The mobile phone in his pocket vibrated twice. It was the fifth time in three minutes. Jiang Cheng opened his eyes.
The car had been driving for almost three hours. Outside the car window, the sky was still gloomy. The girl sitting next to him was still asleep, with her forehead resting firmly on his shoulder. His right shoulder was already numb.
He twitched his shoulders irritably, and the girl only tilted her head. He used his finger to push the girl's head away, but after a few seconds, her head leaned back on his shoulder.
He had repeated this many times. He felt the girl was not asleep but knocked out.
He didn't know how much longer it would take to arrive. When he got the ticket, he didn't check how long the ride was. He only knew he was going to a small town he hadn't even heard of before this trip.
Life was strange indeed.
When the phone vibrated for the sixth time, Jiang Cheng sighed and took out his phone.
- What's going on?
- Why didn't you mention you were leaving at all before?
- Why did you suddenly leave?
- Why didn't you tell me?
What, what, what, why, why, why.....
The messages were from Yu Xin. She was probably unable to call during her tutoring session, and at a glance, there were only question marks.
Just as he was about to put the phone back in his pocket, the seventh message came in.
- If you don't reply to my messages, we're breaking up!
Finally, not a question mark. He breathed a sigh of relief, turned off his phone, and put it back in his pocket.
Breaking up didn't mean much to him. Puppy love for two months in high school was just talking more than other classmates, having someone bring breakfast, having a personal cheerleader during basketball games... It didn't even have a chance to develop into anything substantial.
Looking at the scenery outside the window that kept changing yet seemed to stay the same, the broadcast finally announced Jiang Cheng's destination. The girl next to him stirred, seeming to be waking up. He quickly pulled out a red highlighter from his schoolbag, uncapped it, and held it in his hand, spinning it around.
The girl woke up and lifted her face. There was a large imprint on her forehead, as if she had been practicing martial arts.
After her eyes met his, the girl wiped the corner of her mouth and took out her phone, lowering her head while tapping on it and muttered, "Sorry."
How was this an apology? Jiang Cheng smiled at her meaningfully. The girl was stunned as her eyes fell on the highlighter spinning in his hand.
Jiang Cheng forcefully capped the highlighter with a snap.
Two seconds later, she suddenly covered her face and rushed towards the restroom.
Jiang Cheng also stood up, looked out the window, and finally saw that it was snowing outside. He took his suitcase down from the luggage rack, put on his coat, and walked to the door, taking out his phone and turning it on.
The phone was quiet. Yu Xin's messages did not come in anymore, and there were no missed calls either.
It felt like this was the most relaxing interaction with Yu Xin these past few days. Not bad.
But there was no one else contacting him either.
Like the person he thought would pick him up from the station.
Following the crowds out of the station, Jiang Cheng zipped up his down jacket and looked at the dreary winter city.
The chaos and dilapidation around the train station was his first impression of this city.
No, this was the second impression. The first impression was the blankness in his mind when his mother said, "Go back, that's your real home."
Dragging his suitcase, he walked to the southernmost edge of the station square. There were fewer people, and a small street next to it, lined with all kinds of dodgy hotels and restaurants that would probably give food poisoning.
He sat on his suitcase, took out a cigarette, and lit it up.
The phone was still quiet, no one had contacted him.
He had the phone number and address, but he just didn't want to make a move or say anything. He felt utterly confused, despairing, and angry about suddenly ending up here.
Staring at the icy ground while feeling angry, he fumbled for a lighter and lit the cigarette, watching the smoke dissipate before him. He sighed.
If his teacher saw this, who knew what he would say.
But it didn't matter. He was here now. At this distance, not to mention the teacher, even the person who had lived with him for over ten years might never see him again.
The rundown school in this rundown town probably wouldn't care if he smoked or not.
Jiang Cheng had only smoked half the cigarette before he couldn't stand the cold. He stood up intending to grab a bite first, but as soon as he took a step dragging his suitcase, he felt something bump into his ankle quite hard. It hurt.
He frowned and turned back to see a skateboard on the ground.
Before he could lift his head to see where the skateboard had flown over from, someone fell at his feet.
"What the..." He reflexively reached out to help, but stopped midway.
Messy long and short hair as if bitten by a dog, dirty clothes... A beggar? Scammer? Thief?
When this person lifted their head, he saw clearly that it was a little girl who looked no older than eleven or twelve. Although her face was smeared with mud, he could see the skin was quite fair and her eyes were big.
But before his hand went out to help her up, the little girl was dragged away by four or five other little girls pulling and tugging her. Someone even kicked her in the back, making her stumble and almost fall again.
Jiang Cheng immediately understood what was going on. He hesitated, then turned around and dragged his luggage to keep walking.
The laughter behind made him stop again.
When he was in a bad mood, he didn't like butting into other people's business. Coincidentally, he was in an extremely, especially, and particularly bad mood right now, but the clear dark eyes of the big-eyed girl made him turn back nonetheless.
"Hey!" He called out.
The few girls stopped. One who looked like the leader shouted, "What!"
Jiang Cheng slowly walked over dragging his suitcase, staring at the girl still holding onto the big-eyed girl's clothes. After two seconds, that girl let go.
He pulled the big-eyed girl to his side and looked at the other girls, "Stop now, go away."
"Who do you think you are!" The leader faltered but still yelled discontentedly.
"I'm the big brother with a knife," Jiang Cheng looked at her. "I can give you the same hairstyle as her in thirty seconds."
"I'll get my brother to take care of you in a bit!" The leader was clearly not a habitual offender and shrank back a little hearing this, but was still stubborn.
"Then tell him to hurry up," Jiang Cheng dragged his suitcase in one hand and the big-eyed girl in the other. "I'm scared, I'll run away real fast."
The few girls left, then the big-eyed girl struggled free from his hand.
"You okay?" Jiang Cheng asked.
The big-eyed girl shook her head. She took two steps back to the skateboard, stepped on it, and looked at him.
"Yours?" Jiang Cheng asked again.
The big-eyed girl nodded. She lightly kicked the skateboard and slid to right in front of him, then stopped steadily, still looking at him.
"Then you... go home." Jiang Cheng also nodded, and took out his phone to call a cab while walking.
After walking for a while, he heard sounds behind him. Looking back, he saw the big-eyed girl following slowly on the skateboard.
"What's up?" Jiang Cheng looked at her.
The big-eyed girl didn't speak.
"Afraid they'll come back?" Jiang Cheng asked helplessly.
The big-eyed girl shook her head.
"Can't you speak?" Jiang Cheng was starting to feel impatient.
The big-eyed girl shook her head again.
"Let me tell you, I," Jiang Cheng pointed at himself, "am in an extremely bad mood right now, extremely irritable. You know I won't hold back if I hit a little girl right."
The big-eyed girl didn't budge.
Jiang Cheng stared at her for a while. Seeing she showed no intention of speaking, he swallowed his anger and dragged his suitcase forward again.
The signal was quite poor now. The cab booking interface just wouldn't load no matter how he tried. He plopped down on a rock beside the bus stop, and lit a cigarette.
The big-eyed girl was still on her skateboard, standing next to him.
"Do you need something else?" Jiang Cheng asked impatiently, regretting getting involved and causing this inexplicable trouble for himself.
The big-eyed girl still didn't speak, just lightly kicked the skateboard and slid to the bus stop sign nearby. She looked up at it for a very long time.
When she slid back to Jiang Cheng on the skateboard, Jiang Cheng guessed the reason from her lost expression and sighed, "Are you lost? Can't get back?"
The big-eyed girl nodded.
"Are you local?" Jiang Cheng asked.
"Call home for someone to come get you." Jiang Cheng handed her his phone.
She took the phone, hesitated, lowered her head to press a few times, then gave the phone back.
"What's that about?" Jiang Cheng looked at the dialed but not called number she had input. "You want me to call for you?"
"Fuck," Jiang Cheng frowned and pressed dial, listening to the ringtone. Before the big-eyed girl could answer, the other side picked up.
Of course, she probably wouldn't have answered anyway. Jiang Cheng said "Hello" into the phone.
"Who's this?" A male voice.
"A passerby," Jiang Cheng didn't even know what to say. "I have a little girl here..."
"Don't want." The other side said, then hung up before Jiang Cheng could react.
"Who is this person?" Jiang Cheng spat out the cigarette, pointing at the big-eyed girl. "If you're not going to speak, get lost. I'm running out of patience."
The big-eyed girl squatted by his leg, picked up a piece of stone, and wrote a crooked "brother" character on the ground, then looked up at him.
"Alright, I got it," Jiang Cheng felt that this little girl might truly be mute.
He dialed the same number again, and this time, it rang for a very short while before someone answered, "Who's this?"
Jiang Cheng glanced at the big-eyed girl. "Your sister is here with me..."
"Tear the ticket*." The voice on the other end replied, then hung up the phone.
*T/N: Hanging up.
"Fuck!" Jiang Cheng had the sudden urge to smash the phone. He pointed at the big-eyed girl, "Your name!"
The big-eyed girl lowered her head to write her name in the ground with a rock.
Jiang Cheng didn't call again, only sent a text with a photo of the big-eyed girl.
- Gu Miao, mute, skateboard.
The phone rang after 30 seconds.
Jiang Cheng picked up, "Too late, already hanging up, the ticket's torn."
"Sorry," the other side said, "Could you tell me where you are? Let me see if I can still tape it back together."
"...East station, the really dilapidated one," Jiang Cheng frowned. "She's lost. Come get her quick, I have things to do."
"Thank you, thank you so much," the other side replied. "I'll be right there. If you're in a hurry you can leave first, just let her wait for me there."
Jiang Cheng picked up the half-smoked cigarette he had just tossed to the ground and flicked it into the nearby trash can. Then he lit a new one.
He had intended to just call a cab and leave originally, but suddenly felt that no one cared whether he stayed or went, so he didn't seem to be in a rush for anything.
Gu Miao sat on the skateboard for a while before standing up again, skating back and forth on the sidewalk.
Jiang Cheng watched a few times in surprise. He had thought the little girl was just messing around, but she handled uphill, downhill, steps, acceleration, and sudden stops all smoothly.
Only the chopped up grass-like hair, dirty face and clothes were jarring.
After skating for over ten minutes, Gu Miao slid to a stop beside him. With a hook and flip of her foot on the skateboard, she caught it neatly with her hand, then pointed behind Jiang Cheng.
"Pretty cool." Jiang Cheng gave her a thumbs up then turned around to look. He saw a black motorcycle parked there.
Couldn't see the rider's face with the helmet on, but the legs propped on the sidewalk in grey fitted pants and short boots were eye-catching.
Long legs, straight too.
"Your brother?" Jiang Cheng asked Gu Miao.
Gu Miao nodded.
"What happened to your head?" The rider took off his helmet, walked over, and glared at Gu Miao's hair. "And your face and clothes... Did you fall into a cesspool?"
Gu Miao shook her head.
"Probably from the classmates' bullying." Jiang Cheng said.
"Thanks," the man finally turned his gaze to Jiang Cheng's face and held out a hand. "I'm Gu Fei, her brother."
Jiang Cheng stood up and shook his hand. "Don't mention it."
Gu Fei looked around his age. His eyes weren't as big as Gu Miao's... his skin was quite fair too.
Jiang Cheng's current mood was like a bowl of rotten tomatoes, but Gu Fei's hairstyle was as eye-catching as his legs, so he still peeked at it a couple times.
Very short buzzcut. When he turned his face, a musical staff with a bass clef on one side and half rest symbol on the other could be seen shaved into the short hairs along his scalp. Jiang Cheng didn't see how many dots were on the half rest.
"Did you just get off a train?" Gu Fei looked at his suitcase.
"Yeah." Jiang Cheng picked up his phone again, still trying to get the cab app to open.
"Where are you headed? I can give you a ride." Gu Fei said.
"No need." Jiang Cheng looked at his bike. However big, it was still a motorcycle.
"She doesn't take up space." Gu Fei said again.
"No need, thanks." Jiang Cheng said.
"Say thanks to the brother." Gu Fei pointed at him and said to Gu Miao, "Shitball."
Jiang Cheng turned to look at "Shitball", wanting to hear her speak. But Gu Miao only bowed 90 degrees to him deeply.
Gu Fei straddled the bike and put his helmet on. Gu Miao nimbly climbed onto the back seat and hugged his waist.
"Thanks." Gu Fei looked at him once, started the engine, did a U-turn, and drove off.
Jiang Cheng sat back down on the rock, network was pretty good now, yet no one was accepting orders for half a day. Passing taxis didn't even stop when he tried to hail them.
What the hell kind of place was this?
Although he was in an awful mood, he hadn't had the chance to slowly savor it, only feeling lost and baffled, unable to even catch a breath. He didn't even think about why he had agreed to all the arrangements and ended up here.
Like his mother said, no one in their family had ever been as rebellious as him, full of thorns.
Of course, they weren't really family to begin with. Besides, these past years they had been like enemies, glaring whenever they met.
Jiang Cheng frowned. He hadn't had the time to think over all this.
Until now, this moment.
In this unfamiliar, cold, snowing city, he suddenly jerked back to his senses.
The despair, pain, and resistance to the unknown made his nose sour.
When he lowered his head, tears streaked fiercely down his face.
The phone rang when Jiang Cheng was sitting in a KFC at some unknown location. He looked at the unfamiliar number and picked up, "Hello?"
"Is this Jiang Cheng?" A middle-aged male voice.
The voice was a bit loud. Jiang Cheng held the phone slightly further away, "Yes."
"I'm your dad." The man said.
"...Oh." Jiang Cheng responded. This kind of conversation was actually somewhat amusing. He couldn't help but laugh.
The man on the other end also laughed twice, "I'm Li Baoguo, you know that right."
"Mm." Jiang Cheng drank some Coke.
"Has your train arrived?" Li Baoguo asked.
"It has." Jiang Cheng looked at his watch, it had been two hours already.
"Do you have the address? I don't have a car, can't pick you up. Call a cab over, I'll wait for you at the intersection." Li Baoguo said.
"Mm," Jiang Cheng hung up the phone.
This time he got lucky, he caught a cab as soon as he went out. The heater in the cab was on full blast, making him feel feverishly hot.
The driver wanted to chat, but Jiang Cheng leaned silently against the window looking out the whole time. The driver tried to start a conversation several times unsuccessfully before finally giving up and turning on the radio instead.
Jiang Cheng tried hard to see what this city really looked like, but it was already dark out. The street lamps weren't very bright, and the swirling snow made his eyes dizzy.
He closed his eyes.
But soon opened them again.
He didn't know why, but he felt pathetic like a sissy. So pathetic.
The cab stopped at the destination, and Jiang Cheng got out with his suitcase, standing at the intersection.
No one was there.
The "I'm your dad" Li Baoguo who claimed he would meet him at the intersection was nowhere to be seen.
Suppressing the irritation in his heart and the stinging pain on his wind-whipped face, Jiang Cheng took out his phone and called Li Baoguo's number.
"Phew, this hand really stinks..." It took Li Baoguo a long time to answer the phone. "Hello?"
"I'm at the intersection," As soon as Jiang Cheng heard what he was up to, he instantly wanted to hang up and go find a hotel.
"Ah? You got here that fast?" Li Baoguo yelled in surprise. "I'm here, I'm here, coming right away."
This "right away" took about five minutes. As Jiang Cheng stood at the intersection trying to hail a cab with his suitcase, a man wearing a Lei Feng hat came running over. He shouted loudly while forcing Jiang Cheng's arm down, "You're Jiang Cheng?"
Jiang Cheng didn't say anything. He saw that Li Baoguo had just run out from a residential building right behind them.
And seeing several heads peeking out of the second floor windows towards them, he really didn't feel like saying another word.
"I was at a friend's place for a bit, walking around," Li Baoguo patted his shoulder. "Let's go home... You look taller than in your photo."
Jiang Cheng lowered his head looking at the muddy road as he followed him.
"Oh," Li Baoguo patted his back twice more. "It's been so many years! Over ten years, yeah? I finally get to see my son!"
Li Baoguo stuck his head in front of Jiang Cheng's face to stare at him.
Jiang Cheng pulled up the mask tucked under his chin and put it on properly.
Suddenly he felt completely empty inside, even the air around him was full of confusion.