First Published on Chaleuria
031 – Grandpa? More like grandson.
After Xie Yu finished speaking, He Zhao didn’t say anything for a long time.
Just as Xie Yu thought the conversation would end, He Zhao suddenly said, “As for me. I’m damn suave.”
The two lay shoulder to shoulder on the quad, both their positions sloppy. They were so tired they didn’t have energy to expend on worrying about appearances. He Zhao lay spread-eagled and felt like his body temperature was several degrees higher than the surface of the quad.
Xie Yu didn’t have the energy to mock him; he was quite impressed by He Zhao’s thick skin. He moved his leg as if to kick him, but missed because He Zhao suddenly pulled himself into a sitting position.
He Zhao continued, “Really. Have you seen anyone more suave than me? In this world of people, to be able to meet someone like me…”
Xie Yu said, “You’re really something.”
He Zhao: “Even the pen spirit said there wasn’t anyone, no?”
Xie Yu remembered the evening self-study period when they’d summoned the pen spirit, and suddenly wanted to laugh.
“Of course there is. Who says there isn’t?” Xie Yu suddenly thought of playing a joke. He looked at He Zhao, then pointed at himself. “Your grandpa. Me.”
He Zhao: “Grandpa?”
Xie Yu answered, “Yes, grandson.”
“You, my ass. You’re taking advantage of me, aren’t you?”
After suddenly being diminished by two generations, He Zhao laughed and went for Xie Yu’s collar, pretending to be fierce. He didn’t control his strength properly, and he didn’t expect Xie Yu to just lie there and let him do what ever he wanted without retaliating.
He used too much force and pulled Xie Yu’s collar wide open.
Xie Yu’s complexion was pale and his skin was somewhat flushed after the run underneath the hot sun. That tinge of pink peeked through from beneath his pale skin; he was sprightly and slender, so beautiful it was alluring.
“Now who’s taking advantage of whom?” Xie Yu tapped He Zhao’s hand. “Let go.”
He Zhao let go, sat down, and stayed stunned for a while. Then he lay back down and forced out, “You… you have a good figure.”
Xie Yu replied smoothly, “Thank you, you too.”
The tangled thoughts in He Zhao’s mind ground to a halt and He Zhao almost forgot what he was annoyed about.
But he still felt hot; from his throat to his suddenly tight chest, there was a warmth he couldn’t describe.
It burned, a little.
He Zhao wasn’t sure what he was thinking of, either. His mind froze and, as if possessed by a ghost, he glanced down at his pants.
Xie Yu wasn’t aware that He Zhao’s thoughts, after taking several twists and turns, had run very far away. He lay down and looked up at the sky for a while and shut his eyes when he got sick of it.
The surroundings were quiet. He heard He Zhao’s breathing.
He also heard He Zhao’s heartbeat, overly fast, that still hadn’t slowed down.
A moment later, Xie Yu closed his eyes and asked, “Your heart is beating fast. Are you very tired?”
He Zhao wiped his face and wasn’t sure how to reply. “Ah, yes… tired from running.”
Luo Wenqiang had run about ten rounds and collapsed on the ground roughly half the courtyard away from them.
After resting, he went to the vending machine to get a drink, and picked up two more bottles for his running-crazed classmates on the way. He cut through the courtyard to He Zhao and Xie Yu. He squatted and passed them the drinks. “Wah, the two of you… fifteen rounds? You really ran fifteen rounds?”
The drinks were ice-cold, emanating a chill.
Xie Yu said, “Thank you.”
He Zhao sat up and took the drink. He twisted open the cap, angled his head back, and gulped more than half of it down. “Aren’t we impressive? Are you scared? He said fifteen rounds, so fifteen rounds it is.”
“Impressive, impressive.” Luo Wenqiang now revealed his intentions in coming over. “During the autumn sports meet, you two should run the long-distance event.”
He had changed the subject too quickly and He Zhao couldn’t react in time. “Ah?”
This was the first time someone had invited Xie Yu to participate in a team event. Long-distance was fine, but Class 3’s gym rep really was overenthusiastic: if the sports meet went ahead as planned, it was still more than a fortnight away and they hadn’t even been informed what time it would happen.
But Luo Wenqiang shook his head and said, “Ah, life passes by in the snap of a finger.”
Xie Yu: “……”
He Zhao: “…..” Bro, you’re too enlightened for us.
After chatting for a while, they got up and went back to the classroom.
As they walked down the corridor they noticed several classes were in uproar. The calm facade wasn’t sustainable and erupted into chaos.
“So noisy.” Passing by class 8, they noticed that Shen Jie and some others were singing karaoke. He Zhao stuffed one finger in his ear in order to avoid the direct assault and said, “Why is our classroom the only one with the blinds shut so tight? And so silent? Not our usual style, at all.”
As He Zhao spoke, he pushed open Class 3’s back door.
A movie was currently playing on the big screen and it was about halfway through.
Class president Liu Cunhao had made the sacrifice of sitting beside the podium; the moment there was any movement outside, he’d move the mouse and turn the movie off.
“You scared me.” Seeing who came through the door, Liu Cunhao pulled the movie up again. “I wondered who it was. Come on, let’s keep watching. If you want to place bets, go to Wan Da. No take-backs once you’ve bet.”
The blinds were shut so tightly there wasn’t a single crack for light to peek through. The lights were all off, too. They’d really created the atmosphere of a mini-theater.
Xie Yu didn’t understand. “What are you doing?”
“We’re guessing who the murderer is.” Wan Da introduced the movie to them. “This is a mystery-suspense. Fifty cents a bet. Placing a wager, sir?”
“No, no. This isn’t fair to me and Old Xie. We don’t even know what happened in the first half.” He Zhao then gave praise: “But I have to admit, you have good business sense.”
The class celebration didn’t last even half an hour before Dean Jiang broke it up himself. “All right! In the time it took me to mark the exam papers, you all tried to overturn the sky?!”
Mad Dog grumbled all the way from class 8 to here. “Class 8 treats their classroom like a KTV, and you all use it as a movie theatre. Very creative, all of you! Do you even know what grades you got? How can you be so happy and excited?!”
He Zhao bent close to Xie Yu’s ear and said, “Either way, we’re about to die. Might as well die happy.”
Dean Jiang pointed at the last row. “What are you talking about with your heads so close together? Fifteen rounds wasn’t enough?”
He Zhao was about to say, “We weren’t talking,” when his good deskmate straight-up back-stabbed him. Xie Yu repeated what He Zhao had said just now.
The whole class broke into laughter.
“If you have a death wish, then I’ll grant it for you.” Dean Jiang was furious beyond belief. “He Zhao, you get out of class. Stand in the hallway.”
He Zhao was used to it, and scampered off with the ease of much practice.
Dean Jiang still seemed to have several mini-essay rants in him. After sending He Zhao outside to await his punishment, he kept talking at class 3. Outside, He Zhao got tired of standing and took several steps back toward the classroom. He leaned against the doorframe of the back door and chatted with Xie Yu. “Little friend, you’re not very loyal.”
Xie Yu returned the courtesy: “You’re very annoying.”
“……As for the phenomenon of live-in students being late, we’ve thought of a method to cure you.” Dean Jiang had talked all the way from classroom decorum to lateness. “Starting tomorrow morning, all the students here will feel a new wake-up force.”
A wake-up force.
Right now, they were very much feeling the force of someone wanting to kill.
The next morning, a deafening broadcast rang through the dormitory building. The tune of ‘Loyalty to the Country’ exploded into everyone’s ears.
“When the fiery smoke rises I look at the vast land towards the north， the roaring of the dragons and neighing of the horses~”
“I am willing to station here and re-claim my land, The mighty China should be~”¹
Passion permeated the blustering song, so magnificent and ambitious it could reach the clouds! It was enough to awaken hot-blooded patriotism within every man of this country! The newly awakened sense of duty and passion for learning was set to boiling!
At six in the morning, the dormitory building erupted.
They climbed out of their beds, so hurried they didn’t even bother putting on their slippers. They pulled open their doors and said in tacit synchrony, “Fuck!”
“What’s going on? What’s happening? It’s six in the morning, will you let us sleep?”
“Who the hell is playing music?!”
He Zhao pulled his blankets back up, preparing to endure through the length of the song.
Eventually, he succumbed to the headache brought on by this blaring broadcast and the many-layered curses and complaints outside his door. He couldn’t take it any longer and pushed himself up. “…What the hell.”
After a night’s sleep, the aftereffects of running 15 laps yesterday now all rushed forth. He had injured his ankle not long ago and the stress of intensive long-distance running had taken its toll.
He Zhao scratched at his hair, got out of bed, put on his slippers, and stumbled slowly to his door. He pulled open his dorm room door and yelled, “So annoying. Loyalty to the Country? Yeah, really.”
He Zhao’s voice wasn’t loud but it was distinctive. He always lifted his voice up at the end and it always carried a note of casual teasing.
Someone saw him and stopped complaining. “Morning, Zhao-ge.”
He Zhao didn’t say anything, only waved to the person as he yawned. Then he stumbled over to the door opposite his and stopped. With a ‘go through thick and thin together’ mentality he knocked on the door and called out to Xie Yu, “Old Xie, rise and shine, Old Xie… He can even sleep through this?”
He Zhao’s hair was in disarray and he hadn’t straightened his clothes, either. After knocking for a while with no response, even, ‘Loyalty to the Country’ had also stopped playing. He was about to go back and catch up on sleep when the door in front of him opened with a creak.
“Are you fucking done or not.” Xie Yu pulled the earplugs from his ears and leaned against the doorframe, looking at him. “Out with it, quick.”
Heedless of whether Xie Yu welcomed him in or not, He Zhao shot by him and into the room. “Looking for you so we can get breakfast.”
Xie Yu didn’t shut the door, only stood in the doorway looking at him. His eyes were clearly yelling, ‘Get out.’
He Zhao just pretended he hadn’t seen anything.
Although the song had stopped broadcasting, Dean Jiang’s speech had only just started. “Hello, hello? Can you hear this? Ah, good. Good morning, students! It’s said that all plans are best started in the morning…”
He Zhao was straight-up shocked. “Damn it, he’s not done?”
Xie Yu lifted a hand and rubbed his temple.
This way, he wouldn’t be able to sleep even if he wanted to. He might as well shut the door and go shower.
“That math exam from yesterday. Really. The math teachers were so touched they cried.” Xie Yu was brushing his teeth; He Zhao stood in the doorway to the private bathroom, leaned against the wall, and shot the breeze. “Just wait for him to praise me. I’ve never had such a hot hand doing exams in my life. I knew every answer…”
Xie Yu finished brushing his teeth and got some water from the sink, splashing it on his face.
Just as He Zhao said, “This time I’ll definitely pass,” Xie Yu finished wiping his face and tossed the towel right on He Zhao’s face.
It would have been fine if he hadn’t mentioned it. Just thinking about the monthly exam made Xie Yu annoyed. He thought: Like hell you’ll pass.
“What’s this.” He Zhao pulled the towel from his face. “Got up on the wrong side of bed?”
Xie Yu put his hand by the side of his zipper and pulled it down a little. It was clear what he was about to do. “Close the door and get out of the way.”
“What’re you shy for? We’re all guys here.”
Although He Zhao said this on the surface, he still obligingly turned and walked towards the desk.
Xie Yu unzipped his fly and ignored him.
Yesterday afternoon, during the math exam, Xie Yu had asked He Zhao how he had answered in order to adjust his own answers accordingly.
The exam had been comprised mostly of the after-class assignment questions with some small modifications, such as changing a 10 into a 20. Scoring too low would make him look like an idiot.
When He Zhao had said he’d done pretty well, he had actually believed it.
After all, He Zhao wasn’t completely inattentive during class. Since the last time he had provoked the math teacher, he hadn’t had a good time in math class; he couldn’t use his phone, so he had to keep his eyes fixed on the blackboard.
Who knew if he’d actually understood. He ran his mouth all the time anyway: “So that’s it. So simple. Do you get this question? I got it.”
Got it my… hammer.
When the papers were being collected, Xie Yu had glanced at He Zhao’s answers and discovered that He Zhao had thoroughly betrayed his trust.
He Zhao walked around the room twice then sat on Xie Yu’s bed.
Xie Yu finished going to the toilet, then cleaned the whole bathroom on the way. After he finished washing his hands, he saw that He Zhao—He Zhao who had so much free time to come knocking on his door and who was yelling about eating breakfast—had lain down on his bed and fallen asleep again.
The hem of He Zhao’s shirt had ridden up. He looked tall and skinny but he had everything he ought to.
There were prominent lines of muscle where his waist met his abdomen, rising and falling with his breathing. But teenage youthfulness diluted their striking effect some.
He Zhao’s face was half buried in the blanket.
Xie Yu twisted his wrists to exercise the joints. He wanted to punch someone.
The monthly exams were over. Regardless of how they did, everyone had gone back to the state of relaxation they called ‘loving living life.’
The students filing through the school gates were occupied chatting about celebrities and idols and yesterday night’s TV drama episode. Mad Dog was hot on the heels of the morning bell and stood at the gates to catch latecomers.
The teachers at Erzhong graded assignments efficiently. In the evening, they took the papers home and worked overtime to grade them, so they could give out grades the following day.
Wan Da squatted outside the faculty office for an entire class period, head turned to one side with his ear pressed against the door. When Tang Sen pulled open the door to throw out his rubbish, he stood up suddenly, turned, and ran for the toilet to hide.
“Wait up.” Tang Sen wasn’t blind and he beckoned to Wan Da. “Come over here.”
When Tang Sen took the job, he had heard the other teachers say this student was fond of listening around corners; today, he had witnessed it for himself. With a trash bag in his hand he took several steps forward and asked, “What did you hear?”
Wan Da said, “Our class is the bottom of the barrel. The first and second in the year are both in our class… first and second from last, that is. Class 2’s average is the highest and someone scored full marks in math. Xu Qingqing did well in English… the literature teacher from next door is getting married next month.”
Inside, Tang Sen had only glimpsed Wan Da’s head; who knew he’d actually heard this much. “Your ears are pretty sharp. How many ears do you have, exactly? What else did you hear?”
Wan Da: “That’s all. Report complete.”
Seeing that it was about time to start class, Tang Sen figured there wasn’t time to instruct him, either. “If you have free time, read a book. Now, go to class. Right—tell He Zhao to come by my office at noon.”
Wan Da hurriedly agreed.
Tang Sen took several more steps then turned around, paused, and said, “……Tell Xie Yu to come, too.”
In the classroom.
He Zhao sat in his seat and kept playing the low-stakes pen-and-paper game that he and Xie Yu hadn’t determined a winner for during last class period: 5 in a row. At the end of last literature period they were at a 2:2 draw.
He Zhao was very good at logical thinking and thought very strategically. Every time Xie Yu was about to link five stones together, He Zhao always managed to stick a foot in and break the line. Considering He Zhao’s intelligence level, Xie Yu wasn’t sure if this was accidental.
Wan Da came back to class hot on the heels of the bell. “Zhao-ge, Yu-ge, Old Tang told the two of you to go to his office at noon. The two of you… how do you get last in the year every time?”
On hearing this, He Zhao knew that Wan Da had eavesdropped on the exam results. He put down his pen and asked, “What position from last was I?”
Xie Yu had already guessed the outcome and didn’t even look up.
Exactly as expected, Wan Da said, “Last. And your math score was only ten points.”
He Zhao seemed to have sunk so deep into his dreams of passing, he couldn’t extricate himself. When he heard the words ‘ten points’ he was a little surprised. “Just one step away from single digits?”
Wan Da said: “Right?? Extraordinarily impressive. Dragged our whole class average down two points.”
As Wan Da finished, he discovered that He Zhao seemed a little down. He asked, “What’s the matter, Zhao-ge?”
“Ignore him. He hasn’t fully woken up,” Xie Yu said. “Still waiting for the math teacher to praise him… Go back to sleep. Everything you want is in your dreams.”
Wan Da felt that, as of late, he’d more or less gotten to know Xie Yu, so he spoke directly: “Yu-ge, you scored 20. About the same, just as bad.”
Xie Yu: “……You asking to get hit?”
He Zhao laughed out loud, getting louder all the time.
In the afternoon, Tang Sen quickly finished earing lunch, rushed back to his office, and waited for the two students who occupied last place and second-to-last place to come to see him.
He had written up several speech outlines, but in the end he decided to improvise.
“Mr. Tang, they’ve been like that since first year in high school.” Several other teachers in the vicinity had watched Tang Sen spend a long time going over the monthly exam papers for these two students, and they also heard that he had sent for them for an afternoon talk. “Just teach them normally. They really will not listen, and there’s nothing you can do. I’m not telling you to give up on them or anything, but these two… really, there’s no way. No way.”
Tang Sen continued flipping through He Zhao and Xie Yu’s exam papers, and didn’t agree with or refute the other teacher’s words. He didn’t think that he was doing a thankles job at all. He said, “I am teaching normally—giving my best effort. I haven’t yet given my best effort.”
More than ten minutes later, the two of them arrived and knocked in succession. “Reporting in.”
Tang Sen closed the textbook in his hands. “Come in.”
It wasn’t hard to guess why Tang Sen had sent for them; doubtlessly, it was to chastise them for their grades. In first year of high school, all the subject teachers had sent for them in this way. It was just a chat, and after the chat things would still be the same as they were.
He Zhao had a relaxed air about him. He probably encountered such situations often.
“The two of you, sit.” Tang Sen put their exam papers on the desk. “I want to ask you both. What do you find difficult about these topics? If you tell me, we can solve it together.”
In other words, ‘How on earth did you two get such bad grades?’
Xie Yu couldn’t give a reason. He knew the right answer, so he avoided it completely. He was worried he’d shock Mr. Tang if he said it.
This time, it was He Zhao who replied smoothly, “Everything is difficult.”
“He Zhao, just a little while ago I praised you to your form teacher for doing all right in math class.” As they spoke, the math teacher finished his lunch and walked in, toothpick still in hand. “Why were your exam results like this?”
He Zhao didn’t answer.
Xie Yu answered on his deskmate’s behalf: “In class he thought he understood, too.”
This time, it was the math teacher who wasn’t sure how to reply. He shook his head and returned to his seat. “You… the two of you are really something.”