First Published on Chaleuria
026 – A Man’s Quest
During evening self-study, Wan Da again mentioned his plan with great fanfare and a mysterious air.
“What about it? Do you want to add some color to your bland weekend life? What on earth is going on in the dormitory building? Aren’t any of you curious at all? Shouldn’t people, being alive, rise to the challenge and confront the unknown? Come on, can someone answer me? I feel like I’ve been left out in the cold.”
Xie Yu looked at the stragglers left in the classroom. Aside from himself, He Zhao, and Wan Da, there were only two boys who didn’t talk a lot in class.
Throughout the spiel, Xue Xisheng hadn’t looked up at all, as if he hadn’t heard anything.
He was still wrestling with an especially difficult question. He was completely immersed only in studying, and nothing around him could draw his concern.
The other boy was Ding Lianghua. When he answered questions, he sounded like a mosquito. His personality was quiet and he seemed especially timid. Wan Da had heard that Ding Linghua had a mild social disorder, but he didn’t know if the rumor was true.
Only Xu Qingqing responded to let him down gently. “Little bro Da, although big sis is very interested… it’s pointless. It’s the boys’ dorm.”
Wan Da: “So what if it’s the boys’ dorm? As long as you’re willing, you can be my big bro Qing anytime.”
“…” Xu Qingqing tossed an eraser at him. “Go and die.”
Wan Da felt that reality was too far from his ideal. The ghostbusting team he had envisioned wasn’t like this.
He hadn’t the courage to bother Xue Xisheng so he could only go and bug Ding Lianghua.
He sat in front of Ding Lianghua and noticed Ding Lianghua shudder.
Wan Da scooted forward and Ding Lianghua dodged backward. “Bro, what do you think? I’ll say again—this is a man’s quest.”
Ding Lianghua: “……”
Ding Lianghua wasn’t great at communicating with others, and after listening to him hemming and hawing for a long time, Wan Da still wasn’t sure if he was going or not. It took a lot of effort to hold this conversation.
Xie Yu was shooting the breeze with Zhou Dalei.
Dalei sent him a photo of a fat orange cat and a kitten. The little fellow was adorable, with a coat of fine soft fur, and the two cats looked into the camera with identically tilted heads.
The background was Dalei’s home balcony.
Zhou Dalei: Didn’t see her for a few weeks and she went to give birth! He looks exactly like Fatty. I’m calling him Tubby!
Xie Yu smiled and hit save.
The fat orange cat was the communal pet of Black Water Street, her origins a mystery.
She hadn’t been that fat when she first arrived. She had been skinny, her bones jutting out in hills and valleys against her skin. She must have been a stray for a long time; she hid when she saw anyone and no one knew where she usually slept.
Many dogs and cats passed through Black Water Street. Aunt Mei and Aunt Lei often gathered their leftovers, including fish bones if there were any, put them into steel bowls they didn’t often use, and left them by their doors.
Time passed, and the orange cat made her home in Black Water Street.
This orange cat had personality. She didn’t eat white rice. If she ate dinner at someone’s house, she’d stay the night and catch mice for that household. She was very thorough about catching them and even brought the mouse corpses to the doorway and arranged them in a neat row.
Zhou Dalei: My mom’s put down blood money. She cooked a fish specially for her and said that for the few weeks she wasn’t here, the house felt unclean… Aunt Wang from next door cooked one too. One of them made steamed fish and the other made barbecue, like they’re competing for who keeps Fatty tonight.
Xie Yu: You should reflect. Why is a cat’s life better than yours?
Zhou Dalei: ……
Wan Da hovered around Ding Lianghua for a long time. Maybe because he found Wan Da annoying, Ding Lianghua finally nodded.
He Zhao was still thinking of escape routes. A dozen-odd excuses flashed through his mind in minutes, and when he learned that Ding Lianghua was going to be there, he said, “That guy? That guy who stutters when he has to say anything in class?”
Xie Yu didn’t have much of an impression of Ding Lianghua and didn’t say anything.
“Even he’s going.” He Zhao tossed aside his phone, kicked back in his chair, and felt his fighting spirit suddenly rise.
Xie Yu thought: Don’t think so little of him. I think he might be stronger than you.
When Wan Da walked to the last row to invite the two big bros, He Zhao slapped the desk. “A man’s quest! Whoever doesn’t go isn’t a man. No need to worry. Zhao-ge will protect you.”
Wan Da: “Zhao-ge, from today on, you and me are blood brothers. So suave! Really a man among men.”
Xie Yu immediately sneered.
The four arranged to meet that evening in He Zhao’s dorm room to wait for the knocking to start after midnight.
Xie Yu lived close to He Zhao and wasn’t in a hurry. He planned to do another mock exam, but after showering he received several calls from He Zhao loudly asking him to come over.
Xie Yu was still drying his hair, still dripping with water. “You’re so annoying.”
He Zhao said: “Come over quickly. Got a big treasure to show you.”
This person was really annoying.
Xie Yu slung his towel around his neck and crossed the corridor. He pushed open the door and said, “What do you want?”
“Almost done.” He Zhao was writing something and didn’t even turn his head. His movements were expansive. His handwriting was already bad and in combination with his exaggerated gestures, it was completely illegible.
Xie Yu drew closer and saw a long strip of paper on the desk, on which was written something curly and formless. In the center was a yin-yang symbol.
Xie Yu could guess what was happening. The hand drying his hair suddenly stilled. “This is…”
“Complete Guide to Exorcism’s most powerful tactic. Ghost Seal,” He Zhao said.
Xie Yu’s hair was wet and he wore only a simple T-shirt. His hand was rubbing a towel over his head. Looking at him, He Zhao mysteriously felt that Xie Yu’s eyes also seemed to be veiled in pools of still water: shining, and quite soft, but cold.
Xie Yu looked at the Ghost Seal for a long time and said, “Ah, you’re really awesome.”
Wan Da was the third person to arrive. He had changed into pajamas with a Spongebob Squarepants pattern. He carried a bag and held a flashlight in his hand.
“Zhao-ge, I’m here. Wah, Yu-ge, you’re here early.” Wan Da pushed open the door and entered. “I brought a flashlight. If you have one, you should bring it, too. If the ghost is powerful, it might knock out all the lights in the building.”
Xie Yu expressed his suspicion of this classic scene from a supernatural novel. “What makes you think a flashlight won’t be affected?”
Wan Da: “……” In the moment, he wasn’t sure what to say.
It was still early. The three of them, bored, got together to play a fighting video game.
There was only one chair in the room, so the only other place to sit was the bed. Wan Da didn’t dare touch He Zhao’s bed, so he turned his gaze to Xie Yu. “Yu-ge, do you want to get up? I… I want to sit on the chair.”
Wan Da very quickly discovered how awful it was to play video games with these two.
Xie Yu seemed to have the ability to pick out an ace within three draws. He did as he pleased and didn’t bother with his teammates at all. He Zhao ignored Wan Da, too. “I’ve got something good here. Old Xie, come over! Where are you? Come and get it.”
“Zhao-ge, I, I’m your teammate too,” Wan Da said, wanting to cry. “Throw me a bone! I’m so poor.”
Only then did He Zhao look at Wan Da and give his teammate some attention. But after he looked at him, he said, “You’re too far away. Just do your best.”
Wan Da: “……”
Ding Lianghua only arrived when it was close to 11 o’clock.
“Thought you weren’t coming. Sit down.” He Zhao scooted over and patted the bed.
Ding Lianghua hadn’t interacted with He Zhao much, and now he stood in the doorway helplessly. Reflexively, he glanced at Wan Da, who realized what was happening and offered half his chair. “You want to sit on the chair, too? Come here.”
Ding Lianghua sat down carefully.
He Zhao couldn’t figure it out. “What’s wrong with the two of you?”
Xie Yu’s hair was more or less dry. He took the towel off and left it on He Zhao’s desk.
“Then let’s make our battle plan for tonight,” Wan Da said excitedly. “Come to think of it, Yu-ge, you pleasantly surprised me. I thought you wouldn’t come…” After all, he was so asocial.
“I’m here to see the show,” Xie Yu said.
It was pitch black outside the window and the dorm building was surprisingly silent.
Over the weekend, more than half the building’s occupants had left. Even the sound of one’s footsteps seemed to be louder than usual. Looking from one end of the corridor to the other to see the seemingly endless stretch of doors, one might even get dizzy.
Wan Da slowed his breathing and took the lead. He pushed open the door and walked out.
In this atmosphere, even the sound of the door opening seemed creepy.
He Zhao froze for a long moment, not moving.
“Let’s go, Zhao-ge, what are you doing?” Wan Da turned back and said.
Xie Yu was behind He Zhao, who was blocking the way, so Xie Yu couldn’t get out. He tapped his shoulder: “Protect me… Zhao-ge. You’re a man among men.”
He Zhao: “……”
He Zhao was very competent tonight. Maybe it was the Ghost Seal that brought him courage. After about half an hour of waiting, they grew bored and started chatting.
“Ding Hualiang, you…”
“His name is Ding Lianghua.”
“Sorry, I don’t really remember much about you.”
“But I’ll bet that Old Xie doesn’t even know your last name is Ding.”
With a smile, Wan Da asked Xie Yu whether he was only pretending to not know, giving him a way out of the awkward situation He Zhao had put him in. Then the faint sound of knocking came to his ear.
Everybody fell silent.
Just when Wan Da said, “Maybe we imagined it,” there was another thunk.
It sounded very far away.
Muted, like there was something in between them and the source of the noise. The sound traveled through the empty corridor and up the stairwell.
“Tonight, it’s not knocking on the third floor,” Wan Da said with a tremor in his voice. “It’s… it’s right below us.”
A long time from now, when Xie Yu reminisced about his high school life, he certainly wouldn’t forget tonight. The subsequent series of idiotic happenings and the dumb ending are secondary.
This giant idiot, who was so scared his hands were trembling, had stuffed the seal into his neighbor’s hand regardless.
He Zhao took the Ghost Seal with its messy scribbles and stuffed it into Xie Yu’s hand. The paper was already wrinkled and held lingering traces of the warmth from his hand. He Zhao was currently staring nervously in the direction of the stairs, and had done everything subconsciously. He patted Xie Yu’s head. “Don’t be afraid. Big bro will protect you.”
Xie Yu looked down at the piece of paper and was a little stunned.