Gu Xuelan stepped into the house several moments later. She took off her shawl and handed it to the maid. “Is dinner ready?”
The maid took the shawl from her. “Just as you instructed, it’s ready. All dishes the second young master likes. Will you eat now?”
Gu Xuelan’s high heels stepped on the marble floor. The chandelier reflected in the floor was bright and striking, making it seem as if she was stepping on light. She walked another two steps then halted. She retreated, turned, and walked in the opposite direction, leaving behind a sentence: “Go upstairs and call him.”
Xie Yu was in the bathroom, his body thoroughly soaked. Water ran from the top of his head along the strands of his hair and dripped down, the hot steam misting the glass doors on all four sides.
The phone he had left beside the sink vibrated.
He shut his eyes and washed away the last of the foam on his body, then heard two knocks at the door. Immediately after, the maid’s tentative and restrained voice came muffled through the door. “Second young master, it’s dinner time.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“That… but madam has already…”
Xie Yu opened his eyes and repeated: “I’m not hungry and can’t eat.”
A-Fang had been with the Zhong family less than two years, not a long time. She was still hesitant when she spoke or did anything, as if afraid of making the smallest mistake. When she first arrived, even before meeting anyone, she had already heard many rumors about the Zhong family.
It was said that the original Mrs. Zhong had killed herself. Not even a few years later, Big Boss Zhong had brought another woman home. The name Gu Xuelan wasn’t recognized by anyone, and when she came she even dragged an oil container¹ along with her. One big and one small. The woman sat on Mrs. Zhong’s throne, and fairly securely at that; no matter how others laughed at her, she hadn’t fallen off.
The Zhong family’s eldest young master was pitiful. Not only had he lost his mother, he now had to watch someone else enter the house.
When A-Fang went back to deliver Xie Yu’s message, she didn’t know what to say. She stood next to the table with her head bowed and couldn’t say a word.
Seeing her demeanor, Gu Xuelan understood what had happened. She picked up her chopsticks. As she spoke, she herself wasn’t sure if she cared as little as she seemed to. “Whether he wants to eat or not, he’ll get hungry… You may go.”
Xie Yu put on his clothes, his hair still dripping water. He wanted to see how much of that mysterious game had downloaded, but when he picked up his phone he only saw text message notifications. At a glance, he couldn’t find the game’s download progress bar at all.
A group chat titled, “Don’t just fight and kill,” showed over 99 push notifications.
[Barbecue Stall Prince – Lei] : My god, he’d better know what’s good for him. If I run into him again, I’ll beat him up every time I see him.
[Lei’s Dad] Good boy! You have spirit!
[Lei’s Mom]: Beat him until he can’t get up! He’s been so arrogant for these past few months. He really thought he’s a big brother.
Zhou Dalei’s family members were really all alike.
Xie Yu scrolled up. The content was more or less the same.
Hu-ge had already been set straight by everyone’s collective effort, but he still had to subject his corpse to whipping by the Black Water Street Citizens’ group chat.
Black Water Street had undergone continuous expansion for a few years and people had come and gone. Many new households had moved in. This chat group mostly consisted of residents of the old neighborhoods who had been here more than ten years: a few dozen people who were as close as family.
Lei-zi used to complain to him a lot that ever since this chat group was set up, there was no privacy at all.
When he skipped class to go to an internet cafe, the internet cafe’s boss had laughed and said, “The world’s only as big as your courage! I appreciate your courage. You’re not like the other kids.” Then he turned around and posted an HD portrait of Lei-zi holding the mouse and logging into the game, and mentioned Lei’s Dad and Lei’s Mom with the addendum: Your son didn’t go to class and came to play games again!
Lei-zi’s dad and mom had immediately left their work at the stall, barged into the internet cafe, and chased Lei-zi down three whole blocks.
Xie Yu was drying his hair with a towel when someone mentioned him out of nowhere.
[Barbecue Stall Prince – Lei] @XY, what do you think? I thought about it all night instead of sleeping and I still think that idiot got off easy.
He just had to drag Xie Yu into it. Would the topic please just end? Xie Yu typed a few words back.
[XY]: Don’t drag me into this. I’m an upstanding citizen.
[Barbecue Stall Prince – Lei] : ……
[Barbecue Stall Prince – Lei] You’re really shameless. Where were you thinking about being an upstanding citizen when you were beating someone up?!
Question King Tournament had successfully installed.
Xie Yu had a bit more interest in this Question King Tournament, so he neatly ended the conversation: I’m dropping this conversation, Barbecue Prince, and going to play games.
The two had different understandings of the word ‘game.’ Zhou Dalei also liked to play games: whether it was Match Up or League of Legends, he loved them all and wasn’t picky. He did have some talent for games. Once, he had been the glorious top League player on Black Water Street whom people couldn’t beat no matter how hard they tried.
So the Barbecue Stall Prince immediately perked up and sent Xie Yu a private message: What game, a new Chicken King Wars? Let’s VC?
[XY] Don’t ask, you can’t.
[XY] You can’t play it.
The three dots of silence.
[Barbecue Stall Prince – Lei] : Don’t tell a man he can’t. Tell me what it is. If you have guts, tell me. I, your big bro, will get onto the leaderboard in a minute.
Zhou Dalei put out his cigarette and prepared to meet this battle between men. But when he saw the game interface Xie Yu sent over—if that could even be called a game—he felt as if he had been struck by lightning. He was dazed. With trembling hands he deleted the brutal words he had previously sent.
Then he hit the voice message button and replied, “What the hell is this!”
Hell Math, Huanggang Real Questions, Flower English, BioChemPhys All Together… this was a virus, surely.
“Is this a game? Can this be a game? What exactly do you not understand about the word ‘game?’” Zhou Dalei’s heart was pierced a thousand times and hurt like it had received ten thousand thorns. In the end he could only ask, from the depths of his soul, “Is this fun?!”
[XY] I don’t know. It’ll do, probably.
[Barbecue Stall Prince – Lei] : ……
The total number of online players in Question King was less than four hundred. It was unpopular and its interface was simple and ugly; it gave off the atmosphere of risking shutdown at any time.
Upon entry, players encountered a test made up of random questions. They had to accumulate a certain amount of points before they could enter the second level: endless question mode, and one-on-one PK.
This game did have some frills: in the lower left corner was a small box and a scrollbar, a chat function which encouraged communication between players. But the contents of this communication…
“TopTenInClass” said to “EnglishClassRep”: Let’s compare points. I’ll give you back this humiliation.
“EnglishClassRep” said to “TopTenInClass”: Interesting. Is that fun? If you have that much mental energy, you might as well go memorize some more English vocabulary. Your English—pardon my frankness—you don’t even have the lexicon of an eighth grader. If your vocabulary is stuck at the fourth grade level, you don’t have a future. You should reflect on yourself.
“TheBeautyOfChineseCulture”: Memorize what English? When one is tired, come to the Oceans of Chinese Culture to rest and recuperate. Classical Chinese PK, self-explanatory. Double experience. Room 24008, wait for your fated person.
“ILoveStudying”: Game God, please explain question 13 on booklet B? Is zero or negative one not the solution? Are the limits on the function wrong?
“StudystudystudythatsallIdo” : Will pay high price for a set of the 40th Anniversary Limited Edition edition of “Beat the Gaokao:² The Mock Exam Most Worth Doing.” I went to all the bookstores and couldn’t get it. Because I couldn’t do this mock exam, I can’t eat and I lost twenty kg. My heart hurts. The Beat the Gaokao series is my favourite mock exam, how can I not have the limited edition!!!
Xie Yu was the 399th registered player. This game really was unpopular; the system warmly welcomed him in a little message box for a full two minutes, then enthusiastically predicted his future for him: Drift freely in the ocean of knowledge and fight hard to build a beautiful new China. Tsinghua and Peking University³ are waving to you.
Xie Yu clicked in and did a mock exam.
The system messages were still rolling: Welcome user [jsdhwdmaX] to the Question King Tournament family!
At this time, the players online hadn’t realized that this newbie, whose account name seemed to have come from rubbing his face against his keyboard, would bring a massacre of blood, wind, and rain in the summer vacation to come.
Zhou Dalei also did a mock exam, refusing to back down until he hit the southern wall.⁴ In the answer box for every question he scrawled only two crooked words: Don’t know.
The result was obvious.
He hit the ‘submit paper’ button in the upper right corner and was informed that his score was too low and he was not eligible for admission to the game lobby.
Zhou Dalei almost threw his phone: Discrimination! Discrimination against bad students! What kind of broken game is this? I’m a king in the digital arena! You don’t even let me in the game lobby? If I can’t do ’em, I can’t do ’em! So what if I can’t do the questions? At least I’m honest!
By the time Xie Yu had finished doing the questions, he had received more than ten messages from Barbecue Prince.
-How is this solved? Is this really meant for humans to do?
-Complaint! I’m lodging a complaint!
Xie Yu’s finger tapped lightly on the screen several times as he formed his sentence carefully. He was about to hit send, but Zhou Dalei sent another message: How many points did you get?
How many points?
Xie Yu sat on the carpet with his back to the side of his bed and deleted the words he had just written, one at a time.
[XY] About the same as you.
[XY] Rubbish game. I uninstalled it already.
Zhou Dalei had a cigarette in his mouth. He squatted by the box and contemplated life. An apron encircled his waist, Fang Bao Lai Sunflower Seed Oil written on it in red cursive. One could tell at a glance that it was a ‘buy two get one free’ piece from the supermarket’s big clearance sale.
He wasn’t bad-looking. His features were proportional and somewhat rascally, and he was just a little dark. Right now, it was the way he squatted that made him look even more like a hooligan.
His mom passed by holding a tray. Seeing him deflated like this, she picked up a foot and kicked him. Zhou Dalei’s butt took a direct hit. “What are you doing squatting here! Have you finished grilling the lamb?”
“I’m going, I’m going.”
Zhou Dalei hurriedly stood up and had only taken two steps when he thought of something and turned back to say: “In a while, mom, I want to ask you something.”
His mom replied smoothly: “Don’t know, no money, loved before.”
”Can you be serious. I was going to ask you, do you remember that in junior high, Xie Yu’s grades were really good and he even represented our street in a math competition and won a prize. And when we were little and had a Rubik’s cube, he could do it even with his eyes closed. He was so good at it…”
His mom put the dirty dishes in the sink. “So what? Your mom, too. When I was small, I got full marks in all my exams, and in the end I still got lost. People get worse with time, too. Like you. Look at you now.”
Zhou Dalei tried to capture the vaguely formed notion in his mind. “No—Mom, I really think that that’s not… also, what’s up with me now? I think I’m quite good-looking.”
“Good-looking my ass. Get rid of those messy colors on your head first.” His mom began lecturing. “Kids these days just want to play. They’re all smart too, they just don’t spend time on studying. Like A-Jie from next door, his grades used to be rock bottom, but after he got out of the hospital he jumped ahead about a hundred places in the mock exams. I think you also need a car accident to clear your brain. All you know how to do is play games all day…”
“Twenty lamb kebabs, right? I’m going.”
 In rural areas, oil containers were made of bamboo which was heavy. Because rural areas were far from the towns, when a villager went to the market, his neighbors would often ask him to buy things from the market, most often oil (which was needed for lights, cooking, etc). The villager would thus end up dragging six or seven heavy oil containers behind him.
These oil containers were usually ‘someone else’s property,’ were tedious to haul, and often picked up mud and dirt along the way (拖泥带水, an idiom which also refers to picking up unnecessary fuss or work). Thus, ‘dragging an oil container’ gradually became a phrase representing the burden of bringing up someone else’s illegitimate child.
 Gaokao: short form for the high school exams
 Tsinghua and Peking U: the best universities in China
 Refusing to back down until hitting the southern wall: Stubborn.