“If you did not pass the memorization test, find a time to come to the office.”
The English teacher had just finished her lesson in Class 2 next door. She had brought the test papers from all three classes with her, and after class she came over to distribute them. She stood in the doorway and gave her instructions, then said before handing out the results, “You write from memory for your test like you do questions. If you can’t remember one, then you wait for the next one, and in the end you hand in a blank sheet?”
Xie Yu couldn’t hold it in. He looked down and laughed.
He Zhao put his hand on his deskmate’s shoulder and leaned close. “Heartless. When I asked you to let me take a peek, you didn’t let me…”
Xie Yu replied: “Why go to the trouble? Just open the book and straight up copy.”
He Zhao couldn’t say anything.
During the class’s memorization assignment, Xie Yu had hesitated for a while, then figured he really couldn’t do that badly. He buckled down and copied out the vocabulary, and very carefully controlled his answer accuracy rate at 60%.
He Zhao had flipped through his books for a while, then caught sight of Xie Yu’s paper out of the corner of his eye. He started to get ideas. “You know half of it?”
Xie Yu’s face remained blank. “Is that so surprising?”
The English teacher continued: “…The rest, Xu Qingqing, give them out. Check what you did wrong. Tonight, your homework is a mock paper covering this chapter. Do it attentively. Next week is the monthly exam. Don’t score badly and embarrass the class.”
He Zhao wasn’t listening to the teacher. Suddenly, he heard Xie Yu say: “Look to your right.”
“Look at what?” He Zhao turned, not understanding. “There’s nothing…”
He stopped mid-sentence.
It was Wan Da and Liu Cunhao.
Those two were eyeing them with a fixed and very complicated gaze.
He Zhao could read an 800-word mini-essay from their expressions, one that auto-scrolled past their faces. I thought you were the king of copying, but you secretly handed in a blank sheet.
Their gazes were so heated they seemed to want to pierce him through.
He Zhao calmly and composedly averted his gaze, pretending to have seen nothing. He turned and asked Xie Yu, “What shall we do for dinner?”
In the evening, they could take advantage of the short period of time the school gates were open to slip out and eat a good meal.
Although the students living at school weren’t allowed to pass through the school gates at will, at the end of the school day, the volume of students leaving through the gate was so large that even the Mad Dog couldn’t control it.
The cafeteria’s selection was average and the food preparation wasn’t stellar, either. The chef often added too much salt and the accompanying soup was thin. In a large pot of pork rib soup there were often only several lonely pieces of wintermelon.
He Zhao said, “I asked Shen Jie to get us a good spot at the Gold List. Shall we go after class?”
He Zhao took that as acceptance and glanced down, replying to Shen Jie: “Save another seat. My deskmate is coming.”
Xie Yu hadn’t even had the time to refuse.
He was rather picky with food, but he rarely left the school grounds.
Within 500 metres of Erzhong were several small restaurants in fierce competition. In order to win customers’ hearts they put in a lot of effort. But they didn’t have price wars: they didn’t have discounts or give the second item for half price. Instead, starting with the Gold List restaurant, restaurants up and down the street suddenly started changing their names.
Valedictorian House, Peking U Dumplings, Tsinghua Bun Shop. Even the roadside food carts and the barbecue stalls that could be chased away by city management at any time were called 985 Barbecue.¹
From the school gate, it was quite the shocking sight.
Gold List Restaurant was at the end of the street, the farthest from the school. Around the corner was the next street over, which was deserted.
Shen Jie picked a four-person table, sat down, and perused the menu while waiting for the others.
The menu consisted mostly of simple fare. Shen Jie ticked off a few items they usually ordered, then got out his phone and asked He Zhao: I’m ordering. What does your young master Yu want? Anything he can’t eat?
He Zhao recalled the previous incident with the sweetened and unsweetened soymilk, and thought that the list of ‘things he can’t eat’ would probably take Xie Yu three days and three nights to enumerate.
Coriander, onion, garlic, greasy things, sweet things. Best avoid chili too.
Shen Jie looked at the text He Zhao sent back and sank into deep thought. He flipped attentively through the menu and for the first time realized the weight of the responsibility that had been placed upon him. “Boss, can you hold the chili on this chili chicken? And use less oil and don’t use spring onion.”
As he finished, he felt that the chili chicken would lose its dignity if this continued.
“…hold on, I’ll take another look.”
Shen Jie got a headache looking at the menu. He texted He Zhao, So troublesome? Are you making things difficult for me on purpose?
He Zhao: You should be glad. This is only the part of the list I remember.
The Gold List Restaurant had been in business for many years. The decor looked old and a big creaking fan hung from the ceiling.
Xie Yu walked to the doorway and immediately saw the banner above the entrance. Six gold-lined words: Your name on the gold list.
Inside, a table of people was halfway through their meal. They didn’t look like Erzhong students. With their heads of gold hair, if they attended Erzhong, their heads might have already been plucked bare by Dean Jiang.
“Here.” Shen Jie stood up and waved.
He Zhao pushed open the door, which had a bell attached. The movement set the bell to ringing for a while.
The gold-haired people at the next table over were drinking beer. Seeing other people come in, they held their drinks to their mouths and glanced sideways at the newcomers, then leisurely tipped their heads back and drank.
The most eye-catching of them had a snake tattooed on his neck, twisting into his collar.
“Sit,” Shen Jie greeted them. “A pitcher of beer?”
Now that the reputed big bros of the East and West Buildings were sitting together, they had to have a good drink. In Shen Jie’s mind surfaced the following scene: they ate, drank, and reminisced about the past year of being big bros.
Then he heard Xie Yu say, “Mineral water.”
He Zhao closed the menu and said, “Watermelon juice.”
Shen Jie: “……”
Shen Jie talked a lot of nonsense. Going off his description, even He Zhao would seem cold and unapproachable. Xie Yu felt that he and Zhou Dalei should get together and co-write a novel.
“Our class teacher is running a tutoring service in private. Someone reported him and dragged him to the Ministry of Education.”
Shen Jie was talking up a storm when someone walked up. He seemed to have drunk too much and he wasn’t steady on his feet as he walked. He crashed into the table and right onto Shen Jie: “Sorry, sorry… I’m a bit dizzy.”
That person apologized, then stumbled towards the bathrooms in the back.
He Zhao suddenly put down his chopsticks: “Wait.”
The person stopped.
He Zhao stood up and walked over to the person, his face going cold. “What’s up with you?”
“Zhao-ge, it’s fine. They just knocked into me,” Shen Jie cajoled. “…How can you get mad just from drinking watermelon juice?”
Xie Yu looked up and saw the man with the snake tattoo put down his glass and look meaningfully at the people next to him.
He Zhao said, “Idiot, you make me mad. Check your pocket. Are you missing anything?”
Shen Jie froze, and it was several seconds before he reacted. Belatedly, he reached into his pocket. “Where’s my wallet….”
Xie Yu ate the last bite of rice in his bowl, then picked up a piece of vegetable.
“Very good with his hands. Well-honed skills.”
He Zhao pushed up his sleeves, revealing his wrists.
Then he got close to the guy and put his hand in the guy’s pocket. As expected, he found something with a soft leather texture. The guy reflexively caught He Zhao’s hand and didn’t let him pull it out. He Zhao said, “I’m damn well saying it only once. Let go.”
“Bros, it’s a misunderstanding, surely.” The gold-haired man with the snake tattoo spoke the words threateningly, his meaning clear. I’m giving you an out now, so crawl away and pretend this never happened.
He Zhao smiled and challenged: “Then you might have misunderstood the word ‘misunderstanding.’”
So the one with the snake tattoo on his neck threw down his chopsticks and stood up with his buddies. Seven or eight of them, all with gold hair and a formidable stance.
Shen Jie looked at the headcount of his side of the fight and wanted to tell He Zhao, Never mind, there’s only ten bucks in my wallet anyway… ²
He Zhao didn’t see these small fries as a threat at all, but he had to make a show of things. He called out to Xie Yu, “Old Xie, get over here!”
The atmosphere was one of drawn swords and notched arrows. A terrible war was about to break out.
Shen Jie looked strong. Others saw that he was always with He Zhao and thought he was a formidable character, too. Actually, he wasn’t that good at fighting, and He Zhao didn’t have any hopes for him.
Before their eyes, Xie Yu was still picking out fish bones. He held his chopsticks and meticulously pulled out the fish bones one by one: “You two go on and fight. Wait for me to finish.”
He Zhao: “……”
Xie Yu was in a good mood today and didn’t want to kill anything, but there were always idiots offering up their heads.
“What, looking down on us?” Gold Head walked to their table and flipped the plate of fish to the ground, then kicked the table. It didn’t tip over, so he stepped on the plate of fish on the ground. “Eat. I’m saying you can eat. Kneel down and lick it up.”
Xie Yu: “……”
“You could have left me one.”
Walking out of the Gold List Restaurant, He Zhao was still complaining that fighting alongside Xie Yu was a bad experience. “Does anyone steal kills like you do? I was fighting him well and good and you had to drag him away and beat him.”
Xie Yu said: “You’re too slow. You call that fighting?”
The three of them squatted by the roadside. Shen Jie pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lit one to calm down.
The massacre just now was simply shocking.
Shen Jie rearranged his mental list of ‘people to never provoke,’ and put Xie Yu in front of Mad Dog.
When He Zhao fought, he took the humiliation approach. He tortured them slowly, using words as attacks to provoke his opponent. He made people long to be beaten and have it over with: “Please just hit me. Just beat me up.”
Xie Yu was different. He didn’t say a word and dealt lethal blow after lethal blow, tossing people like he was tossing cabbage.
He Zhao turned to Shen Jie and said, “Look in your wallet and check if you’re missing money.”
Shen Jie pulled the wallet from his pocket and opened it to show them. “It’s all there. Nothing missing.”
A ten-yuan bill.
Crisp and new.
“Just this bit of money?” He Zhao felt that he had wasted his effort. “If it’s just this much, you should have said! If it got stolen then let it be.”
Xie Yu also said, “Just ten damn bucks?”
Shen Jie: “I wanted to tell you! But I didn’t get a chance!”
After chatting for a while, Shen Jie looked at the time. He needed to catch the bus home. He said his farewells, then walked in the direction of the bus stop: “Thank you, big bros, for graciously lending a hand and protecting my ten bucks for me. See you tomorrow. If I don’t get home, my mom will beat my ass till it flowers.”
Night had fallen, the streetlamps bright globes in the darkness.
It was evening self-study time and the school gates were tightly shut. To enter the school they’d probably have to climb the walls.
He Zhao dusted off his clothes and stood up: “Let’s go.”
After walking for a while, one of them laughed out loud, then the two of them started laughing together and couldn’t stop. He Zhao slung an arm around Xie Yu’s neck and whispered, “Fuck it. Ten bucks.”
 Project 985: An initiative in China to develop world-class universities.
 10 yuan: about US$1.42