First Published on Chaleuria
070 – Stubborn Scrap Metal
The Apple of Knowledge.
The notification read: Dear users, you have not waited in vain! We have returned!
Xie Yu froze.
Returned? Hadn’t the app gone offline?
Xie Yu had forgotten to delete the app and had left it in a corner of his screen, never imagining that it would one day come back online. He stared at the notification, then remembered the idiotic thing he had done over summer—fight over first place, day and night, with a crazy person.
Xie Yu hesitated, then opened the app.
Currently updating. Please do not close the app~
The developers had probably found a new sponsor. They had even updated their question bank and added new problem sets from the premier high schools. Even some of Erzhong’s questions appeared.
Xie Yu glanced through them and found that the question-answering format had changed slightly. Users were now categorized into bronze, silver and gold, and a successfully answered question might drop bonus rewards, such as hidden questions not shown to the public.
These minute changes gamified the app, and those not in the know might have mistaken it for a real online game.
The Question King user chat was still the same, and the same active users from before all sent firework emojis to celebrate.
[Ilovestudying]: I knew it! The love for studying will never die out!
[ForABetterTomorrow]: Without Question King I had to do practice papers on my own. So many lonely nights with no one to keep me company.
[TopTenInClass]: @EnglishRep, I mastered Level 8 vocab. Let’s PK.
“Boss Xie.” Before Xie Yu could look more closely, Zhou Dalei called him. “I was updating my games and I saw that app from summer vacation. Damn, it’s back?”
Dalei’s phone apps consisted almost completely of games. He ran an update every day. Probably because there were too many of them and he didn’t keep track, Question King was still there, too. He had been shocked to receive the update notification.
Xie Yu said vaguely, “Ah.”
Zhou Dalei was wearing slippers and sitting on a plastic chair by the barbecue stall. The barbecue rack was behind him, thick smoke and the smell of cooking meat carried on the wind. He took a cigarette from his pocket, put it in his mouth, and lit it. “I got into the lobby. Now even zero-pointers can get in.”
Xie Yu said, “Huh.”
Zhou Dalei continued, “There are levels, too… You know, right? Bronze and whatever.”
Xie Yu had only briefly glanced at it and could faintly recall that his user level was King-something. He asked, “What level are you?”
Zhou Dalei said, “Me? Stubborn Scrap Metal.”
“Awesome, right? I’ve played games for so long and I only know about bronze and such. I never imagined there would be scrap metal, too. I learned something today.”
Xie Yu laughed, then asked, “You’re at the stall?”
“Yeah.” His mother was bent over, dragging a box of ingredients. Zhou Dalei was in the way, so she stood up and kicked him nearly off the chair.
Lately, the weather had been steadily getting cooler. Zhou Dalei’s mother expended a lot of energy preparing food, and when she got busy she also got angry more easily. She usually thought the world of her son, but now she was irritated by him. “Scram.”
Zhou Dalei was helpless against his mother’s seasonal moods. He got up and started walking to the side. His mother wiped off her hands and asked, “Who are you talking to? Xiao-yu?”
“Let me talk to him.” Before Dalei could answer, his mother snatched the phone. “Off with you.”
Zhou Dalei’s mom talked to Xie Yu very nicely, to the point Zhou Dalei felt that Boss Xie was more like his mother’s real son.
When He Zhao pushed open the door, Xie Yu was sitting on the bed, eyes lowered, on the phone.
Xie Yu had just showered and was wearing a sweater. Although it was a cool color, the material looked soft and made him look soft, too. Even his voice was quiet. “Mm, got it.”
Dalei’s mom had a loud voice, which carried even when she was chatting cordially with someone. “Last time you came back, I and Lei-zi’s dad both weren’t home and didn’t get to see you. When are you off school again? Come and stay for a few days…”
Xie Yu was still wearing his school pants, loose-fitting with a gray stripe on one side. He had folded up the cuffs, revealing his ankles.
Hearing movement at the door, he glanced up, then mouthed to He Zhao: Close the door.
Lei’s mom was currently talking about a mahjong competition that had recently started up in their neighborhood.
Xie Yu wasn’t a very popular figure on Black Water Street, but Aunt Mei and the others were still very happy to take him along so that other people would suffer. When they played cards with new friends and lost badly, they asked Xie Yu over to play a couple rounds for them and recoup their losses.
He Zhao closed the door, then squeezed into the bed with Xie Yu and waited for his call to end.
While listening to the call, He Zhao suddenly leaned over and kissed Xie Yu’s face.
Xie Yu said, “…What are you doing?”
Lei’s mom was still talking, and hearing Xie Yu say this, she paused too. “What?”
He Zhao was done teasing and smiled as he backed off to the right. He leaned against Xie Yu’s headboard and didn’t keep bothering him.
Next to He Zhao was the study desk. While Xie Yu was on the phone, He Zhao looked around and caught sight of a Rubik’s cube on the desk, along with several books. One of them was called Improve Your Temper And Face Life Calmly.
He Zhao flipped it open. On the inside was written, Boss Xie, happy birthday.
“This was a birthday present?” After Xie Yu hung up, He Zhao held up the book and asked, “Who gave you this? They’re creative.”
Xie Yu glanced at it. “The guy from the station.”
Zhou Dalei had gift-wrapped the book and tied it up with a bright red ribbon in a butterfly knot.
Remembering this, Xie Yu laughed again and added, “I nearly broke his legs.”
He Zhao thought, Broke his legs?
Xie Yu had kept the book till now.
His little friend seemed hard-hearted, but he really wasn’t.
Xie Yu’s smile faded and he tossed his phone aside.
Lei’s mom had said a lot of things just now. Zhou Dalei had tried to snatch the phone back to no avail. Now that the noise on the other side of the phone had stopped, Xie Yu realized he actually felt disappointed.
It was the same sort of disappointment Xie Yu had felt the first few days after he and his mother had moved away from Black Water Street. When he woke up in the morning, he habitually started off to Wang-ma’s to eat breakfast, then realized he could no longer hear street hawkers yelling.
The more Xie Yu thought about it, the more frustrated he felt.
Ordinarily, he would just curse out loud and be done with it, but now He Zhao was sitting next to him.
The idiot was currently reading that Face Life Calmly book, and was even reading interesting passages aloud for him. “My little friend, you didn’t read this at all, did you? It’s actually quite useful… Learn from it, and don’t keep being violent to my… no, don’t keep being violent to me.”
He Zhao had swallowed the words, ‘my family.’
Xie Yu called him, “Zhao-ge.”
He Zhao stopped mid-speech.
Xie Yu wasn’t sure how to explain, either. It seemed too melodramatic to say out loud. Besides, he wasn’t the complaining sort. The moment the name left his mouth, he regretted it.
So they looked at each other for a while, then Xie Yu said, “Nothing. Just wanted to call you.”
Xie Yu never called him ‘ge’ for no reason. The first time he had done it was at Liu Cunhao’s birthday event, and he had followed it up with, ‘You provoked me first.’
He Zhao replied, “Nothing? As if.”
It was all pointless, anyway.
Xie Yu was reminiscing about days he couldn’t go back to. He thought about those noisy, vulgar sounds that could have come from a marketplace.
Xie Yu had let one of his feet fall off the bed while he was talking. His feet were bare and touched the floor.
It was cool to the touch.
“Then think about something else.” He Zhao smiled. “For example, where I stand, in your present and in your future.”
He Zhao said all of this very seriously, the dismissive tone he usually carried now absent. Xie Yu’s silhouette was reflected in his eyes.
He was so serious about it that Xie Yu leaned in without realizing.
As if possessed, he leaned forward to kiss He Zhao. In that moment, he thought, why be dramatic? Just do it.
Their lips touched, and his mind went blank.
He Zhao, worried that he would hurt Xie Yu again, tried to hold himself back at first, until Xie Yu curled his tongue and touched He Zhao’s.
Just the one touch didn’t count.
Xie Yu’s hands had undone He Zhao’s trouser fastening. The school pants were designed loosely, and he reached in after he undid them.
Xie Yu’s hand was cool to the touch, his fingers lightly curved. When he first touched it, he felt burned by its warmth. He paused, scared to move.
He Zhao cursed out loud, his hands wandering downward, too. “Are you trying to kill me?”
It was nearly lights-out and the signal sounded outside the dormitory.
By the time they both found release, the dorm building was pitch-black. They only heard each other’s breathing, hurried and intertwined.
Xie Yu felt around at the head of his bed for a pack of tissues.
He Zhao took it and was going to help Xie Yu clean up, but before he could touch him Xie Yu nearly kicked him out of bed. “…Don’t touch me.”
He Zhao steadied himself, then asked, “Are we going to sleep together?”
Xie Yu asked, “Can you fall asleep with a stick like that in your pants?”
Thinking about it, he had a point.
The bed was small. Squeezed together, they were skin to skin.
Xie Yu sat up and reached out to turn on the electric light at the head of his bed.
In the dim light, He Zhao noticed that his little friend’s sweater had ridden up on his stomach, revealing most of his waist. Then he looked lower and saw the loose school pants he had undone just now.
He kept looking, then bent down and touch Xie Yu’s lips again. “I’ll go back to my room then.”
Xie Yu said, “Get lost.”
He was the sort of bedmate who, after doing up his pants, would pretend they were strangers.
He Zhao smiled and let go of him.
Even though He Zhao had left, the smell didn’t fade for a long time.
The desk light was still lit. Xie Yu noticed that his phone, which he had tossed onto the bed, was also lit up.
The notifications piled up.
Thinking He Zhao had sent him something again, Xie Yu caught hold of his phone and unlocked it, only to see more than ten notifications from an app.
Dear esteemed user, how do you do? We are the organizers of the Question King Tournament.