him the phone. I want to talk to him!”
“How did you become mute? What if I get bored? How about this? I call you as usual, and you bang the table to show you are listening,” Liu said to Li.
The following day, Liu called as usual and heard Li banging on his table.
“Good job, old chap! Sounds like you’re fine except for the voice,” Liu said.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Li hit the table again.
“I’m worried you may be bored to death,” Liu continued.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! The sounds grew louder.
While such communication was nothing like chatting, it at least made them aware they were still alive and kicking.
Surprisingly though, Li stopped answering the phone. Liu dialled continuously, but still received no response. Liu became frantic and lost all peace of heart. He didn’t know Li had lost his hearing until Li’s son came back home later that evening.
Liu’s heart skipped a beat and he felt as if he had fallen into an ice cave.
He quickly scribbled a note and had his son send it to Li.
“Let’s wave hands to each other from our respective balconies at 10 a.m. every day. Promise!” The note read.
Ten o’clock struck. Li showed up on his balcony.
Liu raised his right hand at once, waving incessantly. He smiled brightly, like a happy kid.
Li also raised his right hand and waved continuously.
“Hey, old chap! Eat good and stay good! Don’t be a jerk!” Liu shouted at Li.
Time went fast with the waving of their hands, and fall arrived in a twinkling. Liu began to have difficulty moving his hands and lifting his arms and he often felt unbearable pain after waving. Furthermore, his eyes became so blurry that he could only see Li’s hands moving and nothing else.
Nonetheless, Liu kept waving every day at ten, heaving a long sigh of relief whenever he was done. Liu’s health totally collapsed by the time it started snowing. He had difficulty breathing when he woke up one morning. His son wanted to send him to hospital, but Liu said it was too late and he didn’t have much time left. He asked him to promise to wave to the balcony on the top floor of the building across the street at 10:00 a.m. sharp every day, without showing his head.
After that, Liu tilted his head and died. His son burst into tears.
Two weeks later, while on his way to work after being done waving, Liu’s son bumped into Li’s son.
“How is your dad?” The former asked.
“He’s doing great. He was waving to your dad just minutes ago,” Li’s son left immediately after saying that. He was concerned a slip of his tongue might leak out the secret. Six months ago, his dad had told him not to let Liu know he was the one who died first.
Selected from Chinese Fash Fiction, compiled by China Flash Fiction Society, and published by New World Press.