First Published on Chaleuria
090 – Do you prefer Tsinghua or Peking U?
Xie Yu’s mind rang, as though something had suddenly exploded.
All the blood in his body seemed to freeze, little by little.
He had set a passcode on his phone. Zhou Dalei’s texts, the notifications stacked together, occupied half the lock screen. Even though the messages were not fully visible, the general meaning could be discerned by piecing together what could be seen.
“Dalei, he…” Xie Yu’s fingers slowly curled into fists. Subconsciously, he had decided to go on keeping his secret. “He’s joking. It’s nothing.”
Gu Xuelan had not slept all last night and had sat here from the middle of the night to midday. She wasn’t sure how much time had passed. It seemed like a lot, but at the same time, not. She had only watched the sky gradually grow lighter outside.
Xie Yu was about to tack on another, ‘Don’t think too much,’ when he heard Gu Xuelan ask, “Then what is this about?”
Her throat was dry, and her tone was different from when she had begun this conversation. She showed the sort of unnatural calm that came after violent waves of emotion. Her next words stuck in her throat and she steadied herself for several seconds before continuing.
“—For how much longer were you going to lie to me?”
Seeing her reaction, Xie Yu surmised that Zhou Dalei had unthinkingly sold him out.
Just now, his thoughts had been in disarray and he had not considered this possibility. Zhou Dalei was that sort of person. If one chased him down and asked him directly, he would panic. He couldn’t hide anything.
In the face of Madam Gu’s questions, Xie Yu remained silent for a while and did not reply.
Zhou Dalei had not imagined that his text messages had blindly spilled the whole truth.
Last night, he had lazily sent the last of the texts, then tossed his phone down and gotten ready for bed. Aunt Lan’s telephone call had nearly made him fall off the bed still entangled in his blankets.
Before Gu Xuelan could say much, he had already told her everything, from things he was supposed to say, to things he was not supposed to say.
“I haven’t known this for very long, either. Boss Xie told me not to tell, but holding it in is painful.” Zhou Dalei opened a window for air and continued, “…Aunt Lan, he just wants you to live better with the Zhongs. This way, one less person needs to deal with those terrible things.”
The Zhong Corporation was a prominent family business in A City.
After Gu Xuelan married into the family, the pieced-together household was in an awkward situation. The position of Madam Zhong was a hard one to fill and there was also Zhong Jie, who took every chance he could to make trouble.
Xie Yu usually kept quiet and gave the impression of not caring.
Gu Xuelan had thought that he was still young and that she could deal with the pressure on her own. But she had not expected that he was completely aware of how others looked at them and talked about them.
Gu Xuelan’s hands trembled uncontrollably. She tried to lift her hand to tug at the jacket over her shoulders, but she couldn’t use any strength at all.
Her mind went blank and weakness and vertigo overwhelmed her.
The last thing she remembered was Xie Yu’s panicked shout. “Mom—”
All around were the sound of footsteps passing.
After Gu Xuelan fainted, the Zhong household was in chaos.
The family doctor brought down the medicine box from the second floor, saying as he did so, “It’s the old problem. I’ve told you before to watch out, so why were you so careless? Remember to rest well, and don’t overwork yourself… take care of yourself.”
Xie Yu was still in a daze.
A-Fang saw the family doctor out. On her way back, she couldn’t hold it in any longer. She stood in the doorway to the master bedroom and said, “Madam has been unwell for a while. You live at school, so you might not know, but a few months ago she had to go to the hospital… she didn’t sleep at all last night and sat downstairs waiting for you.”
A-Fang sighed. “No matter what happened, you can talk about it.”
Xie Yu sat by Madam Gu’s bed, the sounds of conversation from the first floor gradually growing distant. He thought about nothing else but how much of a bastard he had been.
He paused, then lightly touched her hand.
When Gu Xuelan woke up, it was evening.
A-Fang was currently in the room tidying up. Seeing she had woken, A-Fang hurriedly said to lift her spirits, “Second Young Master is in the kitchen brewing soup for you. He’s very worried. I told him to go downstairs for dinner but he wouldn’t. If there’s something between you, you can talk about it… He’s an understanding kid.”
Xie Yu busied himself in the kitchen.
While he was chopping ingredients, Zhou Dalei called. When the call connected, Zhou Dalei clearly heard something crash on the other side.
Xie Yu’s hand lifted and the knife came down.
The knife made a thud as it landed on the chopping board.
Zhou Dalei swallowed. “…Boss, Boss Xie?”
Xie Yu said nothing and brought the knife down again.
Zhou Dalei shrank into himself. He kept trying to defend himself, making a last stand to delay his execution. “I’m sorry. I never imagined things would happen like this. Life really is full of unexpected surprises. Last night I was playing games, and the opposing team was really terrible, so I thought about you, my good bro–”
Xie Yu put down the knife and saw that the soup was about ready. Steam roiled upward as he tipped the ingredients he had chopped into the pot. “This has nothing to do with you.”
With Xie Yu’s terrible temper, Zhou Dalei had imagined that he might live another two days at most. He hadn’t expected to be acquitted.
But even having gotten the good end of the stick, Zhou Dalei still felt uneasy. “Ah? You’re sure you’re not going to settle the score with me?”
“Settle the score, my ass,” Xie Yu said. “It’s my problem… You really want me to take it out on you? Are you sick?”
He could still tell right from wrong.
No matter what, this matter was not Zhou Dalei’s fault.
“Then… how is Aunt Lan?” Zhou Dalei asked. “Is she all right? Tell her to take care of herself.”
After hanging up the phone, Xie Yu stared at the steam rising from the pot. For some reason, he suddenly remembered what He Zhao had said to him in the classroom. “Treating her nicely in the way I want to… might not be what she wants.”
He looked down and searched for ‘He Zhao’ in his contacts.
He typed out many things then deleted all of it, leaving a single word.
The soup had brewed for a long time.
When Xie Yu brought the soup upstairs, Gu Xuelan was sitting up on the bed, back against a pillow.
Gu Xuelan was more angry at herself than at Xie Yu.
Over the last few years, she had talked with Xie Yu less and less.
She sensed that Xie Yu was learning, little by little, to stand on his own. He didn’t need her help and… was growing more and more distant from her.
“Mom.” Xie Yu wanted to say ‘I’m sorry’, but the words, like ‘I love you,’ were harder to say the closer one was to the other person.
Gu Xuelan looked at him. She did not continue questioning him and she did not blame him.
She took the bowl of soup and drank it silently, one small sip at a time.
“I want you to have a good life, too.” Gu Xuelan drank several mouthfuls. As she looked down at the red dates in the bowl, her eyes grew moist and she whispered, “I just want you to have a good life.”
“While we were in Black Water Street, I kept thinking that I wanted to give you a better living environment. It didn’t have to be luxurious, as long as we didn’t have to worry about food or clothes.”
“I never thought…”
Gu Xuelan paused. “If this is the result, I’d rather not be Madam Zhong.”
Xie Yu looked up, quietly. His eyes were red.
He had been stubborn since a young age. No matter what happened, he wouldn’t cry. Now, even though his eyes were growing uncontrollably wetter, he still wasn’t quite used to it and thought it embarrassing. He lifted his chin to keep the hot, wet feeling down. Then he called her, “Mom.”
Gu Xuelan looked up at him.
Xie Yu asked, “Do you prefer Tsinghua or Peking U?”
Gu Xuelan remembered what Xie Yu had said to shut her up: Just see if I get into Tsinghua or Peking U. She put her bowl down, wiped the corner of her eye with one hand, and then laughed. “…Either is fine. As long as you like it, any school is fine.”
While on vacation, He Zhao occasionally hung out at the library and had set his phone to silent mode. When he closed his book and picked up his phone to check the time, he saw a text from Xie Yu: Ge.
To avoid disturbing the other people in the library, He Zhao put the book back and dialed as he walked out. “What’s up?”
Then he heard Xie Yu say, “Ge, next time, let’s compete for first place.”
He Zhao was about to ask, “First place from the bottom?”
Xie Yu continued, “First place at the top.”
He Zhao walked out through the side door. Hearing these words, he stopped walking. He knew what it meant for his little friend to want to score first in the year. He had been pretending for so long. Now, for him to want to score first place, there was only one possible reason
The sky had already grown dark. He Zhao leaned against the wall and asked, “You’re serious?”
Xie Yu was pretty brave. He sat on the guard rail on the balcony to feel the wind. His hands were on either side of him on the railing and his legs dangled in the air. Looking down from the second floor, he could only see several rows of streetlights nearby.
“I’m serious.” Facing the wind, Xie Yu slowly shut his eyes and said, “What you said to me before. I know what you mean now.”
A month’s vacation was not that long and passed in the blink of an eye.
On New Year’s Eve, it snowed in A City again. A thick blanket of snow accumulated on the ground.
The class group filled with ‘Happy New Year’ wishes.
Aside from well-wishes, the majority of activity in the group chat consisted of snatching red packets.¹
For the sake of those red packets, the group moderator even kicked Xie Yu out of the group.
[Xu Qingqing]: Yu-ge, we’ll let you back in when we’re done snatching them.
[Xu Qingqing]: It’s New Year’s. With your hot hands, you aren’t really suited to snatching red packets in the same group as us. Please let us live.
[Wan Da]: Please, don’t call our friendship into question! We’re still friends!
[Liu Cunhao]: Although that’s true… for red packets, friends don’t count for anything.
[Luo Wenqiang]: Hao-zi, what you just said… is very true.
He Zhao had good luck that evening, and snatched the biggest portion of the several hundred bucks Old Tang had put into the chat.
[Liu Cunhao]: Lucky god! Fifty bucks! Formidable, Zhao-ge!
[Luo Wenqiang]: Why did I get only fifty cents… this isn’t logical. Do you have to hurt a working-class boy like me this way?
[Wan Da]: Ha ha ha ha ha, fifty cents. I got five bucks. Suddenly I think five bucks is very good, too. I can count my blessings.
Madam Gu saw off the last guest and seemed to put down a heavy burden. She sat down beside Xie Yu. Just now, she had not eaten much at dinner. As she ate dessert, she complained, “I didn’t even get to watch the spring program. I only saw half of the skit. What happened afterwards? What happened to that person?”
How would Xie Yu know? He hadn’t been paying attention at all. “Were there skits?”
Gu Xuelan: “……”
Xie Yu sat with Madam Gu through another few programs, but he didn’t find them funny at all.
His phone vibrated. He surreptitiously glanced down at it. He Zhao had sent him a red packet.
Xu Qingqing and the others had tried everything they could think of and had even resorted to the underhanded tactic of kicking Xie Yu out of the group. But they could never in ten thousand years have imagined that the biggest share of red packets still landed in Xie Yu’s hands.
[He Zhao]: I’ll give you everything I managed to get.
Fireworks were going off outside the window.
Accompanying the loud explosions, fragments and pinpricks of light filled the sky. They flashed in the night sky, then went out.