First Published on Chaleuria
045 – Cripple, jump.
“You think that with this, you think…” Lei Jun didn’t finish. He pulled out a carton of cigarettes from his pocket, took out a stick, lit it, then cursed, “Fuck.”
Lei Jun squatted and smoked the cigarette. After a while, he stood up and said, “What is this? To feel better about yourself? Don’t goddamn bother doing useless things… No use. I can’t let this go and I’m not letting this go. Don’t show your face in front of me again. Go around if you have to. I’m worried I won’t be able to stop myself from getting someone to beat you until you’re crippled.”
He Zhao wanted to say it wasn’t like that, but the words only made several rounds in his head and he couldn’t spit them out.
Lei Jun didn’t intend to keep talking, either. When he was done, he dusted his pants off and left.
He Zhao didn’t go straight back to the classroom. He went up to the sixth floor—the door to the rooftop was locked, but it was easily opened with a pin. Who knew what kind of locksmith had come up with this.
He pushed open the door and walked out. The wind on the roof was strong and blew his hair into a mess, and also brought him to his senses.
People would occasionally go up on the roof and in the corner were piled several crushed beer cans as evidence. A gust of wind rose, and the cans made a racket as they rolled around.
He Zhao lay on the roof, eyes fixed unblinkingly above him. He seemed to be seeing himself from the third year of junior high, and the strong, determined Fang Xiaolei, too.
“Nobody’s in the chem lab at this time, for sure.”
“Zhao-ge, didn’t the teacher say this experiment was very dangerous? If we slip in like that…”
“I’ve memorized all the steps from the video. It’ll be fine.”
“Where did you get the key?”
Many sounds circled by his ear, dragging him down into a bottomless depth.
Thick black smoke, choking him and making it hard to breathe.
The fire truck siren.
The frightened tone of the security guard who had placed the phone call.
And lastly, the stern voice of the woman interrogating them. “Who allowed you to go in and do experiments on your own? Miss Liu was in the adjoining office and we almost couldn’t save her. Who’ll take responsibility?!”
The matter blew up: a student had stolen the lab key and done chemistry experiments on their own. An accident had happened and someone had nearly died.
De Yu Middle School kept a tight watch on their chemistry lab and there was a small adjoining room that served as an office for the teacher on duty. Miss Liu had happened to be on duty that day, and who would have thought that she was still there after hours. She had worked too hard and fallen asleep at her desk.
If not for the security guard who had told them he hadn’t seen Miss Liu leave through the school gates, they might not have even known someone was still there.
“What on earth happened? Fang Xiaolei, if you won’t explain, then He Zhao, you explain.”
“I stole the key.” He Zhao heard his own voice. Even though this matter had also thrown him off balance, he still admitted the truth. “I did the experiment. I made him go along with me and it has nothing to do with him.”
The woman sat in her seat, a red pen in her hand. Her thumb pushed at the pen cap and after a long time, she calmed down enough to pinch her forehead and say, “I understand. You two go back to class first… don’t tell anyone about this. No matter who asks, don’t say anything.”
Even while walking out of the office, Fang Xiaolei was trembling from fear.
“Teach said she’d think of a way.” He Zhao patted Erlei’s head and said, “This has nothing to do with you. If someone’s getting punished, it’ll be me.”
At the time, He Zhao hadn’t been aware of what the homeroom teacher was thinking. Her ‘way out’ was to get rid of the bad student and keep the good one—Fang Xiaolei was ordered to withdraw from school.
With Fang Xiaolei’s grades, he would never make it to high school. Instead of dragging down the graduation rate, they might as well conveniently get rid of him.
The high school exams were approaching. By the time he found out, nothing could be done.
He Zhao couldn’t get in touch with Erlei; they said he had gone back to his hometown. The teacher had banked on the thought that Erlei’s family had no hopes for their child and would be happier if he learned a trade and started making money early.
The school’s stance on the matter was the same as the homeroom teacher’s. To send a withdrawal notice and then rescind it would be to slap themselves in the face.
He Zhao, the one who should have withdrawn from school, was told by everyone to stay. And the one who shouldn’t have withdrawn from school had left instead.
“He Zhao, here is a mock exam paper. Do it, then bring it over and I’ll correct it for you,” the woman said with a smile. “The high school exams are coming up. Just focus on studying.”
At this point, He Zhao felt nauseated. He pulled himself into a sitting position, a sorry figure, and dragged his hands over his face.
Not long before this, Fang Xiaolei had often come over to ask him about study questions. He had a book in his hand all day, which had left Lei Jun stunned.
Fang Xiaolei said, “I want to study hard. I can’t keep playing like this.”
Lei Jun patted his head. “Heyo, Erlei, you’re doing well. Which school will you apply to?”
“Heh heh… I want to get into Erzhong.”
“Because the grade cutoff is lowest?”
To assuage my guilt? He Zhao asked himself.
He had given up on the high school exams and dropped out for a year. Then he had come to Erzhong and placed last in every exam… was it for this?
It seemed not.
These things were ridiculous and so many ‘why’s loomed over him. He wasn’t sure what answers he was searching for, either.
He Zhao didn’t return to the classroom until evening self-study let out.
When the dismissal bell rang, Wan Da and the others cheered, then went downstairs in twos and threes with their backpacks. “Come to my room tonight to watch a movie? I downloaded it at home. Sci-fi action movie. I heard it’s wicked cool and awesome…”
Halfway through, Wan Da turned and asked, “Yu-ge, coming?”
Xie Yu said, “Not coming.” Forget the movie, he still had two mock exam papers to do.
After showering, Xie Yu picked out several midterm exams from A City’s premier high school. He planned to do them ahead of schedule—although there was a lot of content not yet covered in class, he had quietly read ahead in his textbook during class time and had more or less mastered the content.
Questions of this difficulty shouldn’t pose a problem.
Xie Yu held the pen in his hand but couldn’t focus while doing the questions.
He Zhao had been about to turn off his phone when he received the text from Xie Yu.
The ‘short message’¹ really was short. Three words. Where are you?
He Zhao was about to pretend he hadn’t seen it, but when he touched the screen his fingers seemed to have a mind of their own. He replied with two words: Internet café.
There were several internet cafés near school and Explosion Bar was the most well-known of these. It protected its customers well: when teachers came by the café for inspection, they’d send emergency messages to their customers.
All the employees at the café were acquainted with the teachers who came to check the most, especially Dean Jiang. The moment they encountered Mad Dog, they sent out the highest-level emergency alert.
Their mission was to give high school students a safe and reliable online environment.
Xie Yu rarely went to these underground internet cafés. He didn’t like the stuffy, dark atmosphere, or the delinquent youth that sat there, cigarettes in their mouths, long bangs hiding melancholy eyes.
When Xie Yu climbed the wall to leave, he suddenly couldn’t understand himself… or what on earth he was doing.
Night had fully fallen and only streetlights lit the road. Trees rustled in the wind.
A cold breeze slipped under the hem of his shirt. Xie Yu was about to jump down from the wall when he heard a nearby voice say, “You really don’t want your legs any more, do you? You’re quite resilient. You even climbed the wall with your leg like that.”
He Zhao walked over from the opposite side of the road. It was dark and Xie Yu couldn’t make out his expression. He slowly walked over to stand at the base of the wall and said, “What are you coming out for?”
Xie Yu said, “MMOs.”
With Xie Yu’s usual performance, this reason was entirely plausible. The second-to-last in the year, suffering from insomnia, slipping out of school to hang out at an internet café. Very normal.
He Zhao didn’t let him jump down directly and prepared to catch him at the bottom.
“Cripple,” He Zhao said, opening his arms and looking up at Xie Yu. “Jump.”
Xie Yu said, “You’re the goddamn cripple.”
Explosion Bar was located opposite the Gold List restaurant. The entrance was beside a clothing store, up a flight of stairs, on the second floor.
A certain delinquent surnamed He had earphones hanging around his neck, fingers tapping away at the keyboard. Others had cigarettes in their mouths—he had a lollipop.
He still wore his school uniform; he hadn’t changed.
It was late at night and there were many people in Explosion Bar. Several looked familiar and Xie Yu thought for a long time before remembering that he had met them in the last exam group at the monthly exams.
He Zhao wasn’t sure what games he wanted to play, either. He clicked on an icon that caught his eye and was half-heartedly playing it when a hand came into view, index finger crooked, and tapped on the table in front of him.
He Zhao glanced over and saw his little friend in a white vest, hair still damp. “You come here and stay overnight often?”
“Not that often,” He Zhao said. “A few times… a month.”
Xie Yu nodded, thinking he had gained another insight into the world of a bad student. He had never thought about this aspect of it before. Then he looked down and tapped a line into his notes app: Spend the night at an internet café, twice a month.
The two found teams and went a few rounds in the game. By the end, Xie Yu was so tired he lay down at his seat and slept.
He Zhao took off his headphones and didn’t keep playing. He turned and watched his deskmate for a long time.
The lighting in the internet café was bad, and fell on Xie Yu’s face alongside the glow of the monitor.
He Zhao stared at him for a while, unable to avert his eyes, and crunched the lollipop in his mouth to pieces.
The next day, He Zhao and Xie Yu both wore dark circles to class.
“What happened to the two of you?” Wan Da tsked in wonder. “What were you doing last night? Or did our study rep drive you so hard you have dark circles under your eyes?”
Xue Xisheng had not given up. Post-it notes of all kinds with various formulas and vocabulary words written on them would often appear on He Zhao and Xie Yu’s desks, alongside some quotes that could have come out of Chicken Soup for the Soul. If you don’t work hard when you’re young, you’ll regret it when you’re old… Lifelong learning. Go for it! You’re just a step away from success.
If Xue Xisheng had come from a well-off family, he might even have bought supplementary study materials for them.
He Zhao lay down at his desk the moment he sat down. “No. Stayed up all night at an internet café.”
Wan Da asked, “Yu-ge, too? Why didn’t you both come watch the movie with us yesterday?”
“What movie.” He Zhao had a headache from staying up all night and who knew what he was thinking. “My deskmate isn’t that kind of person. Don’t lead him astray.”