Dinner was always fancy when Ruby and her parents came over. Gem was Ruby’s brother—only he wasn’t allowed to tell her—and he wished they shared more than one visit a year together. He never really knew what it was like to have a sibling but on his birthdays he got to experience what most big families often complained about: loud chatter, elbows fighting for the narrow space between seats, and the never ending dishes that needed to be set, cleaned, and put back into place.
His mother flung herself into preparing the house for their visit, driving herself in a frenzy, whether the Patichats would notice dust on the empty shelves, or whether the Patichats would notice their wilted streamers recycled from last year’s birthday décor, or whether the Patichats would ask how the job hunt was going. The Patichats, the Patichats, the Patichats always stressed over minor details his parents and Gem could never anticipate. They were successful and prosperous, giving Ruby a life his family could never provide. They owned a gigantic pharmaceutical company, and lived in a large spotless mansion two hours away from Gem’s family. They were his father’s sister and her husband, and Ruby was told that Gem was her cousin, and his parents, her real parents, were her ever-so-loving aunt and uncle. This time, they would have to answer to his goldening—the burnt yellow no longer contained in his hand.
Alone in the dining room, Gem straightened the tablecloth, freshly ironed, like the button-up shirt he wore when saying goodbye to his sister for the first time. Ruby, who had been given away when she learned to put one foot in front of the other, had been too young to remember Gem, tall and gangly for his age, silently waving to her in front of their house.
“You’ll see her real soon,” his father had told him. “She won’t be that far away.”
Gem had believed him for twelve years, because it seemed so simple and easy to swallow. His parents joined hands, and they watched the car drive off. He tried to be strong for their family. The gold had only started to grow from the middle of his left palm then, but now it had spread from his hand past his shoulder onto his chest. His parents, convinced that the union of skin and metal was good luck, encouraged him to show it off. They had asked monks at the temple whether Gem would be heralded as the next miracle and if this was a sign of luck for their family. Gem refused to play the part of a circus freak and always wore long sleeves even though summers in Red Dirt were unforgivingly hot.
He didn’t understand what happened then, what it all meant. His left side, now covered in gold, had deadened after each of Ruby’s visit. His father had told him to go along with the act and maybe the gold will go away. Gem had tried scrubbing it off with soap and water. He tried peeling it off, drawing blood from his flayed skin. He held his hand over the open flame in the kitchen, yet nothing he did changed the tone of his skin. “You can’t get rid of a good omen,” his father had said, the first time Gem cried about his palm. “The same Buddha that created something beautiful as gold made you.” Gem continued setting the table with force, wondering if the same Buddha found it amusing to separate siblings and divide families.
They welcomed Ruby every time she returned to their home in Red Dirt, outside the Capital, to visit them. On their last visit, Gem had overheard his parents tell the Patichats that the gold had not disappeared, and since the gold could be hereditary, Ruby needed to know where she came from.
The Patichats begged his family to never tell Ruby. “She’s just a child, and the news of her origins, of the disease, would devastate her” Aunt Patichat had said. They promised they would tell her when they were ready. They had said that every year. Over the years, the Patichats paid for the best dermatologists, orthopedic surgeons, and even famous witch doctors to take a look at his arm—all bribes that silenced him further from telling Ruby. Last year, his parents told him to keep quiet, because they needed the Patichats’ help, after all, they had everyone’s best interests at heart. They had sat in the dining room, where Gem currently stood, and continued mumbling about business, things he didn’t quite understand: investments, stock prices increasing, the Dow Jones, the value of the U.S. dollar, loans, and things that droned on and on, the origin of his yawns.
Gem pitied his parents for not standing up to the Patichats then. He could no longer pretend that his goldening didn’t affect him. The Patichats called his non-gold side his good one, but that didn’t stop the rest of his body from losing feeling, the left side where skin blurred with gold. He felt odd they drew lines that divided him. He wasn’t any less himself the more gold he turned, but the Patichats believed in naming things, just as they believed that calling Ruby his cousin meant that she was less close to him, less obligated to perform any sisterly acts of love, and that their relationship was somehow less meaningful.
The secret weighed on his heart, corroding the rest of his core with its presence, dragging him closer to Ruby like a magnet, closer to telling her the truth. He didn’t understand how he ever complied. He decided he would break the promise and tell her tonight, if he could only get over the feeling of guilt, of feeling like he owed the Patichats for their help, for feeling sorry to his parents for giving their good kid away in the first place.
He was born with five golden cysts waiting to pop out from the middle of his left hand. His parents, frightened by them, stared at each lemon head for far too long, until the midwife took ten-pound baby Gem to an operating table where doctors, concerned that the metal would lead to rust and infections, spent hours attempting to excavate them. They poked, hoping to break at least one hardened pustule nestled in his palm crease, but those shiny nuggets refused to budge. Couldn’t be excised without drawing blood. The harder they tried, the louder Gem screamed. “No point in causing pain to a newborn right now,” one doctor said, and the nurses agreed that it was too hard to restrain him without bruising his little limbs. So they brought him back to his parents and told them they were blessed. A miracle! “Touched by an angel,” the nurses said. His parents eventually surrendered to the fact that the universe had sanctified their son with this otherworldly gift, and who were they to argue with fate?
He grew up without any supernatural powers or oddities that invited danger or brought harm upon those around him. When he closed his left hand, he looked just like every other boy in Red Dirt: bloated stomach, chicken-legs, and sun burnt. Gem soon forgot he even had gold in him, only to be reminded of its existence when he played soccer. He sounded like a bag of coins tossed onto the floor every time he braced a fall with his hands. At school, his friends believed his cysts were nothing more than oversized, discolored moles. “My mother has a giant raised one on her upper lip,” the smallest one of Gem’s friends said. “My father says it was from an ancestor planting an incense stick on her mouth to stop her nagging.”
Gem wondered if his goldening was a gift passed down from his relatives. Someone up in the heavens had reached down and marked him, though Gem had no idea why he was chosen to have just a good-to-look-at gift instead of real powers. He wished he had someone to share the burden of turning gold with. Then his sister Ruby was born a day shy of his fifth birthday. His parents had brought her home asleep in a small bundle, wrapped around an elephant-printed blanket. In his father’s arms, Gem barely saw her face. After putting her on the sofa, Gem climbed on top of the seats to take a look at his soon-to-be-best-friend, only her hands remained pink and fleshy, without a hint of gold.
Ever since his father lost his job three years ago, his mother busied herself for hours in the kitchen with the maids, the kitchen his parents had built as its own separate out building in the back of the house; where the maids could cook in peace. His mother found solace in the noise: steam whistling out of the kettle, slices of beef sizzling in oil, the pork bone stock spewing from the pot, the bubbles belching from under the lid. She joined Gem in the dining room, eyes narrowed, having watched his father lie across the living room sofa all morning, a bottle of Mekhong empty by his side.
“They owe us for taking her,” his mother said. “It’s not right, and the least they could do is make sure that her kin doesn’t starve to death because her own father is a—”
“A what? Say it. I dare you to say it to me,” his father mumbled from the sofa.
“You’ve always relied on your sister. Ever since you were a child. Now you’re a grown man and you still rely on her for everything.”
She walked into the living room where he laid, bringing Gem with her.
“Can we rely on them to fix him?” she pulled up his sleeve, revealing his shiny arm. “Do you want our daughter to blame us for never telling her when we could have?”
Nobody knew what to do with his condition, but Gem was convinced that his rapid dulling of senses occurred every time Ruby left. He had brought this up to his parents and the Patichats before, back when he was able to disguise his goldening with gloves. Every time he said bye to them, he found more places in his body turned. But still, his parents corroborated with the Patichats: revealing Ruby’s birthright would devastate her, as though her heartbreak was worth more than the pain Gem could bear.
Gem no longer cared that they talked about his gold arm as though he were a trophy. At school, his classmates and teachers acted as though nothing had changed. Kids would whisper as he walked by, who knew what he was made of? He wanted to tell Ruby the truth about her origins when she arrived, so that they could both be freed before she left for boarding school far, far away. Perhaps the revelation would save his arm. Perhaps the Patichats, with their infinite wealth and connections, would find a cure for this strange mutation. Perhaps it would save her from catching it too.
“I didn’t want to give her away,” his mother said. “You made me do it.”
“I did not,” his father said.
“I gave away my girl because you felt sorry for your barren little sister. Then they helped us when we were broke, as though they were our saviors. As though they were the good guys. But really, we gave them everything.”
“She’s being taken care of wonderfully.”
His father shuffled when she spoke, but he decided to stay on the sofa, legs and arms flopping over one side. Gem had always suspected his father drank before the Patichats came. His father turned to the bottle as a way to pretend that everything was fine, that he didn’t mind fighting with his wife, that he didn’t mind that his daughter called him ‘Uncle,’ that he didn’t notice his son’s arm was turning gold.
“She’s doing better off without us,” his father said. “It’s this guy right here that has to pick up his shovel and dig for the family.”
“I’m seventeen years old,” Gem said. “What job can I do at seventeen? I’m sure selling ice cream at Baskin and Robbins will pay for our electricity for a week.”
“Keep your mouth shut unless you have a better idea.” His father turned over, his face buried into a pillow.
“I’m sure people would love buying something from me,” Gem said. “From a freak. A mutant without any super powers.”
His mother too, suffered the weight of the morning passing by, swirling from the bottom of the bottle to the bottom of her husband. “Go put the chicken in the pot,” she ordered Gem. “Your cousin and her family are not going to starve when they get here.” She grabbed the bottle of whisky and tucked it between her elbow and rib. “Go get changed into something that covers you up. Then get a bucket of water, come back and splash it on your father. Go.”
“Yes, Mother.” Gem stifled an urge to grab his father by the collar, to shake him, to hit him, if only the gold weighed more than his bones. He stormed out the door, tears held back, angry that he was brought up by these parents, instead of being switched as a child like Ruby.
For a day, he knew what it was like to be her brother, and Gem wished she turned gold too. Perhaps the gold would start from her ears, like fire, catching onto her cheeks. Perhaps she caught herself shine brighter under the light, her shadow a reflection that sparkled like a hundred sequins on hardwood floors. Perhaps her mouth would change first, a metallic shine in her lip creases, causing her to cry and ask her parents if this was normal, if this was real, just as he had.
His mother was laying out the fancy white china, bowls and plates with gold lacquer lining the cracks. “This is beautiful art that your aunt and uncle gave to us on our wedding anniversary,” his mother said to Gem while unwrapping them. The artists repaired the broken parts by filling them with gold. “Supposedly,” his mother continued, “something broken shouldn’t have to be hidden, but instead, be put on show for the world to see as a part of its history.” They came with matching gold-tipped Chinoiserie figurines of plump little girls and boys, and his mother seemed to like the gift just because of that.
Aunt Patichat always came with great gifts that hid his hands since Ruby had no idea: one year, when Gem was six, she bought him and Ruby matching snow jackets and mittens to go skiing in a nearby country. When Gem turned eight, she bought him brand new golf gloves, and took them both to tee off at the Patichat’s country club. When Gem turned ten, his aunt took him and Ruby to ride elephants in the mountains, hidden behind the forest. Perched atop these giant beasts, they squealed, swaying left and right as the animals took quick steps up the slope.
“Tell the driver to stop!” Ruby said. “I think my necklace fell off.”
“Why’d you wear it today if it’s expensive?” Gem said, “Your parents can get you a new one.”
“It was a gift from an uncle in Italy. Please, can we stop and look for it?”
Gem almost corrected her; the necklace wasn’t from Italy, it was from an uncle, her uncle—his dad. He had wanted to tell her the truth then, to rip off his bandages and show her the parts gold had hardened, only Auntie called out to them, “Look out for the tree branches!”
He came back to the dining room dragging two more chairs, sitting them side by side; one for her, next to him. He knew about the loneliness of being the only chair at the dining table. Most only children wished for a long-lost sibling that appeared in a basket on their doorstep. But he always knew where Ruby was and that made him feel like the lost one. He had tried to show her his hand over the years, but his parents and the Patichats kept a close eye on their interactions.
“You can’t disrespect them when they are trying to help you,” his father had said. “Imagine if they stopped paying for your bills.”
The Patichats had warned him that the truth would only scare her and create more distance. Ruby might not have inherited this trait. She might call him a liar, so Gem knew he had to implicate all those responsible. Tonight, he would make it so that everything had to be explained by the adults. He’d let the Patichats’ know their help was appreciated. He’d admit that his gold arm was nothing to be ashamed about. He’d convince Ruby his family, her family, loved her just as much as the Patichats did. Then maybe, Ruby and him could spend more time together. She could be in Red Dirt so that his parents would stop fighting, so that she could be his sister, so that he had someone to share turning gold with.
Ruby yelled, “Happy Birthday!” when she walked through the door, and ran to hug Gem. Her parents sauntered behind her, solemn. Aunt Patichat patted him on the head, her arm stretched up to reach his crown as she exclaimed how tall he’d grown. Uncle Patichat handed Gem a shopping bag.
“Ruby helped me pick them out for you,” he said. “They were my biker gloves I’ve only worn once so they’re still stiff.”
His mother came from the dining room, motioning for everyone to come in. She exchanged pleasantries with their guests, bowing to say hello, extending long drawn out shrieks: “My friends would die knowing these were real diamonds,” and “Oh! So sweet of you to think of Gem.” Then she waved at him to come next to her. Ruby followed suit.
She’d grown taller since the last time he saw her, long arms and thin legs—“Chicken legs, like mine”—Gem exclaimed when she walked through the door. Her hair was turning light brown at the tips too, just like his. He tried to spot gold strands, to see if his eyes could sharpen to focus on gold flecks in her hair, but saw nothing.
“My dad told me next year before I go to boarding school, that he’d get me a new necklace,” Ruby said.
She thumbed her silver necklace with the red stone that rested on her chest.
“But you always wear that necklace,” Gem said.
“It’s getting old,” Ruby tried to look down, her chin getting in the way of the charm. “He said that he’d get me a new one with a real ruby. This one’s just glass.”
Gem thanked his Aunt and Uncle for the gift. He couldn’t remember the last time his father got him anything new, not even for his birthdays. He wrinkled his nose at the way the Patichats had spoiled Ruby. There were times when he envied her, a mere child like himself. Coming from the city, Ruby always sported the newest toy. She ate large plates of steak at restaurants with white tablecloths. She sat in first class on the plane while he sat rows and rows behind, knees touching the seat in front of him. He always knew that his father gave Ruby up to Aunt Patichat because adopting out of the bloodline was shameful, and Gem wondered if jealousy flowed through the Patichats’ blood too. They had to be jealous of his parents for being able to have two kids instead of none. They had to be afraid that once Ruby knew, she might love them a little less. Then in order to mask their jealousy and insecurities, they threw money at the problem, at Ruby, at them.
At the table, Gem’s parents uncorked their finest bottles of vintage wine, usually a deep, dry Merlot, pouring a large glass for Uncle Patichat first, before serving themselves. Gem never saw his uncle smile, not a twinkle in his eye behind inch-thick glasses, no smile lines around his mouth. He sounded his approval, tapping the table beside the glass to signal a ‘Thank You’ to the pourer, exclaiming a short hem when given a hug and a slightly longer hem when Ruby started conversations at the table that included both families.
“I want to hear more stories of when my mom was young,” Ruby said, “I wish I had a sibling to tell stories about me to my kids when I’m grown up.”
“I’d be happy to tell them how you’ve never sat in economy on a plane before,” Gem said.
“I’d tell your kids how big of a bully you were.”
He found himself fixing the table, clipping the tablecloth with silver magnets so that they stayed in place, and avoided his aunt and uncle’s gaze and his parents’ warning stare.
“What do you call each other’s children if you’re cousins?” Uncle Patichat said. “I’m not sure if niece and nephew is acceptable, but I’m sure they are related one way or another.”
Gem’s father asked him to help finish setting the table and he went from cabinet to seat, placing the appropriate cutlery a little too firmly beside every plate. He thought of how hot molten gold was when they lined cracks of porcelain, only to solidify into priceless veins.
His parents had told him stories about Uncle being a stern man, too stern to be a father, because Ruby needed to laugh, needed someone to play pretend with, to love her as a child, and not a miniature adult. The stories Uncle Patichat told Gem and his parents about Ruby were always about how well she was doing.
“Did Ruby tell you,” Uncle Patichat beamed, “that she got accepted into Cheltenham? Full scholarship to attend as a hockey player at fourteen, the youngest player from the Far East ever to be recruited.”
“She’ll have no problem fitting in at boarding school,” he boasted, rubbing Ruby’s crown. “Her English teacher says that she reads a book a day. Tell Gem and your uncle and aunt about the last one you read.”
“It’s the Thai legend about the ruby and the miner,” she said. “My teacher thought it was important for me to read about my culture.”
“It’s a classic story,” Gem said. “Everyone knows that’s where you got your name from.”
He said everyone as if daring his parents and the Patichats to respond, daring them to correct him on how she originally got her name, on who named her.
“Back in the olden days,” Ruby said, “a miner found a stone, red as pigeon’s blood, buried in his field. Instead of giving the entire stone to the king, he broke it in half and gave half to the king, selling the other half to a Chinese merchant.”
“They have this fairytale in English books now?” Gem’s father said. “Why would Westerners want to hear about this story?”
“Her teacher thought it was important for her to learn about her heritage,” Uncle Patichat said.
“Later, a prince from another land, requesting protection from the king presented the ruby as a gift to his court,” Ruby continued. “Upon examination, the king felt that something about it looked familiar—compared the two ruby halves—and realized he had been cheated.”
“Not telling the truth is a kind of cheating in itself,” Gem said. “There are consequences for not telling—”
“The miner was trying to make a living with what he had,” Uncle Patichat said loudly, drowning out Gem. “He had children to feed. A family to take care of.”
“Then what happened, Ruby?” Gem’s father asked. Gem knew his father was trying to get the story over with, but this was an opportunity to bring everyone in.
“The king had the miner and his children burned alive,” she said. “The miner’s wife witnessed this from a hill where she was collecting wood, and she died from a broken heart. Then the rubies in the king’s possession broke into quarters.”
“That’s really interesting,” Gem’s father said.
His father always said “really interesting” when he wanted to shrug things away. “That’s really interesting,” his father had said that one time, after Gem told him about winning his soccer game. The other team, afraid to tackle him and his gold arm, let Gem pass the defense to score goals. His father didn’t even look at Gem in the eye. He remained still across the couch, lifeless, as though he wasn’t even there, and Gem recognized that familiar glazed look at the table.
“Pure rubies since then have been used to ward off heartbreak,” Ruby added, “they will split themselves in half as a warning to the owner.”
“Isn’t it funny that we have themed names, as though we were sibl—” Gem said.
“That’s why we named you Ruby,” Uncle Patichat said. “We’re going to break a little when you go off to England, even if it’s for your own good.”
“We could be related to that miner,” Gem’s father said, steering the conversation further away. He turned to Ruby. “Your great-grandfather and your grandfather were famous jewelry traders. When I got married, I came back to take care of him and my mother. When your mother got married to your father, we never saw her again.”
Gem searched his father’s face for a bated breath, a wink, a cheeky smile—but got nothing. His father and Aunt had been inseparable growing up, and he never forgave her for getting married to Uncle Patichat, a lucky successful businessman, at such a young age. The table was so still and mute even the maids’ terrible singing in the kitchen was muffled.
“I’m not so bad,” Uncle Patichat finally said, pretending to wipe away fake tears.
“One time when I was your age, your grandmother told him to get a haircut,” Aunt Patichat said to Ruby. “Your uncle came back with exactly the same hair and your grandmother almost slapped him senseless. He didn’t know what to tell the barber. I had to take him back there and tell the barber what to do.”
“Gem,” his father said, “goes and gets his haircut all by himself.” He winked at his son.
“That’s because Ruby’s not here to take me,” Gem said.
His father shot him a look. His aunt and uncle chuckled small ha-ha’s that signified that Gem could no longer participate in their adult conversation.
“My baby girl doesn’t even know where her hairdresser is,” Aunt Patichat said, her smile a little too wide, a little too fake.
His mother rose from her seat. “I think it’s time for dinner,” she muttered, and walked out.
“Until I’m married, I’m taking care of everyone here,” Ruby said.
“Your husband will be taking care of you, sweetie, and until then, we’ll be taking care of you,” Aunt Patichat said, putting her hand on Ruby’s shoulder. “Are these the plates we got you guys last year? They still look brand new.”
“There was a parked car in the driveway when we came in,” Uncle Patichat said, looking to Gem’s father. “New one?”
His father answered, “the E-class Benz.”
“It’s very beautiful. How much was the down payment for that?”
“None,” his father said. “We bought it whole.”
Aunt Patichat slumped as though he had punctured her lung, “with what cash?”
“Not at the dinner table,” Uncle Patichat said. “The children are here.”
“Gem, do you want to take Ruby to check on your mother if she needs any help?” Aunt Patichat asked.
Gem decided to take the next precious minutes with Ruby in his own hands. If no one at the table backed him up, he would have to convince Ruby himself. He narrowed his eyes at his father before walking toward the kitchen. His aunt and uncle always jutted into his parents’ business. They were more than nosey, and Gem wished his parents would tell them that they meddled too much. Perhaps that was what the Patichats did, to distract the conversation from his arm, from both families, from Ruby. As they stood up, the Patichats reminded Gem to head straight to the kitchen.
Gem’s family wasn’t poor compared to the rest of the village, and he knew Ruby loved their house: large enough that Gem thought they could host over twenty families inside for a party. His mother always talked about decorating, but as the years went by, the house stayed empty. “What is the point of decorating when you’ll go abroad for college someday?” his mother had said. They owned a full sized bed in each room, each bed a little too short for Gem now, but he slept rounding his toes to keep his limbs under the blankets. Sometimes, the lights would go out and his mother blamed living in the countryside for uneven electricity but he knew that they were late on bill payments, again. Sometimes, their maids didn’t come into work, and his mother would exclaim that there was nothing for them to work on anyway. He knew they weren’t getting paid on time either. Gem wondered how long it would be until they moved into a smaller house where there would be fewer corners to hide in, where they would have to bump into each other and confront themselves on why none of them had the courage to tell Ruby the truth.
“I have something I want to tell you,” Gem said, taking Ruby’s hand as they walked out of the dining room.
“But isn’t Auntie expecting you?”
“It’s a secret, will you come with me quickly?”
They ran to the backyard, past mango trees, past plumerias, past tangerine trees that never bore any fruit, beside the stream, and watched the sky turn from light blue to orangey red, to purple, to night, where she asked, panting: “What is it?”
From there, they could see everything: the main kitchen where the maids cooked, steam billowing out of the windows, the garage with four spaces, where their imaginary cars were parked, the kennel, the house, and the backyard, surrounded by the river like a castle encircled by a moat, separating their home from the house next door. Gem never realized it would be this easy—telling Ruby. It was as if the adults knew he was doing this, and they let him, as though alleviating their own shame. If Ruby found out from Gem, they could scold and punish him, whereas if she had discovered her birthright on her own, they failed.
Gem unbuttoned his shirt and Ruby let out a small yelp. He shushed her and peeled it off his body, letting her see in all his glory where the gold began and stopped. Her face scrunched up and she let out a small sob, like a small, injured animal.
“I knew there was something you were hiding, except I didn’t know it went that deep,” she said, quietly. “Does it hurt?”
“No it doesn’t,” he lied.
“Can I touch it?”
Gem took her hand and placed it on his left arm, her fingers gripped around his elbow.
“It’s cold,” she said.
They peered into the river, their watery resemblance clear: faces flat as plates, long, gangly limbs, and shoulders that squared like wrestlers. Too tall for two tanned kids from Red Dirt. He wanted their reflections to rise up out of the center exactly as she was holding him, a mirror into a world he wished they lived in.
“There are hospitals in the city that will find out what your condition is exactly,” she said.
This euphemism scorched him. If she had known about his goldening, then why didn’t she ask about it before? Condition was exactly how the Patichats referred to it. His parents mimicked their words instead of protecting him. How swiftly they pandered to everyone else. How quickly they abandoned him. If Ruby followed suit, how soon will it be until she left?
“I am your brother,” he blurted. The words sounded foreign to him, a blubbering as though he was speaking underwater.
“Of course you are,” Ruby said. “We were raised together.”
“No, Ruby, I really am your—”
“I know my parents have been helping. You’re like family”
“Ruby, they’ve known about it all long. We’re related and you might get this too.”
Gem twisted and realized she wouldn’t believe him because how could he prove it with just words? He recognized his forlorn face in hers, searching for the right thing to say. They shared so many similarities yet Gem couldn’t believe how pathetic his reflection looked.
“I’m glad you showed me this,” she said. “I was hoping you would.”
All he saw in her eyes was fear. Fear and shock. He saw his mother and father, and their eyes, their tears.
“Your parents have been paying for all of my medical bills,” he said.
“They didn’t want you to worry about me.”
“Why wouldn’t they tell me?”
“They didn’t want you to think you would get it too.”
He couldn’t answer anything that came up next. He didn’t have a plan. He felt hot and embarrassed, because why would she believe him? She was too good for them, living in the city with her parents, going to top schools, eating fine food, traveling to beautiful places. He wondered if she thought of him when she journeyed home, sitting in the back of her car, sleep coming slowly, the dusty road turning into concrete highways with brightly lit buildings that reached the sky.
“Don’t tell them I told you,” he said, putting his shirt back on. “Not today, okay?”
“But if they already know—”
He grabbed her by her shoulders a little too hard and she gasped. He watched tears stream down her cheeks.
“If you say anything, I’ll call you a liar.”
“You’re hurting me.”
She didn’t object. Surprised by his sudden move, she started to sniff. He knew he scared her but didn’t know what else to do, just like his parents and the Patichats had scared him for many years because they didn’t dare confront themselves. Guilt may have dragged him to her like a magnet, but shame would be the true weight in keeping her quiet.
“I’ll hit you,” he said, feeling for the very first time, what it meant to be the son of his parents.
In the back, his mother ran the kitchen like a tyrant, stacking up plates to be cleaned. When Gem went out to call her, to let her know the guests were waiting, she nodded and returned to ordering the maids to add more pork bones to the soup. The apron clung to her curvy frame, her shiny hair swooped back by a band on her forehead as she ordered for: More cilantro. More onions! Cut up the watercress! Take out those extra goji berries, they’ll heat up our guests’ from the inside out. We don’t want them to break out in hives! Their maids, weary and obedient, followed her every command; backs crouched stirring the pots on the stove, hunched over chopping boards, the butcher’s knife smashing mounds of garlic and peppers, and sprinkling more salt into the soup.
“That’s our daughter,” his mother said out loud to their maids. “They’re sending her away, our little girl.”
“But they rightfully adopted her,” one of the maids answered. “She’s theirs. They take care of her as though she was one of them.”
Gem begged them to speak in hushed tones. Everything was unraveling, but he didn’t want to bring Ruby into the room like this. Her parents were still there, his parents were acting up, and it was still his birthday.
“She’ll be back for the holidays,” his father had said earlier this morning. “And we still have the boy.”
The boy. Gem kept repeating that in his mind. The boy. As though it meant more to be one.
“One year we got all our mortgage paid for. Then, we got all our bills and everyone’s salaries paid for. The next, we get broken plates?” his mother turned back to the maids. “Now they want to send her away without even asking us what we think—when are we going to see her again?”
He wanted to raise his voice: “See her again? You barely saw her in the first place!” For the many years that he envied Ruby, that he wished he had her happy little life, he realized that he couldn’t let his parents kowtow to the Patichats anymore. He didn’t know what to make of this exchange. His parents knew where to go to be fed. Their house, their cars, this life—all bought—by wretched, rotten gold. Over the years, they fought about how much money they needed this time from his aunt and uncle, because his father lost another contract, or because his mother needed to show off more to her friends, and for the first time, Gem realized what it was like to lose his faith in his parents. His heart would never go back to being whole, even when soldered with gold, and Ruby would split into two if she found out that her real parents—her real family—were unwilling to provide for themselves. That they would rather profit from the Patichats’ guilt. You can’t be mad that she doesn’t know you’re not her parents, he wanted to say to his mother, with her back turned to him, with their maids cooking. Because you gave her up. But I’m right here, and even that’s not enough.
Gem and his mother came back into the dining room with the entrées. Ruby’s eyes were still red and she ignored him. She rose from her seat to serve her mother the first bite of the fried catfish slathered in fish sauce, then the crunchy chow mein under the gravy, next spicy steak and mint salad—as though Aunt Patichat needed to approve before Uncle Patichat had his share.
His mother sat next to his father, making sure everyone’s plate had a bit of everything.
“I love Auntie’s soup,” Ruby said, her voice breaking. “Mom always gives me chicken noodle when I’m sick, but there’s something about this one that just makes me feel so good.”
“They don’t have the same kind of pork bone in the city,” Aunt Patichat said, unaware of Ruby’s tone.
Gem’s father asked Gem if he wanted to check on the dessert, but Gem dismissed him. He tried to figure another way to get Ruby out of the room.
His mother smiled, pink and flustered from hiding behind stoves all day.
“She packed the leftovers,” his father said. “She knows it’s your favorite, so she made it especially for you, and your parents will take the extra helpings home.”
“It’s my favorite too,” his mother said, loud enough only for Gem to hear.
Gem licked his spoon, gathering up courage to speak: “Why don’t you guys visit us more? Ruby can have this soup every day before she leaves.”
Ruby glared at him. The Patichats cast their eyes elsewhere—his parents mentioned how country food here wasn’t going to be as authentic abroad anyway—and continued serving their guests more soup.
Both families ate with gusto. After the initial clanging of plates and utensils, the adults started speaking.
“How’s the job hunt?” Uncle Patichat asked.
The Patichats busied themselves with work and in contrast, his parents stayed home all the time. His father claimed he quit trading several years ago to dedicate time to his family.
“Dedicate more time,” his mother had kept saying initially every few days, as if to remind him “dedicating more time” really meant loafing around the house.
“It’s not that easy,” his father replied. “With the way the stock market is going, the way—look, we got a little bonus from a share, so we spent it.”
“You should have saved it. You can’t afford to be frivolous.”
“Don’t talk to me like that, we’re blood—”
“Maybe there’s a more entrepreneurial side here I haven’t seen,” Uncle Patichat said, motioning at Gem.
“Gem,” his mother said. “Would you take Ruby and go check on the dessert?”
“I’m too full to stand up,” Ruby said quietly.
“You’re always talking down to me,” his father said. “When you needed our help, we gave it to you without any questions. Now we’re asking you for help, but not this, okay?”
Aunt Patichat rested her hand on Uncle Patichat’s shoulder and whispered something in his ear, while Gem took Ruby and backed out through the door.
“I like your new car,” Ruby said, pretending as though he never hurt her. “I think my dad’s just mad because we couldn’t park in the shade.”
“That’s not true. Your dad has every right to be mad, because that’s not our money, and we all know it,” he said.
They stood facing each other, and Gem thought about how lucky she was—to get presents, opportunities, and real love. She got the wealth of not knowing, of not having to hide, not having to avert eye contact or to wonder, what if it was me? Now he ruined that for her, and she would forever remember this day as the day her own brother burdened her with his problems.
He wondered how both their parents talked about money as if it were all they needed. It was as though his parents had traded Ruby, not realizing how precious she really was.
“Do you know why they gave me away and kept you?” Ruby finally said.
“What?” he said.
“Was I not someone they wanted to keep?”
“No, Ruby, you were just a baby.”
Ruby didn’t hear him. “Why didn’t I turn gold?”
Their feet brought them around the house; past the mango trees, past the plumerias, past the tangerine trees that he wished bore fruit, beside the stream, the sky now dark and he couldn’t show Ruby what it was like to be left behind.
“You didn’t do anything,” Gem said, sitting beside the river. “The problem is that you never did anything at all.”
“If my parents have been supporting your family all this time, then where is all the money going?”
He knew but he didn’t want to admit it. He was afraid she would agree with the Patichats, that Gem needed to pick up a shovel to dig for his family. Afraid of saying out loud that his parents did not do well with money. Afraid she would say she was ashamed of where she came from. He could only think of his father at dinner, purposely drunk, numbing the shame he felt when encountering the man he thought he would be, Uncle Patichat. He could see his mother, keeping herself in the kitchen, avoiding Ruby’s gaze at the table, too shy to reach out to the daughter she wished she knew.
“If my parents have been paying for your arm, why is it still cursed?”
“Cursed?” Gem said.
“Why is it you haven’t tried to help out with that arm?” She looked at him directly, her eyes dry. “Why aren’t you using it to the best of your ability to bring money back home instead of depending on my parents?”
Now he was ashamed. He knew the power names had. The last time the Patichats visited, his parents had called his goldening a miracle. The Patichats called it a curse. Ruby didn’t know about it. His life was nothing more than a cycle of repeated events where the only change was the accretion of gold in his body. Ruby’s reluctance to defend his goldening, her callous remark about how he should’ve used his goldening to help his family, and the word curse reversed how he felt about it. They shared more than a strange family with even stranger rules, and her words stung him as though every part of him turned gold, like being dropped in the middle of a frozen river.
Gem thought of plates that were broken and glued back together by gold. He wondered how long it took the artists to repair the broken parts. He was stupid to believe that Ruby knowing about his arm, about her origin, about herself would ruin everything. She could walk back inside, ask his parents why they gave her away and they would have nothing to say. Then she would ask them where the money had been going, and they could only point to their house, their maids, and their car. They would only have something broken to show her. The truth, once spoken out loud, could be denied or forgotten over time. But Gem had two choices to make before going back into the dining room: the first was easy for him. Go back into the dining room and demand his parents and the Patichats sort this out themselves. The second was harder and demanded growth. He was tired of pointing fingers. Tired of playing the victim. Tired of letting Ruby be the reason for their family’s discord. Neither of them played a part in their mess. He realized nothing would change in his reveal to Ruby—nothing he could control anyways. A small part of him felt shinier though. He had let himself, despite the gold, be seen.
He told her that he was excited for her new chapter. Maybe then he could run away with the circus, if such a thing existed. They could spend the next few years catching up, about the things that really mattered to him, now that the gold was out in the open. They could be brother and sister like they should have always been. He accepted the gold and could let it become such a part of him that he no longer saw it himself. When they got older, he could leave to be with her. If his entire body turned gold, she would get to keep him forever. Hopefully she’ll live near the water, in a mansion so large, with enough money for maids, and lights, and furniture, so that she could place him outside in a garden, a golden statue no longer holding onto the burden of its making, looking out into the horizon.
Ploi Pirapokin’s work is featured in Tor.com, Apogee Journal, the Bellingham Review, Fiction International, Cleaver Magazine and more. She has received grants and fellowships from the San Francisco Arts Commission, the Creative Capacity Fund, the Headlands Center for the Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, Kundiman and others. She holds an MFA in Fiction from San Francisco State University.