First Published on Chaleuria
088 – He’s taken.
Xie Yu’s first reaction was to say, “No,” but the words stuck in his throat.
Zhou Dalei had asked too seriously.
Xie Yu had known him for a long time. He usually had a smile on his face and didn’t take things to heart. Xie Yu could count on one hand the number of times Zhou Dalei had been serious. Once, when he was little, someone had snatched his precious toy. The most recent incident was when Da Mei left; he had drunk several bottles of wine and sat at the entrance to the alleyway, asking Xie Yu, “Will Da Mei come back?”
Xie Yu didn’t know if he would. Everyone has their own path to walk.
Xie Yu had looked at him, silently sighed, and said, “He will come back.”
During winter vacation, Zhou Dalei would come find him from time to time, and it always happened to be when he was doing questions. He often sent texts in the middle of the night. Are you asleep, Boss Xie? What are you doing?
No. Video games.
Xie Yu had not thought too much of it, but now that he thought back, something seemed amiss.
The faint suspicion in Zhou Dalei’s heart had kept resurfacing. He took a few steps forward and wiped his face of all expression. “Say something…”
Zhou Dalei did not continue because Xie Yu was silent for a few moments before cutting him off.
Then Xie Yu asked, “How did you know?”
His words made flames of anger rush to Zhou Dalei’s head. He was mad at being lied to, and for the moment he forgot to think about why his Boss Xie would do such a thing.
“How do I know—don’t you have any brains? I copied your homework for so many years! Whether you write fast or slow or messy or neatly, even if you write with your left hand, I can recognize your handwriting!”
Xie Yu had really never thought this would be his downfall.
“We’ve been bros for so many years and you lie to me like this?” Zhou Dalei cursed while Xie Yu was dragging him into a corner by the collar. “When I asked you that time why your grades had become like this, what did you say to me? There are always people who are better? Life has its ups and downs? You’ve been bullshitting me this whole time!”
Zhou Dalei let it all out and was still unbelievably angry.
Xie Yu let him yell and didn’t retaliate. This was probably the best-tempered he had been all his life. “Are you done? If you’re not, you can keep going.”
Zhou Dalei pulled out a pack of cigarettes, went to a corner, and began to smoke one. Xie Yu glanced at the time and was about to leave, when Zhou Dalei pulled him back. He asked quietly, “What were you thinking? Don’t go. Squat down and let’s chat properly.”
“Squat, my ass. If I don’t go now I’ll miss the bus.”
“Then we’ll chat while we go.” Zhou Dalei immediately obliged. “Walk slower.”
Zhou Dalei had thought of many possible scenarios but he had never imagined the real reason.
The last bus left at 9 p.m. While they were waiting, Xie Yu summarized the situation. After hearing everything, Zhou Dalei cursed up a storm and was even unsure what to say aside from cursing. “That Zhong-dogshit-bastard…”
At first, he had been angry at Xie Yu. Now he was done being angry at Xie Yu and couldn’t stop himself from being angry on Xie Yu’s behalf.
His hands trembled around the cigarette he was holding and his mind was full of the word ‘Fuck.’
In order to stop him from performing Black Water Street’s Master-level Cursing on the spot, Xie Yu kicked him. “All right. The bus is here. Don’t hang around here—go back and rest. Quick, go.”
The bus on the other end of the street drew closer, headlights shining directly onto them.
Xie Yu got on the bus. Two steps in, before the door could close, he put one hand on the railing and leaned out. “If you don’t want to die, then don’t tell anyone. I’m serious. You’d better think of a way to keep your mouth shut—”
Zhou Dalei wanted to keep his mouth shut, too. But he tossed and turned and didn’t go to sleep for a long time.
Lei’s mom got up in the middle of the night and went to the living room to get a drink of water. She was shocked half to death by her son, who was sitting upright on the sofa in the pitch darkness.
Zhou Dalei had sat on the sofa for a long time. He flipped through the call log on his phone and his finger stopped on Aunt Lan’s name. His mind was in disarray. He thought, Forget it, but his hand slipped and he accidentally hit the call button. “……”
Winter vacation was a month long and Xie Yu had not written a single word of the pile of homework they were given. He had put his name down and never touched them again.
Madam Gu had brought up the subject of a home tutor for him again. “Think about what you’ve done all winter vacation.”
Xie Yu, who had gone downstairs to get some water, said, “I’ve done quite well. Eaten well and slept well.”
Madam Gu said, “Don’t change the subject. What are you going to do, going on like that? Just because I don’t force you now, you—”
Xie Yu had initially not wanted a home tutor because it was annoying enough having to watch his grades in school. If he had a home tutor, he would have to keep an eye on even more things and there would be more opportunities to slip up.
Madam Gu had said a lot, but his reply was the same. “Mom, I know what I’m doing.”
This time, Madam Gu did not reply angrily with ‘As if you know what you’re doing?’ as she usually did.
Gu Xuelan sat on the sofa, the TV remote lying by her hand.
A soap opera was playing on TV, the audio emanating into the surrounding air. But Madam Gu’s expression did not change at all. Her face was grim, and in her eyes were suspicion and inquiry.
Madam Gu now recalled the strange telephone call she had gotten yesterday night.
After moving away from Black Water Street, the pace of her life had changed. She had gradually grown distant from Xu Yanmei and the others, and aside from sending them well-wishes via text message on New Year’s, she basically didn’t talk to them any more.
On the phone, Zhou Dalei’s speech had taken many twists and turns. First, he said that he had dialed the wrong number on accident, then he had called her Aunt Lan, then stopped. She was still a little dizzy from being awoken in the middle of the night and had not understood what he was saying. She reached out to turn on a lamp, sat up, and asked, “What’s the matter, Dalei?”
Zhou Dalei said, “Aunt Lan, did you ever think about Boss Xie’s grades…”
Gu Xuelan had clearly heard the word ‘grades,’ but then Zhou Dalei changed the subject again and talked a load of nonsense. At the end, he said, “The moon is really round tonight.”
Gu Xuelan: “……”
“I saw how beautiful the moon is and thought about you, Aunt Lan.”
Gu Xuelan was getting on in years and even though she took care of herself, wrinkles had already crept up around the corners of her eyes. She had several things on her mind already, and the telephone call had bothered her so much she did not fall asleep for a long time.
She tossed and turned. Before she fell asleep, the last image that surfaced before her eyes was of Xie Yu as a young child, tossing a certificate onto the table.
What certificate was it?
She had been very busy at that time juggling multiple jobs.
“What are your plans? Tell me,” Gu Xuelan asked, calmly. “…What are your plans?”
Gu Xuelan was not sure what she was suspicious of, either. She had probably just not slept well the last few nights. She rubbed her forehead, then waved dismissively. “All right. Go upstairs and don’t keep getting in the way.”
Xie Yu gripped the glass in his hand tightly. He went upstairs and sat in front of his computer for a long time. On the video on his screen, a foreign language professor was explaining grammar and syntax, but he absorbed nothing.
“Little friend, what are you doing?”
Xie Yu received a call from He Zhao and only then did he come back to his senses. He drank another two mouthfuls of water and made an indistinct noise in response.
He Zhao had just gotten out of a taxi. He stood at the window, paying the fare, then stuffed the change into his pocket. “Drinking milk?”
He Zhao thought it was a pity his little friend was not, in fact, drinking milk.
“Think about something else, will you? Your thoughts are very dangerous.” Xie Yu put down his cup and glanced at the date on the lower right hand corner. He Zhao’s appointment was this weekend. “Did you meet him?”
“No, just got out of the car.”
He Zhao located the meeting place. He hadn’t needed to hunt for it. In junior high, the three of them had often come to this shop, a noodle place close to school.
In his recollection, the shop was very small and old, and the walls were gray and oily from the grease and smoke.
As junior high students, they had not had much pocket money. By the time school let out, they were all starving. They often put their money together, two yuan from one person and three from another, to buy a bowl of noodles to fill their stomachs.
“The lady boss still remembers me and gave me a free appetizer.” He Zhao picked an empty seat and sat down, resting his arm on the table as he spoke. “I’ll bring you here next time.”
He Zhao spoke in a normal tone of voice, but for no real reason Xie Yu felt that the idiot’s mind was probably in turmoil.
In reality, He Zhao really was a little unused to things.
The noodle shop had been renovated and there were both familiar dishes and new ones on the menu. He Zhao stared at the words ‘Hot Sauce Noodles’ and quietly let out a breath, then glanced up and out the window.
Xie Yu didn’t press the matter and just said to call him if anything happened.
Xie Yu was barefoot and had curled up in his chair in front of the computer. Before he hung up, he added, “Don’t smoke.”
He Zhao said, “All right.”
Xie Yu distractedly finished watching the video. Before he went to sleep, he checked his phone. The class group was a constant stream of updates. Xu Qingqing wanted to watch a horror movie but didn’t dare watch it alone and looked to the class group chat for someone to watch it with her. At the end, the class group chat was a stream of ‘Ahh!!!’
There was no news from He Zhao. Xie Yu thought about it, then turned his phone off silent mode before he went to sleep.
The next call he received from He Zhao was at nearly midnight.
The Xie Yu from before would have performed a one-stop service: rejected the call, blocked the number, and thrown his phone.
Xie Yu guessed He Zhao had probably gotten home. But when he picked up the phone, he heard the faint sounds of cars honking on the other end. “Where are you?”
He Zhao did not answer.
Xie Yu asked for the third time, his patience running out, before hearing He Zhao say his name.
His speech sounded slurred and he didn’t sound like he was in his right mind but when he said Xie Yu’s name he said it seriously, drawing out the sounds.
He Zhao called his name several times, voice hoarse. The complicated emotions in his voice intermingled with the ambient noise.
“Ge.” Xie Yu had lost all desire to sleep. He got up and turned off the air conditioning. The chill seeped through the thin material of his clothes. “You’ve been drinking?”
He Zhao squatted by the roadside, face buried in his hands. Nothing was the matter. He had just wanted to call Xie Yu to report in, but the moment he heard Xie Yu’s voice, the alcohol went to his head and he couldn’t help… wanting to call out to him.
He Zhao had thought the matter would not go by so easily.
But when he had stood up, walked forward, and arrived in front of it, it had not been as difficult as he had expected.
When they met, Erlei had sent a fist flying and then asked him, “All right? Do you feel better now?”
That had not been a practice punch. He had used all his strength and He Zhao was struck dazed for a second. He had put his back to the wall, then wiped his mouth and tasted blood.
Fang Xiaolei had not changed much from before. He had gained some weight and dressed more maturely now. Compared to peers his own age, he did not have the air of a student.
— “Just forget about what happened before.”
— “Zhao-ge, the last time you came looking for me, I said it wasn’t your fault. I want to add something to that now. I don’t blame you. I wanted to tell you that face to face.”
Erlei’s words echoed in his ears.
An indescribable weight laying on his chest seemed to lighten between one breath and the next.
The feeling of vertigo came, then passed.
He Zhao watched traffic go by on the street. The headlights pierced through the night, so bright they hurt his eyes.
“No,” He Zhao said, then got stuck. He blinked, his eyes slightly red. “Just a little.”
Your tongue is twisted in goddamn knots and you say ‘just a little.’
Xie Yu was so worried it was getting frustrating. While putting on his clothes, he asked, “Where are you now?”
He Zhao was still near school.
Several hours ago, the three of them had met up. They had not said much but drank bottle after bottle of beer.
Lei Jun had drunk the most.
He had not been directly involved in the incident. Erlei had left quickly and he had not been able to clarify matters, so he had imagined the worst. He had grabbed He Zhao by the collar and punched him, then held him down on the ground and beaten him up so badly the school nearly called an ambulance. “Did you do it? Did you pin the blame—”
He Zhao had not explained and had not retaliated, and had even selfishly hoped Lei Jun would hit him even harder.
Then Lei Jun stopped going to school and transferred to a trade school instead. It made no difference whether he took the high school entrance exams, anyway. He had no desire to know anything more about his ‘former good friend.’
The next time they had met was in the restaurant near Dian Ji.
Lei Jun had just been angry and had not thought about why this person was in Erzhong. After going back, he had asked someone to look into it and found that not only the school, but even the year did not match up.
Not only had he fallen behind one year, he was attending the most mediocre high school in A City.
Erlei had not been able to hold his drink before, but in the past few years he had gotten a lot of practice at business dinners, and finished a bottle in short order. “I’ve been busy and forgot. I go overseas a lot… You haven’t met up with Zhao-ge at all, all these years?”
“We’ve met.” He Zhao also drank a lot. He leaned backward and put his empty beer bottle on the table. “Several months ago we talked.”
Lei Jun said, “What the hell do you mean, talked? Fists talking to fists?”
By the end, the three of them were in a daze. They seemed to have returned to the old days.
Xie Yu wrote down the location. He was worried for He Zhao, still outdoors this late at night after having drunk a lot. He picked up a jacket and put it on. He was out the door and on the bus before he realized he had forgotten his phone.
He had left in too much of a hurry. While putting on his jacket, he had tossed his phone on his bed, then left right after putting the jacket on.
He Zhao squatted by the roadside for a while and the alcohol-induced haze lightened a little.
There weren’t many people on the street. A group wandered out of the restaurant across the street, arms around each other’s shoulders, seemingly having had a lot to drink. They looked young and there were several girls among them.
Even though night had fully fallen, the streetlights were lit and they could see the opposite side of the street well. They nudged each other, “Eh, eh, eh, look at the guy across the street.”
The boy was squatting, but they could tell he was probably tall. He had not even zipped up his jacket. Although he was looking on the ground and they could not see his face, by his figure and his bearing, he was probably extraordinary.
He Zhao had never expected that he would meet salespeople in the middle of the night. What time was it?
He glanced up at the people in front of him. Before he could say, “I’m not buying anything,” someone tugged at his collar from behind, pulling him up roughly.
Xie Yu’s face was thunderous, annoyance written across his face. Seeing them frozen there, he repeated gravely, “He’s taken.”