As the monthly exams neared, Wan Da and the others stopped telling ghost stories and focused on revision during evening self study.
Mad Dog came around to check on them. Seeing Class 2.3’s enthusiasm for studying, he was satisfied with what he saw, a rare occurrence. “Not bad. I’m giving you special praise. Keep it up. Your class has worked very hard lately. Students should study like this. Very good.”
Tang Sen finished dinner and came over to see them. Even though it was a hot summer day, he was still holding a hot beverage cup.
Mad Dog said, “Old Tang. Good timing. I have something to talk to you about.”
Tang Sen left his cup on the podium and followed Dean Jiang out.
“Don’t you feel that Mad Dog has been coming to our class a lot lately?” Wan Da gossiped as he did his math questions. “Our Old Tang is good friends with Mad Dog. Such good friends, they even wear the same pair of pants.”
He Zhao’s books lay open on his desk while his hands messed with his phone in his desk drawer.
Teachers rarely gave the two of them, He Zhao and Xie Yu, trouble, but Mad Dog was an exception. Old ginger is more spicy and Dean Jiang was the spiciest of the bunch. When he started trying to ‘cure’ people, he had no restraint and gave the impression that he could start fighting with the students at any time. He wasn’t worried at all. He must have been a tyrant who ruled over the land when he was young.
So whenever Mad Dog came around to check on the class, the two of them would pretend to be studying along with the rest of the class, however reluctantly.
Xie Yu tossed a pen over and warned He Zhao. “Mad Dog.”
“Cover for me,” He Zhao said, not even lifting his head. “This is an important event and I can’t be distracted. Love you.”
“Take those last two words back.”
After throwing the pen, Xie Yu found that that had been his only pen, so he reached out to get it back.
And accidentally glimpsed He Zhao’s phone screen.
In Xie Yu’s memory, his deskmate had long since put the dressup game aside. He had even gotten Xie Yu to play a ‘Men’s Romance’—a shooter game.
He had assumed that the dressup game was no longer popular in the little girls’ cliques.
Dean Jiang chatted with Old Tang for a while before leaving to check on the classes downstairs. He Zhao straightforwardly took his phone out and used it in plain sight on top of the desk.
The screen showed a cartoon girl with long hair, a floral dress, and a blush on her cheeks. She stood under a tree, hands locked in prayer.
Then the screen gradually darkened and several lines of text slowly appeared:
Tomorrow… is my date with him…
Will he come?
Will he like the cherry blossom biscuits I made for him?
Xie Yu: “……”
Wan Da had said, ‘I want to revise, and I’ll show you all at the monthly exams, none of you better come over and disturb me,’ but he was now halfway through his questions and, frankly speaking, bored. He bit the end of his pen and glanced left and right. Finally, his gaze landed on two heads pressed closely together in the last row.
He Zhao’s hand was on the back of Xie Yu’s neck, five fingers slightly bent, as if pulling Xie Yu closer.
He had no idea what they were talking about.
“Why didn’t he go on the date with me?” He Zhao was close to breaking. “Bastard. He said yesterday that he would come, and the affection meter is full.”
Xie Yu looked at the young girl crying sorrowfully in the rain on the screen and wasn’t sure how to react.
In the lower right corner were several icons and one of them had a small red dot. Xie Yu asked, “Did he send you a text just now?”
He Zhao said, “Tyrant CEO said something came up at his company and he’d be a little late. Then there were three response choices.”
Xie Yu felt like he’d discovered something. “Which did you pick?”
He Zhao said, “Of course I reprimanded him for being late.”
“Are you sick?” Xie Yu was getting a headache just from listening. “Who the hell would go on a date with you like this?”
“What kind of guy is this?! Just because of that, he won’t date me?! This bastard CEO.” He Zhao kept cursing, but he still shoved the phone into Xie Yu’s hands. “Then what do I do next… fuck, the bastard’s affection for Little Cutie is going down.”
Xie Yu tapped on the screen lightly, following the narrative. “Apologize to the bastard.”
He Zhao: “……”
“Apologize.” Xie Yu shoved the phone back. “Do you want the bastard’s love or not?”
He Zhao hesitated for a long time without doing anything. Eventually, he held back his humiliation and touched the choice, ‘Sorry about earlier today.’
He Zhao continued, “If He Xi finds a boyfriend like this, I’m killing him. Won’t even think twice. What the hell do girls today even look for?”
It was almost the weekend.
Aside from the students for whom it wasn’t convenient to go home because they lived far away, most of the students living in the dorms packed up every Friday and went home. Parents always worried whether their kids were eating enough at school, so they urged their kids to come back during the weekends.
Xie Yu got a phone call from Gu Xuelan as evening self-study let out. “Are you coming home over the weekend?”
Xie Yu stood in the corridor. In front of him was pitch darkness, and behind him were the sounds of Wan Da and He Zhao messing around. The desks and chairs were being shoved around, making a terrible noise.
“Zhao-ge, do you want to join our basketball team? We’re very good.”
“It’s fine if I’m giving the compliments, but now you come up and personally brag to me… that’s a bit too much. Liu Cunhao’s terrible dodge from earlier today… even I couldn’t bring myself to say anything.”
“…You called him awesome!”
“…That was fake, couldn’t you tell?”
Xie Yu smiled slightly and replied, “I might not go back. We’ll see.”
Gu Xuelan held on to the receiver, sighing so lightly Xie Yu almost couldn’t hear it. Then she said, “How many weeks has it been now that you haven’t come back?”
Xie Yu looked for a reason all parents under the sun would be happy to hear and shoved it forward. “It’s almost the monthly exams. I have to revise.”
This term, Xie Yu’s grades were all right. He hadn’t gotten into trouble, and the new homeroom teacher, Mr. Tang, told Gu Xuelan that Xie Yu followed the rules quite well and that he hoped she would rest easy.
When this reason was offered, Madam Gu had nothing more to say.
“Then study hard,” Gu Xuelan said. “After the exams, come home. Whatever you want to eat, Mom will make it for you. How can school food be as good as home cooking…”
Xie Yu said, “Mm,” several times and chatted a little while, then hung up.
He Zhao had already packed his things. He knocked Xie Yu’s head from behind as he laughed and joked. Rather than knocked, ruffled would be more appropriate. “Little friend, are you going home for the weekend?”
Xie Yu looked cold and harsh, but his hair was especially soft. He Zhao couldn’t help himself and ruffled it twice more.
“Cripple,” Xie Yu called out. “I gave you a hard time today and now you’re opening a dye shop, are you?”¹
Seeing Xie Yu was about to use his fists, He Zhao dodged. “Calm down. Peace breeds prosperity, peace breeds prosperity.”
Wan Da left first to pack his things.
Xie Yu and He Zhao walked side-by-side out of the school building. After a very long time, He Zhao said, “I’m not going back over the weekend, either.”
The streetlights cast long shadows behind them.
“What are you staying in school for?” Xie Yu asked. “Really testing the Exorcism Guide?”
He Zhao was first stunned, then wanted to say something but didn’t in the end. He didn’t put on any of his colorful acts. He raised his hand to scratch at his head, then suddenly laughed. “Yeah, I want to try it.”
After walking a little further, Xie Yu asked, “He Xi. Is that your sister’s name?”
“That damn girl.” He Zhao stared at the streetlights and grit out the words, then went silent for a moment. “…Should I brag about how beautiful my sister is and how she obviously takes after me? We haven’t seen each other in a few years. She’s probably quite pretty. Girls change a lot when they grow up, right? She was so ugly when she was young. As round as a ball.”
He Zhao said it lightly and Xie Yu felt that something seemed off, but it didn’t seem like the right time to ask.
He Zhao, on the other hand, was fine with it and spilled his entire family history. Simple and clean and especially calm. “Divorced. She’s with my mom.”
He Zhao turned. “What?”
Xie Yu said, “Your sister’s name.”
“And what about me?” He Zhao asked. “At this point in the conversation you should compliment me, too.”
Xie Yu walked toward the dorm building, ignoring him. “You? Get lost.”
Wan Da didn’t go home over the weekend, either. His reason was the same as Xie Yu’s—“I need to revise”—but the believability of his excuse was much higher than Xie Yu’s.
“I’m serious. My mom makes very good food and my computer is at home and I spend too much time playing.” Wan Da lay on the table and complained to Liu Cunhao about his troubles. “The moment I get home, it’s like summer or winter break again. I can’t control myself. How could I waste such a glorious life on studying?”
Liu Cunhao nudged him with a forearm, indicating to him to shut up.
Wan Da sat up straight and looked around, then lay back down. “What are you doing? No teachers are around… even if there are, I’m not worried.”
There were no teachers around but Class 2.3’s respected, terrifying study rep was.
Xue Xisheng was famous in the year. He was every teacher’s pet and a holy man in the eyes of students.
On the first day of school, when he had introduced himself, he had said, “I hope everyone can fight, strive, and improve together.” His desk was full of little notes featuring mnemonics, vocabulary words, sentence structures…
Xue Xisheng wore thick spectacles and he carried a stack of extra practice questions as he walked in.
Xu Qingqing passed by. She bumped into him and jumped from shock. “…Study rep, your eyebags.”
Xue Xisheng’s footsteps were silent and he looked extremely overworked. He pushed up his spectacles with one hand and said, “It’s all right. I can keep studying. Good luck on the monthly exams, Xu Qingqing.”
“Good… good luck.” Xu Qingqing wasn’t sure what to say and replied blankly.
Liu Cunhao said, “Mad Dog has a phrase, what is it… You won’t die from studying, so study until you die. I think our study rep is the representation of that.”
Wa Da was dazed. “So dark circles can become that dark.”
He Zhao wasn’t late today. He walked into class right after Xie Yu. “Good morning.”
Wan Da: “Good morning.”
“What are you looking at?” He Zhao had his bag slung over one shoulder as he went over.
Liu Cunhao said: “Looking at the study rep’s dark circles.”
“Damn, they’re dark.” Even He Zhao was shocked.
Xie Yu was walking around them, about to go to his side of the desk to sleep. Without even looking back, He Zhao caught Xie Yu’s wrist and pulled him over. “Old Xie, look. Those dark circles. How long has it been since he slept?”
Early in the morning, Xue Xisheng had brewed a cup of coffee. He drank it now as he memorized English vocabulary.
Xie Yu had no interest in dark undereye circles. He just wanted to catch up on sleep and reached out to pull He Zhao’s hand away.
He Zhao was still rubbernecking the ‘panda.’ But his thought processes weren’t quite like an average person’s and as he looked, his train of thought shifted gears. “Did he draw them on himself? When I was young, in order to pretend that I was studying hard, I did that to hoodwink my mom.”
Xie Yu said sarcastically, “Do you think we can really find another you in this world?”
He Zhao said, “You’re praising me so much that I even feel a little shy.”
Xie Yu said internally, Like hell I’m praising you.
He Zhao often didn’t read between the lines and kept on going, totally unaware of the atmosphere. “In the entire world, there’s only one of your Zhao-ge.”
Wan Da applauded from the side. “Classy.”
Liu Cunhao also applauded. “A flower among flowers.”
Morning self-study was math.
The math teacher took advantage of everyone being more alert in the morning and made everyone memorize the standard answer formats.
He found a chair and sat at the podium to correct today’s homework.
Xie Yu lay on the table and slept. The sun shone in from the window.
Xie Yu faintly felt the glare against his eyelids. He frowned, still half-asleep. After a while, the annoying light, which seemed to come through a layer of paper, disappeared again.
“And about the homework returned yesterday. If you didn’t get it right, do corrections quickly. You have to work out the questions you get wrong every day, otherwise it’ll pile up.”
“If you don’t understand, bring them over and ask me or a classmate. When you’re done correcting it, show it to me. I have to record these… don’t wait for me to come find you. If I really come find you someday, you’re done for.”
The math teacher finished his spiel and looked down at the homework he was correcting again.
The classroom was very quiet.
There were the small sounds of pages flipping, pencil cases knocking together, the sound of correction tape, and the sound of students reading aloud in the other classes.
He Zhao rested one arm on the table, holding an exercise book in his hand. It was right above Xie Yu’s face and blocked the light shining in from the window.
Xie Yu slept soundly and wasn’t aware in the slightest that someone was blocking the sun for him.
“Ah, is there another deskmate as good as me in the world?” He Zhao’s arm was sore so he switched to the other arm, murmuring as he did so, “…Even I’m touched by what I’m doing.”