A new day.
A yell pierced the vestiges of morning mist and shook everyone to crisp alertness.
“Stand up straight! All of you get over here and stand properly.”
“Don’t stare at the damn floor. Do you think it’s going to grow flowers? Don’t be shy. No need to be shy. You’ve already thrown away all your dignity anyway.”
“Back straight! Heads up! Look forward. Look into my eyes.”
A dozen or so people stood proudly by the bronze statue in the entryway of Liyang Erzhong. They stood in two rows, their heads hanging and the backpacks they carried drooping heavily.
Those not fully awake had been yelled at so loudly their sleeping bugs¹ had all flown away. They flinched on the spot, trembling.
One of the male students couldn’t stop himself. He looked up and glanced at the Dean of Students, then lowered his head again and whispered, “…Mad Dog.”
‘Mad Dog’ Dean Jiang’s ears faintly caught something. He pointed to the students and raised his voice. “Who’s talking!”
The man’s chest heaved wildly. On his nose was perched a pair of gold-framed spectacles, but it didn’t give him any air of scholarly elegance. In his hand he held a name chart which recorded the names of tardy students. Those who were late more than three times would be recorded on the last page of the chart—the blacklist.
The nickname ‘Mad Dog’ had been around a long time, coined by students a few years back and passed down. Everyone said that you must never provoke this Dean Jiang. The legendary Mad Dog was more terrifying than even a tigress.
Dean Jiang’s eyes narrowed. He walked from the head of the line to the end with a sneer on his face. “—Late. Not even a few days into the new term and you’re already playing the late game.”
He walked down the line again, then suddenly stopped. The other students held their breaths and Dean Jiang’s voice rose again. “He Zhao? What’s the situation?!”
He Zhao stepped forward. “I was late.”
“You’re living in the dorms this semester and I still catch you at the school gates.” Dean Jiang indicated for the other students to go back to class, keeping just He Zhao. “All right. Your ability to break the school rules is really something else.”
He Zhao said that he had gone for a morning run and forgotten the time.
Dean Jiang looked at He Zhao, who was impossibly neat and clean. He would even be able to smell the detergent from his clothes if he were to get closer.
Morning run, my ass. More like an old man stroll.
Dean Jiang didn’t bother quibbling further. He looked at the time: it was ten minutes past the start of class. He said, “The usual.”
“Reflection essay, I know.” He Zhao walked forward as he said, “I’ll deliver it to your office by lunch. See you, Dean Jiang.”
Seeing He Zhao about to disappear, Dean Jiang said, “Wait, come back.”
He Zhao stopped.
Dean Jiang said, “What’s up with that petition from your class?”
After the series of dramatic events, Xu Xia didn’t receive any punishment, but her transfer to the Experimental High School was a lost cause. Her superior saw that she sincerely admitted her mistake and he didn’t pursue the matter further on account of her having taught for more than a decade.
What made the school officer’s head hurt was that the students of class 3 wanted to change their form teacher.
When He Zhao mentioned this, he had initially thought no one in class would agree. Class 3 was usually very silent and the students usually kept quiet, but now everyone’s dislike for Xu Xia suddenly burst forth.
Liu Cunhao took the lead in gathering his buddies in support.
“Depose her!” The speaker was an energetic boy. His eyes seemed to sparkle as he looked around. “As long as our whole class participates, even if we fail, a group crime is always more lightly punished.”
Liu Cunhao slapped the boy’s head. “Know-It-All, why are you so pessimistic? Before we even do anything you’re already thinking of failure.”
The boy called ‘Know-It-All’ said, “This isn’t pessimism. This is a strategy. I can mention ten events like this off the top of my head. Last year, Class 5 protested the teacher taking their gym period…”
He Zhao had intended to enthusiastically encourage Xie Yu to look for Mad Dog with them.
Xie Yu pointed to the petition in Liu Cunhao’s hand, which half the class had already signed. “I’m already giving you a lot of face by signing, all right?”
After stopping He Zhao, Dean Jiang didn’t say much to him before leaving.
He Zhao ran all the way back to the classroom. While the English teacher wasn’t looking, he bent down and slipped in through the back door, then quietly sat down. From the lightweight schoolbag on his shoulders he pulled out a cup of warm soymilk and handed it to Xie Yu. “Here.”
Xie Yu looked at the soymilk and the straw. “What is this?”
“Drink it,” He Zhao said, hanging his bag on the back of his chair. “Didn’t you want it unsweetened?”
After finding out that he lived opposite Xie Yu, He Zhao often went to knock on Xie Yu’s door, whether anything was the matter or not. Of course, Xie Yu didn’t welcome this at all. Sometimes He Zhao got up early and went over to call Xie Yu up, too. “Come, let’s go get breakfast.”
Then He Zhao discovered that Xie Yu was very picky about his food and would rather not eat than eat something he didn’t like.
“It’s soy milk either way. What’s the difference?” He Zhao asked.
Xie Yu said, “I don’t drink sweet soymilk.”
The school cafeteria didn’t have that many varieties of soy milk, and only the breakfast place outside school had unsweetened soy milk. He Zhao had wanted to treat Xie Yu to a meal to thank him for helping him out so much, but he hadn’t expected to become an errand boy in the end.
“What are we doing? Going over questions? What is this?” He Zhao spent a long time just looking for his English book, and after he opened it he was more confused. “…When was this assigned?”
Xie Yu had borrowed the work from the people in the row in front to copy and didn’t even raise his head. “Don’t know. Probably when you were deciding between the lace skirt and the leather pants.”
He Zhao’s movements hadn’t escaped the teacher’s eyes.
The English teacher wrote the question on the board, then put down the chalk and called He Zhao’s name. “Student who was late, come and explain. When you encounter a question like this, what’s the first step?”
He Zhao stood up slowly, hesitated for a while, then said, “Give up and go to the next question.”
Xie Yu was halfway through copying a translation. On hearing this answer, he forgot to lift his pencil and gave the letter ‘C’ he was writing a long tail. “……”
The English teacher: “……”
The whole class: “……”
He Zhao continued, “When you meet a question you can’t answer, don’t waste your time.”
After a long silence, someone couldn’t restrain a snort of laughter any more. Then the whole class started laughing uproariously.
“Ha ha ha ha ha ha next question.”
The English teacher tried to frown very seriously but in the end cracked up, too. “You sit down and listen properly.”
After morning self-study passed, the news that Xu Xia had been transferred to the first year students spread throughout the class.
“A teacher for a first year class has a bad voice and needs an operation, so Xu Xia probably went to that class. Our new form teacher is surnamed Tang.”
Know-It-All had listened at the door of the faculty office and brought the news fresh out of the oven back to class. He said as he ran, ”And he was transferred from an elite school. Special teacher, sounds very awesome.”
Wan Da, who was coincidentally surnamed ‘Wan,’ always had a lot of underground gossip to spread, and no one knew where he obtained it from. In addition, no one ever knew if the confusing and vague gossip he brought was true or false. Wan Da bragged that, even in the half of the city outside Liyang Erzhong, there wasn’t anything he didn’t know. So he was nicknamed ‘Know-It-All.’²
Liu Cunhao was currently collecting homework and said, “You even dare to listen at Mad Dog’s door?”
Wan Da said, “Have to. In order to get firsthand news, risking death is a must.”
Know-It-All’s news was never accurate, not even one time out of ten, but this time he had hit the nail on the head. The new form teacher was surnamed Tang and even his name was full of character: Tang Sen.
Tang Sen looked like an ordinary man entering middle age. A set of Buddhist beads was wrapped around his wrist, and he taught class attentively. Within two days he had memorized everyone’s name and face.
He also spoke well and didn’t put on airs, but he was a little annoying and long-winded. In a single monologue he could touch on several totally unrelated topics, but when he strung them together, the change didn’t seem abrupt at all.
“Student on duty, clean the classroom before you leave. It’s important to sleep early and get enough sleep. Don’t eat food that is too oily. If you encounter a question you don’t know, just leave it. You can ask, but you definitely can’t copy. When you get home, remember to ask after your parents. They’re exhausted from their day, too. Right, it might rain tomorrow, so you’d best bring an umbrella…”
After the last class let out for the day, the live-in students stayed behind to continue evening self-study.
Coincidentally, both He Zhao and Xie Yu often skipped evening self-study. Either one of them would skip or they would both skip, which was why even half a month after starting school they hadn’t realized the other also lived in school.
More than half the class had left. The ten or so people who remained did their homework and started chatting idly.
Outside, night had already fallen.
Wan Da asked mysteriously, “Do you know about the ghost in our dormitory?”
While Know-It-All had started talking about this supernatural topic, He Zhao had dragged Xie Yu into a team game and was currently focused on executing his own skill sets. “I’m really very strong—did you see? Two birds with one stone. Come over. I’ll cover you.”
Xie Yu said, “Look carefully. I was the one who killed that avatar.”
It was impossible to attack a teammate, or Xie Yu might have killed He Zhao first.
“These past few nights, there’ve been weird noises on our floor. Especially after midnight. There’s knocking at the door.” As Wan Da spoke, he got quieter and quieter. “I heard that a few days ago it was still roaming the first floor… but starting from last night, strange things happened on the second floor, too. I heard the knocking with my own ears, but when I went to open the door, there was nothing at all outside. At the end of the corridor, I saw a shadow go by.”
Wan Da continued, “I don’t know, maybe I saw wrongly. But wasn’t there always a rumor? You know, right? That person who jumped?”
Other students corroborated. “I know, I know. Jumped from the roof.”
“I live on the first floor and I’ve heard it many times. Every time there’s knocking, I don’t dare to open the door. But yesterday it stopped. Did it really go upstairs?”
Xie Yu was focused on his game and wasn’t listening. He encountered two major bosses and was about to fight them when he turned and found that his teammate had vanished at some point. “Tsk. Weren’t you supposed to cover me?”
He Zhao’s expression wasn’t quite right. “…Which floor are we on? The third?”