First Published on Chaleuria
029 – “What am I like?”
“Mr. Tang, turn off the fan,” Xu Xia said as she picked up the exam booklets. “…It’s too noisy. The listening section of the English exam later will be affected.”
Tang Sen nodded and walked over to turn off the fan.
Xu Xia held the booklets in her hands. If she were to only lower her head slightly she would be able to see the underside of He Zhao’s desk.
Seeing Xu Xia about to stand up, Xie Yu snatched his hand back like he’d been electrocuted.
He Zhao reacted more slowly. He watched Xie Yu look down and continue to answer questions, then blinked and closed his hand, once again enfolding the wad of paper within his fingers.
Xu Xia didn’t notice anything unusual.
After picking up the papers, she glanced around, then opened her book and kept reading.
Tang Sen noticed a student flipping through their book, trying to find the right word to fill in the blank. He stopped by the student’s desk and, without saying a word, rapped the desk in warning.
The fan slowed to a stop.
There were four people in front of Xie Yu and all of them were anxious. The answers hadn’t reached them yet. If they weren’t passed on, they wouldn’t have time to copy them.
The one at the head of the row finally couldn’t help himself and turned back to ask the student behind him, “…Where are the goods?”
The latter indicated he didn’t know and turned back, too. “Is it still with Zhao-ge? When will it get here?”
“Hurry him up. We can’t wait anymore. There’s no more time.”
The fourth student in line was tasked with a heavy responsibility, but he didn’t have the courage ask. Xie Yu’s legend circulated the school to this day. He suggested: “Maybe… we should show our true abilities…”
With the reality of having to rely on their own abilities sinking in, the four brothers-in-arms no longer expected to receive the answers. He Zhao, on the other hand, remained loyal. He waited several minutes, then poked Xie Yu’s back again. “The answers. Quick.”
Xie Yu bestowed upon him a single word: “Scram.”
“So cold,” He Zhao said. “Look up and take a look. Those four buddies. Look at their despondent and sorrowful backs. Don’t you feel a pang of conscience? Do you really not have any other thoughts in your heart?”
Xie Yu: “None of my business.”
He Zhao: “……”
“Ten minutes left. Use it well.” Tang Sen glanced at his watch and reminded everyone, “If you haven’t finished your essay, watch your time. You should be starting to write the conclusion now.”
As Tang Sen spoke, he turned and walked toward the podium.
During this window of time, Xie Yu didn’t turn back. He reached behind him; he didn’t fumble under the desk like He Zhao had. He openly placed his hand against the edge of He Zhao’s desk and said impatiently, “Answers.”
He Zhao froze for a second before recovering and dropping the wadded up paper ball into Xie Yu’s hand.
Once Xie Yu had the paper wad in hand, he tossed it towards the desks in front. It didn’t swerve or stray, and landed perfectly on the fourth classmate’s desk.
When He Zhao came to, he suddenly wanted to laugh.
He looked down. He’d long since finished his paper, so he rested his forearms on his essay. His hand covered his eyes, giving him a lazy look, and he internally said, This little friend only says ‘none of my business’… it’s rather cute.
Ten minutes later, the bell rang.
There were two exams in the morning; the second exam was an English exam. Nobody in this exam group was in a hurry to get their books and review. Aside from those who left to go to the washroom, everyone else handed in their papers and then waited in the classroom.
When the two invigilators finished collecting the papers and arranged them in order of exam number, the students stood in the doorway and waved to the both of them, shouting in unison: “Friend, friend, goodbye!”
The classroom descended into chaos, and someone who brought playing cards even started a game of Dou Dizhu.
“Coming, Zhao-ge?” the boy with the playing cards asked as he distributed the cards.
He Zhao stood up and waved his hand. “Not coming. You guys play.”
Xie Yu was still counting his marks, adding and subtracting on a piece of paper.
He Zhao walked to Xie Yu’s side and bent down to take a look. Before he could make anything out, Xie Yu flipped the scratch paper over with a bang.
“What’re you writing? So petty.” He Zhao wasn’t all that concerned. He changed the subject, asking casually, “Going to the toilet?”
Xie Yu couldn’t quite understand the mentality of group toilet visits. Were they unable to pee if they went on their own? So much damn nonsense. He put his pen down and jeered, “…What, do you need someone to hold it for you?”
Seeing his deskmate be so heartless, He Zhao touched his nose and went on his own.
He washed his hands and loitered outside for a while, saying hi to more than ten people on the way back. The way he greeted everyone, it was like the whole year consisted of his buddies.
“Zhao-ge.” Someone stuck their head out of a classroom to call him, leaning against the side of the window. “Long time no see.”
He Zhao slowed his footsteps, turned, and glanced at the sign on the classroom door. He leaned against the wall and responded. “Exam group 5? You’re pretty good, man. Your grades improved quite a bit.”
“Not at all, not at all. You know my measure best. Your grades are only as high as your courage. In the last exam, I just accidentally copied too much, that’s all.”
He pulled out a box of cigarettes as he spoke and made to pull one out to give. “Zhongnanhai.¹ Want one?”
He’d only pulled the cigarette out halfway when he suddenly cursed and shoved the box back.
Xu Xia walked past the window of classroom 7, high heels clacking.
After Xu Xia departed, he was about to take the box of cigarettes back out but He Zhao waved his hand: “I’m not smoking.”
He Zhao continued, “Quit.”
There were about ten minutes left until the start of the next exam.
He Zhao hadn’t returned to the classroom. He circled around to a deserted place near the faculty office, found an empty stairwell and sat down on the steps. He pulled a lollipop with an orange wrapper from his pocket, tore off the wrapping, and stuffed the candy in his mouth.
With the lollipop still in his mouth, He Zhao looked down and sent a text to Xie Yu.
It was a bad joke he’d read online. Bad and not funny. Even as he sent it he imagined what Xie Yu would say: Dumb, thumbs down, scram.
Before he’d sent it, the sound of footsteps approached. The clack clack of high heels.
He Zhao didn’t look up, but the person walking by stopped.
“He Zhao, what’s the matter with you?!” Xu Xia stood in the stairwell holding the exam booklets.
Since the incident with Yang Wenyuan, she’d held a grudge against He Zhao. In Xu Xia’s heart, Yang Wenyuan was an isolated incident of misjudgement of character. He Zhao’s image hadn’t changed in her eyes—a wayward delinquent with many bad qualities.
All of her anger came rushing out at once. She said, “What kind of place do you think the school is? Smoking in school? Just now in the corridor I shut one eye and didn’t reprimand you, and don’t you have any self-awareness? Look at you.”
In the corridor, she had seen someone handing He Zhao a cigarette, and now, in the stairwell, she saw him with something in his mouth. She hadn’t looked closely at all before jumping to the worst conclusion.
Xu Xia hadn’t finished speaking when He Zhao suddenly smiled.
The youth stood up, one hand pressed against the wall. He was tall and thin and pleasing to the eye. His uniform hung loosely on him, and through the movement and creases of his clothes, one could make out the line of his waist.
“I should be self-aware?” He Zhao was two heads taller than Xu Xia. He had originally had his back to her, and now he walked down a step and turned to face her. He said, “…I look like what?”
In He Zhao’s mouth, the lollipop was so sweet it was cloying, but the words he spoke weren’t nearly as nice. “Miss Xu, are your eyes rotten?”
Seeing that it was a lollipop, Xu Xia didn’t say anything more. She tried to avoid He Zhao and walked two steps forward, intending to go downstairs.
He Zhao blocked her way. “You’re in a hurry and I’m in a hurry. How about it. Apologize.”
“Apologize,” He Zhao said again. “And for last time, too. Apologize twice and then go.”
Xu Xia looked down on He Zhao in her heart. Of course she wouldn’t demean herself like that.
He Zhao smiled and said, “Is it so difficult? Teachers are supposed to lead by example. You did something wrong, and said something wrong. Can’t you even say the words, I’m sorry?”
Xu Xia stood on the spot silently.
Over the intercom, Dean Jiang again enthusiastically broadcast the announcements for the next exam. “Teachers, please check the settings for the listening comprehension section. We will play an English passage, so adjust the volume…”
Though He Zhao was smiling, there was disdain in his eyes. He emanated an aura that was both sharp and dangerous, as if all the energy he usually kept wrapped up in himself was now let loose, enveloping him.
Xu Xia felt a strong sense of pressure.
Just when she thought He Zhao was about to explode, the youth suddenly took two steps to the side and leaned against the wall, clearing the way for her.
He Zhao crunched the sweet in his mouth until only the stick was left.
Xu Xia froze for several seconds and walked past him. She walked down one flight of stairs and as she turned, He Zhao called out to her again: “Because my grades are bad?”
In the bend in the stairwell, Xu Xia angled her chin. From her vantage point she couldn’t see He Zhao’s expression.
He Zhao gripped the white plastic stick and said, “Because my grades are bad I’m, in your words… like what?”
Xu Xia suddenly felt like an invisible pair of hands had caught hold of her neck. She wanted to say something, but couldn’t speak.
The English exam was invigilated by Tang Sen and the history teacher from the class next door.
He Zhao was ten minutes late.
When he walked in, the whole class could tell something was off. Tang Sen was about to catch hold of him and ask him why he was late to the exam, but He Zhao didn’t make ‘I helped an old granny cross the road,’ excuses as he normally did. He stood in the doorway and only said one thing: “I’m late, am I barred from the exam?”
The question thoroughly stunned Tang Sen. “Ah… no, but next time…”
He Zhao walked straight past him to his seat.
“Fuck it, this…”
“He Zhao, he…”
“… What happened?”
“Exam booklets have been handed out. Turn to listening comprehension. It’s about to start,” Tang Sen said as he looked in He Zhao’s direction. He went over a second time an erroneous question he’d explained while He Zhao hadn’t been around. “Reading passage A, question 3, has two duplicate choices. Amend choice c to the one on the board.”
Xie Yu scooted back a little. “What’s gotten into you?”
He Zhao was aware that he’d come off badly just now; not only had he lost his temper, he’d even been childish in revealing his feelings. After venting, he had recovered and was much calmer. He scratched his head and said, “Nothing. Just a small matter.”
He raised his hand and said to Tang Sen, “Teacher, I’ll definitely watch out next time.”
The mood changed as quickly as a typhoon.
Tang Sen really couldn’t figure out this kid, either, so he just said, “All right, all right.”
By the time the exam was half over, He Zhao had finished writing. He was about to lie down and sleep, but the moment he dropped his head against his hand and shut his eyes, he heard two knocks from below.
He half-opened his eyes and didn’t move. “Little friend, what are you doing?”
Xie Yu tapped twice with his finger, making a clear sound. “Hand, underneath.”
He Zhao felt around underneath and felt a slip of paper.
He opened it up. There was only a question mark.
This was probably the highest form of concern from his cold deskmate.
He Zhao was good at counting his blessings.
He thought that if he picked up a pen right now, he’d be able to write a long essay on his feelings at being shown concern by the ‘emotionless killer,’ and it’d fill a whole sheet of paper. But when he picked up the pen, and the tip fell onto the paper and blotched it with ink, he paused, and only wrote four words:
—What am I like?