The Long Chase for the President’s Spouse – Chapter 74: Life on the Road (2)
Quality Check: Tezuka
First Published on Chaleuria
Chapter 74: Life on the Road (2)
“What are you looking at?” Gu Zhun gave Zhang Heng a sidelong glance, fully aware of the latter’s improper intentions. After all, this was not the first time he had to deal with such looks from Zhang Heng. But things were different now; although he used to be unfazed by the way Zhang Heng looked at him during swimming classes seven years ago, he was all too aware of the ravenous hunger in Zhang Heng’s eyes now.
“I’m keeping a lookout for you.”
After a pause, Gu Zhun retorted, “… There’s no need…”
“No, it’s exactly what you need,” Zhang Heng returned glibly.
Eventually, Zhang Heng walked to one side to ‘stand guard’ with his back to Gu Zhun. However, with chills running down his back, Gu Zhun could not shake off the feeling that Zhang Heng was still stealing peeks at him.
“Can’t you stand a little further?” he could not help but ask, though he was too embarrassed to explain that his self-consciousness was making it difficult for him to let go despite his bursting bladder.
Zhang Heng would never miss any opportunity to mess with Gu Zhun. “Why?” he asked teasingly.
“I… well… you’re too close and I can’t pee…”
Zhang Heng burst into laughter immediately. “You really like me, don’t you? You like me so much you’ve become hypersensitive to me, haven’t you?”
Gu Zhun smacked Zhang Heng to shut him up. “It’s none of your business!” he snapped. Zhang Heng shut up immediately in response. He could see that Gu Zhun was really angry – it was the kind of anger he saw whenever he broke Gu Zhun’s concentration by giving his worksheets a sudden flip just as he was about to crack a practice question.
Zhang Heng finally gave in and moved further away to keep watch with his back firmly turned to Gu Zhun. However, regardless of the distance Zhang Heng managed to put between them, the sound of Gu Zhun relieving himself was still loud and clear to both of them in the silence of the night. As Zhang Heng’s mind filled with happy fantasies, Gu Zhun became increasingly embarrassed.
Thus, the incident was ultimately concluded in a speedy manner with very different feelings from both parties.
After they returned to the RV, they continued their journey into the countryside. Although there was not much to see in the night, glimpses of scenery in the dark seemed to tug at the distant memories in the depths of Gu Zhun’s mind. The surroundings felt familiar despite his inability to recognize where they were. All he knew was that they were driving through a valley on a road that wound through the mountains.
“How are you feeling?” Zhang Heng asked, wondering if Gu Zhun was excited about meeting his father, or if he was beginning to regret agreeing to this trip.
Lowering his head, Gu Zhun felt his heartbeat racing in his chest. It was impossible to tell how he really felt, torn as he was between fear and excitement. One moment, he was feeling the excitement of watching a soap bubble about to pop, and the next moment, he was filled with the terror of being near a balloon that was about to burst.
Although he was afraid of the things to come after meeting his father, Gu Zhun eventually replied, “You told me I could depend on you for everything.”
Zhang Heng smiled contentedly. “Indeed. There’s nothing to be afraid of when I’m with you.”
Gu Zhun nodded.
They fell silent after the exchange. Worried that Zhang Heng might doze off without someone to keep him company, Gu Zhun forced himself to stay awake. Since he was not much of a talker, he turned on the radio instead. The station was playing Tan Weiwei’s ‘If There Is A Next Life’. As the warm, relaxing melody began drifting from the speakers, Gu Zhun started humming along —— ‘When the migratory flock returns…’
Zhang Heng slowed down the car and listened to Gu Zhun’s voice quietly. Another song came to mind as he wished for the future ahead to be filled with moments like this —— ‘The greatest romance I could ever wish for is to grow old slowly by your side.’
Isn’t that right, Gu Zhun?
Yes, Zhang Heng.
After a long night’s drive, the RV made it out of the mountainous region and drove onto the highway across the plateau.
“Are we there yet?” Gu Zhun asked, rubbing his sleepy eyes as he got up to take a look around. As the sun shone through the windows, its rays fell on the blanket covering him. He did not remember having the blanket with him last night when he crawled into the front seat to keep Zhang Heng company. Did Zhang Heng put the blanket over him after he fell asleep from exhaustion? Staring at the blanket, he asked, “Did you…?”
Zhang Heng nodded in response. They got out of the car and moved to the bedroom to look through their food supplies. They managed to find some bread that would be expiring soon. Zhang Heng passed a milk packet to Gu Zhun and took a bite of the bread. “It’s a little dry so it’s better to wash it down with some milk. Maybe you’ll grow a few inches too.”
“… Not going to happen.”
“Don’t give up hope yet!”
They bantered all through breakfast. After a brief respite, they continued with their journey and reached Gu Zhun’s hometown in the afternoon. On their way to his father’s ancestral house, they passed by the tiny building where his family used to live. It had been converted into an eatery by a middle-aged auntie, who was its current tenant. They pulled over and ordered some food for takeout, as the eatery was already fully packed despite its dingy interior and low furniture. As they waited for their food, Zhang Heng struck up a friendly conversation with the auntie who ran the eatery. Their interaction attracted the attention of the other customers; it was a bizarre sight to see a handsome young man like Zhang Heng gossiping away like a middle-aged woman. However, Zhang Heng had always enjoyed empty gossip and banter.
Ignoring the other customers’ incredulous stares, Zhang Heng played with a pair of disposable chopsticks and paid for their order as he asked, “How long have you been running this eatery here, Auntie?”
Even though she was busy cooking up a storm, she had no trouble keeping up the conversation with Zhang Heng. She gave her wok a vigorous toss, sending diced chili and meat slices into a jolly dance in a cloud of greasy smoke, as she responded to his question.
“I have been doing business here for over a decade! I’d just lost my job then, and I was considering the possibility of making a living with my cooking skills when I came across this place. It was up for rent at a very low price, and since I had some savings from my previous job, I rented this place immediately. The landlord was really nice too. He didn’t raise the rent at all until these couple of years.”
Zhang Heng was puzzled by this sudden increase in rent. He pressed her further on the issue, “Your landlord sounds really kind. Something must have happened to him recently to bring about this increase in rent…?”
The auntie poured the completed dish onto a steel plate and called her child over to serve it. “Take this to the young lovebirds over there!” she instructed brusquely before turning back to Zhang Heng. “Sorry about that. They got here before you. I’ll start on your orders now!”
Zhang Heng smiled and replied, “It’s okay. We are not in a rush.” His response gave her pause. Zhang Heng’s leisurely assurance that she could take her time contrasted starkly with the usual crowd that was always pressed for time during their lunch breaks… And their car looked really big and expensive!
It did not take her long to decide that these were guests who deserved proper attention and service. Having made up her mind, she hollered at her son, “Bring out the wooden stools for these guests!” After the said seats were produced, Gu Zhun sat down comfortably while Zhang Heng struggled in his seat; it was too low for him and his legs were uncomfortably cramped.
Oblivious to his discomfort, the auntie began telling her story as she started on their orders ——
“When I lost my job, I was really depressed. But I knew that nothing was impossible if I put my will to it, so I persevered and used my savings to make a living for myself. I suppose I can be considered an ‘entrepreneur’ of sorts.” Gu Zhun listened to her attentively while Zhang Heng nodded and smiled encouragingly to assure her that he was eager to hear more.
“I wandered the streets, wondering where I could set up my business. I didn’t have much money, so it was impossible to find a spot in the center of town. When I got here, I saw a man putting up a rental notice for this place.”
Zhang Heng heard from Gu Li that her father bought this place after saving up painstakingly over the years, so this was the only valuable possession in the family. Could that man have been Gu Zhun’s father? He was definitely the legal owner of the place. But if he had been collecting rent for more than a decade, how could he have left Gu Li and Gu Zhun to struggle all by themselves for all these years? Despite being perplexed, Zhang Heng did not interrupt the auntie with his questions.
“I was quite keen on the place. Even though it was small, it had just enough space to run an eatery. It was also close to the main road, so I knew that there would be no shortage of customers. When I found out from the man that the rent was within my means, I signed the lease immediately.”
Zhang Heng nodded, impressed by her knowledge that land along the sides of major roads was often considered prime property.
Lost in her memories, she continued with her story, “Back then, I would wake up before sunrise to buy supplies at the wholesale market and work late into the wee hours of the night. Now and then, I would get drunkards wandering in for meals at three in the morning and I would have no choice but to entertain their demands, or risk being hit on the head by their beer bottles…”
In truth, Zhang Heng could not care less about her story. He was only concerned about whether the man she saw was Gu Zhun’s father. Why did he lease the place after his divorce when it was the only asset he had? Did this mean that he was not as desperate as he seemed… and that he had another place to live? Perhaps, in his own uninformed way, he was trying to get Gu Li to take Gu Zhun to a further and better place than he could have offered them by forcing her to drop out of school and start working.
“So do you visit the landlord to pay your rent in person?”
She shook her head before answering, “I don’t… I pay via bank transfers. I haven’t seen my landlord since I signed my fifteen-year lease with him over ten years ago.”
“… That’s kind of odd…”