First Published on Chaleuria
087 – Were you that X?
Fang Xiaolei took the escalator up and stood at the exit. He had forgotten, for a moment, which direction to go.
Several years had passed and he had forgotten most of the things he couldn’t let go of which had stuck in his heart at the time.
When his family and his homeroom teacher had advised him to quit school, instead of being angry, he had felt lost. After the twists and turns of the situation had calmed, he found that he had lost his sense of direction.
Although he had not gotten good grades in school and was not interested in studying, at least everyone there had had a common goal.
Now, suddenly out of his comfort zone, he couldn’t get used to it.
The crowd thronged through the train station exit.
He stood in the flow of human traffic and suddenly remembered the first time he had met He Zhao.
At the time, they had only nodded to each other. School had only been in session a few days and they hadn’t even memorized each other’s names yet.
Not long after junior high started, He Zhao, as the class rep, had knocked on the door to turn in some forms. He was tall and good-looking, and even though Fang Xiaolei was currently standing there as punishment, he could not help taking a second look.
Fang Xiaolei and Lei Jun were the two problem students the teachers had the most trouble with. Especially Lei Jun, who had been a troublemaker since starting junior high and had joined a gang outside school. No matter what happened, they would suspect him first.
“I really didn’t beat him up.” Lei Jun stood to the side, frowning, repeating this for the third time. “Why would I beat him up for no reason? If I beat someone up, I’d admit it. I was with Erlei at an internet cafe then…”
His homeroom teacher banged on the table and said angrily, “—If it wasn’t you, then who was it?”
Fang Xiaolei watched He Zhao put the forms on the desk and say, “It’s not very good to say things like that, surely? I was around last Friday too. The internet cafe around the corner from school.”
“What were you at an internet cafe for?” The homeroom teacher swallowed and tried to find an excuse for the top student. “To get studying materials?”
He Zhao replied truthfully, “Video games.”
Fang Xiaolei wheeled his luggage forward another two steps. There were too many things he wanted to say, but all he said was, “Zhao-ge, let’s find a time to meet up. There are some things I want to tell you.”
After going out and placing the call, He Zhao returned and kept drinking. He reached for a third can but Xie Yu caught hold of the can in his hand.
“Just try and drink again.”
He Zhao obediently let go.
Xu Qingqing and the other girls had picked sweet songs with slow and light accompaniments. Two or three such songs went by.
He Zhao steadied himself, then said, “Erlei is back.”
Xie Yu had guessed something was up, but he hadn’t expected it to be this. He said, “Mm,” to indicate he was listening.
“He just called and asked to meet.” He Zhao raised a hand to scratch his head. “I…”
He still was not quite sure how to face this.
Even though he had been trying, all this time, to walk forward.
When he had asked Erlei how he was, he had been terrified of hearing ‘Not good.’
The song ended and the lounge was silent for the few seconds before the next song started up.
Then He Zhao heard Xie Yu say to him, “Ge, don’t worry.”
Near evening, the sky got darker.
They had been singing for three whole hours. Thankfully, beer had a low alcohol content and it wasn’t easy to get drunk with just that, so the drunken scene from their previous gathering did not re-enact itself. When they were done singing, they packed up their things and parted ways at the entrance to the KTV.
When Xie Yu got home, Zhong Jie and the others were eating dinner.
Madam Gu had cut some fruit and carried the plate out from the kitchen. She waved him to the couch. “You’re back? Sit down and have some fruit.”
Xie Yu glanced at Zhong Jie and was worried he would explode after exchanging words. “You all eat. I’m going upstairs.”
Xie Yu finished showering. The Black Water Street group ‘Don’t fight’ had more than a hundred new messages, several of them mentioning him. He tapped in.
[Lei’s Mom]: @xy, we prepared a room for you. When you have time, come back for a few days. Your Aunt Mei and Dalei miss you all the time.
[Barbecue Stall Prince – Lei]: When did you clean it? We have a spare room?
[Lei’s Mom]: Your room. I packed it up a little. When he comes you can sleep in the attic.
[Barbecue Stall Prince – Lei]: ……
[Barbecue Stall Prince – Lei]: You’re really my mom…
Lei’s mom had said she cleaned the room so he could stay a few days. However, Xie Yu didn’t intend to really stay, he would just go for a meal.
The Zhong family spent a lot of money on New Year’s and held a little fireworks show of their own. In contrast, Black Water Street’s New Year atmosphere was felt in the corners and the cracks.
When Xie Yu got off the bus, several kids were playing in the alley. They had strikeable fireworks¹ in their hands and pockets, and tossed them on the ground as they ran. After the bang, they ran elsewhere.
It had snowed last night, but the snow on the roads had nearly all melted by now. Only some snow still clung to the rooftops, small white patches Xie Yu could see from where he stood.
In his recollection, the last time it had snowed in A City had been several years ago. Zhou Dalei had dragged him out to make snowmen.
Xie Yu had been quite reluctant. “Are you a girl?”
“It’s snowing! I’ve never in my life seen it. Come on, let’s go make snowmen.”
In the end, Xie Yu squatted to the side, rolled a snowball, and threw it at Zhou Dalei’s head. “Let’s do something else.”
On Black Water Street, the houses were tucked close together. Every household had hung couplets on their window: Happy family. Luck and fortune. Black words on a red background. When Xie Yu got to the familiar apartment building, Zhou Dalei was on a ladder, putting up couplets for Aunt Mei. The words on either side were the same: Money rolling in.
The horizontal banner read: Strike it rich.
Xie Yu stopped, amused. He took a few photos, then sent them to He Zhao.
He Zhao replied quickly.
Very well written.
Tell your mom Happy New Year and I hope she strikes it rich.
Xie Yu glanced down and replied, How are you
We’re meeting next weekend.
I’m fine. It’s good to meet up.
Zhou Dalei had spotted his Boss Xie approaching from afar. After putting up the couplets, he climbed down the ladder. Inside the house, Aunt Mei was saying, “Later, don’t mention anything about grades…”
All of them knew how Xie Yu had done in the recent exams.
Zhou Dalei was a little dazed.
Although Xie Yu had gotten good grades in Black Water Junior High, the schools here were not good and the middle schools taught English at an elementary school level. A City was a big city, after all, and it was understandable that he couldn’t manage the curriculum there when he went.
“Did you hear?” Lei’s mom smacked him. “Your Aunt Mei is talking to you.”
Zhou Dalei said, “Ah… I heard, I heard, but…”
Zhou Dalei cut himself off halfway.
That… awful Question King something Tournament game. Since he had managed to squeeze his way into the game lobby and received the title of Stubborn Scrap Metal, he had thought about deleting the app. It was just taking up memory, anyway.
But there were several tedious steps to be completed before uninstalling, and the moment he hit the delete button, a notification appeared telling him to reconsider and to not give up on studying.
So he returned to the game lobby and kept loitering, and accidentally witnessed God X doing practice questions.
He did them so fast it seemed almost inhuman. And his handwriting…
—Question King Tournament’s question-answering interface included a white scratchpad next to the short-answer questions. After tapping in, one could scribble on the screen to do some temporary calculations.
His handwriting looked very familiar.
Zhou Dalei now remembered his initial call to Boss Xie.
He wasn’t quite sure—maybe he was thinking too much—but something felt amiss to him.
When Xie Yu came upstairs, Aunt Mei’s house was already packed.
After dinner, they gathered around the mahjong table.
“You haven’t closed the stall for two days.”
“Business is good. All the shops have closed so everyone is coming to me. I’ll stay open another two days,” Lei’s mom said, throwing out a tile. “Four-kong!”²
Xie Yu used to help out at the stall a lot. Seeing it was still early and he had nothing to do, he tapped Zhou Dalei’s shoulder and said, “Still five o’clock?”
No response. Xie Yu repeated himself, then Zhou Dalei finally reacted. “Ah, no need—you don’t have to do anything.”
Xie Yu asked, “What were you thinking about?”
Zhou Dalei thought, I’m thinking about how strange this world is.
There were many people at the barbecue stall. Winter on Black Water Street was cold, and Dalei’s parents had set up a tent in an empty space near the street.
Although no one agreed to let Xie Yu help, he still went over to help take orders and serve food. Zhou Dalei was serving the neighboring table. They were rattling off their orders very quickly and Zhou Dalei couldn’t write them all down in time. “Wait, how many lamb kebabs again?”
“Twenty.” Xie Yu pushed the order chit for Table 1 into Zhou Dalei’s hands, then said, “Half a can of beer, one plate of fried rice…”
There were seven or eight items and Zhou Dalei wrote them all down, stunned. “How did you know?”
“I heard them say it.”
Xie Yu had a good memory and could remember things after hearing or seeing them once.
Zhou Dalei gave both order chits to his mom, then leaned against the plastic door. His smoking habit was acting up and he pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. After thinking, he said, “Mom, I remember Boss Xie’s grades used to be quite good.”
Lei’s mom took the chits, still busy. She had no time for idle chatter and replied, “I remember you scored 100 on a math test in first grade.”
Zhou Dalei: “……”
The store was busiest in the evening and there were basically no customers after 9.p.m. When the final table had finished their food, Xie Yu helped them pack up the stall and dragged the plastic stools toward the storage room.
After working for a while, Xie Yu was tired. He placed the stools away then walked back, saying, “Try to convince them. It’s nearly New Year’s. They should rest at home.”
In the street were several children setting off fireworks. The moment they lit them, light exploded outward and the fireworks fizzled on the ground for several seconds.
Zhou Dalei was holding a storage box. He put it down, then stood still, several thoughts running through his head. Eventually, he called out, “Boss Xie.”
Xie Yu didn’t look back. “Spit it out.”
“Were you that X?”
Zhou Dalei asked again. “In Question King Tournament. That… string of letters I don’t remember. Was that you?”
 Strikeable fireworks: These things. You strike them like matches, then toss them down, and they make a bang. New Year’s celebratory toys for kids.
 Kong: 4 tiles of the same suit.