First Published on Chaleuria
034 – ^_^
Gu Xuelan’s birthday was the day after tomorrow.
Xie Yu didn’t move back home, not because he couldn’t psychologically handle it, but because he couldn’t bear to leave the suitcase of study materials under the bed.
When He Zhao heard, he made a noise of acknowledgement, then followed up with an unthinking, “Happy birthday.”
He Zhao was clearly still about to say something like, “Stay healthy and may all things go your way,” but he had only just begun when he was mercilessly cut off by the ‘killer.’
“All right, that’s enough, thank you.” Xie Yu made a closing motion with his fingers in He Zhao’s direction. “Shut it.”
“That gesture really looks like an emoticon Shen Jie sent me.” He Zhao copied the motion, then spread his fingers again. “Open it.”
Xie Yu: “…Open, your head.”
He Zhao straight up didn’t know what literature homework Tang Sen had assigned just now.
He dithered in his seat a while longer, then tapped the shoulder of the classmate in front of him and borrowed his notebook to copy the assignment.
The guy sitting in front didn’t quite understand. Everyone in class knew that He Zhao didn’t do his homework, so he plucked up the courage to ask, “Are you going to do the homework?”
He Zhao said as he copied, “Just in case. Maybe? We’ll see what fate decrees. Maybe the homework from one class will look especially pleasing. When fate comes knocking, we can’t stop it.”
This was probably the first time the guy had heard such a seemingly serious discussion of ‘one’s compatibility with homework,’ so he sighed and let it go.
He Zhao copied it out twice and returned the notebook to the guy, then put one set on Xie Yu’s desk. “Take it. Maybe a miracle will happen.”
Xie Yu glanced down at the dogshit illegible handwriting and thought, I can’t even read this. If a miracle happens, there really are supernatural forces in the world.
He stacked the papers together. There was no immediate place to toss it, so he stuffed it into his pocket. Then he heard He Zhao ask, “When is your birthday?”
Xie Yu turned away; the sight of He Zhao vexed him, the hallway incident still a lingering shadow. A row of windows, and a neat row of heads sticking out and looking at them, expressions subtly stunned.
Wan Da had even covered his eyes, like it was an unbecoming sight.
He’d lived all this time and never had unflattering rumors passed around about him, but after meeting He Zhao he discovered that this world really was vast.
“Students staying in school over the weekend, please follow the dorm rules strictly.” Tang Sen found a chair and sat down. It looked like he was about to chat with them until school let out. “We must believe in science. Last weekend’s incident, I almost forgot—Wan Da, don’t look down—I really couldn’t tell that you had these thoughts.”
Settling the bill after the fact.
Their Mr. Tang had a very long memory.
Sometimes one believed he had really let it go. He’d wait until they had let down their guard and felt that the incident had passed. When the winds and water were both calm and the days passed peacefully, one would be grabbed by Mr. Tang for a lecture. “Ah, last month you—”
“Will you die if you spit it out?” He Zhao turned to look at Xie Yu and bent down to be on the same level as him. He reached out, thinking of touching his hair. “When’s your birthday?”
Xie Yu said, “Yeah, I’ll die.”
He Zhao didn’t keep pressing. Not even a few minutes later, the question turned from birthdays to, “Which year were you born? You’re definitely smaller¹ than me.”
Xie Yu was currently very sensitive to the word ‘small,’ for instance, He Zhao’s use of ‘little friend.’
So Xie Yu sat up, face dark, and retorted, “How am I small? Which fucking part of me is small?”
So the two compared their birth years; He Zhao was older than him by two whole years.
“Call me big bro,” He Zhao said, smiling. “I said you were smaller and you didn’t believe me.”
Xie Yu kept having the feeling that He Zhao was setting traps for him.
He Zhao put his legs up and leaned back. Under him, the front legs of his chair lifted off the ground. His posture was languid, and his center of gravity was shifted backward so that he looked unsteady.
He Zhao looked up and ahead, gaze passing through the backs of his classmates’ heads and landing on the blackboard with several lines of neat writing. Tang Sen’s voice reciting the lesson suddenly grew far away.
After a beat, Xie Yu heard He Zhao say lightly, “You had to be younger than me. I repeated ninth grade.”
Xie Yu’s first reaction was: No wonder no one said he cheated, going to high school with these grades.
Last year, Xie Yu’s cheating story had spread through the whole year but He Zhao hadn’t encountered a peep at all.
So He Zhao had repeated the year.
That would explain it. A slacker whose grades sucked—repeating a year plus dogshit luck—that’s how he’d touched the tail of high school.²
Xie Yu looked at He Zhao’s languid posture and twisted the pen in his hands, his fingers spinning it in circles.
He Zhao’s 10-point math exam still lay on his desk. He had done his corrections, but he had done them two lines at a time before zoning out for a little while, and on top of his sloppy writing, the whole picture was messy.
Xie Yu was curious. “How many years did you repeat?”
He Zhao said, “One. What about it?”
Xie Yu said, “Nothing. I thought that the way you are you might have repeated three.”
He Zhao was irked by these words. “What do you mean, the way I am? Aren’t you the same? Mr. Second-from-last, can you look at your own grades before talking?”
The dismissal bell rang as they were speaking.
Everyone cheered, and Wan Da stood on his chair and waved his exam paper. “We’re free! We’re free, comrades!”
Tang Sen cut off mid-lecture, shook his head, stood up, and left one last line: “Student on duty today, please clean the classroom before leaving.”
Xie Yu didn’t have many things to pack up and He Zhao was staying in school over the weekend so he stayed in his chair and kept rocking. He even leaned back and waved: “Little friend, bye-bye.”
Xie Yu didn’t reply. As he passed behind He Zhao, he kicked him, simple and clean. “Call me that one more time and see what happens.”
He Zhao instantly lost his balance. Seeing he was about to fall backward, chair and all, he fortunately reacted quickly and fell with the most suave posture possible. He flung out one hand toward the ground to support his weight. “Fuck it.”
The chair fell alongside him, crashing into the floor with a loud bang.
Wan Da waved the exam paper for a while, then on impulse, folded it into a paper airplane, put it to his mouth and blew on it. “—Go forth! Fly free, little bird.”
Liu Cunhao saw him, and folded up the math paper on the desk. “Da-da, I’ll show you an even more formidable one.”
Tang Sen had only gotten to the door and the class was already in an uproar. He put both hands behind his back, holding his medicinal herbal tea, and said thoughtfully, “Young people really are hot-blooded.”
Xie Yu didn’t take anything with him. He was just going home to sleep for two nights before coming back to school.
Gu Xuelan, on the other hand, was attentive. “Just bring a bag and your homework with you. We have everything else at home.”
“Got it. I know what to do.” All Xie Yu had on him, aside from his phone and some money, was the miracle assignment note he had forgotten to throw out.
After leaving the school gates and making sure there wasn’t a Zhong-family chauffeur waiting in a luxury car at the gates, Xie Yu walked toward the bus station.
“It’s so hot but you refused to let anyone come get you and insisted on crowding with people under the hot sun,” Gu Xuelan said. “Be careful on the road.”
Xie Yu made a noise of acknowledgement and hung up.
Xie Yu didn’t have many feelings on the subject of birthdays. In his recollections, there were no birthday cakes, happy surprises, or scares. It wasn’t much of an event.
There had only been a bowl of piping hot noodles.
To save money, Madam Gu didn’t celebrate her own birthday, but every year on Xie Yu’s birthday Madam Gu would cook him a bowl of noodles.
After eating it, he’d feel warm all over. He couldn’t say why, but he felt that it warmed him.
Zhong Jie, on the other hand, came back on weekends. In university, he either stayed in school or accompanied Zhong Guofei to the office as an assistant. Very soon, he would take over the company.
Xie Yu had been in the Zhong family for three years and hadn’t stirred up anything. He was quiet, and everyone understood that he was a mediocre individual who could not be lifted up. Zhong Jie disliked him, but was also secretly somewhat thrilled.
The moment Xie Yu stepped through the door, Zhong Jie asked in an odd way, “I heard you did quite well on your exams this month?”
Xie Yu changed his shoes, one hand supporting his weight against the shoe rack. He looked down so his expression couldn’t be made out. “That’s too much praise.”
Gu Xuelan walked out of the living room. She knew her son was coming back today and Zhong Jie was there, too, so she had done the cooking herself and made many dishes. “Food is ready. Quick, come over and eat.”
Zhong Jie sat on the sofa and sneered. Who knew what he was laughing about.
Maybe it was He Zhao’s influence, but Xie Yu found that his temper had gotten much better. Under this situation of ‘you’re angry, but I’m not,’ this meal actually passed in peace.
And Zhong Jie found that Xie Yu had become much harder to antagonize. He had gone from ‘exploding at a touch, retaliating with cold words’ to ‘ignoring him and treating him like air.’
After the meal, Gu Xuelan took Xie Yu to make several plates of fruit for him to bring upstairs for them to eat.
Xie Yu washed the fruits with her. The two of them crowded in the kitchen and the water splashing on his hands was cold.
They didn’t talk much. A question here, an answer there, and then they sank into silence.
Xie Yu washed the last apple and handed it to Madam Gu.
“Bring this plate up to your Uncle Zhong,” Gu Xuelan said. “He’s been especially busy with company matters for a few days. After coming back, he only eats a few mouthfuls before going to the study.”
Zhong Jie was also in the study on the second floor. When Xie Yu got to the doorway, he heard heated quarrelling inside—especially Zhong Guofei’s somewhat muffled helpless and frustrated voice.
“I do everything for your sake, but what about you?! Can you spare a thought for me? Your Aunt Gu spends her days with me and I’m very grateful to her.”
Then came Zhong Jie’s hoarse words: “Then what about my mother—?! Where has she gone? In this household, what is she, and what am I?!”
This topic again. Who knew how it had come up again. Three years and it still went on.
Xie Yu thought their conversation noisy. He looked down, speared a small piece of apple with a toothpick, and put it in his mouth. It tasted a little sour.
Gu Xuelan heard the sounds of quarrelling from upstairs. She didn’t even wait to wipe off her hands before heading upstairs to mediate the fight.
“Don’t go.” Xie Yu stood in the doorway to the study, the plate of fruit in one hand, the other holding Gu Xuelan’s arm. “Let them fight. Let them fight all they want.”
How could Gu Xuelan just leave it be? She hurriedly pushed open the door and went in.
It would be another night without peace.
Xie Yu stood under the showerhead, soaked to the skin. He closed his eyes and tried to ignore the noise from outside.
He lifted a hand and wiped his face, then turned off the water, pulled open the shower door and walked out. Water slid down his hair and over his back then landed on the tiled floor. The refraction of light from the warm bulb overhead gave it a splash of color.
Before tossing his dirty clothes in the laundry hamper, Xie Yu went through his pockets for anything he had forgotten out of habit. He touched a piece of paper folded into a square.
On it was He Zhao’s higgledy-piggledy scrawl, as if the pen nib was about to fly off. Words he’d never be able to find in the wild.
Xie Yu looked at it for a long time and couldn’t make out a single word.
He flipped the piece of paper over and discovered a smiley face drawn on the back. The curved mouth tailed off in an upward stroke and looked rather rascally.
Xie Yu looked a moment longer, then leaned against the wall beside the bathtub and smiled.