Introducing the third place prize winning story from our 2021 Summer Short Story Award for Writers, “All This is Yours to Lose” by Marcus Tan, selected by Kristen Arnett! Arnett writes, “I was deeply impressed by the way this author chose to use time in this story. Generally I would be wary of taking the reader so far out of linear time in a piece of short fiction, but here, it works perfectly. Every moment between the husband and wife sets us up for what’s going to happen at the end of the work. I found myself rolling along with the movement, reading for the moments of intimacy and frustration rather than what would happen at the climax of the work. I very much enjoyed the way this writer was able to make me understand the different threads that connected these characters. By the time I reached the end of this story, I felt as though I had a greater knowledge of the ways that people unconditionally support each other.”
His mother Huichen first brought it up a year into their marriage, when they visited over the Lunar New Year. It seemed innocent enough at first, just a flask of homemade herbal soup placed in her son’s hands for him to take home. Then she said: “It’ll be good for Leanne. It helps generate heat in the womb.”
Wenxiang stared at the back of the bus seat. “There’s nothing to be sorry about.”
“I feel like I’ve let you down,” Leanne said.
“Stop it. We both know it’s not your fault.” Wenxiang leaned his head against the window, his breath fogging up the glass, creating a mist which bloomed across the swathes of jaded country outside.
“What should we tell your mother?” Leanne said. Without waiting for him to reply, she added: “Maybe we can tell her we decided against it because we can’t afford it. You know, with the costs of milk powder and diapers these days? God forbid they’re smart enough to go to Tsinghua University. Do you know how much tuition costs?”
Within earshot of the two passengers seated in front of him, a pair of young, fashionably dressed women, probably from Shenzhen or some other tier-one city, Wenxiang only allowed himself to utter: “I don’t want to break her heart.”
“That’s why I hope you’ll use the right words,” Leanne said.
“There’s no consolation for a mother’s jusang.” His choice of word made her tighten her lips. It had somewhat surprised him too, how he had used a word that not only meant sadness or disappointment but also something darker and heavier, an overcast sky swelling with rain.
“Of course”—Leanne patted his thigh—“But maybe we don’t have to frame it as something so negative, you know?”
“You were always the more socially savvy one. That’s why I can always rely on you in such situations.”
“Nice try.” Leanne shook her head. “But I can’t fight this battle for you.” She stretched across his lap towards the side window, peering at the passing street signs. “We’re arriving soon. What’s the excuse going to be?”
He leaned towards her but stopped himself from speaking. In front of him, one of the city women was fast asleep, her head bobbing with each breath she took. But the other looked suspiciously awake, just scrolling endlessly on her smartphone at nothing in particular, almost as if listening for something. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Let’s talk later.”
“What are you afraid of?”
There were some things that were only meant for private ears, but what did Leanne know about that? She lived her life as an open book, unafraid of strangers on the bus who might pass judgement. Wenxiang replied only when the bus came to stop and they stood up to alight. “We shouldn’t have gone for the test.”