The haunted house was designed to have at least three levels. The introductory brochure that they read earlier stated that the entire course would take around forty minutes, but that forty minutes probably didn’t take into consideration the time taken up by them just standing in one spot screaming their lungs out. No matter the case, Jiang Cheng was of the opinion that as they let out all sorts of screams that could scare away devils and ghosts alike, they have already gone through several rooms of flashing lights to darkly lit for almost twenty minutes, yet still they haven’t gone up a single flight of stairs.
“Shouldn’t we be looking for a place to go upstairs?” Jiang Cheng voiced.
“I’ve been looking,” Pan Zhi answered from the very front. “Have we been in this room yet?”
“Nope,” Gu Fei said.
“Then, we haven’t gone through that door either,” Pan Zhi pointed at a closed door up ahead. “Maybe, this path…”
Before his words could come to a completion, the sound of children’s giggles wends its way by from right behind them.
Despite having heard the static background noise within the laughter, evident that the transmission undoubtedly came from a speaker hidden somewhere in the corner of the room, Jiang Cheng could still feel his blood run cold.1
“There’s a ghost behind us?” Li Song asked always on the qui vive.
“Hurry up, let’s go…” Xu Meng tugged at Lu Yuqing’s jacket and lowered her head, not daring to look around with a chicken-hearted demeanor.
As she spoke, another round of giggles sounded in the air.
“Ahhh——” The gang of them screamed in synchronization as they squeezed through Pan Zhi, moving at a breakneck pace toward that door.
“Shit, don’t be scared, don’t be scared…” Pan Zhi was shoved until his footing became unsteady, and just as he rushed to open the door, an explosive roar suddenly ensued. “Ahhh——”
On the other side of the door stood a ‘ghost’, who could have happened to be passing by or was intentionally waiting there the entire time, either way, with the pushing and shoving, Pan Zhi landed directly in the embrace of the ‘ghost’.
Amidst the panicked screams, even this ghost was knocked against the wall and had no choice but to exert his strength to push Pan Zhi away.
“Ahhh——” They all turned and jetted off.
There was another door behind them. In a panic, the group fled with no heed to that door as if the world was ending before their eyes, swung it open, and flew in.
The bright and dazzling sunlight sprinkled the earth even as they screamed and howled.
They stood beneath the sun, continuing to scream at the top of their lungs for several more seconds before finally stopping in bewilderment.
“What the fuck?” Pan Zhi squinted his eyes in utter shock, “How are we outside?”
“We came out before even going upstairs?” Jiang Chen turned to look back at the little door. “That was a fucking emergency exit, wasn’t it?”
Gu Fei stood at the very back with his arms crossed and cleared his throat.
“En?” Jiang Cheng turned back to look at him.
Gu Fei made a meaningful glance to the right; they all followed in his line of sight and wanted to immediately squeeze their way back into the haunted house.
Approximately 30m to their right was the queue up for the entrance. There were several dozens of people in line with their eyes all now on them; the expressions on their faces were quite hard to explain in human’s words but a few were already laughing their heads off.
“Fuck, who was it that led the way?!” Pan Zhi questioned in complete devastation.
“Fengfeng?”2 Li Yuqing said.
“It wasn’t me,” Hu Feng immediately defended himself, “I came out behind Da Li!”
“Me?” Li Song stared blankly for a beat in confusion, even making some awkward gestures with his hands. “I seem to have done a… door opening action?”
“Moron!” Pan Zhi jumped on him and beat him with his fist quite a few times. Under his guidance, they all went up to give Li Song a few beats each.
Since they were already out, it was impossible to get back in again, so all they could do was wear a long face that said “we honestly just went the wrong way” as they walked away from the haunted house with the eyes of the people in line still following their shadows.
“Let’s go take a look at that ancient pagoda?” Xu Meng suggested, “Since it’s a cultural attraction, it should be pretty interesting.”
“En.” Gu Fei took out his cellphone to look at the time, “After we go up and come out of the pagoda… it should be about time to eat something. There’s a pretty good place in the park, let me ask where it is first.”
“Do you also have a poor sense of direction?” Li Yuqing asked jokingly. “You can’t even remember where the place to eat is located?”
“It’s not that,” Gu Fei said as he dialed a number. “The last time I came here was during the spring outing in elementary school.”
“Huh?” Li Yuqing was perplexed by his statement. “I saw that there’s also an amusement park and even a zoo here. If it was me, I’d probably come to play several times a semester ah.”
“This just goes to show how you’re not right in the mind.”3 Pan Zhi had to chime in.
“You’re the one that’s not right in the mind!” Li Yuqing glared at him.
Gu Fei walked to the side, probably to call Liu Fan’s brother again to ask where the place to eat was.
Jiang Cheng looked at the silhouette of his back against the light.
Whether it be at a theatre, or an amusement park, activities of entertainment for Gu Fei seemed to have waned to a stagnant state in the past. Jiang Cheng himself had an aversion to outings to the amusement park but had gone a number of times with classmates and friends, and even after the school canceled the spring and fall trips, they always went together just the same.
Gu Fei’s life stood unflowing in the steel mills; aside from the few times he cut classes to venture out, it wasn’t hard to see that had always remained around those very steel mills.
Jiang Cheng’s life over the past few months would have also been the same. If it was not for Gu Fei, everything around him – this very world – seemed to have frozen in time, with everyone trailing along on the same few streets beneath their feet, a perennial existence trapped in this small, confined space.
Living in a depressive and feeble tincture of corporeity.
This kind of life could be borne for one or two days, sufferable with gritted teeth for a month or two, and could possibly cause one to explode in a year or two, however. Jiang Cheng walked to a nearby trashcan and lit up a cigarette, holding the tip in his mouth. Nevertheless, after some time ah, one might become accustomed to it all – whether there lingered feelings of helplessness or resignation – and eventually settle in.
The pagoda was beside a lake in the park, and even though the lake was not particularly the cleanest, the pagoda itself retained its magnificent beauty.
It was quite a tall pagoda. Standing at the top, one could see the streets outside the perimeter of the park and the cars in motion concomitantly with the lonesome and distant aura of this city even more visible beneath the sunlight.
“Let me record the contents.” Pan Zhi said as he took some photos of the introductory plaque on the wall with his phone. “There’s a whole lot of information here too, I’ll just copy some of this when I get back and my weekly journal will be all squared up.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Li Song also started to take some pictures.
“I’m telling you guys,” Pan Zhi looked at the others who had also taken out their phones to take pictures of the wall, “Don’t all copy the same things as I do.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll have a clear indication on ours that it’s just a reference, and shouldn’t the reference be the same ma.” Hu Feng explained.
“It’s quite depressing when you think about it,” Pan Zhi sighed. “For a weekly journal of a few hundred words, only the last line will probably be written by us while everything before it will be referenced from the brochure of the ancient pagoda.”
They all suddenly burst into a peal of laughter.
“I haven’t written a weekly journal in a long time,” Jiang Cheng said as he leaned on the railing and stretched out. “And Lao Xu never asked for it either.”
“No one will do it even if he asks,” Gu Fei said. “If you ask me to write a page of these things every week, I definitely wouldn’t be able to.”
“Not necessarily, you’d definitely be able to write something.” Jiang Cheng laughed, “You can write poetry.”
Gu Fei started to laugh: “Oh yeah.”
“Ay, I have to tell you,” Jiang Cheng turned and leaned over the railing, took a glance over at Pan Zhi then turned back and spoke in a lowered voice. “The grandson Pan probably…figured it out.”
“En, I figured that he has figured it out.” Gu Fei also lowered his voice, “Will there be any problems?”
“No,” Jiang Cheng said. “I haven’t yet thought of how to tell him, but since he figured it out all by himself, that’s also good. Saves me the trouble of looking for the right words.”
“He has always known about you, right?” Gu Fei asked.
“En,” Jiang Cheng nodded, “He’s the only one that knows… of course, you also know now.”
Gu Fei laughed: “I have leverage on youuu~.”
“I also have leverage on youuu~.” Jiang Cheng shot a side-glance at him.
Gu Fei continued to laugh without saying anything.
“Although,” Jiang Cheng went quiet for a beat, “This isn’t exactly considered as leverage for you, is it?”
“Is it for you?” Gu Fei questioned back.
“I don’t know, probably.” Jiang Cheng knitted his brows, “I’m not sure, I don’t like being stared at, being the topic of others’ discussion, and I especially hate being… criticized.”
Gu Fei looked at him, and Jiang Cheng paused for a while: “‘You shouldn’t be like that’, ‘you’re doing that wrong’, ‘here’s what you need to correct’, ‘there’s where you need to improve’. I hate being told by others that I’m doing this wrong and doing that wrong, I’ve heard plenty of them growing up, I’m just really… honestly…”
“I know,” Gu Fei said. “I know what you mean.”
“I had no intention of talking about this,” Jiang Cheng sighed lightly and rested over the railing. “I didn’t want you to think that I was… cowardly.”
“This has nothing to do with being cowardly or not ba.” Gu Fei also rested over the railing beside him, “Not being cowardly doesn’t mean you have to announce this matter to the whole world, it’s just like how I don’t care if people know what kind of underwear I’m wearing, though that doesn’t mean that I’ll go walking all over the place with only my underwear.”
Jiang Cheng tilted his head to the side to look at him then couldn’t endure it anymore and started to laugh: “What kind of analogy is that.”
“I’ve already tried my best,” Gu Fei said.
Since their excursion at the haunted house, Pan Zhi hadn’t brought up the topic of Gu Fei with Jiang Cheng, that was until the holiday was nearly over and their scheduled return was set to that evening. After eating lunch and returning to Jiang Cheng’s apartment that same afternoon, Pan Zhi finished packing up and asked: “You and that Gu Fei…”
“En?” Jiang Cheng was sitting on the sofa, leaning back.
“So, when did it all start?” Pan Zhi asked.
“Not too long ago,” Jiang Cheng said. “Do you have any suggestions?”
“Nah,” Pan Zhi chuckled. “What is there to suggest? Just as the rain will fall, grandpa will also date, such a normal thing, what is there for me to stop?”
Jiang Cheng laughed and didn’t say anything.
“But to be honest ah, I was quite surprised,” Pan Zhi started. “It never dawned on me that you could fall in love with someone here.”
“Why?” Jiang Cheng looked at him.
“What do you mean why,” Pan Zhi sat down beside him, “I just didn’t expect you to be in the mood bei4, given the circumstances and all.”
“En,” Jiang Cheng placed his arm on the armrest of the sofa and rested his head on it, “I didn’t expect it either.”
“But it’s understandable,” Pan Zhi pondered for a moment. “I was pretty worried about you before, but then after seeing that you didn’t fall apart… it has to be better than being all depressively alone.”
Jiang Cheng didn’t utter a word. He stared at the ceiling and blanked out for quite some time then turned to look at Pan Zhi: “Pan-Pan.”
“Change the way you address me.” Pan Zhi rubbed his own arm.
“Grandson,” Jiang Cheng said.
“What is it grandpa,” Pan Zhi turned to him.
“Dating, and just going on dates,” Jiang Cheng said, “What do you think is the difference?”
“Is this a brain teaser?” Pan Zhi asked.
“Bullshit,” Jiang Cheng said.
“You have to ask me this?” Pan Zhi looked at him. “This is not your style ah.”
“I just want to hear what a person with a relatively low IQ thinks about it.” Jiang Cheng took out a cigarette and held it in his mouth, “Those of us with high IQ are prone to overthink.”
“Isn’t it just the difference between overthinking and being brainless bei. ‘I want to date’,” Pan Zhi said, “Take me as an example, I want to date, Huang Hui, otherwise, then…”
“No,” Jiang Cheng cut him off. “Let’s word it a different way, ‘want to be with me’ versus, ‘want to date me’?
“Shit,” Pan Zhi knitted his brows. “So annoying, isn’t only towards you bei, whether it’s dating or just going on dates, it all has to be with you.”
Jiang Cheng gave him a thumbs up.
Gu Fei’s meticulousness truly amazed Jiang Cheng, whether it be dating or going on dates, both came after “him”. No matter which answers he chose, both involved him.
Jiang Cheng’s lips curved upward unconsciously, at least on this point, Gu Fei knew what he thought.
It wasn’t that he was that secluded, or that lonely, to need to randomly find someone in this place to start a relationship with. It was only because the other person involved was Gu Fei, regardless of what kind of relationship it was, the premise was that it ‘has to be Gu Fei’.
Though those words had taken him a couple days of contemplation, in truth, he had already made sense of its underlying meaning.
He also understood what Gu Fei actually meant when he said, “I will keep on liking you until you no longer need me to like you.”
Gu Fei had indeed put more thought into it than he had, he admitted. He himself couldn’t say how impulsive he was, after all, the reason he acted upon it was due to ‘I like you,’ and ‘I want to be with you’.
I want to be with you, not just go on dates with you. With you, and no one else.
That was the reason Gu Fei ended up waiting for him outside his apartment building that day.
If there came a day, when the road could no longer provide them a path, Gu Fei would probably choose “let’s end it here”, but what would he choose?
This was the question Gu Fei needed him to answer.5
Gu Fei must be used to thinking of all things in its entirety. With the environment he grew up in, his family, and his experience, he long acquainted himself thoroughly with every aspect, of all the possibilities, along with the methods to deal with each possibility.
But he was different.
He was not placed in an environment that demanded him to deliberate and make certain of each matter. Even if he was suddenly thrown into such a place, he still didn’t put much thought into it, and would simply handle things set before him as they come.
I’m not their biological son, and my birth parents are these kinds of people, my environment has changed from heaven to earth… for every one of these situations, he had never thought too deeply; all his actions stemmed from the obstacle placed in his presence, there is a stone, how should I pass it, here is a ditch, how do I cross it.
In regard to this point, his and Gu Fei’s way of thinking was completely at odds, yet instilled in the same way, however.
“Did he ask you this?” Pan Zhi asked from beside him.
“I asked him.” Jiang Cheng picked up the ashtray on the side table and placed it on the floor by the sofa, flicking the ash into it.
“That’s impossible,” Pan Zhi looked at him. “Who’re you trying to fool here, I know you too well.”
“Then you better be careful lest I silence you one day,” Jiang Cheng said.
“You know, the feeling he gives me,” Pan Zhi also grabbed a stick of cigarette from the pack on the table and lit it. “Is like… how do I say it, I just want to call him ‘ge’ when I see him.”
“He’s younger than you,” Jiang Cheng retorted.
“… I’m just throwing it out there,” Pan Zhi tsk-ed. “You’re also younger than me and I still call you grandpa ne. What I mean is, he just gives off the impression of someone who… has shouldered many things.”
“Really.” Jiang Cheng sighed softly, that analysis was pretty accurate.
“You know right away with some people, there’s just an aura about them, something you can sense.” Pan Zhi said, “Even though in the haunted house, he… I still had the impulse to call him Fei-ge at first glance. You know what I mean right?”
“I got it,” Jiang Cheng answered.
“But, I don’t call you grandpa ‘cause of this reason,” Pan Zhi added.
“You didn’t need to point that out so specifically,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Cheng-er,” Pan Zhi took a drag of the cigarette and with a stony-face, ruminated about it for a very long while. “What happened between you and Yu Xin doesn’t count as ‘dating’, it doesn’t even count as ‘going on dates’.”
“Ah.” Jiang Cheng answered and also fixed his eyes on him with a stony-face.
“So,” Pan Zhi went silent for another half a day, “Gu Fei is your first love ah.”
“Shit,” Jiang Cheng laughed. “You’ve stifled all this time just to make me think you’ll say something grand. If you’re gonna fart, make it loud.”
“I haven’t finished yet, haven’t finished yet!” Pan Zhi gave him a malcontent look, “Can you change the pace of how you ridicule me from such a frantic sprint to a simple walk, will it kill you to slow down?!”
“A walk, a walk it is.” Jiang Cheng nodded, “Go ahead, good sir.”
“General speaking ba, first love tends to… hurt a little, after all, we’re… still young.” Pan Zhi held the cigarette as he strived for the correct words though still struggled as he continued, “I’m just saying, don’t let yourself get hurt too badly, you know what I mean? Just… grandpa ah, looking at that… of yours… my grandma… well, my other grandpa… he looks like someone who’s very clear of how to protect himself… I don’t mean anything else by this.”
“Ah.” Jiang Cheng took quite some time to fully straighten out all the confusing appellations Pan Zhi used to express his meaning.
“Don’t think what I said is, inappropriate.” Pan Zhi said.
“Thanks.” Jiang Cheng put out his cigarette, then stood up and patted Pan Zhi’s shoulder. “And I know.”
“En,” Pan Zhi nodded.
“Flick the ash in here.” Jiang Cheng placed the ashtray in front of him, “If you flick the ash on the table again, I’ll make you lick the table completely clean.”
“What the fuck!” Pan Zhi froze, “I was fucking putting it on the napkin, okay!”
“That’s the very reason why I haven’t made you lick it right away.” Jiang Cheng laughed as he fell back onto the sofa.
Taking Pan Zhi and the others to the train station was not an activity Gu Fei participated in, and although he didn’t fully engage in the activities that went on in the past few days, from Gu Miao’s perspective, the time he was at home was still quite lacking. Thus, that night, Gu Fei took her to Wang Xu’s to eat some flatbreads.
Jiang Cheng took Pan Zhi and the other to the train station: “Alright, don’t any of you say any sentimental parting comments, I can’t take the cheesiness of it.”
“We won’t,” Hu Feng said. “Come visit during summer break ah, give and take right, how about it?”
“…that’s hard to say, honestly.” Jiang Cheng, in truth, hadn’t thought about returning at all these last few months, whether it was going back or what to do if he went back, not a single brain cell was utilized.
“Or we can also make arrangements to travel elsewhere together,” Li Song added.
“We can discuss it in detail when the time comes,” Pan Zhi said.
“Oh, that’s right, we didn’t even get to say thanks to Gu Fei for being our tour guide for the past few days.” Li Yuqing handed Jiang Cheng a bag, “Wasn’t there a mention that he has a younger sister the other day, it seems a bit inappropriate to get him something so straightforwardly, so we bought a doll…”
Jiang Cheng smiled and accepted it, “There’s no need to be so polite.”
If they were to have actually met the little sister, he reckoned neither of them would ever think of getting her a doll.
After the group of them went into the station, Jiang Cheng turned and walked to the bus stop, very frugally making a return to his apartment via the bus as he naturally should.
Once he entered his room, he snapped a picture of that doll and sent it to Gu Fei.
– my classmates’ present for Gu Miao.
Gu Fei quickly replied with a message.
– they left?
– en, are you both still at Jiuri’s?
– yeah, you coming?
– won’t make it, I’m a little tired, going to lie down a bit to rest my old back
Jiang Cheng laughed for quite a while. He walked around the apartment a couple of times to see if Pan Zhi had left behind anything then went back to his room; noticing that it was still early in the day, there was indeed time to… work on a set of exam worksheets.
And as he stood in front of his desk, Jiang Cheng felt a profound reverence for his own decision.
This, is the innate quality of a xueba.
His cellphone sounded once more, Gu Fei sent a photo of Gu Miao.
The Gu Miao in the photo was snatching a meat-filled flatbread, face completely infiltrated with confusion.
– I showed her the picture of the doll, this is her expression
– hhhhhh, aren’t you such a great brother, a little girl seeing a doll actually looks like that
Jiang Cheng picked up the distorted bundle of bedsheets and quilt and shook them. Although he wanted to work on the exam worksheets, the environment was of tremendous influence thus tidiness must be accomplished, however… the corner of a black box was exposed from beneath his pillow instead.
When he picked it up for a look and opened the box, he had already guessed what the content inside was.
However, once it was opened and he saw that placed inside really was a fountain pen titivated in a racy red colour, he was slightly overrun with shock, nonetheless – Pan Zhi actually gifted him a pen.
Inside was also a slip of paper with a line of characters on it.
– You’d definitely mock me if I give it to you in person, so I’ll just leave it here; I’m giving you a pen to have you always remember that you are a xueba.
With the pen in hand, Jiang Cheng sat in front of the desk and laughed for a long while.
After some contemplations and sighs, this friendship with Pan Zhi was not in vain; he was able to enjoy this grandson’s treatment, and grumble with the heart of a grandpa.
He grabbed a piece of paper and jotted down some random characters, but this handwriting of his… regardless of what pen was used, it was impossible to flaunt the greatness of the pen itself.
He stared at that paper for a good while, then inhaled deeply and wrote down a line of characters.
Hoping for us both to be as brave as each other.
1 毛骨悚然 máogǔsǒngrán | to have one’s hair stand on end (idiom) // if you say that something makes your blood run cold or makes your blood freeze, you mean that it makes you feel very frightened.
2 疯疯 fengfeng here means ‘crazy’; the character of Hu Feng’s name is 枫 which means ‘maple’ so because the pinyin is spell the same way ‘Feng’; with the tone being diff, the meaning changes.
3 that you’re not in your right mind; like not fully comprehending things; mental deficiency; mental disability
4 呗 bei – modal particle indicating lack of enthusiasm / modal particle indicating that things should only or can only be done a certain way.
5 这是顾飞那个问题需要他回答的 – directly, it’s more “this was what that question of Gu Fei’s needed him to answer.”